Friday, February 20, 2009

Gold fashioned

And it's gone. Sitting here with a minute glass of the keg's last sputtering gasp, it's a fair reminder why even the strangest of experimental batches often deserve to be doubled in volume, just in case. The subject in this case is our Old Fashioned ale, five gallons of which has passed on, with another phantom five gallons presumably lurking in a darkened dusty corner of the garage, just waiting for me, ready to appear when I'm at my weakest and say, it wasn't just a dream. Really? You don't remember deciding to make a double batch at the very last minute?

Make no mistake: While excellent, it wasn't by any means a perfect recipe. Of course, an optimist (and as it's an attitude I'm not entirely familiar with, I had to go online to find one to vouch for me) would argue that the success of the first batch only lends to the opportunity for it to be improved upon, a chance to pat oneself on the back with one hand while stirring up a fresh mash in the kettle with the other. Having shared (a tiny amount) with the conspirator who helped me chart out the taxonomy of the classic Old Fashioned cocktail for use as a jig for the composite beer recipe, I was able to wrangle (a tiny amount of) tasting notes from his inital impression: "just slightly sweet, not cloying, with hints of orange in the finish, mingling with spice and a little oakiness".

But did it taste like an Old Fashioned? "Not really."

Oh well. "Inspired by" doesn't necessarily need translate to "unmistakable from", which means we won't be stealing the crown from Southern Tier as the Jones of tastealike brewing expertise. Despite the high level of alcohol, there wasn't nearly the heat one gets from true liquor. Regardless of our bourbon oak aging, there wasn't much by way of toasted char effect as there was the merest hint of vanilla and black pepper. And the cherry came through only in the keg's last few days, as the merest whisper, warning me not to toy too much in the future for fear of creating a potentially horrifying Nyquil-like undertone.

As a cocktail, it was a failure. As a beer, on the other hand, it was a success.

One arena in which that was distinctly true was as a singly-hopped beer, in which just one variety of hops was employed for all the bittering, flavor and aroma, with the organic Belgian Admiral hops we used laying down a distinctive but mellow bitterness on the front end and allowing for some serious marmalade overtones in both the aroma and finish. And as a double IPA (which at its core it really was) it was our most successful attempt yet, sticky and rich with an interplay between bitter and sweet that made it exceptionally drinkable despite what the stats would lead you to believe. Chewy and deep, yet clean on the finish and with a rousing bitterness, the question in my mind now is: What would it have tasted like if we'd skipped out on all the flaming orange and mystery tincture mumbo jumbo? Were those the secret hidden elements that held it all together, or would it have been even brighter, crisper, more satisfying without?

I guess we'll just have to find out, soon. The keg is empty now, remember. So much for the year of the session, eh?

(This post is in part a response to Drew, a commenter who didn't leave any contact info but who cared enough to ask how this recipe came out. For the rest of you, just pretend I wrote it for you because I knew you were so, so curious.)

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Localize it, pt. 3 - The Younger the better

Admittedly, I am not, nor have I ever been, a starry-eyed fanatic of Pliny the Elder. Despite passionate dalliances with the coterie of Russian River's offerings, including an ashamedly fanboy exuberance over any of their Belgian modeled brews, this flagship IPA has always struck a curious chord on my palate. Every year, though, along with the demise of the football season and the emergence of a certain gigantic rodent from the frozen landscape, comes another iteration, one that warrants a quick foray up through the construction equipment rental yards, cow pastures, and dreadfully vacant car dealerships that pave the way through southern Sonoma county: Pliny the Younger. And while I was boggled by the level of delusional clamor I saw - people literally purchasing hundreds of dollars of growlers (as it's on tap, and at the Santa Rosa pub only) with the intent on shipping them to folks outside of driving range - it would be untruthful of me not to admit a newfound fresh, starry-eyed fanaticism that it managed to inspire.

The curious chord at the heart of the Elder, for me, has always been its coldly sharp bitterness, an effect I'm tempted to liken to the experience of a morning gone frost-bitten on a subalpine camping trip, one of those places where despite the promise of a warm afternoon, the summer's heat can't compete with the barren cold that follows a cloudless night, forcing one to wake squiting into the sunrise, in shock. There's a quick, prickly forest bite like pushing past pine and fir, cutting needles unyielding in their harsh, scraping way, a somewhat masochistic thrill of taking a deep, bracing breath, calling it invigorating. It's enjoyable, without question, but for me it's enjoyable in the same doses and frequency as camping is. When my palate needs readjusting (to wit, the lupulin threshold shift), when something brisk and just a tad punishing will settle things, the Elder is as honest, fresh, and distinctively local as beer can get. But the Younger, perhaps thanks to the loads of collateral impact that come along for the ride when you try to amp an all-malt beer up to over 10% alcohol, all those peskily unfermentables, that richly complex malt residue, is a completely different beast, with a glowing core of mandarin orange and a strange insistancy, a strange permanence in the glass that just demanded extra attention and a bit more reflection.

Perhaps it was the way that despite its proximity to the most depressing day of the year, the sun limped along in the sky, hesitatingly keeping things warmer far longer that it should have, lingering stubbornly in a rusty sky instead of plummeting behind Inverness Ridge like it was supposed to. This stranger, stronger sibling seems to be wrought of a deeper, warmer wellspring, an effluent life of depth that's only hinted at beneath the frost of its paler brethren. Like an impossibly warm summer's morning, the prickly edges of those evergreen branches have been softened, revealing a greener, more floral side, dense waves of pollen alongside eager blossoms perfuming the air. It is by no means a "hot" beer, the alcohol level is dangerously well hidden, but has a warmth of balance and a restorative sense to it, a soulfulness. This is Pliny the relaxed, Pliny the assured. Any semblance of shrieking , potentially sharp, spiky edges have been muted and mellowed, peaceably calmed, allowing for a richness of essence that lends itself to the kind of deliriously overwrought elucidation that can only come with long, slow, ruminative tasting.

But there's something Italian here, too, I could swear. A connection to the bold digestifs of the culture that brought us elixirs like Campari and Sanbitter, the bitterness that lingers in the back of the throat made me think of Orangina, of a time before sucrose, a strange sort of parallel of being a child newly introduced to taste in five dimensions, and of being the overstuffed omnivore that I am now, settling back into the rhythms of the evening, full, fat and happy with a glass of something comforting and easing to accompany the darkening of the sky.

And soon it will be gone, fleeting, not worth trying to save and store and cellar (and pity those poor folks in far off lands with flat, lifeless growlers of the stuff trying to figure it all out while pretending to ignore the dent it's made in their credit card bill), but exists truly just an act of local beer done perfectly, in a way that no other I can think of at the moment sums it all up, the life out here, so justly, so well, all of it. A great reminder of how lucky we are, and for what's possible.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

The Session #21 - Savor it, the favorite

So what's your favorite beer? Your favorite band? Really? And your favorite color? Favorite animal? Favorite imported washed rind cow's milk cheese? Anyone who gets as rankled as I do by questions like these, ones which are supposed to reveal something deeper within the psyche of the answerer will appreciate this complete, pathetic, groan-inducing cop out: My favorite beer is the one that's in front of me. (Have fun with that one, therapists.) Cliché as it is, there are doubtless going to be about a dozen other smartasses taking part in this month's Session that have prepared the same answer (if they don't say "the next new beer I try"). But how many of them have such a pungent distaste for judging that they've never written a formal beer review in the manner so lovingly embraced by the BJCP and those much maligned beer review websites? Unfortunately, our host this month has asked us all to play along nicely, so that's what we'll be doing.

Now then, what's in front of me? Aha! It appears to be a N'Ice Chouffe from the good folks in the Ardennes, they with the kind garden gnome brewing assistants and bitchin' theme songs. Feel free to listen along as you read the review (you'll have to provide your own crackling fire and snoring dog sound effects).

