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American beer is great.

The general perception in, as far as I’m aware, the rest of the world, is that Americans know nothing about beer. The most common description is, charmingly, ‘pisswater’ and when I moved here, that’s pretty much what I was expecting. At best I hoped I could get a low-quality pint of Guinness or a relatively inoffensive bottle of Budweiser. I was pleasantly, and completely, surprised by what I found when I got here.

It’s true, there are some terrible American beers. Not terrible in the way that Carling, Fosters and Heineken (more on that one later) are, but terrible in fact that, whilst the taste isn’t awful, they have pretty much no positive factors in their favour. Miller Lite, Miller, Bud Lite, Coors Lite, Coors…all these and many more are so weak I genuinely wonder if it’s possible to become drunk on them before inducing hyponatraemia (from water intoxication). The texture isn’t satisfying, the taste is barely noticeable and the drink itself isn’t refreshing. These are terrible beers. Unfortunately, they’re also the beers that America most prolifically exports, and the beers that have the biggest marketing budgets.

However, take a trip over here, and you’ll be inundated with the choice offered by a plethora of local breweries, some small and niche (Magic Hat or Blue Point), and others with a respectably large operation, (Sam Adams) all of which offer good quality American beers. American beer is not to be confused with an ale, and is rarely going to be served uncarbonated and lukewarm as with so many wonderful British beers, but it still seems unfair to describe these as lagers. They have body, warmth, taste and texture and can attain a fairly potent alcoholic content without becoming offensive.

Sunswick 3535 Beer Board

Beerwise, I’m particularly lucky to live in Astoria in Queens, a fact that every New Yorker responds to by asking “Oh, have you been to the Beer Garden?” – I have, and it’s fun, but it can’t hold a candle to my local bar, Sunswick 35/35, which is regularly visited by beer aficionados from around the city. Sunswick has a list of around 30 draft beers at any time, which seems to change every week, and consists mostly of offerings from local breweries. They regularly hold speciality beer events and brewery nights. There’s really no shortage of good beers if you’re willing to look.

Sunswick 3535

Coming back to Heineken, however, on my trip to Amsterdam I took a detour into The Heineken Brewery Experience, which was supremely informative as to the four ingredients of Heineken and the end result.

I tasted the barley water which is made into mush at the first stage of brewing. It was foul. I then smelled and ate a thimbleful of the hops that are next added to give the distinctive bitterness. They were foul. And, after they were exposed to fungi (a secret yeast) for a while, I ventured to the tasting room where an experienced brewer taught me exactly how to fully appreciate the taste of Heineken.

It was foul.


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Graffiti in Astoria

Over on the corner of 37th & 30th, a couple of blocks from my house, we have these two wonders, side-by-side. The first is a loving tribute to Run DMC & Jam Master Jay. They were from Queens, but nowhere near Astoria and I’ve yet to find any further explanation for the effort to which someone’s gone on this:

Run DMC Graffiti Astoria

The only thing that could possibly be around the corner from this is a bald eagle crying next to the twin towers and a big American flag. A bald eagle crying. I don’t think I’ve seen anything more American in the entire 232 days I’ve been here.

American Mural Graffiti Astoria

There are at least five more bald eagles painted on walls within a few blocks of me.


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Who Needs Curtains?

Improvisation is the key to getting along in life. With a bit of duct-tape and a Swiss Army penknife one can do anything. Even the sun itself is no match for a bit of cardboard and a can-do spirit.

Here’s how I slept on my first night in my new apartment. I should point out that’s a pair of glass doors leading to a balcony behind all that.

Lacking Curtains

Fast forward a couple of days and a trip to an IKEA so large that Theseus would have had issues, and I now have a chest of drawers (246 steps to put together) and the exact same bed I slept on back in Birmingham (72 steps to put together) — hooray for globalisation.

I still don’t have a curtain rail though. I keep taking the shower curtain down every night and using the rod from that instead though.


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A Tour of the M4

It’s common for Americans to want to learn more about their roots, about the strange countries with tracht, cream teas or white flags from whence they came. Likewise, it’s not unusual for someone to want to get cultured[sic] by taking a visit to Europe and doing the sights there. In fitting with that spirit, I took a couple of weeks to visit Wales & England and see what I could learn from them.

It turns out I still had family in Wales, so as soon as I got there I looked them up. They spoke in strange accents in a patois desolate of vowels, but were very friendly and welcoming. I think they’re still a little bit backwards down there though, the tallest building I saw was only 7 stories and at one point I walked for 5 minutes through the city centre without seeing a single Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts.

The Friday after, on the morning of the Royal Wedding, in a fit of patriotic fervor, I boarded a train headed towards London. Due to a mix-up I accidentally got off at Reading train station however, and so settled for the next best thing to a Cathedral full of people staring at Pippa Middleton’s rear end (that Facebook appreciation society has over 200k members at the time of writing,) and headed to the Reading Beer & Cider Festival.

Reading Beer Festival 2011

As the name implies, the Reading Beer & Cider Festival is a Festival centred around beer and cider. It’s in Reading. It’s wonderful. I also tried mead for the first time ever there, which is wonderful. They had pies at the festival too. They were wonderful. Wonderful.

A trip to Oxford for cream teas, rowing down the river past all the college boathouses and laughing at a cat I used to live with who now has three legs came next. I found myself inordinately impressed with how quaint the small towns around Oxford were, which was rather disturbing. I threw a couple of trips to London in the middle of all this too.

Rowing in Oxford

Now though, I’m back home in NYC. It’s beautiful and warm and sunny and I have a lovely new apartment. One with no Internet, furniture or curtains, yet. Better work on that.


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