Friday, July 25, 2008

What vacation looks like

Let me show you it.

(Lang Creek Brewery's Tri-Motor Ale, courtesy America's most remote brewery.)


Fermentation Friday - Words of advice

Isn't it romantic?*

Embarking on a new hobby oftentimes involves a period of giddy excitement when first acquainting yourself with the lexicon, history, and mountains of reference material that surrounds the adventure of the new. Homebrewing is, not surprisingly, loaded with ample opportunities to immerse yourself in esoteric lingo. Each style has a history. You can get as scientific or as philosophical as you'd like. It has such a welcoming learning curve, you can crack the spine on a 300-page instructional text and make your first successful batch from the notes on the first two pages, getting deeper into the nuances as you eventually dog-ear the next 298.

And as it's a pastime that inspires equal amounts of good-willed advice and spirited debate, the question asked this month of homebrewing bloggers - What one tip would you give a beginner homebrewer before they brew their first batch and why? - caused a rift in this here household. Therefore, we're cheating the awesome power of that italicized "one" and giving our two separate answers to a question that will easily garner many, many more opinions.

That said, my one piece of advice to anyone taking the leap into brewing their own beer at home is simple: Taste more beer, more.

I'll pretend I don't hear the waves of agonized groaning, simpering pleas for mercy, and tormented, piteous whimpers for a compassionate alternative. No. You simply must drink more beer in order to achieve a level of confidence in your level of success, and to assemble your palette of understanding what exactly it is about the beers you enjoy that you yourself would want to capture and recreate. By all means, do not try to take the cheap way out, asking your local homebrew supplier or buddy or dirty old man Internet to write you up a clone recipe of a beer you had recently. It won't come out right, anyway. Instead, what is it exactly about that IPA you had the other day that made you want to take a stab at making your own? Is it something you can taste in another IPA from another brewery? Or is it unique? Do a side-by-side. Make some notes of some of the things you're coming across in the tasting, without editing out any comparisons you think don't make any sense. When you sit down and look at your scribbles, giggling over the part you wrote down about how when you burped, it tasted like you'd had grapefruit for breakfast, you might just come across something in your online research worth remembering when it comes time to make your own.

Getting more acquainted with the elements that make up your taste experience with beer with something like Meilgaard's flavor wheel can be especially eye-opening, more so when you consider the focal object, sitting at the eye of the wheel like the reflective image distiller at the center of an István Orosz anamorphosis, is a collector of all the various disparate, mysterious elements into the single experience we all know as a nice pint of beer. And rather than trying to bone up on stylistic descriptions and memorize the common descriptors for various specialty malts, open up that bottle of Schrödinger's dark ale and find out for yourself why it can coexist in a quantum state as both a porter and a stout. I don't think it's a hard sell to convince you that it's easier to learn about the taste of beer by tasting beer than it is to read about the taste of beer.

Not to mention how much more fun the person writing up the recipe will have, versus being asked to scrabble up a nice "wheat beer". When you've outlined your target flavors and aromas, along with the color, level of carbonation, idea of the level of alcohol involved, then you've got something worth comparing notes against when that first bottle of the batch gets opened. You'll be tasting deeper, likely enjoying it more, and preparing yourself for the slightly more advanced, and not terribly exciting nor worth talking about here, second stage of tasting. Find that hint of Moroccan spice you were looking for hidden amidst the raw cacao overtones first, then feel free to jot in the margins that it also smelled like microwave popcorn.

And there you have it. Shouldn't be too hard. Don't enjoy yourself too much taking this one piece of advice, though. It's all in the name of research, science, and the pursuit of a better life for all. Doing it while playing Rock Band only focus your attention even more.

Des' one piece of advice, on the other hand, being of sound mind and body, comes direct from the all-caps shouty text of the old instruction sheet that SF Brewcraft used to hand out, and can be summed up without need of excess verbiage: WATCH POT CAREFULLY MAY BOIL OVER.

