Saturday, May 28, 2005

1,000 bottles of beer on the wall...

Want to know about where to grab a drink in NY? Ask this guy, as he seems to have time for nothing else.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hop crop, pt. 3

Disaster strikes! While our Santiam and Kent Goldings have been progressing admirably, considering the subpar number of hours in direct sunlight, it's been our beloved Willamette who's really been shining. However, while delicately attempting to train the boldest bine the other day, I accidentally snapped (!) the end of the vine. One frenzied InterWeb™ search later, it seems there's little I can do but hope that a secondary vine decides to sprout laterally near the broken stem and proceed along the proscribed path.
Of course, I'd love any advice you blogsurfing horticulturalists might have for repairing/grafting hop bines. As it stands, the information on the web seems focused primarily on the somewhat bizarre notion of trying to disguise marijuana plants by grafting them onto hops, thus creating a superpowered hemphop hybrid... Ahem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A rainbow of grain flavors

There's a reason why home beer- and wine-making catalogs invariably contain sections on equipment for roasting your own coffee beans, or making your own vinegar or soda. The fundamental truth beyond even the lure of cheap alcohol is simple (and just think what those catalogs would look like if they legalized home distillation): most of us home/craftbrewers are for all intents and purposes control freaks. Beyond anything else, we seem unified by the desire to make something from scratch while tweaking every variable along the way. So why stop at simply hybridizing styles and trying to add color without flavor? I mean, it's not like you're some Beer Machine-using loser. With all the variables already in play, why not throw another wrench into the works by trying to grow all your own ingredients?
Even if you're short on time and acreage and don't feel like killing old John yourself, you can take control over your own malting if you're feeling frisky. Whether you plan on doing the whole shebang, from green barley to finished product, or if you just want to improve upon or experiment with finished malts, all you need is a good oven and a bit of free time to get cracking. It's just all about where you rank on the obsessometer.
Take for brown ale malt, for example. Some commercial maltsters have reintroduced this malt for brewers who want to recreate British brown ales in a more historically accurate way, but it's quite easy (and considerably cheaper) make it yourself with regular old 2-row pale malt. A brown ale made with a combination of 2-row and your own brown malt (rather than using crystal or chocolate malts to deepen the color) will succeed in producing a beer that's a) much more complex, toasty flavor and b) richly rewarding to the control freak side of you. And there's no reason to stop there. If you consider the number of grades of crystal malt there are, the room for experimentation is near overwhelming. But after you've had a pot of your home-roasted coffee, you might just have the energy to get to it.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Tasting notes - Oudbeitje Lambic

Years ago, a friend of mine was preparing for his first trip to Europe, and our conversation naturally turned to regional specialties of the beer world, and of those, which ones were still uncommon here in the states. Upon hearing he'd be stopping through Berlin, my thoughts immediately turned to the classic Berliner Weisse. What could be more anomalous in the great German brewing tradition than a cloudy wheat beer tinged with lactic sourness typically served with raspberry or woodruff syrup? Oh, but how clouded was I by my fascination of all things beery in suggesting such a drink to a boy on his Fitzgeraldian travels towards manhood? How could I have suggested to a young, heterosexual man roaming through Berlin to enter a bar, cast a knowing glance about the room, and proudly order a pink drink? I have yet to live down the shame of my misguided advice.
One might feel the same way upon purchasing a bottle of Hanssen's Oudbeitje Lambic, what with its frilly script and lovingly detailed strawberries on the label. But they would be wrong in assuming they had acquired a beer in the ranks of a Bartles & James wine cooler. There's a very simple maxim in Belgian beer label typography: The cuter the label, the freakier the beer. Opening up this beer, you're quickly struck by a deeply true strawberry aroma, but that's where the cuteness ends. The friendly strawberry aroma is slowly replaced by the brew's more honest core - cheese, "farm", and funk - which only intensifies upon your first sip. The berry never returns to calm the proceedings as you continue to taste, which are instead dominated by a sharp, acetic sourness which isn't even cleared off your palate with a refreshing dose of carbonation. Disregard its appearance in the photo - this beer is almost dead flat. [And yes, I do occasionally enjoy a beer without first propping it up on my kitchen counter for a photo shoot.]
However, contrary to how it might seem from the above description, this isn't an entirely unpleasant tipple. It's a vividly complex appetite-rouser with that crisp, dry finish that blended lambics so excel at. And for those on the road of lambic discovery, it's a worthwhile side excursion from the more popular, overly sweet options. And who knows? Perhaps the lack of carbonation was due to age (2000) or cork or handling. Either way, if you come across a bottle, give it some consideration. Just don't order one in public if you're trying to be macho - the puckering face you'll make will ruin the image.


