Monday, May 19, 2008

Separated at birth

At the amber core of all devil whisky there lies a heart of pure, sweet beer. Barring the addition of hops (and really, who uses those anymore, anyway?), up until the moment the wash is run up the still to capture the water of life, the stuff you're dealing with is essentially the makings of beer. (And yes, I know you also don't boil the wash before inoculating it, but I can think of at least one un-boiled beer out there.) It shouldn't, then, be much of a surprise to anyone following the current art of the brewing craft that there are efforts underway to reunite the long divorced brethren of beer and spirits, through a variety of means.

Breweries toying with toasted tastes: Fans of "extreme beers" know the drill by now: Brew it big, brew it strong, brew it diabolically rich, and then roll out the bourbon barrels. The vanilla of the oak and char of the staves are incredibly trendy and desirable characteristics in big beefy stouts and porters, where brewers of high abv ales are quickly learning that it's those very same smoothing characteristics of wood-aging that distillers have used for generations to offset the fire of the alcohol.

Examples: Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout, O'Fallon Whiskey Barrel Smoked Porter, Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

Breweries dabbling in distilling: In a completely natural evolutionary step, restlessly creative brewers (once they get the big OK from the Feds) are taking to distilling their own spirits. And not surprisingly, the results they're getting are drawing rave reviews, no small thanks to the discipline involved in being a successful craft brewer: Take only the best ingredients you can get, and keep a close eye on the process from start to finish. Distribution of these delicacies is a totally different matter, however, but the difficulty of tracking these down is more than made up for by the hand-crafted experience of enjoying them.

Examples: Dogfish Head Brown Honey Rum, Anchor Steam Old Potrero, Anchor Steam Junipero Gin, Rogue Spruce Gin

Distillers playing with beer: Like I mentioned above, the making of most grain alcohols involves a process which, in the abstract at least, is identical to brewing, up to the point at which the wort/wash is fermented (when the brewer goes "whoohoo!" and starts a-drinkin', and the whiskymaker says "very well then" and proceeds to distill it, rack it into barrels, and wait a good 8 years). So it shouldn't be much of a shock that some distillers has gone all the way and taken a finished beer and distilled it down to its pure essence. Who knows? Maybe this could be the spirit that cocktail mixologists latch onto as a platform for exploring beerish flavors in their concoctions.

Examples: Essential Spirits Classick American Bierschnaps, Essential Sprits Sierra Nevada American Bierschnaps

Beer cocktails: Nothing new, obviously, cocktails made with beer as a base rather than a spirit are making the slightest bit of a comeback for a couple reasons. Strict liquor licensing laws (the same ones that prohibit sales of hard alcohol at certain eateries) have put creative restaurateurs in the challenging position of attracting a cocktail-hungry audience with limited tools at their disposal. Sake was the big one for a while, being the base for a whole generation of knockoff drinks where it played the role of vodka, tequila, or gin in establishments where those types aren't welcome. Interestingly, the increasing role of beer cocktails on bar menus has as much to do with the consistently increasing quality of the beers they have opportunity to play with. So while they won't be replacing the Hendrick's in my martini with cucumber beer anytime soon, it does seem like creative types in the bar scene are taking note of the wide variety of flavors beer currently places at their disposal.

Examples: Picon bière, Radler

And what will the next wave of cross-craft hybrid beveraging bring? If the successes of Dogfish Head's experiments-turned-mainstream of adding grapes to beer* in Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu and Russian River's continued investigation on the use of California wine barrels in the production of their Belgian-inspired ales are any indications, we'll be seeing more handshaking between brewers and winemakers, as the two industries have generated the world's foremost experts in fermentation science, yet have a long, storied history of working independently of each other in a way that's allowed for the perception of antagonism between the two. One might think that a collaboration between them might relieve a bit of the pressure they're both feeling from their respective fields...

Big ups to Mr. Drinkaweek for many of the inspired linkfodder above.

* I'm still looking for a good term for these types of creations. If mead with malt added is braggot, and mead with grapes is pyment, would malt with grapes be... pygot? bryment?

