Friday, February 29, 2008

Which came first, the chocolate or the beer?

It's a philosophical question I ask myself every evening [F] while resting my dog-tired feet by the fire [T], sitting in my rocking chair by the window [T] enjoying my routine dessert of a glass of Westvleteren 12 [F] and chili-infused certified free trade organic dark chocolate [T]: which invention truly preceded the other, chocolate or beer, and what would the answer say about the base priorities of the human psyche?*

Well, if this were some namby-pamby chocolate lover's blog riddled with Cathy references and blink tags and hot embedded MIDI Steisand action, I'd be referring you now to the latest scientific proof that indicates it was chocolate, not sweet heavenly beer, that was the original South American use for the bean of the cacao tree.

But this is Pfiff!, my friends, so I am proud to refer you to this bit on the recent archaeological findings on how it was beer that the ancient Hondurans were brewing up in those cute little pots since at least 1200 BC.

And if you'd like a hint of what that might have tasted like, who better to turn to that everybody's favorite historical brewing recreationist, Sam Calagione? Granted, I'm sure his Theobroma won't be nearly as vile as the spontaneously fermented chocomuck that they were most certainly whipping up to enjoy with a round of patolli or for sale in the stands at the tlatchtli game (there's a reason there's a tube on the side of the urn, so that you can tilt it and drink the liquid that's trapped underneath the thick skin of yeast and mung). In fact, it'll probably be delicious, as Sam's a freaking pro with or without his Levi's, and good brewers have long recognized the flavor (if not the actual ingredient) of chocolate [sorry, you have to search for it] as an integral component of beer's taste and aroma for ages.

Maybe some other time we'll do a little tasting round up of beers that include chocolate in them (and yes, they all do seem to show up around Valentine's Day, shockingly), as their numbers are rapidly increasing and involve such craft brewing champs as Ommegang, Sam Adams, Young's, and Bison - but we'll sadly have to pull a Maxim and review Dogfish Head's latest like they were the Black Crowes, until we can finally get some of that action around these parts.

A quick side note: Sam - Mr. Calagione - if you're reading this, heed my banshee wail: Northern California needs more than just Dogfish Head ads in Northwest Brewing News, we need to see some actual bottles on actual shelves. The few ales of yours I've had the good fortune of trying while in such exotic locales as Tucson, Arizona (the Raison d'Extra a particularly stunning example) have been nothing short of the finest craft beers I've ever chanced upon. But this "parched market" of the Bay Area foodie Nation would undoubtedly offer good business for your fine creations. And if you doubt the interest here, maybe a quick email to Forrest Allen, the beer buyer for the SOMA Whole Foods would dispel any of your concerns - or I imagine the folks at City Beer and Healthy Spirits would be more than happy to try to persuade you. Certainly you wouldn't want to post the 2008 release calendar online for the whole wwworld to read if you didn't want us to enjoy the fruits of your historically delicious creations, right? And when you come visit, don't forget to bring Randall!

* Answer: It says our psyche likes to party.

Labels: ,

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...

Labels: , , ,

Doomsday bock

Never fear: It looks like the cockroaches, CHUDs, and Thetans will be totally set for a raging kegger once the end of the world comes about, thanks in large part by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food. With the (frozen) ribbon cutting for the Global Seed Vault underway, you can rest assured that both hops and barley are well represented in the (frozen) depository, which is especially comforting when you consider the end of the world has already begun! See you there, kids.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A LongShot by any other name...

If you're the competitive procrastinator type, there's probably just enough time left to whip up something maltilicious (if you keep it simple enough) to submit for this year's LongShot homebrew contest, hosted by good man Jim Koch and the equally good people at Sam Adams now for the third year in a row. (For Jim's sake, though, you might want to avoid anything that requires copious amounts of a ridiculous variety of hops.) Like the article above mentions, anyone who's ever brewed their own beer has doubtlessly had a friend comment, "Dude, you could totally sell this stuff!" after trying one (or two (or three)) of your amateur amalgamations - not that pushing pyschoactive, centrally-acting depressants through their systems should inspire unwarranted compliments or anything.

The nice thing about a contest like this one, especially for a homebrewer like myself who isn't part of any brewing clubs or routinely submits specimens for AHA competitions and doesn't actually have a clear idea my own beer's mediocrity, is that after losing out to Joe Bob BillyJo's boysenberry dunkelhefe, I can say with certainty, "No, no, I really shouldn't try to sell this stuff. And hey, I just lost four bottles of my primo hooch down the drain to the Boston Harbor." Not just that, but they'll be kind enough to send you copies of their judging notes so that you can finally learn what diacetyl and brett and acetaldehyde and dimethyl sulfide actually means.

