Thursday, April 16, 2009

Belgium comes to 94117

Just over a week ago, on a clear and cool Sunday morning, I slipped into the pre-dawn air armed with a freshly sharpened chef's blade and a fully fueled butane torch, cruised quickly along the empty trellis roads that connect the scattered hamlets of central Marin, and scaled the Waldo Grade only to quietly descend into a still-slumbering and peculiarly vacant Lower Haight, through those fabled Dutch doors, to receive word of my next instructions. After having harvested one of the meal's ingredients the day before, my last directives had been simple: pack a nice blade and get a good night's rest. And thus it began.
Holding the key to my cheese n' beer loving heart.
To backtrack a little... It's Belgian beer month, which means the taps at Toronado are currently loaded with things like, oh Cantillon Grand Cru, Ellezelloise Hercule, and Struise Tsjeeses. It was but a year ago when, in assuming that we'd be the early birds, first in line to tap a flight of David Keane's annual cornucopia of imported wonderments, Des and I headed down to Toronado at our first free moment only to find it shuttered up, thanks to some mysterious and hitherto unknown special event. But based off the scraps of information we were able to glean from some considerably bent and slurry patrons, who shared lusty tales aside proffered dregs of some truly luminous rarities, it was then that I declared I'd find some way - by whatever means, if you want - to be on the other side of those locked doors when the following March's lambs and lions had marched through: in April of 2009, I was going to somehow be inside that kitchen.
More abbey cheese than you can shake a censer at.

And as it so happens, with the rusty tubes of my waking synapses gradually flickering to life as the caffeine made its steady course into my consciousness, that was the spot I found myself: Inside a bar still resonating from the nightlife that had only just departed scant hours before, alongside some familar and equally tired faces, with the unprecedented (and encore) privilege of joining Mr. Sean Z. Paxton for what was to be the culinary equivalent of the Ring cycle, a six-hour long gustatory bonanza nearly a year in the making (that is, since the last one).
Stinky gnomes and Westvleteren. As it should be.

Sean, as a man considered by many to be the premiere visionary in the realm of marrying beer with modern haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy,  is no stranger to the spotlight in the foodie-beerie circles. A well-known mercenary chef-for-hire, regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine, a speaker at the National Homebrewers Conference, and one who's consulted regularly by publications looking to get edubacted in the art of cuisine à la bière and beer and food pairing, his moniker of "The Homebrew Chef" alludes to his simultaneous passions of brewing, cooking, and finding harmonious inroads between the two. Here, under the auspices of Toronado's Belgian beer month, he's made it his mission to pull out all the stops. In a way, it's his tribute to Dave Keane's fearless ambassadorship of the challenging, palate-expanding beers of Belgium, aside from being a chance to flex some creative muscle for patrons who like having their culinary horizons broadened.
I imagine he's still airing out the suitcase all this arrived in.

First, the beer: Not only were there twenty beers with which to pair, but another twenty beers with which all the courses were prepared. And lest you think we're talking beercan chicken here, note that some of the world's most highly regarded and sought-after beers - Scaldis Noel, Fantome La Dalmatienne, De Ranke Pere Noel, Halve Maan Brugse Zot - never even made it to the table for folks to taste, only existing as ingredients within each of the twelve courses. Lest anyone be concerned that the day's events were going to be a retread of the classics, though, the day began with the first public West Coast tapping of a keg of Duvel Green, the new filtered, non-refermented, draft version of the quintessential Belgian strong golden ale. The next five hours saw a parade of Belgium's rainbow of beer diversity make its way to the tables, from the light and hoppy to the dark and strong through all iterations between, with the closing bookend on the day the 2007 Saucerful of Secrets that Sean brewed himself with Firestone Walker.
Well, that's certainly a lot of caviar. Or is it?

And then, the food: One course which I got to have my hand in (hence the freshly sharpened knife) was the cheese course, consisting entirely of Belgian, mostly abbey cheeses hand-carried by Sean himself in a single, 60 lb. suitcase just days prior to the event. And thanks to the beauty of sous vide cooking techniques, much of the actual cooking had already been taken care of, with curing, infusing, marinading, and pickling all having been done in sealed plastic bags, which was a comforting convenience as Toronado, in case you'd never noticed, doesn't actually have a kitchen.
My, my, what are you going to do with all those black truffles?

Ah, but of course.

That's correct. Somehow, some way, the entire twelve-course meal for seventy-odd diners with prepared with nothing more than an immersion heater and a couple of propane burners. And if there's a real bit of artistry at work in a dinner like this that needs to be spotlit, I think it has to be the orchestration of such a massive culinary undertaking with such limited resources. Sure, there was the "wort honey", a batch of pre-hopped homebrewed beer that Sean made, reduced to a caramel-like consistency, and blended with a local honey. And sure, there was the homemade pork pate and duck rillettes. And yeah, there was the aforementioned Cantillon Iris and bone marrow gastrique. But seriously, managing to supervise an amateur staff in a room primarily designed for drinking, coordinating the delivery of the equivilant of 900 dishes of five-star cuisine via a space the Toronado staff lovingly refer to as "the birth canal", and singlehandedly bringing this menu to life with not much more than a pot of hot water, a couple tanks of propane, a crack torch and a syringe?

