Friday, December 31, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "NOTHING TO ENVY - ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA" by Barbara Demick

Barbara Demick's "NOTHING TO ENVY - ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA" is a fascinating and gut-wrenching retelling of the life stories of North Korean refugees now living in South Korea, all interviewed over the course of several years by Demick, a Los Angeles Times journalist. More than the many articles I've read about the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", aka North Korea - and certainly more than BR Myers' disappointing "THE CLEANEST RACE" , which I read last year -  this book provides the deepest and darkest look into what it is actually like to live under the thumb of one of the most represssive dictatorships in history. Demick does an amazing job tracking the painfully slow illumination that allowed these six individuals to realize that they'd been lied to their entire lives, and what it took for them to make the final, risky and exceptionally dangerous decision to defect and leave their country.

There's really only one way to get information out of North Korea anyway, and this is it. The book gives a skeletal but necessary overview of how the Kim Il-Sung regime came to be after the 1950s Korean War, and how the regime was able to stay propped up ("thrived" would be far too generous) by the subsidies flowing from other Communist nations like the Soviets and the Eastern European nations. After 1989, however, the DPRK became one of only two truly full-Communist nations on the planet, with Cuba being the other. Without the support of its benefactors, and with little in the way of natural resources to exploit and trade, North Korea endured mass starvation to the point where a conservative estimate is that 1 out of every 5 of its citizens starved to death in the 1990s.

Demick interviewed her six defectors multiple times, and paints a picture of their life before, during and after this hell. It's easy to look at starvation as an abstraction, and since no news actually makes it out of North Korea. It certainly has been nearly impossible to look at North Koreans living under the jackboot as individuals. But Demick does more than humanize them; she paints exceptionally vivid pictures of love lives, work lives (most of which imvolved being forced under penalty of labor camp to go to work for no paycheck during all of the 1990s) and family lives - as well as of the learned survival skills needed to find food when there is none. The descriptions of starvation itself are harrowing and horrific. One interviewee, Mrs. Song, lost both her husband and her only son to starvation, and barely avoided death herself. As in the survival stories from Auschwitz, North Koreans were reduced to stealing from each other and to feigned ignorance of the suffering going on outside their own families - and were then wracked with guilt when things (barely) eased up.

There is evidence that it hasn't eased up at all, however. Is there a famine going on in the country right now? No one knows for certain, but if not for China's heartless and relatively recent policy of aggressively hunting down refugees and returning them to North Korea, there's no doubt in my mind that the latter country would be emptied out in short order, which is exactly what the DPRK, China and even South Korea fear. So a sort of  surreal and horrible stalemate is in place, with real lives hanging in the balance. That's the detail that this book provides in spades - a sense of the real people who are trying to make sense of daily life in North Korea, while having no idea of what life might be like outside of it. Highly recommended for fans of the human race.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A TRIP TO BIRCH AND BARLEY, WASHINGTON D.C.

I hadn’t been “inside the Beltway” in a few years, and took the opportunity I was given to head to the much-loved CHURCH KEY bar in Washington DC’s Logan Circle area to get down with some top-quality beers. Yet I was hungry as well, the way a man often gets. I decided therefore to dine at the downstairs portion of this bar, which is a full-service restaurant called BIRCH AND BARLEY, and order my drinks to be brought to me by a barmaid from upstairs. Or, as actually happened, by my male waiter, an Aaron Goldfarb lookalike who happened to know just about everything about the Mid-Atlantic beer scene and then some. We got to talking, and he helped steer me in the right directions, both food- and ale-wise.

Let’s start with the food. This is a classy dining establishment, with prices to match. The food more than holds up – this was absolutely one of my favorite meals of the year, and easily beats my previous best good-food-and-great-beer establishments, LA TRAPPE in San Francisco and THE PUBLICK HOUSE in Boston. BIRCH AND BARLEY make their own amazing breads, including this incredible pretzel bread that they brought me gratis on a board with hand-churned butter that I could have eaten two loaves and five sticks of. I ordered this sumptuous Ahi Tuna appetizer that was amazing, followed by a “Cioppino” and whole fish that was salted & roasted to perfection. When I’m traveling for work we get a certain stipend to use on our three square meals per day, but I blew mine out of the water on this meal alone ($26 entrée, for instance). I cared not a whit, and at the time was willing to go into debtor’s prison to do so.

Yet this isn’t a food brag blog, nor will it ever be one. On to the beer. There were so many fantastic untried beers on the menu that I had to go with their 4-ounce tasters in order to try a bunch I’d never had and not walk out of there clutching my templates and falling down in the snow. These were generous 4-ounce pours as well, closer to 5 or 6, which only heightened my adoration for this place. Here’s what we tried:

NOGNE Ø – “TIGER TRIPEL” – What a fantastic tripel – and from Norway, no less. Dry and fruity, with a meaty and muscular backbone. Excellent. 9/10.

JOLLY PUMPKIN – “NOEL DE CALABAZA” – A strong dark “winter” ale from this Michigan brewer. Sour, and a little bourbony. Super-dry finish. One of their best beers of the half-dozen I’ve had, which still puts it at only a solid 7/10.

FOUNDERS – “BREAKFAST STOUT” – Oh yeah. This was finally my first try of what’s considered one of the US’s world-class beers. Delicious, clean, coffee roasted taste in a premiere coffee beer that’s perhaps the best I’ve had in an increasingly crowded field. Very special, and I very much like that it is in small bottles. 8.5/10.

STILLWATER BREWING - “EXISTENT” – Let’s hear it for the locals! This comes from up Maryland way, a tasty strong dark ale (branded as a saison??!?) that doesn't come on too strong but still packs lots of smooth flavor. Decent. 7/10.

VICTORY BREWING – “PURSUIT OF PALE ALE” – Aromatic and hoppy, but blah - a little too chalky, and to use my catch-all dis, “almost macro lager like”. Zing! 4/10.

MIKKELLER/BREWDOG – “DEVINE REBEL 2010” – The 2009 version of this barleywine was one of the best beers I drank this year, but alas, this is too strong and not as fun as the last one. Wow, bring on the booze you guys, why dontcha? 13.8% alcohol, and despite sweet caramel and nice stinging hops, it’s really a little much. 6.5/10.