Friday, May 20, 2005

Your pledge drive dollars at work

In case you missed it last week, NPR hosted a bit of a boozefest with the king of the liquor essayists, Michael Jackson, as well as interviewing author Tom Standage in regards to his new book, A History of the World in Six Glasses. I'd just love to know which beer is giving Michele Norris the gas face.

Drunken tiger fighting style

Perhaps nothing more than an exercise in PR hacks patting themselves on the backs (I personally take everything Charlie says with a grain of salt), this report just published from the Brewers Association begs the question: When was the last time you or anyone you knew bought any beers by either Widmer or Pyramid? This year's "tiger report" seems to point out an embarrassing truism; whereas the megabrewers succeed by mass-producing flavorless lawnmower lagers, the top craft brewers succeed by mass-producing flavorless lawnmower hefeweizens. Maybe it's a sign of change that New Belgium has climbed the ranks as they have, but let's just hope that they stick to their wonderfully broad palette, and don't get into the act of pandering to the masses themselves...

Monday, May 16, 2005

First sign of summer

It seems like only yesterday that I was giddily typing up notes about the wonderful beers that herald the arrival of spring. And yet, a new early bird of the summer brewing season has arrived. In craft brewing circles, that generally means one thing: wheat beers. American-style hefeweizens, house ales cut with malted wheat, or pilsners produced for a lighter, more refreshing finish seem to dominate the field, as polar opposites to the robust, dark and malty brews that the same houses produce for the winter months. Anderson Valley's Summer Solstice (oddly subtitled Cerveza Crema is a wholly different beast in that it's their way of responding to the fans of their classic (drumroll please...) Winter Solstice. By that, they went ahead and made a lighter (5.6% abv), more lawnmower-friendly version of their winter warmer (6.9% abv), resulting in something of a cross between a maibock and Fat Tire - sweet and malty with vanilla in the aroma, with a biscuity, toasty palate and a long, smooth finish. Is the Crema creamy? Fluffy, more like. But I guess it sounds better than cerveza mullido. It's an interesting approach to the "ultimate shady hammock cooler" that all the craftsters eventually jockey for at this time of year. Almost perilously underhopped for a beer out of Northern California, it's still a good bet for your bbq shopping list. Just consider pairing it with milder (ie German or British) foods, as this cerveza won't do the trick washing that salsa picante off your tongue, amigo.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Tasting notes - Allagash Curieux

Much better than a boilermaker.

