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So no shit, there I was in the Himalayas, 17 hours from anywhere, scrambling up a rocky scree with a can of Tuborg in my left hand and a camera in my right. Up there at the top, there’s a rock band saturating the scarce atmosphere at 10,000’ with the sounds of Nirvana – the band, not the transcendental state – and this is photographic gold.
Tuborg is basically an 8% Carlsberg. Not my favorite; it’s a continental lager, and that’s what you can say for it. Weak malt, weak hops, slight skunky flavors. Kingfisher, the alternative in this locale, is an honest-to-Shiva Indian beer, which tastes like slightly sour, skunky water that might have been in the same room as hops at one point and probably had a conversation with some rice and barley.
*Note: For reviews on Tuborg, Old Monk, and Sierra Nevada Celebration, skip to the end. All this middle part is experiential + some amazing photos of the Himalayas, and who wants that, honestly?*
Unsurprisingly there aren’t many choices for alcohol when you’re so deep into the Indian side of the Himalayas that it’s quicker to drive to Tibet or Nepal than it is to the closest airport. There’s Old Monk, a foul beast of a spirit that tastes like half blended rum and half paint thinner, which the Indian Army likes to mix with hot water. There’s also Budweiser Magnum, which is horse piss in a black and gold package. Kingfisher and Bud Magnum clock in at 4.8% and 5%, respectively.
The altitude does have an effect on how you process alcohol. Any amount of armchair research will tell you two things about altitude and alcohol;
- When you drink a set amount of drinks per body weight, there will be no difference in your BAC when drinking at sea level as at 10,000’
- The same BAC may make you feel tipsier at 10,000’, due to things like oxygen and other trivial matters
In addition, I haven’t had a drop in 20 days, which makes it a little easier to feel the effects. So for the $64,000 question; how does it feel to drink a cheap 8% lager in the Himalayas?
Boring. Cold and boring. But beautiful.
To explain why, let’s take a step back. Due to various circumstances, I’m traipsing along on an international mission with the 11th Airborne Division, heading to a remote location in the Himalayas, 30 miles from Tibet and a little further from Nepal. The flight takes 24 hours, then a 17-hour bus ride. The flight back out takes 45 hours after another 17-hour bus ride.
The location, a little Indian Army base that was partially built with U.S. taxpayer dollars, consists of a number of cold, uninsulated buildings scattered over an austere Himalayan mountainside, with a mile walk from the top to the bottom and 1,000’ of elevation gain ‘tween the two. The buildings, which the Indian Army claims were built over the last 6 months, are already degrading with holes in them, many of them marked with previous fiscal years for construction dates as a sort of physical argument to those claims. The lesson to be learned here? Always ask your contractor for receipts.
There’s a reason that the Himalayas are sometimes considered to be the best earthborne training location for potential manned missions to Mars; during the day, the temperatures soar to the 50s, and it feels burning hot – very little atmosphere to get in the way of the UV, so we quickly sunburn. During the night, the temps fall below freezing, as evidenced by the frozen sewage that coats the haphazard rock stair construction between my dome and the bathroom. Temperatures in the domes manage to keep between 34 and 36 at night, which, combined with the low atmospheric pressure that robs our bodies of oxygen, is enough to give me the early signs of cold injury on my face every morning, but not enough for frostbite.
The contractor for the Indian Army was clever enough to place all of the dwellings, the bathrooms and the chow hall at the very top of the mountain and all of the places that you do things at the very bottom, to ensure maximum futile movement in the low oxygen environment. Lots of gasping. Lots of walking. Lots of time to think about all the things I’d like to do to the contractor*. I end up having to walk up and down about four times every day, which combines with the other walks to anywhere – a half mile from my dome to the chow hall, a quarter mile to the bathroom, a half mile to the laundry – to yield about 6 miles every day. 6 miles and 3,000’ of elevation gain.
My friends and family back home ask, “What’s the first thing you’ll want to eat when you get back home?” which is a difficult question to answer; mostly, I just want to wash my hands in hot, sterile water, or brush my teeth without using bottled water, or take a shower that isn’t from a bucket in a freezing cold room. Early the first week we learned that all of the water here contains e.coli and fecal matter, which makes showering a unique proposition; you can wash the soot from the air off your skin, but you won’t ever get clean.
The soot is ever-present. From the first moment we stepped off the plane in New Delhi, the smell – and taste – of smog and fires permeates everything. Occasionally up here in the Himalayas the fires will use wood, but it’s not a pleasant-smelling wood smoke. Often it’s grass, trash or dung, depending on who’s tending the fire.
