Monday, December 31, 2012

What are you doing new years, new year’s eve?

It’s been 366 days since I last hoisted a tasty glass of fermented intoxicant to these lips. On December 30, 2011, overlooking Downtown Los Angeles from a chilly rooftop bar, I sipped a glass of wine to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday. Then I stopped drinking alcohol.

I’d set an intention to have a sober year. A very sober, clear-headed year. I mean, when was the last time you didn’t drink for an entire year? For most people I know the answer fell somewhere south of childhood. And that struck me as funny. Questions of addiction and compulsion and overused coping mechanisms aside, it made me wonder how conscious the choice to drink really is.

And personally, 2011 left my mind feeling like a gummed up engine. Whatever that stuff is in Chevron gas, I wanted it. To clear my mind’s pistons, lube up my psyche, and honestly see how this engine can run. Sobriety was my mental Techron.

Suffice it to say it was an interesting year. Once you strip away a coping device, even one you don’t use frequently, you learn a lot about yourself. I learned that when I stopped drinking life got a little less comfortable in lot of little ways. I noticed social dynamics with much more sensitivity. Maybe I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was. Maybe you weren’t either. And once I got more comfortable with the uncomfortability, I realized how uncomfortable it made other people who drank when I didn’t.

Now as I complete my commitment to a year free of intoxicants, I am fairly aware that it was an easy thing to let go of. But for a summer trip to the craft brew mecca that is Portland, and a subtle twinge on the tongue that crept up with Fall’s turn to cooler weather, I really didn’t miss it.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a lecture by biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern, about his book “Uncorking the Past”. McGovern’s fantastic contribution to history is to analyze the fragments of old clay vessels sifted from the sand of archaeological sites thousands of years old to see what folks were partying with back in the day. The talk I heard was about a Turkish beverage 3000 years old, a Chinese wine 7000 years old, and a cacao infused South American beverage a few thousand years old.

Say what?

McGovern’s lecture briefs the utterly captivating way he can take chemical traces grabbed by the porous clay of the vessel to make a map of the beverage that was once inside. Grapes have a certain chemical marker, as do barley and honey. These chemical profiles are in fact what contemporary vintners use to create wines to fit the popular palette. Blending their grapes to suit what consumers want to consume.

McGovern presented his findings to a group of professional brewers, and at the end of his talk offered offhandedly that should any of them be interested in recreating these drinks, he could share their thumbprints. Needless to say, he was mobbed by craft brewers dying to brew them. I mean, who wouldn’t be dying of curiosity? What the heck did that honey barley wine from 3000 years ago taste like? Cacao beer?

With the mental clarity imparted by a year of sobriety, I could feel my imagination and curiosity firing on all pistons. As it happened, one of my favorite breweries won the chance to do it: Dogfish Head.

I think you see where this is going for me…

I’d never tried this trio of Dogfish brews, but I recognized the purple thumbprint on the Midas Touch label when I saw it on McGovern’s slide. I hopped on the web to read more about Dogfish Head’s series of historic ales, which turns out to be much more extensive than the Chinese, Turkish and South American ales McGovern’s talk describes. And, thoughtful guys that they are, the online Fish Finder will guide you to places near you who’ve ordered a specific brew.

Midas Touch, it turns out, is in bottles and on tap just a short distance from my apartment.

Chateau Jiahu, named after the city in China where the ghost of the drink was discovered, was a little harder to find. Yet there in a Sunset Boulevard liquor store 1.6 miles from home perches a row of sexy, bare-backed, sleek-bobbed China dolls slinking into deep refrigeration, the 1920s inspired label of the ancient Chinese drink.

The seductively named Theobroma, a word that refers to the compound in chocolate and translates as ‘food of the gods’, hasn’t turned up yet. And the truth is, I’m not really planning my first drink. Tonight is new year’s eve, and I hope to be asleep when the clock ticks us into another arbitrary 365 day cycle. At some point, I may decide to have a drink, to give in to the craving, to immerse myself in the creature comfort of a good brew. At some point, craving will intersect the ebb of my psychic rigor. Hopefully one of those ales will be around then.

Parick McGovern’s fantastic talk at the Getty:

And his book:

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