This was an epic session that I hope you enjoyed reading about, and I pray that you pick this as your go-to meal or drinking spot (forget the overrated BRICKSKELLER) next time you’re in the Nation’s Capital.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NEVER MIND THE 14, HERE'S FIRESTONE WALKER 13

Back in early October I had to travel down to Ventura, CA for my late aunt's memorial service, and on the way down I stopped and took a walking tour of my late 80s borough of residence, the dilapidated, Beirut-like college party town of Isla Vista, California. There I encountered very familiar sites, as if time had stopped entirely: burnt couches, lying prostrate in the middle of the sidewalk; empty 12-pack boxes for hideous & foul beers like Miller Genuine Draft & Coors Light, hanging off the native Southern California flora and fauna; and lawns and decks strewn with the detritus of the previous' night's parties - plastic cups, empty kegs and the odors of vomit, sunscreen and premarital sex. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but I'd returned to a place I very proudly once called my home.

I ambled by the grocery store that was once called Pruitt's and then Dave's Village Market while I lived, loved and engaged in much study here. It's now called Keg Express or Liquor World or something along those lines; it's about 90% booze and 10% foodstuffs. I decided to see what the Leaders of Tomorrow were drinking these days, and lo, came across a beer cooler filled with microbrewed craft surprises from hither and yon. Though I doubted that most UC-Santa Barbara undergrads could afford some of these bottles - we had trouble putting together $3.99 for the requisite 15-pack of STROH'S back in the day (but we always made it!) - I was certainly happy that I now could, blessed with a UCSB education as I am.

There were rarities from all the San Diego brewing heavyweights; treats from Victory, Telegraph and even Russian River; and the one thing that made my eyes pop out and my wallet a little lighter: FIRESTONE WALKER 13, a beer that I'd long considered gone forever. See, their anniversary beers come out in limited batches in December, and if you're still seeing them in January, you're either lucky or, uh, living in a place like Isla Vista, where $23 for a single 22-ounce bottle of beer is one toke over the line. I had missed this one back at the tail end of 2009, and reckoned that now, ten months later, it had the benefit of a little "laying down" and would now be just about ready for drinking.

Naturally, I laid this boxed beauty down for two more months just to be sure, and right as the hype began gathering over FIRESTONE WALKER 14, which is now out and available if you can find it, I poured myself a couple of big glasses of 13. Drank 'em on Christmas Eve, in fact. Very happy I did. FIRESTONE WALKER 13 has been matured in wine barrels, and that's stupendously obvious in the taste - a more barrel-aged beer in taste you shall not find. Rich, roasty tastes of dark chocolate and grapes dominate. It is smoked and malty, with a real heft yet smoothness to it. It's quite a tribute to themselves, and these guys pull it off every year, dating back to the Firestone Walker 10 that blew me and everyone else away four years ago. I'll go with an enthusiastic 8/10 on this one.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

HEDONIST JIVE’S NAVEL-GAZING GUIDE TO THE BEST OF 2010

Time was, I used to put out end-of-year best-of lists for music on my now-defunct music blog, films on my film blog, beer on my beer blog, and so on. Then I had to go & jumble all my passions and interests together and create the “general interest” Hedonist Jive blog in April of this year, which not only dropped my daily “unique vistor” count into the mid-double digits, but also meant that in order to compile the necessary year-end lists, I’d have to do it all in one place.

So here’s the omnibus Best of 2010 – everything great and wonderful from the world of culture and beyond that we came across in the course of the last 12 months. Let’s start with reading material, and proceed from there:

READS

I didn’t actually read any more than ten whole books in 2010, so in order to develop a fully-formed best-of list, I’ll gratuitously add magazines, Twitter streams, articles, blogs and whatnot. This is what the ‘Jive was reading with gusto, panache and aplomb in 2010.

1. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, “HITCH-22”. My review can be read right here.
2. MATT RIDLEY, “THE RATIONAL OPTIMIST”. My review can be read right here.
3. MICHAEL LEWIS, “THE BIG SHORT”. My review can be read right here.

4. THE ATLANTIC (magazine). I’ve been a subscriber since 1991 and I have never – and will never – miss an issue. Maybe it’s because I’m on the west coast, but it still surprises me that the first-rate journalism and writing in this magazine isn’t discussed more often among my peers and the public at large. This social, political and cultural magazine does a fantastic job being “centrist” without being milquetoast, and some of best pieces I’ve ever read have come from its pages, including this year. They have a regular crop of don’t-miss writers, among them Mark Bowden, Christopher Hitchens, Virginia Postrel, Robert Kaplan and even crazy Caitlin Flanigan. There are a few I have to skip over every issue – I’m talking to you, James Fallows and Sandra Tsing-Lo – but in a magazine with 20 or so pieces every month, that’s to be expected.

5. RICK PERLSTEIN, “NIXONLAND”. Not from 2010, but ah well. That’s when I read it. My review can be read right here.

6. NEIL HAMBURGER’S TWITTER STREAM. The faux comedian is the funniest thing on Twitter, especially his use of phony hash-tags and these preposterous hobby-horse crusades he gets on. Best was one that consumed the past several months after Tom Bosley (Mr. Cunnigham from “Happy Days”) died, and deodorant company AXE neglected to cancel some event they were having that evening in memoriam. Hamburger mercilessly harangued them for about six weeks about “not showing respect”, and it was worth logging in every day and suffering through others’ tweets just to see what new ridiculous level he’d taken the campaign to.

7. CLAIRE BERLINSKI, “THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE”. Also not from 2010, but still very recent. It’s a fascinating and somewhat off-kilter look into Margaret Thatcher, written unconventionally but from a position of admiration. The degree to which the Iron Lady changed Britain for the better is unparalled, and makes a strong case for the comeback of the discredited “Great Man of History” theory.

8. ERIC DAVIDSON, “WE NEVER LEARN!”. My review can be read right here.

9. McCOVEY CHRONICLES. This is a San Francisco Giants blog, so I recognize there’s a fairly limited audience for it among my readers right off the bat. It’s also one of the best-written and funniest sites going, and it’s been my go-to place for Giants-related snark for many years now. Grant has spent so long belittling the Giants’ many bone-headed moves for so long, that the site initially seemed to have a hard time reckoning with the team’s World Series victory this year. The wheels didn’t fall off, the torture ended up being sweet torture, and the site just got even more funny. Giants fans, even you brand-new ones: don’t miss the excellent El Lefty Malo as well.

