5 awesome things I drank at Burning Man 2014
Eh? Yes, water. That ubiquitous Planet Earth liquid staple, that makes up 70% of each and every one of us; that for so many of us comes out clear and safe from the tap and seems to have an inexhaustible supply. That liquid that, oh so many of us, take for granted.
Out in the desert, it takes on a different meaning from the day to day. Sure, your RV (read motorhome) may have a water tank, but it’s not drinkable – just for washing dishes, perhaps a shower from time to time. And even this becomes precious. To drink though, you need to look out for yourself; there are no shops at Burning Man, no money changes hands. You want to stay hydrated, you take your drinking water and everything else you need in with you. Radical Self Reliance is the principle this falls under. And never leave home without it; it doesn’t take much to become stranded; the event takes place on a dried-out lake bed; the sand is a fine dust and is incredibly alkaline. Wander out without goggles, a dust mask and water and you can very quickly get into trouble. White-outs are common; a bad one is not for the faint-hearted. And boy is it hot. I have drunk a lot of stunning liquids in my life, but at no other moment have I been so grateful for a supply of water, never been so happy slaking a thirst. It is a humbling experience having the realisation that something so familiar to my everyday life, something I am far too complacent about, is my very lifeblood without which, none of us would be long for this world. So big it up for water; it deserves way more credit, respect – and, dare I say it, sanctity – than it gets.
2. The Bitter American
So, taking the radical self-reliance principle a step further, along with water (and a plentiful supply of Aspall, of course) I brought this delicious brew in with us too.
The makers – 21st Amendment – are one of my favourite American micro-brewers. Along with Founders (not of the Burning Man variety) and one or two others, they have scaled back the BIG American IPA phenomenon (of which it has to be said I am a huge fan), that involves robust alcohol levels from 6% and upwards. Delicious, but not so sessionable.
IPA was brewed strong for a reason, to last the long journey through the tropics to the sub-continent; in the UK, it’s become a shadow of its former self, and it’s been the US craft beer scene that has truly raised it to its previous dizzy heights. Over the years, the letters have come to mean very little in terms of style in the UK, but in the US, they take the definition seriously, and so over there, finding “IPA” and “session” in the same descriptor does not have you running for cover. The Bitter American weighs in at a 4.4% alcohol, but its comparatively diminutive alcohol level does not leave it struggling on the taste front. It pours a rich amber with a good head. The aroma offers up a complex combination of grapefruit peel, grass, as well as seductive malty undertones. The malty characteristics come through as quite sweet, but balanced by a bitterness redolent of orange peel. Balance and body are good and the finish is both bitter and sweet with a light tropical fruitiness. Very moreish.
3. Mai Tai
One of the 10 principles Burning Man is built on is gifting; the notion that the value of a gift is unconditional and that gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. It’s an almost shocking concept to us in the west where everything has a value, even what we notionally consider to be “free”. Is a Mai Tai of equal value to a bottle of Aspall would be an obvious consideration in this context.
Well, (definitely not of course) like I said, gifting is unconditional... I might consider a Mai Tai, under duress, if sitting on a Polynesian beach, the turquoise sea lapping at my feet and the palm trees swaying gently overhead. Otherwise, wouldn’t be seen dead. So when offered one by our next door neighbour, the thought that went through my head was “I couldn’t think of much I would like to drink less”; of course, what came out of my mouth was “Thank you that would be delightful” – or words to that effect. Someone involved in my upbringing would have been proud of me at that moment. Generally speaking it is made from white rum, triple sec, sugar syrup, grenadine and lime juice – more or less. It makes me think sickly sweet and cocktail umbrellas. But then I’ve never had one made for me by the towering cocktail maker of a man who was said neighbour Chip. Chip was not only very fine company, he was a cocktail making machine; the long white ice trunk next to his truck was chock full of goodies that gave endless cocktail permutations – not just the liquids, the fruit to go with, down to the glace cherry for the finish, and the vanilla ice cream to go in the gin and tonic breakfast creative gorgeousness – honestly, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you…. We all longed to sit Chip down and make him a cocktail, but alas, all I could manage was to fill his fridge box from time to time with cyder, and excitedly accept the next creation he generously placed in my hand. And it’s so not a competition; part of the joy of the gifting concept is that it also teaches you to receive. Like I said, Burning Man doesn’t work on a bartering system. Goods are not exchanged for goods; you gift when you want to, and receive with joy when it is bestowed on you. And that creates an atmosphere and energy that brings out the best in man, has generosity and warmth at its heart, isn't always to do with alcohol but really is sharing in its truest form. The fact the Mai Tai was knock out and just what I wanted but didn’t know it, was the glace cherry on this particular experience.