Not to mention, here in this house we hardly ever brew the same thing twice - even if it starts out as a duplicate of an earlier successful recipe, the obnoxious experimental improviser in me inevitably has to go and change some major ingredient or process, just for kicks. But maybe you're more like my friend Christopher, who loves certain recipes of his so much that he brews them with the regularity that the rest of us brew coffee. If you're one of those brewers - and you really believe what your friends have been telling you all these years while they take advantage of your generosity at their parties, weddings, bat mitzvahs, parole hearings, what have you - go on, I dare you. Just think, your entry might cut through the other thousands of entries to make to the top, allowing yourself to be depicted as a line drawing caricature on a beer bottle instead of a milk carton for a change!

Labels: , ,


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.

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , , , ,

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...

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 15, 2008

A completely hopless situation

Ah, the good old days.
My good friend Christopher - a dedicated habitué of hops, baron of bitterness, cuckoo for beaucoup IBU - is feeling the pinch this season as our good friend humulus lupulus is in short and desperate supply. Still brewing his stable of homebrew favorites but having to substitute AAs from lesser gods of the hop pantheon with previously unknown varieties, he's feeling the pinch like the rest of us. Gone are the Fuggles, the Willamette, the Hallertauer and Hersbrucker, the Cascade and Chinook, the Saaz and Tetnang; in their place one finds Simcoe and Sorachi Ace, Cluster and Centennial, Millenium and Magnum. If they're green and bitter, we're resignedly throwing them in our kettles - even if they do sound like they were manufactured by Monsanto.

So what's the enterprising yet frugal brewer to do? Well, one option is to take a stroll in The Man's Garden and examine some bittering and flavoring options often overlooked in deference to the Reinheitsgebot that most homebrewers feel some sort of weird allegiance towards. If you're the type of homebrewer that decided to first start making a mess of your kitchen for reasons that had nothing to do with the gist of an antiquated set of laws designed to protect the use of winter wheat for use in bread-making, you've probably got a touch of the aleatoric in you. With the global harvest situation looking dire and prices climbing exponentially, it may just be the right time to let your freak flag fly.

There's plenty of reading material out there to get yourself started, too. To get started, The Homebrewer's Garden has an entire section devoted to alternative bittering and aroma herbs. You can also see this as an opportunity to try your hand at some historical styles, like gruit (yes, the beer that supposedly increases sexual drive - enjoy).

If, on the other hand, you're a more risk-averse brewer, you may just want to check what's coming down the pike from your local craft breweries to see if there's a style you'd like to emulate. (I'd bet good money that we're all going to see more low- or no-hop beers on store shelves sooner rather than later, while everyone tries to figure out some slick marketing trick that will allow them to pass the 100% increase in production costs on to us consumers.) The exceptional Williams Brothers brewery in Scotland makes a full roster of delectable historic ales (again with stimulated "animal instincts"!) the that use little or no hops. And big man on campus Sam Calagione has built almost his entire reputation upon some of Dogfish Head's crazy (yet scientifically crazy!) interpretations of ancient beers.

Meanwhile, it might be worth your while to rekindle those friendships of yours that may garner access to their sun-drenched backyards. Perhaps you could even send them a fun, conversation-starting present...

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Highway to helles?

Hey kids! Find the six differences between these two images:

The question remains as to whether our good friends on Haight Street caught the irony of the parody... almost to the day! *shudder* Enjoy those strong ales responsibly, kids!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 11, 2008

I thought 42 sounded a little convenient

Labels: ,

Hops, shoots & leaves

While you wouldn't know it from the weather out there, it's still early February - way, way, way too early for the green shoots and buds of spring to be pushing their way out of the darkness. But that's exactly what's happening, and in hops gardening, that can only mean one thing: It's Ausputzen time!

As tempting as it may be to carefully nourish and foster that first tender, young growth of the year as some sort of persephonic talisman to ward off any chance of winter's unruly return (like when it comes back in March, charged with freezing rain and wicked winds, saying "oops, sorry, I forgot my car keys"), one will find themselves being well rewarded in the flower department if those early shoots (and then subsequently, all but two of the healthiest late spring bines) are pruned away. (And if there's a year when we homebrewers can use all the hops we can grow ourselves, this is the one.)

If you're the "use the whole bison" type, you might feel a little guilty chopping the heads off your cute little sproutlets just to toss them in the compost pile, so you'll be happy to know that the little guys are considered a bit of a delicacy in some parts, even being celebrated at festivals in hop-growing regions (be sure to pay your tribute to the King next time you're in Poperinge!) with all manner of raw, fried, sauteed, steamed, and pickled hop shoots for your perusal.