For those of you new to the BJCP school of beer reviews, here's a quick summary of how this works. You're asked to break down the components of appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel, and then add an overall impression weighting to balance your score. The rub, of course, is that your impressions need to be reflected off the official guidelines that are outlined in the BJCP book. How accurate those guidelines are is a pretty hotly contested topic. And on top of that, as beers seem to be getting stranger every day (more on that later), the less useful the whole system appears. While I don't disparage the honing of one's critical faculties, there's just so much more to tasting than this white labcoat approach. Furthermore, while it misses out on the enormous influences of a more holistic, experiential tasting experience, it also manages to suck a bit of the soul and (for me at least) all the fun out of it. But I digress...

That said, let's do this thing:

What's it called? Exam Beer: N'Ice Chouffe Limited Edition 2007

What kinda beer's that? Subcategory: Belgian Christmas ale as brewed by small, subterranean earth elementals.

Anything weird in it? Special Ingredients: Thyme, curaçao peel, dark "candy-sugar". That's right, folks, I said thyme.

Check it out... Bottle Inspection: Looks fine to me. A little too closed and full of beer for my tastes, but that's easily remedied.

No, really. Appropriate size, cap, fill level, label removal, etc.: 750mL, filled to the brim and topped with a crown. Silk-screened label. Next.

Sniff it! Aroma (as appropriate for style) (out of 12) Comment on malt, hops, esters, and other aromatics: Wait, "as appropriate for style"? I didn't know there was a "thyme-infused artisanal Belgian Christmas ale as brewed by elves and/or fairies" style. There certainly ought to be. Smells heavily of punky dried fruits, sweet date and raisin and grape and a hint of pineapple and another hint of earthiness. Must be the gnome factor. No apparent hops. 10.

Look at it! Appearance (as appropriate for style) (out of 3) Comment on color, clarity, and head (retention, color, and texture): It's a dark, slightly murky brown. Looks like dirt. Gnomey! 3.

Give 'er a sip! Flavor (as appropriate for style) (out of 20) Comment on malt, hops, fermentation characteristics, balance, finish/aftertaste, and other flavor characteristics: Tastes pretty darn great. Oh, you want more? REALLY darn great. With a cherry on top. 20.

Mouthfeel (as appropriate for style) (out of 5) Comment on body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency, and other palate sensations: Highly carbonated, warming and sticky. Leaves the palate clean but only after after some subtle coaxing, like by yawning, suggesting we had to get up early for work in the morning, noting the time... 4.

And now feel free to skew the results to your personal prejudice. Overall Impression (out of 10)

Comment on overall drinking pleasure associated with entry, give suggestions for improvement: Suggestions for improvement? Sounds dangerous. What happens to people in fairy tales when they try to tell gnomes what to do? I'm not terribly sure, but it's apt to be something particularly nasty, probably involving tiny arrows made out of pine needles and acorn catapults and poisonous mushroom-tipped porcupine quill spears. No thank you. 10.

Tally ho. Total (out of 50) 47!

Clinical, no? That was exhausting. And it involved math. I can't wait to enjoy a beer again. Hope you enjoyed this introduction to the judging techniques of a certified beer judge, as it's more than likely the last time you'll see it referenced here...

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by Matt at A World of Brews. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Back-to-back Bourbons

Amongst my litany of shameful hobbies, one is an undying affection for the Sunday comics. An unhealthy obsession that ought to have died along with my childhood, it's a pathetic escapist addiction that the internet has resurrected, the online comics page standing in for the smudgy color print not only literally, but psychologically, cooling off and numbing a brain run feverish at the tail end of page after page of bad news [note: no links needed there, right?].

Of those back page shenanigans that have always been a draw, it's the "find six differences between these two panels" items that are stupidly, confoundingly irresistible. Typically, like most acerbic post-post-modern wannabe hipster cynics, I hide behind the satire of snarkily-written comics commentary to blanket my adolescent compulsions, but if you really want a regular dose of high vulpine drama, you need to go straight to the Slylock Fox source on a weekly basis. I'm sorry to have to admit all this. At least I'm not one of the creepy Cassandra Cat people. Anyway...

Regardless, the vertical tasting experience can be the beer lover's "find six differences" opportunity. (Keeping with the comics analogy, a horizontal tasting would be when you find yourself comparing the different artists' styles in Gil Thorp. I'll stop there.) Take for example, the extraordinarily rare opportunity afforded to me by Virgil (from a package known here as "The Gift of the Virgi") to not only get a taste of an elusive and exclusive beer that's typically unavailable on this coast - Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout - but also to have the even more rare opportunity to taste two vintages, '06 and '07, side-by-side. Since 1994, when it was originally brewed to commemorate their 1000th batch, this Midwestern take on the Imperial stout is now made as an annual special release, each batch being slightly different. Whereas in a horizontal tasting of various bourbon barrel-aged Imperial stouts, you'd be put in a position to recognize the particular traits of various brewers, a vertical tasting lets you focus on the subtleties of one brewery's specific vision, along with the effects of aging. And oh, what a beer to play this little game with...

There isn't much that I can say about Bourbon County that hasn't been duly noted by a million other writers out there over the past 13 years: It's a hugely alcoholic (the two samples we had were 11% and 13%, respectively), soot-black stout that's brewed with seven types of malt ("so big, the malt was coming out of the top of the mash tun") and aged for 100 days in castoff bourbon barrels. So rather than go through some labored poetry over its blackness, intensity, or its.. blackness, Des and I came up with some retardedly simple six differences between the two, which is much easier than trying to describe just how delicious these beers truly are:

- oh so very chocolaty
- raisiny like dark rum
- surprisingly nutty

- boozy hot fire
- charred wood
- coffee beans

So the question now of course, is will the '07 taste like the '06 when it's paired, next year, alongside the '08? Will the bourbon and alcohol fade into the background over a year's time? Or are we looking at a beer so singularly aggressive that all the brewer's attempts at consistency are shaken off this juggernaut's massive presence? Or more like Mark Trail's fist o' justice? (Had to get that last one in.)


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dissidents and dissonance, notes from the underground

If you've noticed a dearth of additions here of late, you're likely alone. That's part of the charm of the way this new media is digested, isn't it? We all subscribe to a gamut of spottily updated resources from around the web, and after a while it becomes a blur of content devoid of the linear narrative you can slip into when you're only following the exploits of a handful of writers.

It's not for lack of liquid material, mind you. But a quiet rule in publishing content here has been to limit myself to commentary that at least carries the veneer of insight. As the past couple weeks have been riddled with sicknesses, stresses, and a shaky return to the full-time grind, my capacity for insight has been duly diminished and the desire to share nonexistent. But rather that let this page languish too long, a little roundup of recent goings-on might be due, a quick gasp of breath before going back underwater.

- What prompted this brief return to soliloquy is the beer pictured above: A very fine, reserve offering from Deschutes in the Flanders brown style, the Dissident inspires a bit of thought on the state of the American craft brewer and their special releases. A deep, ruddy cherry ale that crackles with the sour tang of wild fermentation and the slightest musk of the barrel, it's wholly reminiscent of something you might expect to find in a cafe in Ghent. (Although it could potentially use another year in the cellar, what with a residual sweetness that left it tasting just a tad young, the same impression we recently had while tasting the new Ten Commandments release from Lost Abbey. Are breweries rushing their special releases out onto the market early? The press release said The Dissident had already spent 18 months maturing. But I digress...)