This is especially true if you have a difficult to clean stovetop.

Many thanks to the Brew Dudes for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

* I'll leave it to twenty or so other people to comment on the importance of sterilizing your gear.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I leave you with Hugh

He would write his father notes about what he should do next. On one fateful day, Hugh received a message back from his father that would change his life.

Hugh had, again, written about how he would like to find a meaningful job that would take him places and make the name Hugh Malone known the world over. His father wrote back: “Son, you have done amazing things in your life already. You have helped your mother and me through the famine and the constant threat of war. You have always shown interest in helping Ireland and your countrymen. We could be no prouder of you than we are. You have given us great joy. I have no doubt that you will be able to pick up any trade you choose, especially with those two fine hands you have. And, who knows? Sometimes your future just hops out at you.”

“Tell your mother that one of the sheep, I believe it was Adeline, and two lambs have run off into the woods and that she should not expect me home for supper at sundown.”

At least that is the message that historians expect Donald Malone wrote to his son. No one can be sure. The only scraps of paper left from the message read: pick hops. Queen Maeve, on her way back to Hugh, caught a rabbit and in the hunt decimated the note tied around her leg. While Hugh and his mother watched their dinner get cold, Hugh wondered at his father’s concise message: pick hops.

Back next week, hopefully with wild tales of beer from the northern frontier. Until then...

PS It's a joke, albeit an obscure "only for beer geeks" one. Drop me a note if you're confused and care.


Meta-Pfiffing: Perpetual devotion

Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
Six months into a reinvestment of devotion to writing on this here site, along with the promise of a brief vacation on the horizon, it seemed a good time to take stock of the Pfiff! situation, having just passed through a veritable whirlwind of activity that hasn't been duly documented. To wit:
I am, by all reasonable accounts, an intensely neurotic human being. It's rare for me to experience anything interpersonal without analyzing the occasion in retrospect through a funhouse mirror of exaggerated embarrassments, shameful asides, missed opportunities and guilts of sin (sloth and gluttony being perennial favorites). When I was younger, these harping memories would have normally revolved around either something stupid involving icky girls or some quality forehead-slapping in recollection of a particularly noodly, pointless guitar solo. Nowadays, though, it either has to do with poor judgment in raising my daughter (hint: if you make a joke by putting something in your mouth, any toddler worth his or her salt will likely mimic the joke) or in the dumbstruck half-witticisms I hear exiting my mouth during the increasingly frequent beer-related activities of late.

That's right: beer activities. I've said it. No shame there. No staring distractedly at my shoelaces while tracing circles in the dust with my toes, incoherently mumbling beneath my breath. Read any good books lately? Visit that new exhibit at MOMA? See any good live music? Any new hikes worth mentioning? I'd look you straight in the eye, shoulders relaxed, knees slightly bent: "Actually, I've been pretty busy with the beer."

Playing part in my neuroses is the fact that while in resurrecting the writing after a sabbatical of sorts (not a sabbatical on the drinking of beer, mind you, just one of forming coherent opinions about it, let alone setting them to writing), my perspective on the craft of brewing has thankfully grown wider in the past six months, only while the depth of the topic itself has seemed to grow at an exponential rate during the same time period. When beer, of all things, is even being advertised as part of this year's Slow Food Nation event at Fort Mason (curated by Magnolia's Dave McLean, nonetheless, and featuring an "outdoor beer pavilion" with "60 different microbrews from bottles, 30 different brews from casks and 60 different brews from kegs" yum yum yum), the stage seems set to usher in a new wave in American beer culture. And while the lens of the Internet Age is undoubtedly convex, giving any subject a perceived depth of discussion and information that's far greater than the reality, it seems likely that the camera obscura image that a snapshot of the Web's beer-related activity isn't an illusion of the amount of attention the topic's been recently garnering. The punk in me feels like a hanger-on, but the cheeseball in me is basking in being a part of it all.