10. FLIPBOARD. Flipboard is an iPad application that’s the first real example of what a digital magazine should look like. It collects well-written information from all over the web, along with some original content, and presents it in a “flippable” style that can be wholly customized to your tastes. News feeds come in all the time, so it’s dynamic and fresh, and it has an extremely eye-popping design. No one has mastered the delivery of digital content in a traditional “magazine” format the way these folks have, and it’s only going to get better from here.

FILM

Would you say 2010 was a great year for film? It’s really hard for me to make the call – my wife & I didn’t cash in our “date nights” for movies as often as we used to, and got too caught up in all the hustlin’ that goes along with daily life to consistently sit down and watch films on DVD etc. But I still saw some very good ones. Here are 10 of them:

1. BLACK SWAN (my review is here)
2. CYRUS (my review is here)
3. THE WHITE RIBBON (my review is here)
4. WINTER’S BONE (my review is here)
5. NYMPH (my review is here)
6. TOY STORY 3 (my review is here)
7. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
8. INCEPTION (my review is here)
9. THE LOTTERY
10. KICK-ASS (my review is here)

2010 films I haven’t seen yet, but I’m pretty sure are going to be great: Waiting For Superman, White Material, The Social Network, True Grit, Carlos, and….?

MUSIC – Top 10 LPs & Tapes

If there’s one sign that I’m getting old(er), it’s how infrequently, compared to my music-saturated past, I went out and bought or downloaded full-length discs. It’s part of parcel of the times at some level, a time in which the “song” is ascendant and the “album” is waning. I also noticed a distinct softening of my tolerance for all manner of musical BS, which is naturally pretty subjective, but usually boils down to how needlessly noisy, noodly or long a song is. If it cracks the four-minute mark, I’m usually not interested – with some exceptions, like the excellent second FABULOUS DIAMONDS record.

I found myself enjoying a lot of female-fronted bands, as I always have, but in a higher percentage than ever before. I don’t know what it means, but here are 10 rulin’ chuggers from the past year:

1. GRASS WIDOW – “Past Time”
2. DUM DUM GIRLS – “I Will Be”
3. MYELIN SHEATHS – “Get On Your Nerves”
4. YELLOW FEVER – “Yellow Fever”
5. WHITE MYSTERY – “White Mystery”
6. ETERNAL SUMMERS – “Silver”
7. FABULOUS DIAMONDS – “Fabulous Diamonds II”
8. THE BLACK JASPERS – “Black Jaspers”
9. THEE OH SEES – “Warm Slime”
10. THE VASELINES – “Sex With An X”

MUSIC – 20 Songs From 2010 You Need To Hear Right Now, And Now Can, Since I’ve Posted MP3s for Each Of Them

1. MYELIN SHEATHS – “Everything Is Contagious”  mp3
2. DUM DUM GIRLS – “Jail La La”  mp3
3. THE BARRERACUDAS – “New York Honeys”  mp3
4. THEE OH SEES – “I Was Denied”  mp3
5. YELLOW FEVER – “Metarie”  mp3
6. SUPER WILD HORSES – “Fifteen”  mp3
7. DUM DUM GIRLS – “Pay For Me”  mp3
8. DICK DIVER – “Purgatory”  mp3
9. ETERNAL SUMMERS – “Pogo”  mp3
10. HEAVY TIMES – “Ice Age”  mp3
11. HAPPY BIRTHDAY – “Girls FM”  mp3
12. LA SERA – “Never Come Around”  mp3
13. ETERNAL SUMMERS – “Dye”  mp3
14. OVERNIGHT LOWS – “City of Rotten Eyes”  mp3
15. TY SEGALL – “Caesar”  mp3
16. LIMINANAS – “I’m Dead”  mp3
17. CROCODILES – “Sleep Forever”  mp3
18. AIR WAVES – “Knockout”  mp3
19. READING RAINBOW – “Wasting Time”  mp3
20. BASS DRUM OF DEATH – “Get Found”  mp3

BEER

One thing that didn’t wane in the least in 2010 was my enthusiasm for good beer. Sure, I put an end to my beer-only blog HEDONIST BEER JIVE, but that meant nuthin’. I’m still obsessively trading beers to other dorks across the country, filling my suitcase with rare finds whenever I travel for work, and hitting up new bars and breweries in search of the next great beer to give a 10/10 to. Some of them are in this list. In fact, everything on this list of 25 beers are ones that I tried for the first time in 2010, and scored at least a 9/10. The top four were the only “perfect 10s” of the whole year. Let the search continue!

My review for each is available by clicking on the name of the beer.

1. THE BRUERY – “MISCHIEF”
2. SIERRA NEVADA “30TH ANNIVERSARY – FRITZ & KEN’S STOUT”
4. BROOKLYN BREWING – “EAST INDIA PALE ALE”
5. ALPINE BREWING – “NELSON”
7. SURLY BREWING – “FURIOUS”
8. BROUWERIJ CONTRERAS – “VALHEIR DIVERS”
9. MIKKELLER/BREWDOG – “DEVINE REBEL 2009”
10. LOST ABBEY – “THE ANGEL’S SHARE 2009”
11. LOST ABBEY - “RED BARN ALE”
14. PRETTY THINGS – “BABY TREE”
15. DE PROEF – “WITTE NOIR”
16. SOUTHERN TIER – “OAK-AGED UNEARTHLY”
19. MASIA AGULLONS – “RUNA ALE”
22. GREEN FLASH - "LE FREAK"
23. ALE INDUSTRIES – “RYE’D PIPER”
24. ELYSIAN/GREEN FLASH – “THE RED QUEEN”
25. STONE BREWING – “LEVITATION”

10 OTHER RIGHTEOUSLY AWESOME THINGS THAT HAPPENED

1. The San Francisco Giants Won The World Series. More here.

2. Hedonist Jive Made Its Debut. Here’s how we got our name.

3. I ran my first half marathon in November, the Big Sur Half, and finished with a time of 2:00:03. That’s right, three seconds remained between me and my “stretch goal” of completing this thing in under two hours. If only I had gone without fluids the entire race, I’d have totally done it.

4. My son Adam had a role as a “Who” in the San Francisco School of the Arts production of “Seussical The Musical” during the spring. My wife and I saw something like eight performances, and of course, it never got old. I’m still singing the show tunes from this play seven months later.

5. “Breaking Bad” finished an amazing Season 3 on television. More here.