Not long ago, I commented to a local brewer that I could probably help him get a decent price on French oak barrels, were he to ever start experimenting with aging some of his stronger ales. He was quick to dismiss what he saw as a faddish notion - one that might grab some quick attention, sure, but was ultimately a gimmick. I think the "gimmick" argument is flawed in that he ultimate success of craft brewers depends on their ability to provide in a way that the megabrewers can't. That is, the hands-on attention to detail, creative experimentation, and willingness to deviate from traditional practice that the craft brewer can afford to engage in will provide beer enthusiasts with a wider array and higher quality product than the big guys. Simply put, the more complicated the procedure and the more esoteric the ingredients, the less likely major brewing houses are going to get involved. Which is precisely why there are more homebrewers out there right now than there ever has been in this country - they can afford to get intimately involved with those ingredients and processes, of which barrel aging is one such example.
Let any argument over gimmicks and fads end over a glass of this beer. The first batch in a limited series of oak-aged ales put out by the often spectacular Allagash brewing house in Maine, Curieux is a phenomenal achievement. Supposedly, a shipment of the 750mL champagne bottles in which they bottle their tripel was waylaid on route from France. As a sort of stopgap measure, the brewery bought some used bourbon barrels from Jim Beam, and racked the batch into the oak until their bottles arrived. As suspiciously convenient as the story sounds, it doesn't matter. Unlike some other "oaked" versions of house recipes, Curieux is a wholly different experience from the Allagash Tripel, and in a good way.
It's a hugely alcoholic beer in the vein of a Belgian strong golden ale, coming in at 11% abv, and with a very clear, deep gold color (nowhere near the bourbon brown I was imagining). Despite a high level of natural carbonation, the head dissipated very quickly, but not without leaving some nice lace on the glass. It has a very spicy citrusy, tart aroma, with the oak only really coming through as it warms up in the glass. The taste is sweet and buttery at first, with vanilla and banana, which recedes into a strong finish of alcohol burn and a woody dryness.
Considering that the use of wood for beer storage predates stainless steel by, oh, about 5,000 years, it shouldn't seem that out of place in the modern day craft brewhouse, especially those who make higher gravity beers such as imperial stouts and porters, Belgian saisons, French biere de gardes, etc. And it doesn't have to stop there, if you consider that even Pilsner Urquell was aged primarily in wood up until a few years ago. Perhaps it's the trend of tossing a few oak cubes into the house brew and acting like it's a big deal that inspires gimmicky concerns, or maybe it's the folks barrel their IPA and continuously rock them back and forth to simluate the effects of a long sea voyage to India... Whatever. If you come across one of the 290 existing cases of Curieux, by all means: buy it. It's the perfect beer for cellaring, as well, considering the alcohol content and the complexity of the flavor. And if you just can't find it, grab a six-pack of (the considerably less expensive) Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale instead and decide for yourself whether barrel aging is a gimmick or not.


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Another Bay Area beer blog

I have no idea why someone who gets paid to write about beer would look so... disappointed? Miserable? Defeated? Regardless, if you're looking to find what's new in your local grocer's cooler, brewing events around the area, or general industry hullabaloo, feel free to add Bill Brand to your bookmarks.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The doctor would've been proud

"Good people drink good beer." - Hunter S. Thompson
"Proceeds from the sale of Gonzo Imperial Porter will go towards building the Gonzo Memorial Fist in Aspen. The 150 foot stone column complete with a giant red fist at its summit will tower above Hunter’s Owl Farm Estate for all eternity." Wow.

Poor Ganesh just wants to party

Brewerania geeks, act fast: Lost Coast Brewery has apparently been drawn into a $1 billion (!) lawsuit by a man claiming the brewery's use of Ganesh on their Indica IPA label "intimidates Hindus from practicing their religion."
"It's a hate crime." Yeah. If there's one thing you can say about breweries in the Humboldt Nation, it's that they're evil oppressors hellbent on scaring Hindus. Or could it be that they're all just stoned and think a multi-armed elephant god is pretty trippy? I guess the courts will decide.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Reborn ales of yore, pt. 2

Aimee has a good point. With all the detail I tried to include in my post on the practice of resurrecting ancient beer styles, I neglected to get down to the nitty-gritty - that is, what do these brews actually taste like? What's the point of painstakingly reinventing a beer that tastes like "paintbrush water"? This especially concerns those who're interested in brewing their own versions. It's one thing to find yourself spitting out a sip of something nasty - confronting a 60-gallon barrel of undrinkable funk is a different story.
Of these styles currently brewed by major labels, you can assume that they take some liberties in adjusting the recipe to suit modern tastes (hence Anchor Steam's use of the term "essayist" instead of "copycat"). I'll just let you draw your own conclusions about how the truly ancient brews must have tasted, considering that they were unboiled (think chunky), unflavored (think blechy), unfiltered (think murky), spontaneously fermented (think sourdough), and had a moldy, bacterial head on them so thick you needed a straw to pierce through to the liquid below. Hey, man -whatever it takes to relax after a long day of hunting and gathering.
Having not tried many of the specific brews I mentioned in the last post (what with my somewhat meager tasting budget), I can only speak on one I've personally had the pleasure of imbibing recently. Alba Scott's pine ale by Brewery Craigmore is a wonderfully rich, flavorful brew. The pine takes the place of the hops, leaving it very sweet and malty, with a woodsy aroma and slightly resinous finish. It's so good, in fact, that I'm keeping an eye out for their other historical oddities - Fraoch heather ale, Grozet gooseberry ale, Ebulum elderberry black ale, Kelpie (ha!) seaweed ale - to see how they compare.
My recommendation, if you're eager to taste something truly primitive, is to try to find beers whose recipes which either omit or greatly restrict the use of hops, as those tend to reflect older styles which pre-date their use in bittering and flavoring. Examples would include the aforementioned pine ale, heather ale, as well as sahti and gotlandsdricka. And I wouldn't suppose that you're going to have as hard a time finding examples of these as it used to be, as the taste for "something different" seems to be providing the market with resurrected styles all the time.