And, if the weather holds and the industrial farms look as promising as our backyards, maybe we won't all be looking at brewing Catsfoot ales next year... but it's not looking good.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ale in the family

Noting that the greatest possible redemption from the juggernaut of the consolidated superbreweries of Europe is the high prestige (and high mark-up) of the American umcloofie (upper middle class foodie) and post-Chimay grups, Belgian "family" brewers have united under a label to help the discerning buyer choose between the real thing and the InBev clone. Belgian Family Brewers, which currently consists of just 12 brewers (but consisting of around 75 brands) is aiming for a sort of authentic Belgian beer appellation, denoting beers made in Belgium by brewers who have been making beer for at least 50 years, and "is an original beer, no copies of which are sold under any other name or label." Some of that country's very best exports are in on the game - Sint Bernard, Dupont, and De Konink, for example - and you get the impression they're open to adding some more top-shelf names to their roster (Cantillon, anyone?). It's a pretty good bet that certain buyers will adventure out of their usual purchases to try something under the same banner as another trusted brand. Bets are on for the first of the breweries to get bought out! (My money's on Bavik - any takers?)

Forget the hops, free the malt!

I've never had any reason to feel one way or the other about Alabama. I mean, they've gone ahead and admitted (albeit in 2007) that the whole slavery thing was pretty unfortunate, and heck, we'd be without Muscle Shoals if it were not for the Yellowhammer State. But alas, the heart of Dixie is also a heart of darkness, one that is ruled quietly by a shadow government called Anheuser-Busch. At least, that's the impression you'll likely gather once you read this. Sadly, it appears that Alabama is enjoying its reputation as the last state in the union (sound familiar?) to limit beer container sizes to one pint per unit, and with a ABV of at most 6%, which severely limits the variety of ales and lagers available to the good people of Birmingham, leaving them with - you guessed it - more Bud Light than you could ever possibly want.

Thankfully, Free the Hops (or Alabamians for Specialty Beer) is working towards a solution, not only by pushing for a change in legislation, but by calling for a boycott of their biggest obstacle, the lobbyists working for Birmingham Budweiser. If you agree that they're being denied some of the brewing world's most carefully crafted and greatest treasures, not to mention some of the very best beers made here in the US, go on and help them out.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Pairing beers with food music

bebop in a glass
Noted wine industry provocateur Clark Smith recently posited the notion that amongst the many environmental variables that elevate or ruin the experience of tasting, music has a profound and quantifiable effect on the perception of the main qualities of taste. Which is great, because as much as I love talking about music, this hasn't really been the right forum for it...

While the somewhat generic suggestions he's proposed (and then tested) have been met with more than a whiff of skepticism (he makes a better oenologist than a musicologist), there's certainly something suggestive at the core of his thesis. While the link between pairing different sensations of taste and smell certainly dominate the foodie world - think beer- and wine-maker dinners, meal suggestions printed on wine labels, perfume-prohibitive tasting sessions - we, as bundles of receptive sensory organs constantly merging information from every which way, most certainly synthesize what we're listening to while we taste.

It's easy to close your eyes, but nearly impossible to not hear things. As one commenter wrote in response to the Smith article mentioned above, we all enjoy a certain level of synaesthesia. Rather than pretending that you can truly immerse yourself in the tasting experience in anechoic surroundings, you're much better off engaging the psychoacoustic nuances that are potentially invigorating or blunting the finer points of your chosen bevvy.

So why carry on about this subject here, in this little bastion of beer on the far west side of the blogosphere? Simply put, I think beer is a better control in this experiment. Of all the arguments against Smith's theory, the one that counts the innumerable variables has the most weight. Music is inherently subjective, making such Music Theory 101 concepts such as "major and minor tonality", along with grade school newspaper CD review adjectives like "happy" and "aggressive" mostly moot in any scientific survey. And worse than that is the subjectivity of wine itself. A recent study showed that the assumed dollar value of a wine affects how its quality is perceived (as if you needed any more proof of the socioeconomic stigma associated with fermented grape juice). Beer, on the other hand, has the underdog advantage of being perceived as of base or little value. All the better for letting the actual flavors do the talking.

Oh, I could go on and on, really. Seriously. But instead, I'd love to hear some of your suggested pairings. In our next installment (hopefully with some audio to get you started), we'll revisit this with some proposed music+beer+heaven equations of our own. At the very least, it makes for a great tasting party premise: call your friends, bring a bottle of something interesting and your iPod and get the notepads out...


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The "lost" year, ep. 3 - newsy linknibbles

From around the web this past year, here's a few things worthy of a click and ctrl+D that never developed into fully-formed posts:

The 2:40 Beer Podcast - Get it? 2:40? The curious world of outsider beer blogging gets serious when WFMU gets in on the act.

New York's Best Beer Bars (courtesy of Gridskipper) - Even old Brew York was once Brew Amsterdam.

The Science of the Cellar
- Why strong beers age so well. Good info if you're the type of person debating whether or not to try brewing something you're infant daughter will be able to enjoy on her 21st birthday (clue: don't bother).

Archaeologists uncover secrets of ancient ale - Either that, or the prehistoric Irish had some pretty big dogs. An especially noteworthy post thanks to its inclusion of a list of watering holes in Middle-earth.

Labels: , ,