Do you ever talk to your children about beer? I don’t necessarily mean your teenage kids. I mean your children who are still at a sweet, cute age when they might still listen to you. Maybe when they’re 6, or so.
Young children are, after all, curious about what grown-ups eat and drink — even if they don’t (or won’t) like most of it. They want to know what that fizzy yellow stuff in daddy’s glass is. They may ask for a sip. And some folks argue that not satisfying their curiosity just inflames it.
Enter Tom Robbins — the best-selling author of “Jitterbug Perfume” and other yarns woven from supernatural fantasy and commonplace events in a way to make the whole seem totally believable (using rich vocabulary and impeccable grammar, I might add). Robbins has written a little book called “B is for Beer,” subtitled “A Children’s Book for Grown-ups” and “A Grown-up’s Book for Children.” In it he explores one 6-year-old’s first encounter with beer.
From the grown-ups’ perspective, you really can learn about the history and mechanics of beer by reading “B is for Beer.” It’s full of facts, legends and trivia (and a Sunday School teacher who is not amused to learn about Egyptians inventing beer). Some readers might even do what Robbins seems to suggest and share it as a bedtime story with their children. Like Grimm’s Fairytales, though, it’s not an entirely happy story and its little protagonist does have little sips of beer.
But before you freak out, know that the little protagonist hates her sips of beer — as will almost all kids her age. Children are hard-wired with a natural aversion to bitter tastes, because in nature most poisons are bitter and a child could die from ingesting only small amounts. It takes bigger doses to kill an adult, so our aversion to bitterness gradually wanes as we age and we even start enjoying bitter flavors — like in peppers, collards or beer.
So if you start reading “B is for Beer” and you think, “Whoa, I can’t let my kids see this,” just try to hang on until the Beer Fairy appears at the end of Chapter 10 — because her arrival changes everything. This is where the lessons start. It’s where our little protagonist learns not only the history of beer in society, but also why children should not drink it. (Do you remember when Bill Murray was visited by Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Past in “Scrooged”? Well, Ms. Kane would make a perfect Beer Fairy, albeit with maybe a slightly gentler touch than she felt necessary to get Mr. Murray’s attention.)
The Beer Fairy explains how beer is born from the magical combination of four elements — earth, water, fire and air — with the addition of a fifth: Mystery. Her explanation goes beyond fermentation science, becoming an ode to our favorite golden beverage — but with a warning that in the wrong hands the Mystery can go terribly, horribly wrong. It’s a lesson not only for children to learn, but also for us all to remember. “B is for Beer” is an engaging, funny and ultimately very wise book you definitely should add to your summer reading list, whether at bedtime or not.
A little touch of Heaven
But if fictional Beer Fairies aren’t your thing, how about learning something new from a bona fide whiskey angel? I’m talking about Angel’s Envy Bourbon, newly arrived in the Mobile market to teach us how — even with 200 years of history under its belt —something new and surprising can still emerge from Kentucky’s bourbon tradition.
Angel’s Envy is the brainchild of Lincoln Henderson, who founded his small, independent distillery after spending 40 years at Brown-Forman — where he worked his way up to Master Distiller and eventually into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. (Did you know there was a Bourbon Hall of Fame? I admit I didn’t, but I now predict a road trip!)
He had a hand in producing Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. According to his biography, Henderson studied chemistry as a young man and was intrigued throughout his career by flavor nuances and the human palette’s capacity to discern them.
In retirement, Henderson chose to explore producing small-batch bourbons using unique finishing processes that large-scale distilleries couldn’t manage. By “finishing,” I mean to the final aging process — usually in barrels previously used to age fine wines, ports or sherries. Henderson’s Angel’s Envy has won the “Best Spirit in the World” title from Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal — one of the whiskey industry’s leading critics — along with a 93-point score from Malt Advocate and 98 points from Wine Spectator.
And you know, I’m sure, what legend inspired the “Angel’s Envy” name: The percentage of each barrel that evaporates during aging, rising heavenwards as “the angels’ share.” (In this case, angels may envy what humans get to keep.) The whiskey is hand-blended, distilled in small batches and aged in American oak barrels, then finished in port casks — for the “basic” Angel’s Envy and Special Cask Strength Bourbons — or in rum casks for Angel’s Envy Rye. Total output is only eight to 12 barrels per batch.
I tried Angel’s Envy Port Finished Bourbon — simple Kentucky limestone-infused water and locally sourced grain, which could easily have been turned into beer but, thankfully, took a different course. It had strong vanilla aromas from initial aging in American oak, followed by the unmistakable fragrance of fruitcake (and I mean good fruitcake, which is not an oxymoron). The sweet, spicy, nutty, dried-fruit aromas result from three to six months’ aging in Ruby Port barrels (made from French oak, adding a vanilla flair of their own).
My taster-helpers and I thought Angel’s Envy was a smooth sipper, with vanilla, dried fruit and nut flavors matching its aromas. I sensed a bit of cold-steeped tea on the far, distant end of the flavor spectrum — long after the liquid had left my mouth. We agreed it deserved drinking neat, but also could create unusual cocktails (see www.angelsenvy.com for ideas). Available at local bars and better package stores, you’ll pay $45 to $50 for a 750-ml bottle (43.3 percent ABV).