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

In defense of the radler and adulterated beers

On days like today, when the weather permits, my body agrees, and I know I'll pretty much have the place to myself to stink up the joint once I arrive here, I love to ride my bike to work. It's certainly something I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about as a kid, but like the never-abating amplification of my fondness for beer and sausages, it must be a result of German aging genetics along the same lines as my receding hairline that I now get so much enjoyment out of it.

Of course, as an occasional radler myself, I also tend to enjoy the occasional radler as well, as the close connection between biking and beer is a storied one. But, as a beersnob of the highest order, I'm also acutely aware of a certain level of disgust that pervades the aficionado circles when anything other than beer is poured into a beer glass.

Some of this I can understand, certainly. There are times when I find myself staring at an unwanted slice of lemon floating in a hefeweizen, or joking about how even the addition of lime only barely makes Corona palatable, or dealing with the shame of sitting in front of a pink Berliner Weisse. Mostly, though, I think the "if the brewers had wanted X in there, they would have added X to it themselves" argument is missing out on the final link in the chain that begins as barley and ends up in my belly: Once that bottle is in my hand, it's in my hand to do what I want with it. The brewer, once that bottle is filled and capped and on the truck, must let it go forth into the world to live its own life. And if that life consists of being cut 50% with lemonade, so be it.

Folks who dabble in cocktails could teach beer drinkers how to be more comfortable with the idea of adulterating their drinks for alternative experiences, for one. There's a very protective air that surrounds the craft brewing scene that perhaps lingers from the days when we all thought that craft and microbrewed beer was in threat of having a temporary existence, one that could be snuffed out at a moments' notice by ImBev or A-B or some other giant corporate entity eager to force feed us sheeple more of the same pale, watery lager. This sacred attitude about our burgeoning craft beer scene's products may be the root of the disgust I gather from other beer geeks, and wonder if with time, the attitudes will relax once we all agree that copious amounts of amazingly crafted beer are all around us, and not going away any time soon - so let's have a little fun, while we're at it.

And while there is loads of anecdotal evidence about the history of adding flavorings to beer after it's "done", from table-side spice tinctures in Belgian bars, to wassail and mulled beers, to cocktails like the Picon bière, there's at least one completely practical reason to do it: sugar. The balance of fermentable and unfermentable sugars in a beer is what allows for the sensation of "sweetness" or maltiness, and fruit sugars are very easily fermentable. Why, then, are all those creepy fruity lambics that you see at the supermarket so very, very sweet, you ask? Well, because if they haven't pasteurized the beer, they're adding a sweetener like saccharine, which is not fermentable, to the beer. Yummy, no? Hard apple ciders around these parts are traditionally semi-sweet, so either they halt the fermentation process when the sugar readings are right, or they pasteurize the finished cider and blend it with unfermented apple juice. All this is well and good, but we craft beer nerds like our beer like we like our women: alive. So, if you wanted to add some sweetness to your fine, bottle conditioned beer (for whatever reason, no judgment here), you'd best be doing it right before you drink it, lest you want some wild and crazy super-dry and explosive beer/wine frankenbooze on your hands.

Lots of pontificating just to get a splash of lemonade in my pilsner, I know, but it's on the sidelines of the larger "ethical treatment of beer" (I myself a card-carrying member of PETOB) debate regarding additives, flavorings, and post-bottling adulterations we silly experimenters seem to fancy. Try it yourself and see if you can admit there's some joy to be had in doing things your own way. One thing's for sure: It's unquestionably easier to tackle the last stretch of your ride when you're doing it on radler power...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New link - Drink A Week

Crocked compadre Alex aka Sifl aka "the other thin white Duke" has gone and rejoined the boozeblog brigade (noticeably picking up my slack, I might add) with his new Drink A Week site. In honor of his new quest in alco-alchemy, I'd like to share with you this classic lager-tinted cocktail that's the result of dashing a bit of the hard-to-find Picon bitters (or you can cheat with the Torani stuff) into a tall glass of cold pilsner, the Picon bière.