I had circled around the music of John Zorn for years, but I finally fell in love when I heard “Jair“, the first track off of Masada’s first album, Alef: The sound of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet, transposed to Middle Eastern scales, with an interplay between the trumpet and sax that can only be described as telepathic. I rightly decided that Zorn could do anything and I would follow him to the ends of his discography.
Mount Analogue, released in 2012, is a monumental piece of music—nearly 40 minutes long, featuring bells, vibes and Middle Eastern strings as it evolves through a range of musical themes and styles. There is not a single note in the wrong place. It is more than worthy of a beer.
This was always going to be some kind of a Kölsch. Kölsch is very close to a hybrid style. It was formalized in Cologne in the 17th century as the pushback of the town’s ale brewing guilds against the growing popularity of lagers; everyone promised they would make nothing but ales. However, lagers were so popular that the Cologne ales started to be produced a little bit like lagers. After the standard ale fermentation (at a warm temperature), they would be stored in cold caves to condition. As a result, they would take on some of the clarity and snap characteristic of a lager despite their origin.
Another set of ideas had been germinating in parallel with this: playing with the idea of a gruit. When we think of the function of hops in beer, we think bitterness, taste, and aroma, but their first job is to be a preservative: the acids imparted by hops keep the beer fresh. But hops were not always part of beer’s story—before hops, brewers used a somewhat obscure mix of herbs known as gruit to serve this function. Gruit may have included heather, ground ivy, bog myrtle, yarrow, and any number of things. It was a big deal. There were gruit guilds, gruit taxes, and all of the industrial and commercial infrastructure that grows around Important Things.
Something fused here, in a very Zorn-like way: the hybrid clarity of Kölsch on the one hand, and a complex blend of herbs to lend it perfume and balance. This felt like scaling Mount Analogue.
The grain bill this one demanded was dead simple—mostly Pilsner with a little Carapils to add some body and some acidulated malt to make it a bit sharper. I decided to add some honey to boost the alcohol a tad while getting a bit of floral character that would complement the herbs.
At the start of the boil I dosed it lightly with a classic German hop for preservation. This is gruit-style, not a real gruit, after all.
Gruiting it was the fun part. I was inspired by a nice lavender-tarragon ale that I had enjoyed at the Ninkasi Better Living Room while visiting my parents last year. But this called for a few more layers. On the top end, mint would modulate the lavender in an interesting way. On the bottom, some cocoa nibs would add some additional earthiness. Finally, just a touch of juniper to give the bitterness a different character than the hops provided on their own.
As bottled, I find this an incredibly refreshing brew. The bitterness is just right to put a baseboard under all the aroma. It’s floral as hell—the lavender and mint are the most pronounced flavors but they blend in a way that tastes at the same time like both and neither of them. Just a fun beer.
Zorn’s Mount Analogue is a tribute to René Daumal’s unfinished novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, which uses mountain climbing as a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It’s a weird, satiricial little book that posits the existence of an invisible island in the South Pacific whose dockside town is called Port o’ Monkeys. This, along with some memories of Hokusai’s ukiyo-e portraits of Mt. Fuji, led to the beer-volcano graphics that grace the label, courtesy of helwaku from Colombia.
Some final endnotes:
(1) René Daumal’s other notable allegorical work is called A Night of Serious Drinking, so he’s a fellow traveller.
(2) I had totally forgotten that Mount Analogue is lightly pastiched, and blatantly name-checked, in Lizard Music (the inspiration for Thunderbolt City). The only conclusion I can draw is: everything rhymes.
Today it’s hard to wrap your head around how mysterious music could once be.
Music wants to be to fly through the air like a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
When I was making my first tentative musical explorations, in the mid-80s, music had little such freedom. Radio station formats had tight restrictions that left little breathing room for music that was neither playtested within an inch of its life or bought and payola-d for.
Maybe we could find the music that didn’t cut it for radio at Sam Goody—if it was a priority of the major labels that controlled promotion and distribution.
Maybe if the music didn’t make the Sam Goody cut, we could find it at our local independent or used record stores (looking at you, Earth River; looking at you, House of Records). But by this stage we were no longer skipping with a butterfly net—we were miners digging physically embodied music out of the ground.
Our maps to the treasure were similarly obscure: alternative weeklies or mimeographed zines in which the arcane knowledge was already so dense that it was hard to know where to go.
Buying my first indie-label record (Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Element of Light, catalog number MOIST 3 CD on Glass Fish Records) was thrilling—it felt like I was doing something vaguely naughty.
Sonic Youth had a ton of buzz in the underground press but that felt just a bit too scary—”Death Valley 69″? “Evol”? I didn’t know what I’d find there and with no clear way to pull the music into the air first, I was reluctant to take it out of the ground.
In time, with a few tips and keys to the college radio station, I became a better miner. And today, with the internet, Youtube, Spotify, and the arguable collapse of the record industry, the butterflies have been set free from the mine.
So that was Eric’s trip. And this is “Eric’s Trip”.