While brewed with cherries from the Northwest, there's nothing "Northwest" of note in the beer, which came as a little bit of a surprise considering how much of an impact Deschutes has had as a flag-bearer for the area's idiosyncratic brewing scene. While Mirror Pond and Black Butte both represent for many folks the ethos of the FNWONWCB (first new wave of Northwest craft brewing, not to be confused with NWOBHM), the only thing that struck me as being particularly American about The Dissident is its alcohol level (9% according to the bottle, versus the 11% it lists on the press release, but still up from the 5-6% you'd find in an oud bruin or Flanders red). Does Rodenbach do this? Do they celebrate their continued success by rewarding their fans with an anniversary California pale ale? It's a testament, perhaps, to what is happening behind the scenes in small brewhouses around the country, where brewers' worldly palates are being greenlit by the company number crunchers and marketing flacks alike, seeing the voracious appetite of the online beer enthusiast community as being recession-proof enough that there's minimal risk (and potentially excellent mark-up potential) in letting the brewers experiment in foreign styles in the cause of expanding their repertoire. It's arguable that the market for Rodenbach would not be so kind to their experimentation, and were the monks of the abbey of St. Sixtus to present the world with a Westvleteren Mandarin Orange Hefeweizen for those hot monastic summer nights, there'd likely be riots.

- Meanwhile, over at the Aleuminati, I've been involved in an open source brewing project of sorts, a groupthink recipe tinkering collective with the ambitious goal of creating a beer that even the most initiate of homebrewers could attempt, while being scalable in scope for the more ambitious of us, designed with the intent of being a good gateway beer to more expansive beer tasting for those looking to hook their unknowing friends into this little cult we call "beer snobbery". It's a little like a dubbel but with a bit of American oomph, and it's entitled The Indoctrinator. While the recipe itself is set (in silly putty, or mud maybe), there's still time to brew your own batch and get in the trading circle. Once everyone's confident their batch is sufficiently conditioned, we'll be shipping samples around to do our own personal horizontal tastings.

The morning after brewing up our version, I found it burbling away with a rhythmic regularity that momentarily entranced me like a Louis Hardin ostinato, and I was thrown: Has a day of listening to 5-year olds hack their way into the canon of Western music distorted my musical perception to the degree that I'm hearing regularity and pulse in the randomness of nature? So of course, I filmed it. See if you think I'm crazy.

(Des, meanwhile, has disavowed any knowledge of this video and will not admit to the possibility that anyone in this household is enough of a dork to have generated it.)

- Speaking of brewing, we also got around to throwing together a kettle of that hereto theoretical lavender-infused black saison on Saturday afternoon, bringing the amount of partially-fermented homestuffs in the basement to an unforeseen 25 gallons, a possible new record. Lord knows what we'll do with all of it. Good thing I've got another batch planned for brewing in the next few days. While it's obviously too early to post tasting notes, the phenomenal sensory overload that arose from adding the hydrosol to the pot was intense enough to make us wonder if we'd come across something wonderful, or terrifying. It'll be ready for Halloween, appropriately.

- Lastly, I'll most likely be AFK for the coming weekend as it's one jam-packed with birthday celebrations in a true Oktoberfest by way of autumnal equinox fashion, but I'd be remiss if there wasn't a nod to the Northern California Homebrewers Festival that will be going on concurrently, most specifically the brewer's dinner that Sean Paxton has planned. Hot diggety delicious dog. Maybe next year that'll be Mia's idea of a good time, camping up in the Sierra foothills with a bunch of homebrewers, but this year we'll stick to a pony ride and a day in the park with cupcakes...

(And thanks to fellow beer blogger Bailey for the Lomo photoshopping trick. Like most hipster grups, there's a Holga in our closet, but we hardly ever take it out. Instead, there's something delightfully ironic about using all of today's most advanced technologies in digital imaging to attempt a recreation of an iconic, singular, and strangely loveable classic. Hey, it's kind of like a storied Oregon brewery aping a historic Flemish beer.)

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Whitman's Brooklyn, black, chocolate and stout

It's certainly not every day that a libation from the storied Brooklyn Brewery finds itself propped up for a glamour shot on my cutting board, so a certain compulsion to fire up the old blogomobog was inevitable when this glorious specimen recently crossed the great divide and found its home in my cellar.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that this tail-end of summer, with its lethagic dog days tinged with little specks of regret and hints that a return to the regular grind is just around the corner, has infected me with a serious case of vacation brain. So I present you with a distraction, this: Whitman's Brooklyn. From the description of the project:
"If Walt Whitman’s association with Brooklyn is not exactly overlooked by mainstream documentarians, then neither is it explicitly celebrated or, one might argue, sufficiently considered in the vast majority of critical analysis of his work. The fact of Whitman’s residency–he lived in Brooklyn for over half his life and twice as long as he lived anywhere else–might not seem so meaningful if Whitman’s poetry wasn’t so saturated with the physical world."
With a bit of the East River running through my veins (not literally, thankfully for my health), and not just a little love for Walt, this site is a true treasure of a find. Until I get my act together to do some proper blogging, I say "Damned fine beer," and leave you with this:
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;
Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of the arches and

All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets . . . . it is not the oboe nor the beating drums—
         nor the notes of the baritone singer singing his sweet romanza . . . . nor those
         of the men's chorus, nor those of the women's chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, p. 61

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The dichotomy of Supplication

Unraveling the twist of wire that cages a mushroomed mass of cork can quickly transport you to a supplicatory state, the capgun pop and curl of steam rising from a heavy bottle evoking a musty cellar, one rich and ripe with oak shavings, stained by acidic splashes of red wine, mysteries hidden behind dusty cobwebs, inviting a taste of toasted bread, tart cherries, slowly becoming engulfed in funky barnyard haze. There’s not denying the snob appeal of such a unique intoxicant. Demanding patience and attention, exclusionary beer with qualifiers of acquired taste ("You get used to it!") can naturally generate distrust.

Yet, this: The swell of a pushing crowd, the same fat cork flying above throngs of glasses amidst an elated cheer. Could it be? Amazing that, on the eve of a landmark announcement (the bottle release of their flagship IPA), this strange, wild, unorthodox brew would be the star attraction. A gamble that paid off, betting on good faith and camaraderie that our palates would come along for the ride, and would love it.

(This post was written in response to Stonch's call for concise reflections "on a beer": limited to 175 words, describing a tasting. I found it strenuous.)

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Äppelwoi experiment, part II

Amidst our continuing research into the essential heart of Äppelwoi, we decided it would help maintain our focus within yet another brutal heatwave to crack open a bottle of this decidedly, um, feminine target-marketed beverage, Sweet Pea apple wine. As it turns out, there's all the more reason to slog wearily onward into the Hessen-jive riddled German online "resources" in our brewing safari to discover the secrets to reproducing Frankfurt's malic elixir, 'cause this stuff ain't it.

Not bad, per se, just not the same thing. In fact, were you to pair this side-by-side with a nice, say, Fumé Blanc, or an equally light Edelzwicker, you'd likely consider them distant, strange cousins, what with the similar green apple and stone fruit aromas, and crisp, quick finishes leaving just the tiniest dance of alcohol tingle on the tongue. Of course, whereas that's the opening descriptive salvo of a decent white wine, it's unfortunately the entire possible analysis of the Sweet Pea. It just doesn't have anything else going on. No impressions left by yeast, fermentation, aging, nothing. As clean and shiny as the stainless fermenters in which it was likely born and bred.

Äppelwoi, on the other hand, isn't shy about revealing its scars, its age, and its stories of childhood trauma. It's rustic, a tad funky, varies in character wildly depending on what time of year you order it, and has nothing in common with the stuff in the bottle pictured above except that apples were involved*. What exactly do they do those poor apples? The research continues. Utilizing the latest in lazyblogging technology, ie Google translation, a picture of the process is beginning to emerge. But even with the linguistic assistance of my mother, born and raised in the area and keen on colloquialism and the local patois, there's quite a few missing links to fill in still. On top of that, there's a real challenge in working through the texts we've found so far in dealing with the vast multitude of fart jokes that are endemic to the discussion of Äppelwoi. Truly. The fact that young Äppelwoi incites flatulence by virtue of it's copious amounts of live yeast is something heralded in song and honored in poetry. In homage to the undoubtedly awesome ice-breaking power of the stuff, it's known locally by the endearing name of Hosenschisser.

Hopefully next time I post on the subject, we'll have a clearer view not only of how it's done, but how we can aim to do it ourselves, once I finally discover that the catalog of words I'm working on translating are a menagerie of slang terms for humorous bodily noises.