A defining element of neuroses is that they are, above all, not based in reality. And recently, there have been enough (not terribly embarrassing) opportunities for the rational part of my brain to remind the rest of it to just clam up and enjoy the ride. Notably, a tasting-to-end-all-tastings hosted by the eminent Jay Brooks not only produced one of the more charming recent portraits of a beer blogger as a young man, but had a huge impact on my personal feelings on tasting, appreciating, and enjoying beer, while reminding me that there's no use in ever trying to outdo it.

On top of that, I had the splendid opportunity to make the in-person acquaintance of a few of the other members of the nascent Bay Area Beer Bloggers group at a gathering at our home during one of the more perfectly enjoyable Marin summer afternoons we've been exposed to this year. Once trapped within our outer-locking portcullis, we stole the chance to pour copious amounts of homebrew into their unwitting glasses while (kinda) discussing the state of affairs of beer culture and writing in the Bay Area.

And finally, Shawn the Beer Philosopher gambled that it wouldn't harm his reputation as upstanding member of the online beer community if he were to publish a lengthy interview with yours truly in his new Barstool Confessional feature, one that I treated with a true Method approach, not only taking care to enjoy some top shelf ale while composing my responses, but by allowing them to ramble on to a length apropos of the responses you'd be subjected to if you truly were to query me whilst pub-seated.

So while the cheeseball in me is basking in the heat of activity surrounding local beer culture, writing, and its online presence, the complete dork in me is thrilled with the possibilities for the future of the culture, the writing, and the tastings around the bend. Thanks, reader(s), for making this a place you regularly visit. Let's all see what's next. But first, a vacation.

On a related note, my Supplication pontification didn't take the cake, but the winningest entry deserves a hearty cheers as it's a pitch perfect insight to the homebrewer's world.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Introducing the premiere Pfiff! beer and food tasting: The new American mavericks

In what promises to be the first of many, edutainingly inebriate gatherings of the local beer faithful, we're proud to announce "The new American mavericks", an afternoon of tastings and food pairings based around the subject of American wild ale.

"Maverick" is a term I could be accused of prancing out on stage more often than it's welcome, but in the case of these beers, fermented by blends of microflora outside of the realm of traditional beer yeast, oftentimes in vessels that contribute their own degree of mysterious inoculation, in conditions that, while closely monitored, are subject to enough happenstance to warrant the results as wild, it seems a fitting title. Mr. Samuel Maverick was a Texas rancher whose attitude towards his cattle was particularly lax: the unchecked breeding of his livestock left for a notable concern of unbranded cattle set to pasture around the ranch lands south of San Antonio. Luckily for his descendants, though, his last name dodged the colloquial connotation of "a completely lethargic sloth", and instead got the more positive spin of showing the "independence of thought or action" of "a non-conformist or rebel." And these beers demonstrate, above all else, independence of thought and certainly trebelliousness. Although rooted in Belgian techniques, the results are unmistakably American, and, thanks to the often challenging profile of these beers, require a somewhat independent spirit on the taster's part as well.

Distinguished in part by hand-numbered batches, public brewers' logs with details by vintage, dusty, dank barrel rooms inhabited by all manner of wild yeasty beasties, and dense, funky flavor profiles that take years to develop and are not always fit for the faint of heart, the modern American wild ale is not only deserved of some deeper attention by the beer enthusiast public, but by any who enjoy the interplay between fine food and drink. Let's try some together, shall we?

The tentative date, pending guest availability, is Sunday, August 17, 3:00 p.m., and the location will be in the city of San Francisco. The cost for the tasting will almost certainly be $25, unless something completely spectacular happens and I have to jimmy the price up to $30, at which point it will be totally worth it or I'll give you your $5 back.

If you would like to reserve a spot, or have any questions, please email me at . More details to come in the following weeks...

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Run, the bird, run!

