When, in the course of my years of legal eligibility to seek gainful employment in the State of New York, I’ve found myself fleeing from one job in seek of another, I’ve always kept in mind my own indolence and chronic lethargy: in other words, I sought a job within reasonable walking distance from my beloved living room reading chair.
I spent my senior year of high school at Bob and John’s La Hacienda – I still hold as a testament to their superior product the fact that, despite living in the lactic and oleaginous bowels of the beast, squeezing blocks of spinach-ice in coldest February under the votive cigarettes burning by the open alley door, and reaching my tender arms deep into the black ovens in the hottest peak of July, I still ate their pizza whenever the opportunity arose. (In fact, I ordered some just two days ago, and shared it with friends at a picnic in Delaware Park.)
I was a Resident Assistant during my time at Canisius; this was perhaps my laziest job, as to perform it, I never had to leave my room.
But, with college behind me, I knew I’d have to fill the two and a half months before I depart for Ireland by, as one Canisius professor sometimes puts it, “doing productive labor for money,” for the sake both of my sanity and my bank account. I will be leaving the country – perhaps for one year, perhaps four; buying a car would be imprudent. So I looked three doors down from my old pizza-slinging employer and found what, at this point in my life, I can only call the perfect job: the Village Beer Merchant.
My father joked on Facebook: “The American dream: Go to college and seek out a job in the area where you have learned the most. It worked for my son. He starts his job next month at the Village Beer Merchant”
Really, though, as I’ll probably have to moonlight as a bartender in Edinburgh to offset the cost of my foreign education, becoming something of a beer sommelier in the interim should be a good way to boost my resume.
But it was the unseasonably cold weather of the past two days that led me to this post, the first in a series detailing beers to pair with our fluctuating Buffalo weather. For craft beer fanatics like myself, this first choice might come as a surprise.
The North Coast Brewing Co. debuted Old Rasputin in 1995, 89 years after the mystical drunk and faith-healer to the Romanovs was beaten, shot, poisoned, and drowned, having temporarily united Russia’s political right and left in their mutual hatred of him.
The beer has an equal and opposite effect: everyone who tries it loves it instantly. Its makers place it in “the tradition of 18th Century English brewers who supplied the court of Russia’s Catherine the Great,” according to their website. The Russian Imperial Stout pours black with a brown head – like dark and milk chocolate, layered. Unlike beers that advertise chocolate tastes on the label, Old Rasputin’s chocolate flavor is subtle, balanced by notes of roasted coffee, just as the warm malt flavor is balanced by the well-played hops. The saucy pseudo-saint boasts a boozy 9% ABV, but the full-bodied flavor masks it – you might say it sneaks up on you. Or, at least, it could, which is why I’d suggest sharing a four-pack with a friend or perhaps a lover.
I did say this would come as a surprise, but I wasn’t referring to inebriation. When listing their favorite summer brews, I can’t think of anyone who’d snap their fingers and name this rich, chocolaty, warming stout. The hopheads might nod to Southern Tier’s Farmer’s Tan; Belgophiles would pledge allegiance to their beloved sour brews; and I’d be quick to name my favorite wheat beer, Augustiner’s Weiss (and my summer vice).
But yesterday I sat at home, reading Moby-Dick, under skies as dark as a cachalot’s gunmetal flukes. The day before, I had to drive through a storm every bit as violent as one of Melville’s Nantucket squalls. There hasn’t been much that screams “summer” about this recent late-May weather. It’s perfect, though, for drinking Old Rasputin.
Perhaps the beer would be best in the winter, between Black Friday and the first green of March, sipped near a fire in some warm Russian izba, especially after one has just come out from the cold. The beer’s magic lies in its many fine balances after all – the play of warm and cold would be the perfect environment in which to enjoy it. But on rainy days like the ones we’ve just had – when the weather dips close to sixty, and intermittent winds make us reach for denim coats, or knit blankets – a stout might be more soothing than a weissbier or an IPA. And as far as stouts go, Old Rasputin is my unchallenged favorite.
The bottle’s label features a black and white sketch of the elusive Grigori, his deep-set eyes lancing you, his hand raised in benediction – or in warning. Around his visage is a Cyrillic semicircle, an old Russian proverb which the North Coast brewers translate as, “A sincere friend is not born instantly.”
That may be so, but on a bottle of Old Rasputin there’s something ironic about this. The Russian stout is no acquired taste – it won’t take more than a sip for you to pledge your undying loyalty to Old Rasputin, who, I’m convinced, will return the honor. Enjoy the next time summer clouds roll in.
Note: I’ve read that the North Coast Brewing Co. has a vintage version of Old Rasputin, aged in bourbon barrels. This ranks high on my list of brews to track down. Thanks also to critic and scholar Patrick T. Clancy for his seminal essay on the historicity of Rasputin, “Erotomaniac or Scapegoat?” (1994).