Cheat sheet for the lost beer hunter

If only this had a pronounciation guide!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Tomorrow, the world of beersnobs and I will graciously avert our eyes whilst you all enjoy your Coronas with lime, your Tecates, your Pacificos, your whatevers. Just - please, for the love of Aegir, I'm begging you - please avoid Crazy Ed's Cave Creek Chili Beer. Please.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Reborn ales of yore

There was quite a bit of hullaballoo a couple years ago when the infamously creative brewing house Dogfish Head went and "recreated" the beverage (made mostly from malted grain, so let's call it beer) that was served at the funerary feast of King Midas. As popular as the experiment between the University of Pennsylvania and DH has been, there have been other attempts at reviving bygone brewing recipes - all in the name of science, of course - with the results varying widely in drinkability.
One recent bit of historical mashing on the highly drinkable end of the spectrum has been taken up by Yards Brewing, with their reinvention of a "small beer" (not to be confused with the weak small beer that's made from second runnings) as described by George Washington. Where else can you go and enjoy the "ales of the revolution" over lunch other than at the City Tavern in Philadelphia? Beer brewed with spruce tips in the place of hops is actually quite common in a number of olden styles. From ancient Scotch ales through the Age of Discovery through the colonists, spruce and pine have been used in unhopped ales to counteract the malt's sweetness much like the Finnish use juniper in their sahti.
On the other hand, you have your projects that aim to replicate the times when beer was just what happened to last nights' uneaten gruel. Consider this before embarking on your own ancient beer brewing expedition. The question you should ask yourself before you begin is, "Do I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor, or would I prefer to be disgusted by the lengths at which my forefathers went to get loaded?"
Rather than leave some stale bread in a bowl of water next to a drafty window, consider investigating the Sumerian Beer Project handled by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Consulting the same University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Solomon Katz who worked on Midas Touch, they set off to brew according to the guidelines posited in the Hymn of Ninkasi. Most infamously known for its being the earliest written acknowledgement of brewing, the hymn was used by Fritz & Co. as the basis for their own Ninkasi ale. Their approach, using the data gleaned from these various sources to brew "essay" beers, seems to be quite reasonable. Rather than stripping down to their loincloths and fashioning crude gruelbooze from their kids' uneaten oatmeal, they - and Dogfish Head, for that matter - have taken the line between art and science that brewers love to tread, and used it to help them bring something ancient to life.

"It is an attempt, a try, an essay. We do not claim to be correct in all details, but we have made a sincere effort to bring the art and craft of today's brewer to bear on the mystery of how the ancient beers of earliest man might have been made over 5000 years ago."

Think about that while you're sweating over your 5 gallons of pre-hopped pale malt extract and smack-pack yeast, oh fancypants brewer from the future.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Like we needed an excuse

Next Saturday, like most folks with kegerators in their garages, hops growing in their backyards, and 15-gallon kettles with spigots welded onto them on their stoves, we'll be brewing beer. And you know what? It doesn't even matter that it happens to be National Homebrew Day. But, since we're nowhere near any of the "big brew" sites, and we've got orders to fill that don't include IPAs or porters, we'll be doing it in the privacy of our own kitchen, thank you very much. And, if you care to join us - in spirit, at least - here's what we'll be making. Yum!