6. Traveled to Barcelona, New York City, Washington DC, Seattle, Los Angeles and Kansas City for work; traveled to Sedona, Arizona; Bend, Oregon and Yosemite National Park for fun.

7. I truly (re-)discovered the “This American Life” radio show, and became addicted to it. More here.

8. During the midst of a crazy pre-WWII blues and country phase I was going through, I started a music blog called HIGH WATER EVERYWHERE in late December 2009. By the end of February, two months later, the blog was dead and the phase was over. Like the proverbial phoenix, this gave rise to the blog you’re reading now.

9. The Los Angeles Dodgers finished the 2010 baseball season with a losing record, with disgruntled fans, angry players and a horrific ownership situation.

10. The San Francisco Giants, once again, became the World Champions of the World. And let it be said – they will be for most of 2011, too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“WINTER’S BONE”

This stark, thrilling American indie film has gathered accolades from pretty much all corners, and recently came out on DVD – or download – or whatever it is we do with films post-theater run these days. “WINTER’S BONE” will likely be picking up some hardware at the upcoming Golden Globes and Oscars; I’d certainly give newcomer actress Jennifer Lawrence (“Ree”) and her Uncle Teardrop, played by John Hawkes, a nomination – as well as the cinematographer who picks up the bleak, sweeping Ozark mountain terrain in a way that makes it feel claustrophobic and completely self-contained. Director Debra Granick probably deserves a nomination as well.

The story concerns 17-year-old Ree’s search for her missing meth-cooking father, who has skipped out on probation and has therefore caused Ree’s absolutely dirt-poor family to be threatened with eviction from the near-shack they call home deep in the woods of the Ozarks. This is a land portrayed as almost completely removed from the rest of America as we know it. The only connection we see to the outside world are the Army recruiters trolling the local high school, who seem to be the lifeline that might take Ree and anyone else with any smarts out of this violent, desolate place. Otherwise, this is a land of missing teeth, thick accents, pickup trucks and people who shoot, kill and skin squirrels for dinner. At no time does “WINTER’S BONE” turn into stereotypical white-trash-on-parade. While some people in this forgotten slice of the country are sympathetic and helpful to Ree’s plight, most are sick, secretive and violent people, many of which are part of her extended family. Because she’s tough as nails and doing the work of two adults (her mom has been driven mute and crazy) raising her two younger siblings, Ree has to have an absolutely iron will and ability to withstand unimaginable pain and terror in order to protect herself and the two young kids.

“Winter’s Bone” plays out more like a thriller than it does a bleak drama, since violence can and does erupt at any moment. Yet it's not a complete horror show - there are moments of tenderness, and long, quiet shots of bored children at play, that are quite touching, if I may say so. As she searches the Ozarks for her dad, Ree encounters the drug-ingesting, drug-dealing scum of the earth who’ll do anything to keep her from finding him. Jennifer Lawrence is a true talent who I imagine will be made into a star within the next two years – she’s pretty enough to be the lead in romantic comedies, and a fantastic enough actress that she can also knock it out of the park in gritty films like this one. Definitely pick this up if you see it at the video store, which of course don’t really exist anymore. Or just download a rental copy here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

BROOKLYN BREWING’s KNOCKOUT “EAST INDIA PALE ALE”

It doesn’t come corked & caged, nor does is it delivered in a funky-fresh can. It’s not marinated in bourbon barrels, not soaked in oak chips, nor run through Randal the Enamel Animal. It isn’t produced in limited quantities, nor does it tear open the esophagus with an explosion of biting, punishing hops. Nope, but BROOKLYN BREWING’s EAST INDIA PALE ALE is perhaps the best IPA I had in 2010, and easily the best “English-style” IPA I quaffed this year. The imperial pint I supped at New York’s Ginger Man this past week was as smooth and as good as a fresh, hoppy pale ale gets. Fruity and light, but with a thick mouthfeel and a little bit of a strong come-on before you kick up your shoes and settle in. Creamy, and made for drinking whenever possible. That’s why it’s one of their year-round beers and available in 12-ounce six-packs. We’re such fantastic snobs here at the ‘Jive that we often pass such “pedestrian” beers by when we’re combing the shelves for something rare and beastly. This is one to grab onto and make a beautiful part of everyday living. 10/10.

Friday, December 17, 2010

“BLACK SWAN”

I’ll just cut to the chase. This is absolutely my favorite film of the year, and it’s also the best film Darren Aronofsky’s made – and I’ve seen them all. My wife and I got hooked into his unique, jarring filmmaking vision when his first film, “PI” hit the theaters in 1998 (Wow! That long ago!), and of course that was followed up with his best film of the previous decade, the bleak and unrelenting junkie saga “REQUIEM FOR A DREAM” (2000). Even his least-seen and most-panned film, the otherworldly and ambitious time-spanning drama “THE FOUNTAIN” (2006) was so far-reaching and well-crafted that it was easy to overlook its considerable flaws. I still dug it. Oh, and of course there was “THE WRESTLER” (2008), which deserved every kudo it got.

But I'm only exaggerating slightly when I posit that these are all student films compared to “BLACK SWAN”, which hit near-perfect notes in tone (dark, mysterious and creepy – in a film about ballet!), picture (a washed-out 1970s look that reminded me a lot of “THE EXORCIST”), story (an ambitious parallel of “Swan Lake” in which a virginal “white swan” sort of girl does whatever it takes to transform herself into a murderous, ultra-sexual “black swan”) and acting (Natalie Portman, who is on screen every second of the film, is amazing). Let’s go back to that “Exorcist” comparison. Do you remember how that film, even when it took place outside, still felt underlit and ominous? “Black Swan” keeps the lights dim in every scene – inside it’s always candlelight or a lone bulb on, or harsh fluorescent light that still feels incomplete and uncomfortable. Outside, it’s always overcast and bleak. Aronofsky heightens many scene with a abrupt, bouncing shaky-cam, and close-ups that make you feel like something’s going to pop out of someone’s face at any time. Sometimes something does.

“BLACK SWAN” is a psychological thriller-slash-horror film that concerns a fragile, girlie-girl wisp of a young woman who still lives with her (overbearing and jealous) mommy, and has puffy stuffed animals on her bed. Her dancing talent and virginal perfection makes her an easy match for the “white swan” role in the NY Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake”, but the role is for both parts – white and black swan. She needs to convince, please and possibly even sexually favor her director, a great leering letch of a Frenchman played by Vincent Cassel who thinks she’s too uptight and repressed to be the Black Swan as well. She certainly is. Portman, completely priming and training herself for this moment for her entire life, will do whatever it takes to get this part, but simply doesn’t know how to become something that she’s never been. Confusing things is a liberated, sexually free lithe & limber rival dancer played by Mila Kunis, who threatens to snatch the hallowed part away, while simultaneously reaching out to try and loosen Portman up. Roofies are eventually consumed.