Having realized that the keg's been getting mighty light and there's yet no photographic proof that it managed to complete its evolution into a finished, drinkable product (not that it stopped me before), here you go. But how does it taste, you ask? Well, if the name weren't already taken, this bird would be a Maltose Falcon. The hops totally disappeared. It's actually very pleasant - delicious-ish, even - but my shortcomings in hoppitude shine right through this one. Ach well.

This post is short. Did I mention I'm going on vacation tomorrow?

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Brewmaster profile - Michael Altman

Today marks the inaugural celebration of International Brewers Day, a holiday of sorts inspired by the graphic that greets you as you enter San Francisco's 21st Amendment brewpub, a logo that asks: Have you hugged a brewmaster today? Conceived by local beer writer Jay Brooks to coincide with the feast of the brewer's patron saint, St. Arnold, the idea is to simply take a day to give credit where credit is due: "celebrating the contributions to society of the men and women who brew beer." In honor of the occasion, I thought it would be fun to participate by profiling our friend, fellow Fairfaxian, and local publican, the inimitable Mike Altman.

However, not only have I not indulged in a straight up Q&A interview since 1997 (having then proven quite conclusively that it's not a strong point of mine), we also decided to eschew the typical format as he's been the subject of similar interviews by the local press in recent years. Something besides beer that Mike and I have in common, however, is a love of music. Mike hosts free live music at the pub at least once, if not twice a week, has named his brews after local musical luminaries, and has decorated the pub with various musicalia. For those reasons, it seemed like a strangely appropriate idea to have this profile revolve around music by stealing recontextualizing the format popularized by The A.V. Club in their Random Rules feature. Simply put, we sat down with Mike's iPod, hit shuffle, and chatted about the tunes that came up - while drinking beer, of course. (An Altman's alt, to be exact.)

The Freight Hoppers, "Trouble"

Rob: So, this makes it easy to start talking about bluegrass, eh? Did you pick up on your love for
bluegrass when you were working in Colorado?
Mike Altman: The last year I was in Portland, there was a guy that I was working with who was really into bluegrass, got me into Bill Monroe, and then when I got to Colorado that's when it really exploded, I started playing banjo...
R:And when you went to Colorado, you went to brew for...
MA: Actually, when we'd gone out there, it was for Rockygrass, just going out for the festival. I'd just made the call, gotten all the passes and everything for the festival, put the phone down, and then like fifteen minutes later, I got a call about some guys out in Boulder looking for a brewer, and I thought, that's funny, I'm headed out there next week for a bluesgrass festival. I wasn't planning on going to Boulder, but decided to go out for an interview, the best interview of my life, and got the job at Mountain Sun. There was a really strong tie between Mountain Sun and Planet Bluegrass, their office used to be right next door in downtown Boulder, and it was a connection I really jumped into and took to another level. The last two years I was there we were doing all the backstage catering for them.
R: So what was it about bluegrass that got you so into it?
MA: The fun, the rhythm, the music. It's just good, good dance music.

Paul Simon, "Crazy Love, Vol. II"

That's a good story. I was the private chef for Paul Simon's record producer, Phil Ramone. And Simon and Garfunkel, I was listening to them when I was like four or five years old. Bridge over Troubled Water, he had the 8-track.
R: It's pretty obvious you've taken music from when you were growing up and still play it in the pub, follow the musicians... Was there anything like that for you with beer, anything you've brought with you from growing up?
MA: Actually, no. All my friends who've known me since high school think it's hysterical that I became a brewer. I was always the first one out in quarters games, throwing up, the one who couldn't really handle his beer.
R: So when did it happen, then?
MA: When I moved from New York, I was a private chef, we moved to Portland. I was going to school, I was going to be a teacher. McMenamins was just getting off the ground, just as Edgefield was getting built...
R: You were going to be a teacher? Is that why you do so much here at the pub for YES?
MA: Oh, absolutely. It's a profession that's so crucial, yet they get paid nothing. And teachers get so little recognition.
R: What did you want to teach?
MA: 4th and 5th grade. 6th grade at the latest, before they start hitting puberty. So I was going to school, working as a chef, and I started getting into the brewing world. I had so many credits to go, having gone to cooking school and then needing the undergraduates degree and the teaching degree, I just didn't have the patience.

