Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ho, ho, ho boy I need to lie down.

Brewers have long tipped their hats to the holidays with strong, sipping beers intended to keep the chill off and complement the rich, stewy foods of the season. But within the field of winter warmers, there can be only one by which all others are judged. And that one just happens to be named after the fat man of Christmas himself. And it also happens to be stronger than your average glass of wine.
Step aside, strong, dark Belgian ales spiced with clove and nutmeg. Enter Samichlaus, or as beer hunter Michael Jackson put it, "Santa Claus in his most powerful incarnation." While the St. Nick of yore is spending his year building toys and polishing his reindeer whip, this one is aging in lagering cellars for nearly the full twelve months from the one day a year on which it's brewed - naturally, Nikolaustag, the 6th of December.
Quoth Des: "Tastes like syrup!"
Unlike most beers that strive for this level of strength, Hürlimann's crown jewel is not highly hopped, resulting in a brew that (when drank young) is seriously sweet, rich, and chewy, to the point where you wouldn't be surprised to see it poured over an ice cream sundae. And, at 14% alcohol by volume (!) it could be cellared safely for years upon years.
"The world's most extraordinary beer", or, "the beer most likely to put you to sleep mid-sentence" is truly extraordinary in respect to the lion tamer-esque control the brewery has over the yeast. Hürlimann's ability to coax brewer's yeast into going well beyond it's regular alcohol tolerance (which is around 10% - anything above that is quite unusual) and continue to convert maltose into alcohol and CO2 is a major feat of the yeast farming world. Of course, if the Samichlaus bottle read "The World's Most Extraordinary Yeast", there'd certainly be heads rolling in the marketing department.
Bunny, help me stand!
Certainly, this is a bottle for any beer aficionado to sample for the simple reason that it's easier to understand the spectrum of things when you've experienced the extremes. Of course, I'm not sure what would be at the other end of the spectrum (Michelob Ultra, maybe?), but if you were doing it on a purely alcohol-by-volume scale, you'd be interested to know that Hürlimann was involved there as well. Birell, which comes in at a scant 0.5% abv, was brewed specifically as a low-alcohol option, and no doubt required the same level of yeast acrobatics to keep the little buggers to eat up all the sugar like they're wont to do. Once you've read the reviews, however, you may decideide you can guess what the other end of the spectrum is like, and opt to waste your time more peacefully, sleeping off a day's worth of holiday feasting, capped with a snifter of the soul of Santa.

Friday, November 18, 2005

No, it's the artist currently known as...

And the answers to today's "who's drinking what" quiz are:
a: Charles is saying "hopalicious!" whilst enjoying a fine pint of Lagunitas' IPA.
b: Camilla's quaff of choice at teatime is Anderson Valley Brewing Co.'s Boont Amber Ale.
Granted, the impetus of the royal visit earlier this month was to investigate the organic food movement so prevalent in the Bay Area, but fact is there just ain't much organic beer, even 'round here. Had they been rigorous in sticking to the "local and organic" theme of their visit, I might have suggested the following:
Butte Creek: A decent all-around organic line of beers from Chico, home of Sierra Nevada and a state college quite renowned for it's beer-drinking capacity. If anything, try the holiday cranberry ale with the creepy Santa on the label for something... different.
Bison Brewing: From Berkeley, I can't imagine much going better with gourmet ghetto grub than a glass of their chocolate stout. And again, maybe Camilla would like to try the gingerbread ale if she was in the mood for something... different.
Eel River: "Behind the Redwood Curtain", indeed. Maybe their porter would appeal to Charles' inner Victorian-era Londoner.
Of course, it's too early to really tell what the organic brewing movement has in store, but in the meantime, it's fiar to say that the big couple made a pair of wise decisions in terms of sampling some local classics. Bahl Hornin'!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I live on the second floor! I live upstairs from you!

I'm sure the folks over at Luka's in Oakland never get tired of that one. I've wanted to write up this place for a while, after reading a brief but complimentary Karola Saekel review in the Chronicle which did nothing but remind me that these folks are trained to go on for ages about wine lists while a stunning beer list gets no more than a passing mention. Of course, I still haven't been over there, but this article by local beer scribe Bill Brand inspired me to at least telegraph it to my liliputian audience: "proprietor Rick Mitchell promises a tasting of rare Belgian beers every Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m. Besides the beer, there'll be cheeses from The Cheese Works of Alameda and chartucterie (sausages and similar cold, cooked meats) from Fatted Calf."
Two words: hot damn. Anyone who's familiar with the Cheese Board (and you foodie bloggers can back me up on this one) knows how rawkin' their hawkings are. And as for "rare" Belgian beers? According to Luka's website: "These offerings include diverse, unusual and rare beers such as Westvleteren 12 [holy cannoli!], Girardin Geuze and Fantome White Ghost."
Call for reservations: (510) 451-4677.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Tripel play