I’m not giving much away by saying Portman does get the Swan Lake role of her dreams, even before the halfway point of the film. And her transformation begins, and it’s a hell of a ride. It isn’t often that I see a film and immediately make plans to see it again, but I did this time, and I hope to shortly be gripping my proverbial seat again.

GASTRO INTESTELINI VISITS EATALY

My food-reviewing alter ego is Gastro Intestelini, whom you may recall wrote up this 1995 review of South San Francisco dining spots. He would have been in heaven at New York City’s EATALY, which as I understand it is a gastronomic luxe farmer’s market/restaurant complex undertaking by someone named Mario Batali, whom I’m told is a cook or something. I went there on this week’s business trip because I’d read that a coalition of Italian craft brewers, and DOGFISH HEAD BREWING’s own Sam Calagione, were involved in this as well. Good food, good drink – what could go wrong, right?

Well, not much, outside of the astronomical, expense account-busting food prices. A dessert of sheep’s milk ricotta cheese with honey and truffle oil. What would you pay? Oh I don’t know – how about the $35 they were asking? Polenta with an egg and a couple pieces of truffle? Do I hear $40? I had a delicious “Frito Misto”, which unfortunately has nothing to do with Fritos, for a comparably pauper-like fee of $25. The restaurants themselves are broken up by Italian cuisine variant, so we were in “pesce”, fish, seated very close to the “bier” section. Ah, bier. As promised, the only beers available for purchase, both with your meals and for take-away, were from all the big and small names of Italian craft brewing – and Dogfish Head. Not a bad set of beers to choose from, and I walked out of this place with some new ones for my suitcase.

The one I tried out at Eataly was from BIRRIFICIO LE BALADIN, or as we’d call ‘em in the States, “Baladin Brewing”. This brewer also brews up sodas, and our waiter brought my bottled beer BALADIN ISAAC over to me with a big glass of ice, and got started pouring before I screamed in horror. WTF!!??! I informed him that it was a beer I’d ordered, and he sheepishly went and got me the “proper glassware”, which you can see pictured here. The beer? It is a malty, honey-flavored witbier. Predominantly, it tastes of wheat, honey, craft and attention to detail. A little bit of puckering was taking place – it’s not a Sam Adams Coastal Wheat, let’s just put it that way. But it’s good. And you should try one. Hedonist Jive gives it a 7/10.

Friday, December 10, 2010

BOOK REVIEW – “THE BIG SHORT” by Michael Lewis

The idealized free-market vision of what Wall Street is meant to represent is the efficient allocation of capital to productive enterprise – a place the serves as a multiplier effect to capitalism and of productivity, thereby serving its customers’ interests (companies and the people they are made up of, as well as shareholders) as well as the greater economic good. Standing in the way of this idealized vision is, at its root, human frailty. Human frailty, along with its close cousins greed and stupidity, is endemic in all areas of human life and is, for worse, a part of who we are. The putatively smartest among us are just as frail and given to succumbing to perverse incentives that reward their greed and their baser instincts as are the putatively dumbest among us. I’m a flag-waving capitalist and free marketeer who very much recognizes the lack of anything approaching perfection in humanity, and the deleterious results that play out every 10-20 years in boom-and-bust cycles in our economy as a result. Simply put, it comes with the territory.

Michael Lewis’ “THE BIG SHORT” tells this macro story at some level, but more importantly, in the process he explains the 2007-2008 financial and housing crisis better than any single article, book or opinion piece I’ve read the past two years. It’s the best “business” book I’ve read since Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s Enron masterpiece “THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM”, which not surprisingly also dealt with the dark, greedy side of human nature and how it took real human lives and capital down with it. “THE BIG SHORT” is not a book about the government’s role in the housing crisis, nor does it go into much detail about lending practices, nor the Fed’s artificial propping up of interest rates, nor into any detail about individual homeowners and the collective mania that gripped the housing market for much of the past decade. No, this is a book about Wall Street’s speculation and its shift to trading "derivatives" with little value to anyone outside of Wall Street, and posits that these practices, which began in the 1980s, continued to drive Wall Street further and further away from its visionary role of providing “the efficient allocation of capital to productive enterprises”.

More specifically, the book deals in thriller-like fashion – Lewis, as I knew from reading “MONEYBALL”, is a fantastic writer – with the men and their hedge funds that saw the looming subprime housing crisis years before anyone else did. The book’s title refers to how they presciently took advantage of a new speculative Wall Street derivative called the Credit-Default Swap (CDS) to “short” the long bet that Wall Street firms were stupidly taking on the housing market. These men, few in number and all born or made skeptics, looked at all the available data and themselves dug up a bunch more, and came to the heretical but ultimately validated conclusion that people with $14,000 (or, more often, $140,000) in yearly income should not be buying homes with interest-only loans that would balloon two years later into much higher monthly payments. The writing was on the wall for massive defaults and huge losses as people began to walk away from mortgages that they couldn’t afford, and yet Wall Street was fattening itself with ever-increasing profits made trading these derivatives. Even crazier spin-off bonds called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) spun out of CDSs, and every time these preposterous bonds made up of the worst of the worst subprime mortgages were traded in complex fashion among multiple parties like Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, AIG and other recent bogeymen, everyone made piles of money. Until they didn’t, and it all came tumbling down, just as the “big short” skeptics knew it ultimately would.

Not that they didn’t sweat it for a long time. The market inexplicably continued going up, up, up in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and the very few voices of reason were being drowned out by tidal waves of money, mania and cheap loans. The rating agencies – Moody’s, S&P and Fitch – were part and parcel of the problem, and they absolutely get savaged in this book as the place where flunkies who couldn’t hack it in the big investment firms like Goldman Sachs went to collect a mediocre paycheck while being cowed by the bigger, much stronger banks. Yet when Moody’s would rate a CDO made up entirely of “BBB”-rated subprime mortgages – the ones that would all explode two years later – as a “AAA”-rated investment, that was used as the excuse by the big banks and investments firms to create, buy and sell more of them. Wall Street ignored (or hid) so many of the warning signs that were right in front of them for the short-term large payday that might never end. When it did end, of course, they were forgiven their many sins by the US Government, who rushed in to save them with US taxpayer dollars. They were “too big to fail”, as we now know, and they got that way in part by the ruses and the myopia that should have ingloriously driven the majority of them deep into bankruptcy and ignominy.

