Friday, March 28, 2008

The seven-hour Belgian beer tasting challenge

An idea like this would probably create some logistical difficulties for even the most Cannonball Run-inspired American craft beer aficionado, but Belgium, on the other hand, is a much smaller country, leading to the sincere possibility that with a good car and a better (designated) driver, you could pull off hitting the 30 breweries that are including themselves in this year's first annual "Open Brouwerijendag." I'd be curious if any American craft beer meccas (Portland?) would be open to such an event to show off some local pride on this side of the Atlantic. At least if they pulled something like this off in San Francisco, part of the fun would be the gamble of trusting public transit to help you make it through the day...

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

In defense of the radler and adulterated beers

On days like today, when the weather permits, my body agrees, and I know I'll pretty much have the place to myself to stink up the joint once I arrive here, I love to ride my bike to work. It's certainly something I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about as a kid, but like the never-abating amplification of my fondness for beer and sausages, it must be a result of German aging genetics along the same lines as my receding hairline that I now get so much enjoyment out of it.

Of course, as an occasional radler myself, I also tend to enjoy the occasional radler as well, as the close connection between biking and beer is a storied one. But, as a beersnob of the highest order, I'm also acutely aware of a certain level of disgust that pervades the aficionado circles when anything other than beer is poured into a beer glass.

Some of this I can understand, certainly. There are times when I find myself staring at an unwanted slice of lemon floating in a hefeweizen, or joking about how even the addition of lime only barely makes Corona palatable, or dealing with the shame of sitting in front of a pink Berliner Weisse. Mostly, though, I think the "if the brewers had wanted X in there, they would have added X to it themselves" argument is missing out on the final link in the chain that begins as barley and ends up in my belly: Once that bottle is in my hand, it's in my hand to do what I want with it. The brewer, once that bottle is filled and capped and on the truck, must let it go forth into the world to live its own life. And if that life consists of being cut 50% with lemonade, so be it.

Folks who dabble in cocktails could teach beer drinkers how to be more comfortable with the idea of adulterating their drinks for alternative experiences, for one. There's a very protective air that surrounds the craft brewing scene that perhaps lingers from the days when we all thought that craft and microbrewed beer was in threat of having a temporary existence, one that could be snuffed out at a moments' notice by ImBev or A-B or some other giant corporate entity eager to force feed us sheeple more of the same pale, watery lager. This sacred attitude about our burgeoning craft beer scene's products may be the root of the disgust I gather from other beer geeks, and wonder if with time, the attitudes will relax once we all agree that copious amounts of amazingly crafted beer are all around us, and not going away any time soon - so let's have a little fun, while we're at it.

And while there is loads of anecdotal evidence about the history of adding flavorings to beer after it's "done", from table-side spice tinctures in Belgian bars, to wassail and mulled beers, to cocktails like the Picon bière, there's at least one completely practical reason to do it: sugar. The balance of fermentable and unfermentable sugars in a beer is what allows for the sensation of "sweetness" or maltiness, and fruit sugars are very easily fermentable. Why, then, are all those creepy fruity lambics that you see at the supermarket so very, very sweet, you ask? Well, because if they haven't pasteurized the beer, they're adding a sweetener like saccharine, which is not fermentable, to the beer. Yummy, no? Hard apple ciders around these parts are traditionally semi-sweet, so either they halt the fermentation process when the sugar readings are right, or they pasteurize the finished cider and blend it with unfermented apple juice. All this is well and good, but we craft beer nerds like our beer like we like our women: alive. So, if you wanted to add some sweetness to your fine, bottle conditioned beer (for whatever reason, no judgment here), you'd best be doing it right before you drink it, lest you want some wild and crazy super-dry and explosive beer/wine frankenbooze on your hands.