* And I should admit that the inclusion of peaches in the Sweet Pea should have been some indication that we were dealing with a unique specimen of fruit booze. But, as there are a number of mysterious adjunct fruits mentioned in the chronicles of making Äppelwoi (namely the curious "Speierling", "Mispel", "Eberesche", "Quitte" and "Schlehe") that are included for the various components they can provide to balance the acids, add tannins, and emphasize aroma, it didn't seem that far-fetched to add some peaches into the must.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tasting notes - Brasserie de Blaugies Darbyste

If there's a variation on the archetypal pint of ale that reveals more about the cultural mindset of an individual by the reaction it elicits than the use of fruit in brewing, I'm not sure I've come across it yet. Whether it's as simple as the inclusion of a lemon wedge clinging to the edge of a glass of wheat beer or as complex as the variety of cherry involved in the making of a kriek, there are obviously myriad levels of involvement that fruit can have in its relation to brewing, but the reactions folks will give you when offered a "fruit beer" will tell you more about their own personal experiences than the true breadth of taste you could be referring to. Around these parts, for example, fruit is almost always used to either sweeten a brew, mask imperfections and/or blandness, or as a gimmick to capture what's perceived as a beer-wary female market.

It is in that light, that upon taking her first sip of the beautifully effervescent, ginger-tinged Darbyste, that Des recounted how she thought the local Whole Foods was doing a disservice to its customers by not posting warning labels on beers like Hanssen's lambics. She imagined the reaction - one of severe revulsion, confusion, and likely nausea - that your unsuspecting buyer would likely have upon swallowing something that's packaged in a way resembling a Flemish version of a Bartles & James wine cooler, or worse, Mike's Hard Lemonade, yet tastes far more like a lemon that's been fermenting under a horse saddle. For those who feel some pressure to imbibe an alcoholic beverage, yet can only do so by masking anything that might appeal to mature tastebuds through a generous coating of syrupy, saccharine sweetness, these are not the alco-pops you're looking for. In a comparison that could be likened to the difference between Chlorodyne and children's Tylenol, one might consider Oudbeitje to be the laudanum to Lindeman's Cherry Blast.

To wit, de Blaugies has made one of those warning-label-ready beers. With a deceptively gorgeous bottle depicting a Seba-like botanical print of the figs promised within, De Blaugies' take on the fruit beer via its Darbyste incarnation is a farmhouse funk indulgence. The only hint of fig in the taste, all sugar now being long gone in the fermentation, is hidden amongst a layer of citric sourness and a fog of bretty barnyard haze, a taste redolent of figs caramelized by intense heat, as if baked atop a tart. At its core, Darbyste is a saison with a bière blanche heritage, a spiced, sparkling, demi-sec, and agreeably refreshing summer ale that, like any good piece of farmhouse art, allows for as much analysis of depth as the taster wants to employ, but will equally sate even the most nonchalant quaffer. And, like other classic saisons, its profile seems to change not only as you taste it, as it sits and warms in the glass, but even when the glass is replenished, allowing for the perfect amount of summertime daydreaming laziness as you work your way through the bottle.*

And with the first round of summer's figs ripening on the tree as I write this, in between the omnipresent plums and nascent apples, bag upon bag of impulse buy, nearly-gone peaches and apricots staking out all available kitchen surfaces, it does get a brewer's mind to wandering...

Is there room amidst the local collective taste culture to allow for fruit beers, made locally, that demand a slightly more adventurous palate, one that could embolden craft brewers to take a step towards using stone fruit, berries, or citrus in creative ways that until now have been the sole domain of a small number of farmhouse and wild ale brewers in Northern Europe? Perhaps the growing popularity of bretty beers is an indication that we're ready. Perhaps a smartly-designed warning label would be good for sales, too.

* At one point, I swear, the peppery aromas gave way to what I could only describe as "the interior of a rental car near the end of a vacation in Hawaii when you've been coated in Banana boat for a week." And then it faded back to the barnyard profile.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tasting notes - Judgment Day

In 1988, the year that Basquiat died, the year that the last state in the US succumbed to the pressure of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, near the end of a decade thrust through time via the unforeseen propulsion of forced-air induction, a new chapter in what we can now look back at fondly as the re-birth of America's current craft beer movement had begun. As a development within the West Coast craft brewing movement that could be traced back to a pint of steam beer that Fritz Maytag enjoyed with his lunch back in 1965, the brewpub boom was a huge shift in the culture of craft beer. Sitting down with a list of the iconic breweries of the genre, one quickly finds the vast majority of them had their roots not as bottlers or draught distributors, but as public houses, taverns, and saloons that offered a community gathering place, served food, and brewed their own beer on the premises: think Hopland's Mendocino Brewing Company, Ashland's Rogue Ales pub, and the Buckhorn Saloon of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. At that time, a simple business plan would show that the profit margins on the beer sold on the premises paid off the cost of the customers' food, even, a profit margin that - while it likely doesn't exist anymore - offered these companies the resources to expand into bottling, kegging, and distributing their wares off premises.

And the flagship wares brewed by these fine folks are an exemplary reflection of what most people today would identify with as the trademark distinctions of American craft beer: ales with a British pedgiree, brewed with a certain frontier, buckaroo styling. Pale ales, stouts, IPAs, porters, amber ales, mostly, ramped up in both the bitterness and alcohol departments, and watermarked with the unique traits of the locally grown, citrusy, piney hops. Wonderful tipples, for the most part, these beers are, especially when admired within the context of their creation, in a pub with some locals, enjoying a burger with a game on the toob, brushing the workday dust off your shoulder.

Fast forward to the present. The Hopland, Ashland, and Anderson Valley brewpubs have all been outgrown by their previous inhabitants, but their presence as "regulars" in retail and restaurants would seem pretty solid. Likewise all over the country, beer makers that had initially been tied to brewpubs as the anchor of their identity have spread their wings, flexed their marketing muscle, and grown beyond anyone's expectations.

Those that weathered the microbrewery boom of the 90's ("micro" being the "turbo" of the nineties) formed the old guard of the current revolution, making solid West Coast ales that pair damned well with hot wings and a Raiders game. But anon, lucky us, we appear to be potential witnesses to the birth of a new chapter, a chapter which is underway right now and could quite possibly be summed up by the bottle you see pictured at the head of this post. For if you were to head south to sunny Solana Beach, you'd come across a pretty great little pizza joint called Pizza Port that happens to serve some darned fine beers on tap (mostly like the ones I've described above, in fact) but look in the cooler case by the front door, and you'll see something wholly different - a set of nice 750 mL bottles with not the Port Brewing logo on them, but Lost Abbey.

Lost Abbey is a page turn in this craft beer story we're all enjoying, in that it's more a name and a logo for a branded, thematic collection of cork-finished, wire-caged bottles - a "vision" of sorts concocted by Tomme Arthur - than it is a "brewery" in the traditional sense. It's only one step ahead of a shift we've all seen in Russian River over the years. More on that later (since I did say this was a tasting notes column, after all).

If you've ever had the pleasure of enjoying a Ritter Sport Rum Raisin & Hazelnut bar, you've pretty much had the solid, non-alcoholic version of Judgment Day (and around here, that's a huge compliment). Pouring a stark, shiny black, looking like perfectly tempered dark chocolate, it delivers a likewise bittersweet note when it first hits the tongue. The raisins make their appearance through the aroma coming off the glass, but the remains in the taste have been converted to a rummy, boozy finish that lingers for ages once you get through the immense nutty, chocolaty body. It's devoid of that cloying, caramel stickiness that's so pervasive in Belgian quads, but with a dense viscosity that makes Gulden Draak seem like a total lightweight.