Lewis, while not necessarily making any sort of political argument, nonetheless is a huge culture-of-Wall-Street basher whom, I’ve read, advocates regulation that will return the big firms to private hands (as opposed to being publicly traded), with separate banking and investment arms. I won’t be able to necessarily share this view until I read more on the other aspects of the crisis (my next book is going to be Bethany McLean’s newest, “ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE”), but even this small-l libertarian is sympathetic to the argument. If firms really are too big to fail, and need to be propped up by taxpayers, better a system that changes this and puts the risk and all potential losses completely back on the firms (and not on taxpayers nor even shareholders). I’m also sympathetic to arguments (that Lewis does not explicitly make) about enforced regulatory transparency in the ratings agencies, who come off as the biggest boobs in finance, with an outsized impact on the state of the world. And, as I’ve written before, I hope that the crisis teaches us that not everyone needs to own a house. The government had a huge role to play in stoking this crisis as well, and I’m hoping McLean’s book explores this a little bit more in concert with some aggressive savaging of AIG, Goldman Sachs and the rest, who completely deserve a robust thrashing for their speculative stupidity.

It took me over two years to be able to even articulate this much knowledge of how the crisis came to be, and I don’t feel like I’m done yet in attempting to figure it out. You won’t find a better and more engaging read that this one in helping you to get there, peppered as it is with salty, profanity-spewing characters and delusional traders, sitting with their mouths watering on the wrong side of the big short.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

IF I WERE A JUGGALO

I've never heard their music. I've never seen one of their videos. Until this past year, I dimly recalled them as an afterthought clown/rap act from the Lollapalooza era. Yet 2010 has been the year that the INSANE CLOWN POSSE passed up Courtney Love in my eyes as being the creme de al creme in don't-miss train wreck entertainment. It all started for me when I saw reports coming back this year from this rap duo's self-celebrating "Gathering of the Juggalos" (also known simply as "The Gathering") in the rural Midwest, where thousands of bruised, damaged, pot-smoking white people gather to celebrate their rapping, clown-makeup-wearing heroes and to squirt Faygo (a cheapo Midwestern soft drink) on each others' bodies. Apparently this year the band's many Gathering-attending fans, known as Juggalos, they were so incensed about the visit of a half-rate female celebrity named "Tila Tequila" that they pelted her with garbage, rocks and feces, leading to injuries to Tequila and a whole lot of press. I simply had to know more.

Without going into too much detail, I thought I'd direct you to a few key places to learn more about the Insane Clown Posse and their Juggalo world. Like Courtney Love, they are a bad joke to any right-thinking and music-considering individual, but far more interesting and worthy of your reading attention than thousands of decent and good-sounding bands. I wish I could provide you with the devastating Mark Dancey anti-ICP comics that ran in Motorbooty fanzine back in the 90s, which were hilarious and provided me with my first real introduction, albeit music-free, to the band. All I can find is this article on the controversy that ensued.

Next would be this month's WIRED magazine, which, of all places, does a commendable job of providing an overview of Juggalo culture and even trying to generate some sympathy for the misfits who provide it its legions. Defintely check out the photographs of the young fans at The Gathering. The guy with the McDonald's-themed "Marijuana - I'm Smokin' It" shirt is my favorite, followed by the heavy-lidded stripper-looking woman on the ground, who looks like she may have very recently fallen down the stairs..

And if you want amazing photos, Kelly O's feature in Seattle's THE STRANGER is the best of the lot, and which I can't recommend enough that you gawk at right now. She needs to win photography's equivalent of The Emmy, despite her already rich source material. It all adds up to a phenomenon that I'm embarrased to only truly be turning my attention to now. Human beings come in all stripes, creeds and colors - we truly are a wonderful rainbow, aren't we? If I can find any excuse to come to 2011's Gathering ("for research purposes") and not get pummelled by the family that makes up this brilliant mosaic, I'm all over it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A PARADE OF ONE-LINER BEER REVIEWS

You know that recent time period of about four weeks where Hedonist Jive was too busy to post anything here? Well, we sure weren’t too busy to keep up with the newest and latest in beer-fueled bacchanalia. I’ve built up something of an albatross of beer reviews and photos, so I’m going to spew them loose right here to get caught up. Let’s keep each review to a single pithy line and a score, and if you need any further elaboration while you make your evening drinking or beer-shopping plans, feel free to send me an email or ask for more critical thinking in the comments section.

Here they are, broken out by quartile:

THE TRULY OUTSTANDING

BROUWERIJ CONTRERAS – “VALHEIR DIVERS”: Amazing – fantastic fizzy, hoppy Belgian tripel that was light, zesty, aromatic and fantastically crisp & delicious. 9.5/10.

MIKELLER – “RIS A LA M’ALE”: Superb almond/cherry ale that wasn’t tart in the least but brought the juicy sweet funk like Bootsy Collins and The Brides of Dr. Funkenstein. 9/10.

BROUWERIJ DE MOLEN – “HEL & VERDOEMENIS”: Smoky, amazingly sweet Belgo-Russian Imperial Stout with a little coffee and a lot, lot, lot of booze. 9/10.

RODENBACH – “GRAND CRU”: The world-class masterpiece Flanders Red Ale that everyone else loves and that I had for the, uh, first time a month ago – I am now a raging full-on believer. 9/10.

BEAR REPUBLIC – “APEX”: A casked double IPA that tasted of salted, bitter melon and all things bright and wonderful – loved it. 8.5/10.

THE VERY GOOD

MOYLANS – “WET HOP SESSION”: Delicious, straightforward, draft-only low-ABV pale ale that packed a mountain of wet and fresh Marin County flavor. 8/10.

DESCHUTES – “JUBEL 2010”: I cellared this “once a decade ale” for as long as I could stand – 10 months – and was happy with the delicious toffee, caramel brown sugar, milky latte taste of this bold strong dark ale. 8/10.

ALLAGASH – “HUGH MALONE ALE”: A chewy Belgian-style IPA that smells a bit funky and tastes thick and luscious. 7.5/10.