Lots of pontificating just to get a splash of lemonade in my pilsner, I know, but it's on the sidelines of the larger "ethical treatment of beer" (I myself a card-carrying member of PETOB) debate regarding additives, flavorings, and post-bottling adulterations we silly experimenters seem to fancy. Try it yourself and see if you can admit there's some joy to be had in doing things your own way. One thing's for sure: It's unquestionably easier to tackle the last stretch of your ride when you're doing it on radler power...

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Like my living room, but with a stock ticker

Which, if I were you, I'd be leaving turned off for the time being, especially if you're trying to relax with friends over a drink. This story from yesterday's AP newswire offers an interesting glimpse into what some people think is missing from the bar scene: pour-it-yourself beer taps, at your table. While the creators obviously left no legal stone unturned before unveiling this depressing convenience in Georgia, they're certainly missing out on some other aspects - the social one being the biggest head-scratcher for me, as I imagine it is for anyone who goes to bars hoping to a) talk to people other than those at my "private reserved table", b) chat with a bartender about what's on tap, what's new around the joint, and other general breeze-shooting, and c) crazily, pay someone else to pour me a drink for a change.

Here's the video for even more insight. Why not just stay at home, folks? Granted, if those taps were hooked up to something like Delirium Tremens instead of Miller Lite, this post might have had a different tone...

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Where's Willamette?

Like a botanical game of whac-a-mole, each year the hops pop up in new and different places - which is to say that the crown on the Willamette and Kent Goldings rhizomes have gotten quite prolific in the quiet, unseen underground. Anybody want any rhizome cuttings? Now'd be the time to plant them...


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anyone up for a pizza and a beer?

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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Monday, March 17, 2008

For those of you who really like Heineken

At first, I thought I was just witnessing the next stage in the "beer as gourmet" evolution that's been exhibiting itself through the retail catalogs lately, one you could follow from the monogrammed pilsner glasses to the stainless steel kegerators to this: A countertop draft beer system, offered by the discriminating home kitchen retailers Williams & Sonoma, complete with level indicator, temperature gauge, and full-on LCD hoo-ha fanciness. An item which, for all intensive purposes, should have rocketed to the top of my overly-optimistic wish list and force me to consider which of our current kitchen appliances would have to make way for it (toaster?), this little contraption is sure to win over a certain cervisiascenti with its charming good looks and clean lines. But the catalog image (which isn't reprinted online) betrays its sinful limitations: A Heineken logo on the tap handle. Maybe, you're thinking, this thing is so cool that it comes with a whole pile of beer Pogs (remember Pogs?) that you could sort through and insert in the display on the handle whenever you change kegs? No. You do not change kegs. You do, however, pay $299 to essentially buy a nice fancy case for something you can buy at 7-11 for $20. So before you go and order this for your sweetie (Mother's Day, anyone?), be aware that a) it cannot be gift wrapped, and b) it's kind of a crock unless you really, really like Heineken.

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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, 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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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Holy dunkelweizen! The beer-signal!

San Francisco's beloved beer bottle and draught shop has taken a page out of the Batman bible by implementing an extremely high-tech emergency response alert system aimed at immediately informing the city's ale enthusiasts of impending malt procurements. From their recent email blast:
When we receive an extra special shipment of beer, will we activate the Beer-Signal. At that time a beer bottle insignia will appear near the store front.
That's right, folks. While cruising SOMA on your fixed-gear, keep on the lookout for the signal around 8th and Folsom lest there be a distinguished delivery in the vicinity.
Ladies, and gentleman, the Beer-Signal has been activated.
Of course, when that email came in, I quickly replied asking what peculiar parcel they'd parlayed, and was promptly told the surprise would be spoiled if that's how the beer-signal worked. So I begged...
While on his journey, if Odysseus made a pit stop at the City Beer he would be pleased with the offering from Allagash, the beautiful barrel aged Odyssey.
And there you go! For the record, City Beer has got their grubby little hands on one of Allagash's finest oak-aged contrivances. I promise not to wreck the surprise next time they illuminate the beer-signal...


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Beer? In Fairfax? Ask the eight ball...