4. Gonzales Byass Tio Pepe Fino Sherry
I have an affinity for sherry; like cyder, it has suffered from a difficult image problem (who doesn’t remember the Harveys Bristol Cream ads?). And like cyder, if you look in the right place the rewards can be great.
Our good friend Mark came to the Playa with just such good intentions; his gist to show the thirsty folk at Burning Man just what a delight this gem from Jerez can be. It’s quite a weird thing, because despite being a Fino, it almost seems sweet; aroma is classic Fino, all almond, olive and fruity overtones of green apple skin, citrus rind as well as nuts and a background saltiness. There’s such a big yet delicate flavour to it, yet it’s actually quite soft in the mouth with good balance and a luxuriant drying finish. Straight from the ice box, this was an incongruous yet welcome sundowner in the middle of the desert. I’ve always associated sherry with Great Aunts and shooting parties, which I guess has been part of the image problem – I know it’s not all about such things and yet even for me that’s a reflex reaction. Who would have thought therefore, that Sherry could take such a star turn in a cocktail? I’d never had a Rebujitos before; traditionally a 50/50 mix of sherry and soda, Mark’s version was an off-piste variation which involved freshly squeezed lemons, and use of ginger beer instead of soda. The interesting thing about it was just how much the sherry flavour came through when you would expect it to be overpowered particularly by the ginger beer – but I guess that’s where the lemons do their job in balancing up the sweetness and allowing the character of the sherry to come through. It’s like cyder in reverse really; sherry seems to be a traditionally winter drink for many, so here’s maybe a way for it to break out into summer wear. Don’t just save it for your tweeds.
5. Sunner Kolsch
I find German beer to be a little like English cask ale; best consumed within 30 miles of the brewery. I’ll take a German wheat beer anywhere in the world – that does seem to travel well, but a standard lager style beer I would pass over without even blinking.
My epiphany moment with regard German brews came when I was with our importer in Munich a few years back; I had aired my thoughts in a “don’t really get German beer” sort of way, and Morgan’s response was to take me to a beer keller, where a rotund man in monk’s habit was tapping wooden barrels and handing out frothing glasses of beer. “Oh purrlease”, was my thought process at this point; the place was so damned touristy my inclination was to bolt straight for the door. Morgan talked me down with a “just wait until you’ve tasted the beer” coaxing. And my, was that good advice. I don’t even know what it was exactly, it certainly wasn’t hoppy, it didn’t have any complexity on the nose, or even the palate, but it was so – well – fresh. The closest I can get to describing it was that it was like drinking liquid dough. The first glass barely touched the sides. On sensing my confusion, Morgan informed me that that beer had only left the brewery that morning and would have come straight to the keller, as it would do with many of the beers in many of the bars and restaurants in Munich. And so too with the rest of Germany, every region with its own style and dozens, if not hundreds, of breweries supplying “fresh from the brewery”. It’s why there are so many large brewers that you and I have never heard of and are unlikely ever to do so unless we visit the region.
My good friend and Californian distributor Matt Salie went to Burning Man for the first time this year. With him he brought a whole bar set up including a full keg dispense system (part of which I borrowed 2 years ago when we brought 11 kegs of Aspall onto the Playa). Well, I dropped by his camp bar on the Sunday afternoon having been helping dismantle an art installation out in the Walking Camping Area. Dusty, hot, thirsty, I was delighted to see Matt had the bar open. There, on tap (alongside our John Barrington) was Sunner Kolsch. Kolsch is a style unique to Cologne; its clear straw coloured appearance reminds me of a Pilsener, though it is lighter, slightly sweeter and less bitter than a Pilsener. It is often mistaken for a lager, which, due to its pre-lager warm fermentation, it technically isn’t. One would think that such a delicate beer would not survive the trip to America – a long way from home after all – and even less so after its journey to the desert. Well, technology has moved on a lot in terms of how beer is packaged these days, primarily in terms of keeping oxygen out of the process – the ruination of many good beers. And Sunner have certainly perfected the science in this regard. This is a refresher make no mistake, served cold through Matt’s jockey box (not as exciting as it sounds), all the wonderful biscuityness I associate with the style came through, and a hint of bitterness that was exceedingly thirst quenching. It accompanied our game of Playa Bingo perfectly, and I subsequently set off on my bicycle braced for the next adventure. (Pink Mammoth, in case you were wondering - tickets booked yet?).