ANDERSON VALLEY BREWING – “IMPERIAL BOONT”: The “big” version of the world-famous Boont Amber was a weird and rare beast that played up the malts and the flavor, like a big-ABV scotch ale without the peatmoss. 7.5/10.

HOPWORKS – “HUB ORGANIC IPA”: An English-style IPA that finished quite dry and successfully overcame its organic designation. 7/10.

UPRIGHT BREWING – “SEVEN”: Tangy, super-yeasty dry saison in a big fat bottle from surprise Oregon brewer. 7/10.

BRASSERIE CARACOLE – “SAXO BLONDE”: Very Belgian, very fruity, very fresh-tasting blonde ale. 7/10.

THE MIDDLING

OMMEGANG – “CUP O’ KYNDNES”: Smoky peat, chestnut-driven scotch ale that was basic but very drinkable. 6.5/10.

TELEGRAPH BREWING – “ROBUST ALE”: A foamy, bottle-conditioned imperial version of their California Ale that tasted like pear and caramel malts and really just missed my hitting my expectation level by a couple of points. 6/10.

21ST AMENDMENT BREWERY – “HOP CRISIS”: 8% imperial but supposedly (in their description) "malt-driven" IPA that tasted bitter, chalky and way overhopped – this is supposed to be enjoyable? 5/10.

THE LAME

MT. SHASTA BREWING – “ABNER WEED AMBER”: Very basic, thin and uninteresting amber ale that tastes like it was made from a bagged beer kit. 4/10.

ALE INDUSTRIES – “ORANGE SHUSH”: Gross fruity witbier that had to change its name from “Orange Kush”, and now needs to de-market itself entirely. 4/10.

ISLAND BREWING – “IPA”: Thin, chalky and nearly hop-less IPA from the quote-unquote pride of Carpenteria, CA. 3.5/10.

BREWER’S ART – “LA PETROLEUSE”: It’s not you, Brewers’ Art, it’s me, as I'm totally and very obviously missing something here (A- rating on Beer Advocate); a well-crafted bier de garde that came off like a well-crafted garbage macro lager. 2/10.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: “REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN EUROPE” by Christopher Caldwell

Earth’s last decade has been primarily defined geopolitically by what’s now commonly referred to as “The Clash of Civilizations”, East vs. West, Muslims vs. Judeo-Christians, and so on. Depending on how this stretch of history plays out, the years 2001 to the present will likely be held up by historians as a time when the descendents of the Ottoman Empire attempted, successfully and with stealth, to reassemble the empire in the West. It may be a quiet and unplanned revolution, but it’s a revolution nonetheless, and how Europe (and to a lesser extent, the US) responds to it is a story that’s only growing in magnitude every year. Burqa bans, headscarf bans, minaret bans and increasingly loud disdain for Muslim ways have been on the rise in Europe the past few years. The terror threat from the East continues to be a real fact of life on the ground in Europe, as elsewhere. I was glad to see a book that tried to make sense of it all, how Europe very quickly became a continent of immigrants from outside of Europe, and what it will mean for the 21st century.

And I suppose I should make my prejudices clear before I go further: I’m a huge champion of American immigration in all its forms. My philosophy is that people follow the jobs, and if the jobs are there, let the people come to fill them, whether legal or illegal. If the people abide by the norms and rules of the “host culture”, and don’t expect taxpayer subsidization, then they’ll have no bigger champion than myself. I can envision a time in the future where national borders cease to be meaningful, and I like the sound of a world in which that’s the case. Oh, and I’m also a raging atheist. I also, uh, dislike terrorism very much, and am willing to go out on a limb and culturally profile the perpetrators of 21st-century terrorism as overwhelmingly Muslim. I sympathize with a Europe that sees its liberal traditions and even its physical well-being as being under assault by Muslim immigration, while being bemused and even a little alarmed at the simultaneous withering of those liberal traditions in response to it.

So cutting to the chase, Christopher Caldwell’s recent book, “REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN EUROPE – Immigration, Islam and The West” is a fascinating, if flawed read. If you’d like to get a sense of how Europe got to its current quandary around immigration – a combination of loose rules, half-truths, religious decline, demographic decline, general apathy and a surfeit of political correctness – this is great book to tackle. Caldwell nails the well-meaning approach to immigration in Europe over the past 40 years, and how it rapidly accelerated and started violently confronting European norms about 15 years ago. His best writing regards how Europe slowly woke up to the key differences between Muslim immigration to Europe, and quick-assimilating immigrants to the United States:

The marital behavior of immigrants and their children (not to mention the entire history of colonization) shows that you can migrate to a place while being hostile to it, or at least while holding it in no special regard. Yes, immigrants “just want a better life”, as the cliché goes. But they don’t necessarily want a European life. They may want a Third World life at a European standard of living. They may want to use the cosmopolitanism made possible by Western rule of law to secure citizenship for their nonfeminist brides and their pre-Enlightenment ways.

This is what Europeans are waking up to in all sorts of funny and sometimes even enlightened ways. The Muslim immigrants, by and large, are replicating their home countries’ ways of life, just on European soil, and often at European taxpayers’ expense. Caldwell blames Europeans’ abandonment of their traditional culture, and of Christianity, in favor of the very liberal social consensus that rules the continent now as being part & parcel of why it was so easy for, say, Algerian or Turkish culture to gain such a strong foothold in, say, France and Germany. He loses me when he puts too fine a point on this thread – particularly the religious part. One can admire the values that are attributed to Judeo-Christian traditions, without fully buying into them being divinely inspired (I certainly don’t). If only Europeans got some religion again, he seems to say in various spots, Europe would have an effective bulwark against its centuries-long foe, Islam. I don’t buy it. I think Europe’s secular evolution is one of its post-WWII strengths, and I tend to agree with the assassinated Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn and his protégés, who argued that Europe had created a culture of liberal tolerance, enlightenment and intellectualism that was very much worth fighting for and defending.