Now that, my friends, is kitchen professionalism.

If you haven't already, go ahead and mark off April 4, 2010 on your calendar, as you've now got plans that day.
Because if you were duck fat aioli, you'd be smiling, too.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Can the circle be unbroken?

It was bound to happen at some point: A photo by a beer blogger of another beer blogger who happens to be taking a photo (of beer!) while sitting next to yet another drink blogger, only to be published on (you guessed it!) another beer blog.

From Bill Brand's What's On Tap site, I give you the following ghostly image:

It's an uncanny apparition in reference to the piece I wrote about that stellar evening, and how it spawned a discussion regarding beer writing in the context of the direction of this particular blog. (Also note Des' sneaky move on the cheese plate while I was distracted by the panoply of beer glasses in front of me.) If there isn't a better portrayal of the little conundrum I find tickling away in the back of my mind about the increasingly crowded field of beer writing, Pfiff!'s role within that community, and the "inside baseball" nature of this chosen hobby, I haven't yet seen it.

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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

Bilocation Monday

Not to give too much of a Catholic slant to today's posts, but there's no way I'm going the cheesy pop music reference on this one. This coming weekend is the annual fabled Cathedral Hill beer dinner, which means that the City will be crawling with some of our country's finest brewers over the next few days as they bask in the glow of getting the gourmet food pairing treatment they richly deserve, one that's characteristically reserved for vintners. The upshot for folks like me who neglected to get tickets to the quickly sold-out dinner is that we'll be treated to some other events while they recuperate around the Bay Area on Monday. Of course, that also means you have to somehow be in two places at once, if you want to hit the two best parties.

In this corner! Rob Tod, brewer for the consistently outstanding Allagash brewery in Portland, Maine, is hosting a (sold out?) tasting at the Trappist in Oakland, featuring the following libations:

Barrel-Aged - Musette
Barrel-Aged - Odyssey
Série d'Origine - Interlude addition to:

- Allagash White
- Allagash Curieux (served with eggplant and goat cheese focaccia & turkey and gouda cream biscuit)
- Black (served with Fleur Verte herbed goat cheese plate & almond fig cake)
- Allagash ?? Tripel aged in oak with the Rosalaere culture (unnamed unreleased beer)
(served with a Roth Kase Braukase Trappist Style cheese plate)
- Allagash Four (served with a flourless chocolate tort)

And in the other corner! Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Brewing's founder, will be loading the jukebox at Toronado with NWOBHM before pulling out some Olde Beer & Moldy Cheese at 6:00 p.m. to celebrate DFH finally making its way into Bay Area taprooms. It's not sold out, but just because they're not selling tickets, making for a mosh pit of a tasting, for sure. Featuring nothing less than:

- 2007 Olde School Barleywine with Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar
- 2007 Immort Ale with Isle of Mull Cheddar
- 2006 Chateau Jiahu with Berkswell

And while it's not quite the litany of beverages you'd get to sample with Mr. Tod, the fact that you couldn't even get your hands on these wickedly rare beers in San Francisco unless you agreed to sell your soul (and a bottle of Temptation) on a beer trading site is why we're going to be suggesting Motörhead and the boar sausage instead of hitting the Maze on April 21st. A recap, complete with photos of me licking Sam Calagione's beautiful face, are certain to follow.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Every month is Belgian beer month

But April, especially so... One gets overly, some might say unduly excited at the prospects that Toronado's yearly month of Belgian love could deliver. So it was with great terror that we came across this sign posted to the door yesterday when we arrived to get our fix:

There was a point when I thought that that picture was going to be all I'd be posting this morning. But no! Actually, our timing actually worked out to be somewhat of an advantage, considering when we finally slipped in, we essentially walked in on the tail end of a total (and somewhat secret) lovefest: the annual Toronado Belgian beer and food pairing dinner, whipped up by local beer chef Sean Paxton Bruce Paton (of the infamous Cathedral Hill beer dinners) [thanks, Alan]. Brookston, Vinnie, David - all the local beer cognoscenti were there and particularly chummy having just finished a 12 11 course [thanks again], 15 (!) beer tasting day that had started at 11:30 am. And the beers! Oh the beers. Started with one of my all-time favorites, a draught pour of the Cuvee van der Keizer from Gouden Carolus, a complete stunner of a strong dark Belgian special ale, and it just got better from there.

From front to back - Val Dieu Grand Cru, Brasserie Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux, and a spur of Bosteels Kwak. (And yes, that's the cleanest, brightest Toronado you're ever going to see.) Thanks to the kindness of a slightly inebriated stranger, we also got to sample one of Russian River's mostest specialest barrel-aged beers, the Toronado Twentieth Anniversary Ale, as poured from a 3L (!) cork-finished bottle, a truly exceptional, high-octane Flanders red. The cruelest month? Eliot obviously never paired a saison with boar sausage...