It's a question that could only be answered by the auspicious orb of our communal Ouija-baiting youth and the compositional imperative of Pamela Z. Anyone who's walked the henna-tinted and patchouli-scented lanes of our fair town of late would be sure to notice a certain something, a certain "ghost town" vibe creeping through the vacant storefronts, "For Rent" signs fading in the sun, the je ne ce qua of a depressed business climate in an area that for all intensive reasons ought to be booming. There's a commercial malaise infiltrating our little hamlet, one that doesn't seem to be affecting the belly-dancing costume jewelry shops or the salt crystal lamp Tibetan Buddhist hemp fabric so you can rest medicine outlets (or the 7-11, for that matter), but one that has called for the demise of many locally-owned outfits, including our only CD shop, a bookstore, and a movie rental outfit, which certainly leaves you wondering what weird wind is blowing to cause such a stagnation, and when it will relievedly change direction again.

And in the wicked path of the weird wind might be something a bit more dear: our very own public house. As reported by Brent in our local rag, it looks like there's a little land and lease tussle beneath the green, idyllic pasture of Fair-Anselm Plaza.

From an email by our trusty publican Mike Altman:
"This brewpub has been a long strange amazing trip so far, one we hope to continue for years on out. We want to be able to teach [our son] Joey how to make those fine sudsy elixirs of love & hand crafted sodas you have all come to love and cherish.

Much of this, though, is out of our hands. We have tried since last August to sign a long term deal, so that we may be here for generations to come. All we can do now is continue to bring all our guests that experience we strive so hard at achieving while waiting to see what happens with the building. We will know this month whether the building will change hands, and are hopeful that we will be about to work out a fair long term lease."
The good news at the moment is that it looks like the betters' odds are in favor of the Sacto developers purchasing the land - lock, stock and barrel - and focusing their energy on the wasted lots across the avenue, leaving Mike with a new landlord and a new lease on (his business') life. We shall see in two weeks' time, or thereabouts...

The other good news in local brewing and beer-drinking news (despite the lack of any advertising whatsoever, and the fact that the benefactor of the event - the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce - hasn't even updated their online calendar since 2007 to show that it's actually happening) is that the 13th annual Fairfax Brewfest is on for the Saturday after next, March 15, at the Fairfax Pavilion. It's a great event, with good music, excellent food, and even better beers, probably from the fifteen nearest and dearest breweries, my guess being: Iron Springs, Marin Brewing, Moylan's, Broken Drum, Magnolia, Lagunitas, Drake's, 21st Amendment, Rafters, Beach Chalet, Russian River, Steelhead, SF Brewing, Thirsty Bear, and Wunder Brewing (too tired to link, check here instead).

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Keeping spirts healthy, monthly

Sorry for the 7x7-specific posting, but this is should certainly be of interest to any locals who have stumbled unwittingly into the labyrinth of Belgian malt advocacy that is Eureka Valley's Healthy Spirits store: It's now hosting a beer club to help guide us through some of their more obscure offerings - especially ones which are price-prohibitive [read: 'spensive] enough to give the typical buyer pause while browsing. Good man that he is, beer manager David Hauslein is putting together packages of two to three beers per month (at around $30 a pop) with extensive tasting notes and even food & cheese pairings (for those of you who eat, too).

Worried that the choices will be too pedestrian? Take the current releases, then:

Birrificio Le Baladin - Nora
herb/spice hybrid ale
abv: 6.8%
Brewed in an Egyptian style with ginger, myrrh, and orange peel.

Brasserie Caracole - Nostradamus
Belgian brown ale
abv: 9.5%
Gold medal winner, 2002 World Beer Championships
And like other similar type clubs (in the wine world, at least), if you like what you get, you can buy more at a pretty nice discount (a discount that actually extends to the cheeses, as well). I'm not one to typically shill for local resellers, but since this store's relying primarily on word of mouth and a rather quiet MySpace page, I figure it's the least I can do to repay them for providing me with my RDA of Troubadour Obscura.