How does the fortuitous arrival of this wonderous bottle of ale translate to a new chapter in the craft beer Renaissance, though? Certainly, brewpubs have long had specialty ales that veered from their regular spectrum of styles, perhaps to allow the brewer to have a little fun, perhaps as an experiment, perhaps in honor of a special occasion. Certainly, I didn't even blush when Rogue teamed up with Morimoto to start producing specialty beers intended to pair uniquely with foods. Nor did I blink when Anderson Valley decided to plop a cowl on David Keene's noggin and start bottling the most dastardly childproof, molten glue gun sealed (it's supposed to look like wax, see?) Belgian specialty ales under the Brother David subtitle. Simply put, once these brewers had the resources and the green light, they started to branch out, which hardly constitutes a shift worth noting.

When the oddly-shaped "-tion" beers from Russian River started making appearances, however, there was cause to perk up and pay attention. For here we had not just one or two bottled oddities, but an entire range, within a specifically American-Belgo tradition, branded together by images of sadistic looking farming implements, that had seemingly nothing to do with the delightful little taproom/pizza joint where those brett-y barrels were doing their thang in downtown Santa Rosa. Visiting the pub shortly after I'd discovered Temptation and Supplication, I found myself the only one in the place looking for these sour beauties, the tables adorned almost exclusively by the likes of (the incredible, yet pronouncedly "West Coast") Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig. It was as if there were two separate breweries working out of the same space, with the same name, almost...*

The fact is, it's arguable that these specialty beers are, unlike all the beers hereto produced by the same brewers within their brewpub confines, not intended to be enjoyed at their respective establishments, but out in the world, nudging wine bottles off the table when nobody's looking, taking up precious cellar space in restaurants and basements and trying just a little to distance themselves from the pubs from whence they came. The brewpub culture that founded our current enviable position of enjoying quality, locally made, handcrafted beers appears to be shifting gears as the pressures of the brewing-restaurant business only get more intense: the rising cost of restaurant labor, rising costs of food and brewing ingredients, effects of a recession on the frequency on which folks eat out, the increasing distance between homes and pubs with a general lack of quality public transportation combined with increasingly stringent and heavily enforced drinking & driving laws, just to name a few.

Could it be that a generation of experimental brewers, flush with innovation and access to good distribution, are going to tap into America's current war and recession-fueled nesting phase by extroverting their efforts even more? When I go to my local bottled beer heaven, I have access to more brewpub-derived options than ever before, from all over the country - Dogfish Head, most recently - and am curious to see where this is going to take off to next. Will the brewpubs all end up like the one in Hopland, more of a historical remnant kept open by the company for image's sake than anything else, like the wine tasting rooms of the valley that surrounds it?

One thing's certain: As these brewers are allowed to expand their craft beyond what's expected in your local alehouse, the next phase of our brewing Renaissance is bound to be loaded with trophies like Port Brewing/Lost Abbey's singularly phenomenal Judgment Day. And that's just such a pleasant conclusion to come to, I won't even end with a tastelessly punny Biblical aside about how rapturous it all is.

Oh, who am I kidding?

* And when pressed to choose a beer that goes well with a spicy pizza, I'm not likely to grab a bottle of Supplication off the shelf. Nor would I anticipate that next time I visit Santa Rosa, will I be met with a Belgian-style cuisine à la bière restaurant in place of RRBC.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogfish Head to Toronado

There will doubtless be a dozen-odd posts over the next week about the day Sam Calagione showed up in San Francisco to deliver buckets upon buckets of his truly divine elixirs down the throats of a previously Dogfish Head-less town. And while I failed yet again to catch the attention of either Jay or Bill to ask, "Hey, is there anything about tonight that you're not going to talk about, or any photos from this event that you're not going to post?", the fact that I even had the urge to approach them like that (yes, Jay, that was me tapping you on the back while you were trying to scoot out; yes, Bill, that was me trying to introduce myself while you were taking my picture) speaks to the inner conversation I've been having lately, pretty much ever since I relit all the burners on this blog earlier this year after a bit of a hiatus, a conversation that could be summed up thusly: "What exactly am I writing about, again?"

The online beer writing scene has never felt as crowded as it does now, reminiscent in some ways to the sweaty wall of bodies three-deep at the bar last night*, of and while I recently posited that I'd lost my touch, I'm now prepared to consider that there was never much of a touch to misplace. What scared me was when I noticed that a blog I started under the pretense of having a place to post quick thoughts on beer and brewing and links to fun articles in the interest of reducing the amount of spammy instant messages I was sending to my friends was veering dangerously into the beerblog infested waters of an ocean of news-ish sites, trigger-happy with the ctrl+c ctrl+v , press releases at the ready, daily updates on current events, etc. etc. - stuff you can literally read on a million or so websites at this point - and that's only if you're too lazy to subscribe to the email announcement lists that generate all the content in the first place. It's time to pull this ship starboard and head for less crowded waters, methinks...

But first, a diversion of sorts:

Before anything else, I want to say a quick something about this guy, a man who I've sort of pseudo-idolized, teased, and made the subject of a faux brewer-man-crush over the past couple of years: Dude's for real. Not only would the brewer who's almost single-handedly responsible for the current level of respect this country's culinary critics have levied on craft brewing pose with a crazed, multi-grinned weirdo like myself for a photo (Des nudged me, "Tell him you have a beer blog so he doesn't think you're a complete lunatic," likely noticing I was reeking of eau de crazy stalker guy) - amidst his biggest debutante ball on the West Coast nonetheless - but never even flinched when I kept returning to tap him on the shoulder to ask the *stupidest* questions ("What the hell is in this?") throughout the evening like a preschooler needing to go to the bathroom, each time graciously replying with a smile and complete attention, regardless. So thanks, Sam, for being such a gracious host, even on the tail end of a whirlwind of a week. (David even had him running around the bar serving the cheeses, for chrissakes.)

While I'm at it, releasing myself from the dirty job of responsible beer blogging, I'll let Alex over at Drink A Week handle the mouth-watering poetic details, and simply list the initial reactions to last night's draft list by memory (mostly thanks to Des and her golden sniffer):

2006 Chateau Jiahu - A truly exciting historical recreation that makes you reflect on just how narrow our currently defined expectations of beer really are. Fruity, grape-y, with hints of sweet sake and wheat, it was again surprisingly balanced and easily drinkable, a trait that seems to be high on the list of Sam's philosophical priorities. These are "extreme" beers in a sense that doesn't allude to them being punishing to the senses, but in that they stretch all the boundaries of the brewing lexicon. Truly eye-opening.

2007 Olde School Barleywine - Again, they've pulled off a real high-wire act and a feat in balance - a balance that doesn't just line up equal amounts of malt and hops side-by-side, but a balance that's fully three-dimensional in the marriage of the sweetness and bitterness. I would've guessed this to be a well-aged example purely based off it's mellowness, but alas. Built on elements of bourbon and cognac, cherries, white sugar, and with a slightly boozy aroma, Alex and I compared it to a nice old fashioned.

2007 Immort Ale -This one was a challenge, a complex barleywine-style ale skeleton clothed in the most elusive taste components and with a uniquely resinous mouthfeel. Des pegged it right off the bat: moldy cheese. Gorgonzola. It was as if they put together one of my favorite pairings together in a glass.

Midas Touch Golden Elixir - Just barely effervescent, the archetype of the historical recreation brewing movement was very sweet and fruity, with a beguiling aroma with hints of both jasmine and marzipan. Not nearly as funky as I was expecting (not funky at all, actually), but very wine-y and pleasant.

90 Minute IPA - The fabled "continuously hopped" India pale ale, one for which I'd prepared my palate by warning it ahead of time about its IBU level hovering near the human threshold for bitterness. The real shock to the palate, though, was how stunningly balanced it actually was, with a malt backbone that perfectly meshed with the hops so that the end result was nothing shy of ambrosial, the floral quality of the hops blending with the sweetness of the grain to create the effect of warm, fragrant honeysuckle.