Islam has the upper hand as things stand today, at least as portrayed by this book. It knows what it stands for, and it knows what it stands against. It is rapidly gaining in numbers both in Europe and around the globe as European population declines. Caldwell believes, as I do, that “moderate Islam”, while being something that exists for millions of people, is a red herring for cultural relativists who prefer to see peace and harmony where there is actually war, fear and religious antagonism. This will continue to be a signature issue for years to come, and while I found Caldwell’s old-school religious conservatism a little hard to stomach at times, I applaud him still for laying out the boundaries of the problem so clearly.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A ROCK AND ROLL MOMENT FOR THE AGES

I was going through a mementos box that I’ve been keeping for a while, and came across this flyer for an exceptionally memorable rocknroll show I went to in early 1987. I drove five people up from Santa Barbara in my 4-person 1980 Mustang to go see Scratch Acid, but they, mind-melting as they were, were not the real story of the night. The real story was the opening band GROUP SEX, from Nipomo, CA, and their jaw-dropping 3-minute set. In it those of us in attendance witnessed a lifetime’s worth of frustration, rage, love, disco dancing, little people, and the negation of the human spirit.

I recounted this evening in 2005 on my old blog Agony Shorthand, but figured it needed to be told again, since I found the flyer and all:

I think even back in March 1987, I knew I was pretty lucky to have seen SCRATCH ACID play live, not simply because I could sense that they'd break up soon (which they did), but because they seemed fairly groundbreaking in their way even at the time. The show was at a dumpy club in small college town San Luis Obispo, California with two bands I'll have a hard time forgetting: "GROUP SEX" and the "WIMPY DICKS". The latter were some dumb-ass local favorite funnypunk band with songs that ragged on their town, but the former were just on fire the night I saw them.

Whenever someone asks me about memorable shows I've seen -- which, truth be told, never actually happens -- I tell them about Group Sex in SLO, CA. The band came on stage with two identical-twin bearded drummers with full kits, the sort of beer doggie dudes you'd expect to find sucking down Coronas at the Cabo Wabo Cantina, and this boyfriend/girlfriend pair on guitar and bass respectively. (I later learned that their names were "Ron E. Fast" and "Janey"). The two drummers started in together with this ripping-fast hardcore-tempo pattern, and the guitarist started to hiss and feed back and play some generic HC riff. After about 10 seconds, though, someone -- it appeared to be the bass player -- screwed up, with unleashed a torrent of filthy invective from Ron E. Fast ("You motherfucker goddamn sonofabitch whythefuckcan'tyouplay etc."). Janey actually started to blubber and cry right into her mic, and profusely apologized to the crowd.

So the two goofball drummers started up their hardcore beats again, but this time "Fast"'s guitar shorted out or something, and everything ground to a quick halt. He immediately hefted his guitar, and shattered it into a bazillion pieces with one swing against the brick back wall behind the stage. The shocked whole crowd let out a collective "whoooa....", and then Janey just started crying again. She stood there at the mic bawling and shaking, "You don't understand you guys, he's really a nice guy, he really is, we're really a lot better than this, please don't hate us you guys....". Just then, the house lights came up, and the soundman quickly threw on some 1976 vintage disco music, "I Love The Nightlife" or something, and in seconds, Ron E. Fast and Janey jumped from the stage and immediately started disco-dancing together on the now-cleared floor. As everyone stood watching them in total awe, a "little person", also bearded, scampered out from behind the sound board and started picking up the guitar pieces from the floor. It was beyond belief, and they were only the opening band! We ran out to the car immediately to relive and retell the moment over a 6-pack of Mickey Bigmouths. W-o-w.

So thanks for letting me get that tale off my chest; it has only lived on via the oral tradition thusfar, and of course, it was far more weird and ridiculous than it likely reads to you on the screen.

This post received a comment from Ron E. Fast himself in 2008, saying “and i was pissed that the guitar was fuckin up not at janie......were married 25 yrs now”. So in other words, it wasn’t the bass player – his wife – who was having the problems, it was Fast’s guitar, and the “filthy invective” that I remember hearing was entirely self-directed. A magical evening, one that I hope I was able to recreate at some level.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

HOLIDAY DRINKING REPORT

I used to get pretty hopped up about Christmas beer season. Before brewers started making experimental and limited-release brews a regular feature of their lineups, the only way to escape the clutches of the yearly pale ale/amber/stout tyranny was the brewer’s annual November/December foray into spiced, malty, (sometimes) higher-ABV holiday beers. Not anymore. These days Christmas beers are, to my way of thinking, often an afterthought, something a brewer needs to do to maintain seasonality and possibly shift few extra units, but rarely are they the best beers you’ll drink all year. The really stellar ones tend not to be “holiday” beers per se, but happen to be dark, heavy and released in the Winter months. So color me a little more jaded than in years past – which doesn’t mean I’m not still gonna try a whole passel of them this year anyway.

Here are three we’ve explored to start off the 2010 winter drinking season:

THE BRUERY – “3 FRENCH HENS”(pictured above). I’ll happily pay $11.99 or more for any beer THE BRUERY bottles, and that’s what this one set me back. Last year’s “Two Turtle Doves” was a revelation, and it speaks truth to my aforementioned lie about the general decline of holiday beers' quality. This year’s model, to of course be followed by “4 Calling Birds” next year, made me sit bolt upright and declare, “Sweet Jesus It’s Christmas” as I brought the first sip down my throat. It’s 75% “Belgian strong dark ale”, 25% aged in French oak barrels, and it brings a real silky texture with a mix of oriental spices mixed with cinnamon stick. Is it possibly overspiced? Maybe it is. I enjoyed every moment of it except for the three or four when I was asking myself that question. 7.5/10.

NINKASI BREWING – “SLEIGH'R” – They call this one a “dark double alt” and I couldn’t resist, even though of the three NINKASI BREWING beers I’ve tried, only one – “Tricerahops” – was above average (and that one was way above). This has all the ingredients of the classic Christmas beer – nutmeg and spice, dark roasted cocoa taste, but its thin-ish body left me wanting something with a little more oomph. This, alas, wasn’t it. 6.5/10.

ANCHOR BREWING – “OUR SPECIAL ALE 2010” – In San Francisco, where I live, the annual Anchor Brewing “Our Special Ale” is a rite of passage into the new year. You’re just not complete until you’ve tried this year's formulation. More often than not, it’s excellent and sometimes revelatory. Lately it seems to be slipping a bit, however, and 2010’s the worst in recent memory. A bland, uninspiring malt bomb with only a hint of spicing, thin body and even a little aspirin in the aftertaste. What just happened? 4.5/10.

So it’s THE BRUERY in the early rounds for Xmas beer-off 2010. Watch this space for a report on Rounds 2 and 3 as the true drinking season commences.