We merry Drunkspinners celebrate every holiday that crosses our paths, from Christmas to Rosh Hashanah to National Beef Doughnut Day to the other National Beef Doughnut Day. No matter how solemn or contrived, we can get behind any celebration that doesn’t expressly forbid beer. Not all members of the Craft Beer Movement™ are as joyful.
You’ve probably encountered the type who disdains New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day as “amateur nights,” because of the low barrier for entry. All you have to do is show up and drink whatever you’re handed, which on New Year’s Eve could be any damn thing up to and including warm Bud or Cold Duck. And on St. Patrick’s Day, you’re liable to come across Guinness if you’re not careful; you may think you like Guinness, but what if I told you the Imperial Beer Dink Overlords give it a mere 70 points, which is lower than they rate PBR (83), Miller High Life (80), and Fucking Milwaukee’s Best Fucking Ice (75)?
Stinks to lose Guinness, I know, but at least the hardcore beer geeks have their own holiday, an underground affair complete with traditional good-time ingredients such as long lines and $75 bottles of beer: Zwanze Day, a Cantillon-branded event that took place last Saturday.
Cantillon is a famous Belgian operation specializing in lambics and other spontaneously fermented beers. (These are the sorts of beer we tend to call “sour,” even when they’re not.) In addition to wild ales, these guys (or their American distributors, at least) also specialize in hype and profit margin. Good for them; I don’t have a ton of experience with Cantillon, due to the aforementioned $75-a-bottleness, but most of the stuff I’ve tried from them has ranged from very good to excellent. They’re not my favorite spontaneous fermenters, and their prices will never make sense to my own personal beer-budgeting system, but I’m just one guy.
Zwanze Day is when Cantillon releases a special beer intended to invoke the Belgian penchant for surrealism, or something like that. I’m not entirely certain. I do know that it’s a different beer every year, and it’s only available at a couple dozen American bars and breweries. This year’s Zwanze beer was an unroasted, wild-fermented stout. Sounds kinda cool, but I didn’t get to try it, because even though I live a couple blocks from one of the chosen bars, I’m not really a beer-line-waiter by nature. I did, however, make it into the bar Sunday, when all sorts of other fancy beers were still lying around from the party the day before.
The Zwanze brew was long gone, but there were still a few other Cantillons available when my wife and I wandered in after a grueling early afternoon of watching football and ranking Märzens (full report coming soon). I can’t recall what they had in 750-milliliter bottles, but I know the Cantillon they had on tap was the Iris, which we ordered and hated.
Context matters in beer appreciation, so let it be known that we were very prepared to enjoy this beer. We’d spent the prior couple of days drowning in Märzens, many of which were sweet, flabby messes, and even the best of which weren’t of the style we tend to prefer. We like hoppy beer, funky beer, non-sucky beer. Iris sounded like that kind of beer.
Iris is Cantillon’s hoppiest beer, as it’s made with 50-percent fresh hops as opposed to the all-dried approach they typically take; the wild fermentation could be trusted to take care of the funk requirement, and the non-suckiness ought to have been guaranteed by the price tag of $10 for six ounces. I will concede that Iris’s Hallertau hops were prominent, and also that there was a great deal of earthy, barnyard funk present. Those factors failed to add up to non-sucky, however, due to the absence of any other positive attributes. Iris is flat and boring, a one-note beer that tastes like a tablespoon of old sour cream buried in a 5-gallon bucket of dried-out topsoil.
I grudgingly admire the geeks for having their own little ultra-exclusive holiday, because it doesn’t cause any harm and it provides them with their version of joy. And I’m not qualified to comment on the actual Zwanze beer. But that said, I can offer the lackluster Iris as evidence that Cantillon is very capable of producing mediocre beer that sells for outrageous prices.
Note: In the original version of this post I implied that Cantillon is responsible for the high prices charged by American bars and retailers. That seems to have been a mistake. I’m told the beer sells for very reasonable prices in Belgium, and that profiteering distributors and/or bar and beer store owners are to blame. For the American consumer’s purposes, Cantillon does indeed cost too damn much, but I initially misapplied the blame.
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Image by Jim Cooke.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.