Palo Santo Marron - Their newest release was the least uniquely individual and stand-out of the bunch, surprisingly, this dark brown ale aged on palo santo wood was more one-dimensional than the others - big roasted barley taste, smooth and surprisingly light in character and body. In any other line-up, it would surely shine, I'm sure, but its older siblings here raised the stakes just a *little* too high.

Put those beers together with some nice cheeses, a hugely enthusiastic crowd, and - of course - sausages, and you've pretty much put Rob in heaven. There are details of the event that I imagine will be left out by all the other writers in their haste to pound out the definitive wrap-up piece, but rather than sniff out those crumbs, I'll just end transmission here.

Back on Earth, the nagging beer-blogging question remains. Whither Pfiff!? If you want the local inside scoop with great photo galleries, you've got Brookston's bulletin, if you want stomach-growl-inducing event write-ups, head over to Jessica's Thirsty Hopster site, and if you want the best tap list and store shelf updates, subscribe to Bill's blog over at Inside Bay Area**.

But, perhaps, just maybe, if you're looking for vignettes like this -
"God, we're only halfway down the street and I can already smell the Toronado vomit smell."

"I know! Isn't it great!"
- you might consider adding Pfiff! to your newsfeed. I share because I care. I expect the tone of the site will probably be changing over the next few weeks while searching out that niche to which this little Pfiff! of mine is best suited to attend. Thanks to all the great beer writers out there who continue to raise the bar and make all this readin', writin' and imbibin' so very much fun to do.

* A sweaty wall of bodies three-deep who could also all speak intelligently on the topic of craft beer, which is something out of a mind-bending alternate universe I never thought could exist.

**There are plentiful others (see that blogroll on the right?) that I'm probably going to regret not name-checking in this post.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

A -tion by any other name

Likely to be followed by Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function Belgian Ale, today's spotlight is on a beer that was damned impossible to be as tasty in the glass as it is in theory. Not that it isn't very good - it is. Marred only by a slight metallic aftertaste (that could very well have been storage fault), it's a dubbel-esque amber ale with rich, deep complexity, light-bodied and effervescent yet with a raisin sweetness and a big fruity punch from the yeasts that only grew in intensity as it opened up in the glass. Fellow Aleuminati member Meat described it as the beer "responsible for turning me on to micro-brewed beers and getting me to travel down the road of different beer tasting." But the story behind this brew, alas, is even tastier. Let's test the old eyesight on some superfine side label print:
Salvation. The name of two intricate Belgian-style ales, created by us, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing. After becoming friends a few years ago, we realized we both had a Salvation in our lineups. Was it going to be a problem? Should one of us relinquish the name rights? "Hell, no!" we said. In fact, it was quickly decided that we should blend the brews to catch the best qualities of each and create an even more complex and rich libation. In April 2004, in a top secret meeting at Russian River Brewing (well, actually it was packed in the pub and many were looking over our shoulders wondering what the hell was going on), we came up with the perfect blend of the two Salvations. Natalie, Vinnie's much more significant other, exclaimed, "We should call this Collaboration, not Litigation Ale!" "Perfect," we shouted!* We celebrated deep into the night (or is that morning?). Fast forward to November 14, 2006. After talking about it for over two years, we finally decided to pull the trigger and Vinnie made the journey to Avery Brewing to brew his Salvation exactly as he does in his brewery. This was blended with Avery's Salvation on December 11, 2006 creating Batch #1 - here is Batch #2. We hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed brewing and blending it. All profits from this joint venture will fund a return educational trip to Belgium with our bros Tomme (Port Brewing), Sam (Dogfish Head Brewing) and Rob (Allagash Brewing). This pilgrimage will enable us to learn even more about traditional brewing techniques to combine with our already strange and unique styles here in America. Gezondheit!
No, really, that's all on the side label. On one hand, this whole endeavor seems ripe for this discussion on craft beer marketing's effect on its perceived cultural status, but the lingering results are much more positive, reinforcing some of the greatest (and most marketable) tenets of craft brewing: It's made by hand, by real, visionary individuals, within a convivial atmosphere, that has a laudable, respectable history and artistry, and is a shared product of passion and love. And for that reason alone, it's the best use of fine print on a beer label since Lagunitas' Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale.

* This is my favorite misuse of an exclamation point, ever.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Tasting notes - Troubadour Obscura

But first... I'd like to respectfully ask for the attention of the Brewers' Association, all you certified beer judges, the GABF, World Beer Cup, and other friends of finely crafted beerstuffs: I think it's high time we officially recognize Belgian Stout as a uniquely classifiable style. The division to which it currently calls home (#16E Belgian Specialty Ale) has most certainly outlasted its welcome as a vague, catchall net thrown around the staggering variety of "special" ales which happen to be born of the most prodigious brewing nation on Earth. So, for starters, I'd like to propose we begin with cutting these fine and unique stouts from the herd. If there's room enough to include a pigeonhole for Baltic Porter, after all...

Anyway, onward.

Finally. After weeks of devastatingly glorious, distracting weather - weather that impeded my ability to come indoors for anything, be it the Toronado barleywine fest, Beerapalooza or what have you - nature seems to have finally returned to its prescribed course. The mist, fog, wind and cold that belongs on this stretch of the calender has returned along with the promise even colder, wetter days ahead. That gives us just enough of a window to finally clear the fridge of this year's hibernally-appropriate beers, before we make way for the saisons, märzens, gueuzes, and witbiers: and that, my friends, means stouts.

Not just any stouts, though. Belgian stouts.

Cut to the chase: Troubadour Obscura is the relatively scarcer sibling to the Troubadour Blonde that's garnered considerable shelf space in Belgian-friendly outlets, perhaps owing its own uncommonness to a confluence of retail myths: If it's has to be weird and expensive and pitch itself solely off the charm of its label, it needs to at least look nice, light, and drinkable. Honestly, I'm more surprised that our titular singer looks identical on both bottles. An 8.5% pitch black stout would seem more the territory of a Tom Waits or Lordi-styled crooner.

Surprisingly, though, it's an easy sipper. Whereas the imperial stout style has come to be defined by bigger, roastier, more bitter (and naturally, more alcoholic), Obscura follows the cream stout route to its logical continental conclusion. Slightly sweet, toasty (but not acrid), warming, and thick, it also carries a richly complex aroma from the yeast and fermentation that distinguishes itself immediately from its traditional brethren. In other words, this is not the drink you'd match with your finest aran and basket of grilled oysters, but one that you'd pair with dark chocolate, candied ginger, or an dessert plate of fruit and cheese.

Frankly, there's no truth in its status as a fringe category, as there are plenty of commercially available options out there, and the one that got us interested was this one: Van Den Bossche Buffalo Belgian Stout. Whereas I think it was the Wyoming in Des that urged her to pull this one off the shelf to try it (yes, that's a bucking bronco on the label, the most obvious icon for a strong, black, Belgian ale), it paved the way for what she describes now as her favorite style. It shares elements of some of her other favorite beers - Old Rasputin and Barney Flats in particular - in that its typical flavor profile is smooth, round, and balanced, with no jagged edges in terms of bitterness, apparent alcohol, overt sweetness, or hop aroma, but at the same time carries along with it that distinctly Belgian spiciness along with a neatly nuanced dark fruit and clove character and pumped extremely high with carbonation from bottle conditioning. The De Dolle example, a local favorite, is perhaps the most "Belgian" of the bunch, with a sharper, slightly more wild profile, but with enough roastiness, chocolate, and coffee to keep it from veering into black saison territory.