Probably the most commonly recognized Belgian ale style outside of Belgium is the abbey tripel. Commonly represented in this country by imports like Chimay Cinq Cents (White), Westmalle Tripel, and Maredsous 10, the tripel is typically a strong, golden ale with fruity, spicy aromas,loads of carbonation and a dry finish. However, like most ephemeral things in life, the definition and origin of the tripel is spongy enough that even waterproof online guides like Beer Advocate can make some goofy category judgments.
And, while Belgian beer month may be long over at the Toronado, it's always Belgian beer month in my soul. So, I thought it would be fun to do a side-by-side tasting of a couple of the less ubiquitous versions of the style. And when you thrown out names like "Crazy Bitch" and "Big Bird", your friends will think you're hanging out with a real pimpin' crowd.
Dulle Teve, De Dolle - Ah, yes - the proverbial crazy bitch. What else would you expect from the mad brewers? Popular enough to have a girls' beer drinking club (ahem!) named after it, this limited tripel eschews the trappings of the style, much like you'd expect from Kris Herteleer and his Oerbier-brewing co-lunatics. Unlike many strong Belgian pale ales, this one doesn't mask its alcoholic strength, opening with a burn that's right on the front of the palate owing to the high amount of added sugar. This version of the style is rich and creamy, with a highly carbonated body that helps balance its sweetness, and finishes with hints of oak, sherry, and almond. A superfine bedtime sipper.
Zatte, Brouwerij 't IJ - This Dutch entry into the "strange tripel" race is much more in line with the Chimay version. Dry, tart, and with some sharp fruit flavors, this ostrich ale is more than a little mysterious. Just what exactly is an ostrich doing out there protecting an egg out in the Netherlands? Is the bird the only one who can pronounce the name of the brewery? Like it says on the bottle: "Buitengewoon Bier Van Hoge Gisting, Voorzichtig Uitschenken, Minstens Houdbaar Tot." Not as hot on the palate, but the light body and high alcohol content do reflect the use of added sugar. Not as memorable as the De Dolle version, but worth it for the label alone, and it won't put you to sleep after one glass.
Sidenote: People often assume that beers with added sugar are going to taste sweeter than their barley/water/hops/yeast brethren. Not true. If the sugar added to the recipe is fermentable by yeast (like maltose, a sugar extracted from malted barley when mashed), and the yeast is up to the job, the finished product will be as dry as if it weren't there. Wine is rarely sweet, right? By that same token, mead doesn't have to be sweet, regardless of being made from honey. I've had scotch ales and doppelbocks that are much sweeter than Belgian strong ales simply because the techniques of mashing unfermentable sugars along with using a yeast that cannot handle surviving in a high-alcohol solution render them so. Nuff said.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Words of advice to young pubcrawlers

A tip from this deeply educational report in today's SFGate: "Just put your nose in the glass like this," O'Sullivan says, sticking his schnozz deep into a pint of beer as if to inhale its aroma, "and keep it there. Don't move. Keep your nose in the glass and don't make eye contact. Keep asking yourself, 'Is he still talking to me?' until he leaves." This is immersive journalism at its most intense, my friends.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Harvest time

While one of the main distinctions between the arts of brewing and winemaking lies within the winemaker's adherence to a yearly calendar of growing, picking, crushing, and bottling, whereas the brewer can get busy, well, whenever they want, there is a budding interest in seasonal brewing that seems to reflect food culture's widespread "seasonal ingredient" phenomenon. And, while there have been holiday beers and summer beers since time immemorial, the most recent incarnation of the "fresher is better" ethos is the autumnal "wet hop" brewing school.
Historically, hops have been used as a bittering and antiseptic agent in beer not only because they grow like weeds, but because they also - once dried - store quite well. Brewers in hop-growing regions, on the other hand, have also latched onto the ephemeral qualities of the freshly picked, green hop cone - an oily, resinous, piney quality whose attributes would best be understood by folks who have dealt with both dried and fresh versions of various herbs, like bay, sage, and rosemary.
Since the hops are picked, like grapes, at the exact moment when they're just right, brewers interested in making wet hop beers have to be quite flexible in their schedule to be prepared to brew on a moment's notice. For example, the brewers at Sierra Nevada recall the excitement around the early days of brewing their Harvest Ale, never knowing just when they'd be loading up the fresh hops and firing up the kettles. Deschutes' delicious new Hop Trip (above) is a wonderful example of what makes a fresh hop ale special; the thick layer of floral, piney aromatics that would typically cover a heavily bitter, bracing and harsh American IPA are in fact resting over a much softer, somewhat grassy and sweet pale ale that cuts to the essence of the hop in a way that resets your tastebuds to the first time they ever encountered that magical flower.
Interested in getting your tastebuds reset? Did I mention that this coming Saturday, Toronado's hosting it's very own wet hop festival?