This beer started out as an epic poem.
To explain: we took a family trip to Iceland in 2016. A lot of the trip was spent in an SUV with our guide Kristján Pétur Vilhelmsson driving us to amazing waterfall after amazing waterfall. I whiled away the hours in the passenger’s seat reading Njál’s Saga, one of the oldest works in Iceland’s storied literary tradition, and discussing it with Kristján.
The plotline of Njál’s Saga is essentially a series of blood feuds against the backdrop of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity circa 1000 CE. In one episode, Hallgerður, the wife of Gunnar Hámundarson, starts a feud with Bergþóra, the wife of his close friend Njáll Þorgeirsson, by having one of her household servants killed. In retaliation, Bergþóra has a couple of Gunnar’s clansmen killed, and before long the tit-for-tat body count rivals a Tarantino film.
Eventually, at the annual assembly of the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, the powers that be tell them to knock it off. The net balance of deaths is calculated and the clan with the highest losses has to pay a few gold pieces to the other to settle the matter.
This cycle takes place a few more times over a couple of generations, with the murders taking place in methods that are ever more complicated and enthusiastically described. Read in this way, Njál’s Saga actually pretty hilarious.
At any rate, the night before we flew back the US, the kennel at which we were boarding our dogs informed us that our bichon frise Sasha was involved in an altercation in which her tail was degloved. She lost a couple of tail vertebrae in the surgery and when we got home her proud pompom was now a little rat tail.
Sasha is a rescue and a fierce little bitch—her spirit remained unbowed. A couple years later she escaped from our backyard one evening and took on a husky she met on the sidewalk, which led to a trip to the emergency vet to treat the huge puncture wounds she sustained. And yet she fights on.
Rewinding to our Iceland vacation: on the overnight drive I had to make from San Francisco to LA right after we touched down in the US (an epic journey in its own right), Sasha’s misadventures merged in my mind with Njál’s Saga and I resolved to write an Icelandic epic recounting her pride and fury. This will remain a great lost work.
Instead we have Sasha’s Saga, the beer. I got excited to play with Kviek yeast, a high-temperature Norwegian strain that’s been in vogue, and decided I could call it Icelandic if I threw in some juniper berries. Zappa hops would add the poodle conceptual continuity.
The juniper and Zappa taken together make a really aggressive beer—the first thing you get is an overwhelming gin hit, which fades quickly into something more like an IPA. If you like your beers aggressive—kind of like Sasha, come to think of it—it’s fun.
The label had to be Sasha imagining herself as a Viking, tail degloved, flanks proudly punctured. I went back to Laura for another label, and she outdid herself. The braids were a brilliant touch.
If asked for a starter album for the uninitiated, I’ll always recommend One Size Fits All, which contains a bit of everything that makes Zappa great. A crack Mothers lineup featuring George Duke and Chester Thompson. Songs deeply rooted in funk-rock but taking surprising, wayward turns. One of Zappa’s most enduring tunes (“Sofa”, which does not overstay its welcome despite appearing in both instrumental and vocal renditions) and one of his sturdiest guitar solo vehicles (the eternal “Inca Roads“). Lyrics staking out their own uncompromising mythology, all part of the broader Conceptual Continuity program. Johnny Guitar Watson, for God’s sake.
In this hot, funky, jazzy meal, “Evelyn, a Modified Dog” is the palate cleanser – a brief tone poem accompanied by Duke’s tack piano. It’s clarified neither exactly how Evelyn has been modified nor what she thinks about what she’s witnessing. All we have is the inscrutable “Arf.”
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