Belgian ales have almost certainly hung their success in the world craft beer market based off two things: the mystique of Trappist and other monastic breweries and their distinct styles, and the strong golden ale as modeled after Duvel. And it's debatable that their successes have something in common with the stratospheric rise of the pilsener: clarity. The strong golden and tripel have subtle differences, and are worlds apart from pilsener, but all can share a brilliant clarity of color that's been an appealing aspect for beer drinkers ever since clear glasses for drinking were invented. Based off that, it's not shocking that Belgian brewers wishing to follow the successes of Westmalle and Duvel would hesitate to delve into the world of dark, obscure brewing. But maybe based off the American craft beer world's insatiable thirst for strong, well-crafted stouts, more Belgians will follow suit and bring this style into the mainstream.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

WTF - Jolly Pumpkin's La Roja

A cat, in some sort of a swashbuckler or pirate costume, poses with a cunning, mischievous grin on his face while on board what one could only assume to be the schooner under his command, quite possibly christened La Roja. "Mahalo!" reads the label, Hawaiianly thanking me for giving this unique Jolly Pumpkin concoction a whirl. And oh, what a whirl. An amber, oak-aged (read: sour, not "oaky") bizarro-beer, this Belgian-inspired bit of madness comes from the obvious brewing mecca of Dexter, Michigan. And what's in a name, anyway? It's a joyous conundrum of weirdness that just begs the question of whether the contents of the bottle could possibly be as fun as the packaging and backstory.

Like the good people at Russian River, the Jolly Pumpkin folks post a bottle log containing release notes for each of their beers, giving consumers a hint at what to expect in terms of flavor, aging possibilities, and more, and as far as this batch is concerned: "Sherried barnyard funk" is right. This is a strange and wicked bit of brewing wizardry, this red cat is. Sour and fruity like a Flanders red, but way more dry, vinous and earthy than that, with a blending that's far more representative of the older barrels than the new, as in Rodenbach or Duchesse de Bourgogne, where the sweetness of the younger blends can make you believe there are cherries and currants floating in your glass. No, this is serious stuff, and brilliantly so. It's exactly what a barrel aged beer should taste like: worth cellaring, challenging to the palate, deeply rewarding once confronted, structured to match perfectly with fine cuisine, and richly nuanced enough to warrant 750 mL of tasting enjoyment. So to you, Captain Spooky Ron J (General Mischief Maker, chief squeegee operator), I say this: as weird as the voyage ahead appears, there will be no mutiny on La Roja. Lead the way.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tasting notes - 1809

Of all the historical styles of beer that seemed doomed to sink into the wort of oblivion, obscured by the barm of time, lost in the trub of moderization, Berliner Weisse has most certainly outlived its expectations, to the point where its novelty and scarcity might soon be its saving grace. Whereas in the 17th century this style was easily the most fashionable and commonplace in the chic urban taverns of one of central Europe's most rapidly populated metropolises (both before and after the 30 Years War - during the war, scarce and valuable wheat was reserved for baking), its quenching, refreshing effects should have by all means been no match for the burgeoning effect of Bavaria's lager explosion and the following KO punch of the Czech pilsener. But, we humans like our underdogs and are prone to the weakness of local pride, reasons alone which probably account for the tenacity of this strangely-brewed, much-maligned, and typically adulterated relic of a brew.

Enter Dr. Fritz Briem, Manager of the Doemens College of Technology, Technology Consulting and Faculty Brewery Technology, and head of the Siebel-Doemens international brewing course, stage right. Apparently, that's what it takes to inject some life into Berlin's namesake beer: a PhD from Weihenstephan and a crack team of German scientists from the highest profile brewing academy on the planet. At least they did a good job of it.

I could go on about what exactly this style is all about, but if you look at the label in the image above, you'll see that the good doctor has all but forsaken art in lieu of a near novella on the subject. Before we go any further, check it out:
Already in the 1600s the Berliner Weisse Style Beer was mentioned in documents by the French Huguenots as they crossed Berlin on their way to Flanders. In 1809, the Emperor Napoleon and his troops celebrated their Prussian victory with it. This Berliner Weisse is brewed with traditional mash hoping [sic] and without wort boiling. This along with a traditional strain of lactic acid bacteria provide a fruity and dry but palateful character. A character that Napoleon and his troops characterized as "lively and elegant."
The is the first of the Historic Signature Series, aka "forgotten styles brewed according to their historic recipes by Dr. Fritz Briem of the Doemens Institute," that I've had the joy to sample, and it really is a joy, as the 1809 is a spot-on mimic of the only other major surviving example as made by Berliner-Kindl, and likely quite similar to the one favored back in the day by Albrecht von Wallenstein. It's got a puckeringly quick, sharp, almost citric sourness, a clean, grassy grain character, and only the slightest hint of hop bitterness in the finish. It actually has a great deal in common to the Belgian sour ales, like gueuze and faro, but without the "wild" cheesy, horsey aromas that can dominate those styles. It's that dominantly rustic quality, the haze from the suspended yeast and unfiltered wheat, and natural carbonation that betrays their family ties. It's lighter in effervescence, however, much lower in alcohol (2.8%!) and much more evocative of the German perfection-in-engineering vibe than the Belgian crazy farmer kitchen sink ethos. There's no spontaneous brettanomyces-driven fermentation here, my friends: No, the good doctor has taken care to bring along his own lactobacillus to this party.

One could almost think of this style as a missing link between the highly evolved Belgian lambic family of beers and the traditional southern Bavarian weizen beers. However it fits in the spectrum of Europe's fringe styles, though, this weirdly deviant (mash hopping? no boiling?) style deserves a bit more of the spotlight, and one could only imagine how it would benefit by some modern craft brewers' interpretations.

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Monday, February 25, 2008


I recently opined that there might be a subterranean shortcut to Belgium somewhere in San Francisco due to the recent outcropping of north European specialty bars and restaurants, and I think we may have found it - and you certainly need to go underground to find it. While La Trappe's upstairs dining room could still be mistaken for the model North Beach Italian restaurant that it replaced on the corner of Greenwich and Mason, what with the simple line of small, flower-adorned tables against the tall windows overlooking a turn on the cable car route, it's when you venture downstairs that you think you may have struck upon an anomaly in the space-time continuum and were spit out in a ratskeller style tavern just north of Reims.

Free the Chouffe!

And ohhhhhh, what a tavern it is. 150-plus bottled Belgian-style beers plus just about a dozen brilliant tap choices, and with a menu perfectly suited to pair with the beverage choices a la bière et gastronomie belge, the cellar space has a small bar where you can belly up and chat with the bartender about your choices in the beer book (which isn't even entirely necessary, as the book has detailed descriptions of every single offering), a dozen or so tables, and a dark, cozy, low-to-the-ground (as you'd likely need to be by the end of the night) lounge that in any other locale would likely be called a "chill room", but here, with the low stained-glass monastic lighting, stained glass windows, candlelit tables, and furnished nicely in dark, dark wood, the proper name would more likely be "the refectory."

And in due tribute, we kept it mostly monastic in our (admittedly limited) tasting choices for the night. Off the tap list I had the joy of trying the Konongshoeven Quad (and yes, as of September, 2005, once again officially a Trappist product), a thickly syrupy cara-molasses monster that still paired far too well with my frites with spicy aioli, and Des enjoyed a bottle of the Rochefort 6 (they were out of the 8 and didn't offer the 10, sadly), which was surprisingly rich and full-bodied for being at the low end of that brewery's range, a nicely spicy, well-balanced mahogany treat that only made me yearn for the 10 (which I still haven't found, thank you very much) all that much more.

Quad the pleasure, quad the fun!

The real winner of the evening's cavalcade of the malted stars was the (on tap!) Gulden Draak, a dry black behemoth with a nearly impenetrable root beer float head on it, deliciously reminiscent (but stonger, intenser, deeper, and just "more-er") of some Belgian stouts that we've been comparing lately. A gift to the patient drinker, as it took about 5 minutes to pour, it matched as well with the charcuterie and cheese plate as I imagine it would have with dessert. And the food, not an afterthought, was quite good as well: I decided to save the chicken waterzooi for our next visit as I was drawn to the Marin Sun Farms burger (okay, I was really just drawn to the frites, but still) served on a brioche, while Des enjoyed the coconut curried moules et frites (again with the frites!) served in a branded Wittekerke mussel pot.

More bread, please.