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Quickly now, before the sun comes back out

Stop right there. Calmly step away from the cooler, and keep your hands where I can see them. Now without any sudden movements, put down the Bitburger Pilsner and Hoegaarden. It may seem like spring has already been underway for weeks, but that suggestion would leave you bereft of one of the last great pleasures of wintertime: an excellent, well-aged barleywine. Thankfully, there's still some rain and gloom in the forecast, so pull out a nice piece of stinky blue cheese, some fatty, salty salumi and check this out:

Billed as Des' top choice (of the ones we got to choose between) at the 2007 Toronado Barleywine Festival, the good people at North Coast Brewing are offering the 2005 Old Stock ale as a cellar release - and they'll even ship it to you if you're in California. It's a stunner of the style, and if you bought a four-pack of it when it hit the shelves two years ago, you're amongst the rare and dignified if you managed to preserve a bottle or two for vintage's sake, so now you can redeem your gluttony, refill your supply, kick back with Tennyson and guiltlessly open one up as a toast "'gainst the winter's balm" while waiting out the last of Demeter's wrath. And then spring can officially begin, lhude sing cuccu and all that jazz.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Yes, I missed it. Yes, I suck. Yes, I know.

For the first time in years, I missed the Toronado barleywine festival due to outrageously phenomenal weather, but that didn't stop Brookston from obviously having a blast and getting some prime blackmail shots out of it in the process. The good news is, North Bay mavericks Lagunitas won top honors - and I just happen to be sitting on a certificate for a tour of that brewery gifted to me by a friend, so maybe I'll get to try the 2006 Gnarleywine while stirring the mash for the 2008 batch...

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Save your barstool!

With the snow level in the Bay Area dropping to 1,500 feet today and more dark, damp, and cold promised for the foreseeable future, one's mind naturally turns to the comforting, fortifying things in life. Like barley wine, for instance. Which, incidentally, just happens to be the focus for one of the more globally attended beer festivals outside of Munich every mid-February which means it's time - yes! - once again, to mark your calendars for the Toronado Barleywine festival. It's simple: Just pop your head in sometime next week, order a drink, put a coaster on the rim of the glass and step out like you're grabbing a smoke. I guarantee that when you come back in two week's time, your seat will still be waiting for you.

I know, I know - I mention it every time it comes around, and in a past year mostly bereft of posts, it seems like an especially lame thing to comment on. But c'mon, It's like not mentioning Kwanzaa or Sea Org Day. It would simply be duplicitous of me to call myself a beer lover and not make reference to our very own Walpurgisnacht. For old time's sake, here's a refresher on some festivals past... See you there!

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Barely time for barley wine

If you haven't made it down to Toronado's annual festival of the wine that is not of the vine but of the bine, you might want to head down there ass-app, as the flow be gettin' low. Historically, the best stuff is gone by Saturday (the judging panel on Friday night gets firsts dibs, as it were), and as we trundled down on an especially busy Monday evening, nearly half the taps had run dry. So while we'll never know what was on taps 6, 12, 13, 17, 24, 29, 30, 33, 48, 50, and 51, nor will I know the joy of Glacier's French oak-aged Big Woody, Pelican's nobly hopped Storm Watcher, or San Francisco Brewing's 13-month old Ginsberg tribute Howl.

But there were others, and lo, did we taste them. If you're quick enough to catch them, here are some worth the $1.75 price of entry:

North Coast Old Stock 2005 - Des' pick of the year. NCBC is a perennial favorite, with their Old Stock being one of the only ales I routinely cellar for vertical tastings, and the 2005 batch is no exception. Exquisitely balanced and well-rounded, without a hint of oxidation for its age, and with a surprisingly long-lasting hop finish.

JW Lees Harvest Ale - We disagreed on this one. I picked it as my favorite of the year because it was just so anomalous to the rest of the showings. A truly British concoction with but the faintest whiff of carbonation and nary a hint of hops, Des summed it up thusly: "Smells like butterscotch, tastes like butterscotch". But yet I loved it so.

Deschutes Mirror Mirror 2005 - This was last year's favorite and it's still a stand-out. Intensely perfumed with wet hop dry hop whatever hop action, this extra-strength Mirror Pond could easily be renamed an Imperial West Coast Pale Ale.

Big Sky Old Bluehair - From the folks who brought you the Drool, this is a finely tannic, wickedly bitter, bourbon-tinged delight. All hail the barrel-agers!

Mad River John Barleycorn 2006 - I keep coming back to this one, the prickliest one of the bunch. While it might mellow with age, it's a joy to drink it young and while its characteristics have yet to marry, piney and resinous hops making for a somewhat unrefined and American Primitive experience. I could make some rude, punny metaphor about that, but I won't. Fahey in a glass.

Go forth! As ephemeral as all good craft beer is, you're not likely to find these on tap again any time soon. And sorry, no photos. Just imagine a really crowded bar with tons of teeny tiny glasses strewn all over the place, and a handful of dogs (including a Weimaraner, but I didn't see Wegman anywhere).

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