The upside of eternal misery is the views, of course. When you’re up in the Himalayas, you cannot beat these views; Nanda Devi, Barmal, Hathi Parvat, Nilgiri Parvat, Trisul Parvat and a host of unnamed peaks greet everything you do. Sunrises are beautiful. Sunsets are beautiful. I have enough photo prints to last me a lifetime. At the low end of the installation, you can look a little further and see that it’s a thousand feet to the bottom of the valley in front of you, and another 14,000’ up. The mountains are so huge and so close you have to crane your neck a little.
It’s not all bad. There’s chai, and that’s pretty good stuff. The food is bad – that isn’t to say that Indian food is bad. Indian food is good. However, at some point in the planning process someone in the U.S. Army decided to tell the Indian cooks to make less spicy food. As a result, the food we eat for a month in the Himalayas is cold, bland, slimy and barely digestible. Occasionally a bottle of hot sauce will pop up in the chow halls. It disappears underneath a feeding frenzy. The diet consists mostly of carbohydrates in several forms – rice, pasta, potatoes and bread, with an extra carb – something resembling a corn and barley porridge – showing up for breakfast. Breakfast also involves a rotating selection of cold, white sausage, hard boiled eggs, and jam. The jam isn’t a protein, but it doesn’t appear at the same time as the proteins. Mostly, the food just hits your stomach like a lead weight, and you long for the days you can go back to the states and eat proper Indian food.
The days consist of hiking to the bottom, documenting training, then hiking back to the top for a disheartening lunch, then grabbing a coat and hiking back down because as soon as the sun drops – around 4 PM local – the temperature drops 20-30 degrees. Back to the top, change gear, back to the bottom to finish out the day at the media cell, then back to the top to hopefully close out the night. I try to go to sleep early most nights because the alternative is sitting in the dome thinking about the day. I’d rather not think about the day.
At one point, my counterpart with the Indian Army invites me over for a night of drinking. I have a few drinks of Old Monk, and some Vat 69. Vat 69 is a blended Scotch manufactured by Diageo. First made in 1882, it’s a decent whisky slightly reminiscent of Pinch, but less refined. I enjoy a few drinks and go to sleep. One of our officers drinks like a fish and waddles back to his dome, eventually making dinosaur mating calls in the middle of the night and performing the nine kowtows and five obeisances to the deity of porcelain.
Eventually, the whole thing grinds to a halt and is technically complete, and some Generals fly in from various parts; mine, the General who is also my boss, is definitely the most fun of the group. He even plays lead guitar for the local Indian Army rock band, the Rhinos, for funsies – which leads us back to square 1. Scrambling up the rocks.
I realize as I slip a few steps that the old adage of “one hand for the mountain, one for yourself” would have been a good idea to listen to, but hell with it. I keep on trucking, don’t spill the Tuborg, and make it with my camera. I get awkwardly close to the band, shoot some video of my General, and push it to my phone for some social media fodder, laughing the whole time. It more-or-less instantly goes viral, because how weird is that? A General in the U.S. Army playing Nirvana in the Himalayas with an Indian rock band? Fairly unique on the man-bites-dog scale.
Eventually, I wind my way back home, to a hot shower and a cold can of Celebration. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
So with that said, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the reviews.
Old Monk – Old Monk is an ‘iconic dark vatted Indian rum with an alcohol strength of 42.8%’, according to the interwebs. It’s lightly sweet up front with a few vanilla notes from what tastes like young oak barrels. The relatively smooth flavor gives way to a very, very harsh finish, which leaves a little taste of butyric acid on the back of the throat. Butyric Acid, for the uninitiated, is a short-chain fatty acid that provides a number of health benefits and is often found in butter or ghee, and tastes like vomit.
Tuborg – a thin, slightly metallic beer with light hints of boiled cabbage and corn, or to phrase it in the official language of the BJCP, vegetal and DMS off-flavors. It’s hard to say whether it’s to style or not without a claimed style, so we’ll judge it as a 2A, International Pale Lager.
Aroma: Corn, very little grain, cabbage/sulfur type aromas, lacking in hop aromas.
Flavor: Thin, not sweet, slightly soured beer flavor. Some rancidity/skunking, which indicates that it did have hops at one point, but now contains only sadness.
Mouthfeel: Light. Light to medium is expected, so we’ll give it a pass.
Sierra Nevada Celebration – one of my favorite beers in the world, and fortunately the season was right to return to it.
Aroma: Fresh hops, although without the pickle aroma that sometimes accompanies fresh hops. Resin, pine, citrus, low myrcenes this time around. Curious what hops it contains, but it smells like ‘C’, maybe some Magnum.
Flavor: Despite the hop-forward nature of the brew, there’s enough malt to stand up to it and make it not-thin in the flavor department. Tastes like 2-row and some Crystal 60, well balanced in the tradition of Pacific Northwest IPAs.
Mouthfeel: Medium-thin. Not too much, not too little. You could glug a few and not feel full.
*Like buy him or her a drink, obviously.