As dark as it is down there, and as dorky as I generally feel taking photos of food and menu pages (doesn't stop me from writing about it, though, does it?), I do always manage to get a shot or two of the little sprout (here seen "all done" after reading the beer book, which does give you the chance to see just how nicely it's put together - see the flipped and zoomed version below). Page 14 (!) doesn't really do the menu justice as it's all about the bottles they stock from European countries outside of Belgium, but I do think I'll have to give the Babycham a go next time I'm in the 'hood looking for a warm summer's lunchtime bevvy. (Oh, and that one that Mia's covering on the bottom? That's Belzebuth, the 13% abv strong pale from France. She's hiding it in fear we'd mistakenly order it.)

Beware the Belzebuth!

Unlike another recent Belgian cuisine outing we took, La Trappe completely deserves a re-visit, if not just to try the stewed apples, but also for the other 13 pages of that book to go through. Next time, maybe I'll glance through the door at the end of the hallway past the restrooms to see if my hunch is correct, and that the Manneken Pis is only a few steps further along.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Proof that teh internets loves us and wants us to be happy

For those of you who have long dubbed the online forum, the chat room and the blog as vast wastes of time, those of you who deride others for their instant messaging, Facebooking, MySpacing, Craigslist-missed-connectioning and cat-macroing, those of you who think we all oughta stop with the googlebits and the tubes and the pron and go outside, get some fresh air, lose some weight, maybe kiss a girl... I give you this:

Sure, it's not like we can control the weather or end world hunger or calculate the last digit of pi or find proof of terrestrial visits by aliens, but we can make beer. Or better yet: We can inspire beer. De Regenboog's BBBourgondier is Johan Brandt's commemorative ale (and pretty scarce with a limited production of a mere 50 cases per year) brewed in honor of the Burgundian Babble Belt, the definitive and singular online community of Belgian beer nuts. And it's not the only one: Dany Prignon also once produced a tribute beer under the Fantôme label BBB Babillard. How much input the members of the forum actually had on the recipe is pretty debatable, but one thing's for sure: It's a damn fine beverage and the folks at the BBB are most certainly proud to be associated with it.

A hazy, yeasty, slighty wild concoction, this. Figgy dark fruits, sweetly evident dark sugars, and harboring a slightly yeasty bitterness that gives way to a vinous and dry finish, the Bourgondier is like the farm-raised bastard child of a Belgian strong ale and a British barley wine. Way less effervescent than a typical Belgian, and only truly giving up its secrets once warmed to a good 60 degrees, the caramel layer becomes balanced by a certain herbal brightness which could either be coming from the hops or intriguing addition of valerian root - a not-so-coded reference to this truly being a nightcap of a drink.

It's refreshing, too, considering the spate of beer-related groups cropping up all over the net now, seeing as it's become de rigueur for folks to build their own topic-specific social networks via sites like Ning. Two newer ones in specific - Democracy's Drink and The Aleuminati - both have professional and home brewers, BJCP judges and PBR acolytes, published beer writers and *ahem* paltry beer bloggers counted amidst their ranks. And when I find myself feeling a little guilty about taking a minute to check on the forum discussions or upload some ridiculously dorky photo of a nice-looking pour, I just have to tell myself: Hey, maybe there is a greater symbiotic relationship between brewer and taster than ever before. And who knows? It's not distributed computing by any means, but if the lowly discussion forum can create give rise to the Bourgondier, anything is possible.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hoptical illusion?

While curiously scouting the newest offerings from the regional brewers in hopes of backing up the claim from my last post that we'd be seeing a reaction to the current hop fiasco via low- and no-hop beers, I stumbled upon something that looking as foreboding as black clouds across the beer horizon: Cascade-afficionados Sierra Nevada has started putting an ESB - "Early Spring Beer" [their words, not mine] - on shelves. I can't remember seeing this submission from our friends in Chico in years past, and is even conveniently labeled (in case you find some in an abandoned trailer party time capsule in the future) as the "2008" vintage. After trying it, both Des and my initial reaction was that it's essentially a de-hopped amber ale pitched as being in the British brewing tradition of balance over bitterness. (Frankly, I pictured them standing in a near-vacant hops warehouse and trying to figure out how they were going to be able to brew enough of their bread-and-butter SNPA for a summer's worth of barbecues and baseball games.) But oddly, its (uncited) entry on Wikipedia lists it as almost 10 IBUs higher than the iconic pale ale. What gives? Of course, my taste buds could also be shot - the best use we found for the ESB was in a cream sauce for some chicken cordon bleu - but still, Des' nose never lies.

Of course, it's probably not wiki-vandalism at work, but rather the concept of hop bitterness perception versus actual IBUs. Could it simply be the crystal malts masking the hops, or a difference in water treatment, or even just a different level of carbonation?

So while I haven't yet found the smoking gun to prove my theory on the move to reduced hop usage, one interesting point did crop up in the research on the ESB [and please, people, it's extra special bitter] that Sierra Nevada's offering as its spring seasonal: The hops used - English Challenger & East Kent Goldings - are imports, rather than varietals from the West Coast's Yakima Valley stable. And it's even dry-hopped! Maybe the winds of change are already blowing...

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The "lost" year, ep. 1 - the highlight reel

As promised, here are some of the great things about 2007 (that I neglected to mention previously) they made me reach for a nice, celebratory beer:

The Belgians are coming! The Belgians are coming!
It was the year of the Chouffe, as three new Belgian bars - The Trappist in Oakland, La Trappe in North Beach, and The Monk's Kettle in the Mission - all introduced the masses to what has really been a tenet of beer epicurean/snob life for ages: Belgian beer is a perfect match for the Bay Area's foodie obsessives. Mussels steamed in witbier? Chimay cheese plates and frites with curry ketchup? Add these venues to the ever-expanding Frijtz franchise, and these joints'll soon be outnumbering the taquerias.

The Healthy Spirits & City Beer Store Nexus of Beerjoy
Trace circles around Healthy Spirits, the City Beer Store and Toronado on a San Francisco map, locate the point at which the circles intersect, and dig a hole at that spot, you're likely to strike a portal to Belgium, or at the very least, Valhalla. With peerless square footage dedicated to the proper storage and glorious display of some of the world's rarest malted concoctions (I write as I finish a glass of Allagash Musette), these two newcomers to the retail scene promise to be for beersnobbery what Plumpjack was to winesnobbery, which is to say, open it up to the masses for everyone to play along. Especially Healthy Spirits - located in the aptly named Eureka Valley neighborhood on the north border of the Castro, it's a true oasis behind an unassuming corner store facade. Outstanding.

Maui Brewing Company makes case for serious brewing on the islands

So what if I told you that there's a little brewery in a run-down old strip mall in the midst of the condo-mania that is the northwest coast of Maui? And that one of their specialties is a coconut porter? And that they package limited quantities of their beers in cans? And that they don't even have outdoor seating? Not interested? What if I told you that for all that is good and holy in the name of Gambrinus that you have to go? You'd think I was joking, wouldn't you. I'm not. It's actually quite phenomenal. Seriously. Some of the best brewpub beer I've ever had. Even their Belgian is extraordinary. And that coconut porter? It's amazing. And the cans? Well, read this.

DeProef does it all

This was the year we discovered the panoply of offerings from this Belgian brouwerij (thanks, Shelton Brothers!) which could easily be called upon to introduce anyone to any style of Belgian ale. In a recent discussion with the buyer at Healthy Spirits, who denounced their version of the Flanders wild ale for not being brett-y enough, I opined that, like the rest of their selections, acted as a gateway version to the more seriously nuanced interpretations you could find. Everything from an imperial saison to a dark all-malt quadrupel to a old-style witbier, these guys can (and do) run the gamut with style.

Up next: the stuff from last year that I wanted to spend more time bitching and moaning about, but didn't...

Pfun pfacts! Hey kids, did you know that in Austria, a Pfiff is a measurement of 0.125 liters, and asking for a "Pfiff" in a restaurant will get you a teeny glass of beer? Try it!

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