Ozomatli, "Super Bowl Sundae"

MA: Hey, this is a good mix.
R: I need a refresher on this one. This is an interesting one to show up on here, because for me, Ozomatli always walked the line between being a band that was really trendy and one that was going to fall into the jam band circuit.
MA: They're kinda like the Beastie Boys, mixing a lot of different genres, being very salsa, Latin-based, with rap, and hip hop, and rock to create a fun, eclectic music. Sublime is like that, too. I got to see them up last year at the Mystic, whenever they come around I try to see them.
R: What kind of live music do you like to see the most?
MA: It varies, it depends. We're going up tonight to see David Bromberg. We get to go out so rarely.* I'm sort of done with the jam band thing, there's just not a band out there that really excites me in that genre right now. But I like to go out to see this kind of thing, really upbeat, good dancing music.

The Grateful Dead, "Sugaree"

R: Speaking of jam bands...
MA: But that's a classic. This place is here because of Jerry, I'm here because of Jerry. It's such an obvious connection. He's been such a huge influence on my life. I feel like I missed the boat by just a short time. I can guarantee that if Jerry were still alive, he would have played at this pub at some point or another.
R: Is Jerry one of the reasons you're in Fairfax?
MA: No, that's just random. It goes back to the karma thing. We were meant to be in Fairfax, being in touch with the whole Phil community. It has a lot to do with the Phil circles, very small circles.
R: I keep waiting for the "Phil-named" beer. When you named the beers after Barry and J.C., how did they react to it?
MA: Oh, Barry loved it, they both loved it. Well, it started actually with the Chazz Cats, and everybody then wanted a beer named after them. But when I came out here, one of the first beers I brewed was the Yonder Mountain stout, but it just wasn't fitting, it needed a new name, and Sless was on board.

The Vern Williams Band, "Roll On Buddy"

MA: I think that's a Bill Monroe tune, originally.
R: You like the traditional stuff, don't you? Do you think that's reflected in the way you make your beers? You work within fairly traditional parameters; there's nothing bizarre, experimental, strange stuff coming out of the brewhouse.
MA: That's fairly true. I did lots more experimenting when it was on someone else's nickel and we were going through the beers quicker. We have a bigger system here, producing twenty kegs at a time, that only lends itself to being experimented or taken off the deep end once in a while. And for me, with all my back surgeries, my time hands-on in the brewhouse has been a lot less, where I leave that to the brewer to take charge. That's one of the things about bringing Christian on board, I think he's going to do a lot more experimenting. At the beginning, he just wants to brew the beers we've got here, get ensconced in the system, get comfortable. But one of the reasons we brought him on board is we really want to see him build up the cask program and do some bottle conditioning.
R: So what's your traditional favorite, then? What's your Bill Monroe of the beer world?
MA: Traditional? Well, the Epiphany is probably my all-time favorite drinking beer, but it doesn't really fall within a guideline. It's a beer that I've been making since 1990. It was the Hammerhead at McMenamins and was transferred to Mountain Sun as the Colorado Kind Ale, and here I was, having brewed this beer for 15 years, driving out here, my head's spinning, taking notes while driving, recording notes into a portable recorder about opening up the brewpub because there was so much information, so much information that needed to get absorbed. I had to start my contacts all over again, my purveyors, going into a strange community, essentially. And I was on this tangent, on this beer, somewhere in between Utah and Nevada on this stretch of road, and my head is reeling... I was just like, I'm going to make this beer when we get out there, it's going to be our flagship beer, it's going to need a good name, a really good name. I'm going to need an epiphany to come up with a really good name for our flagship beer. Epiphany? That's a great name... I called Anne right away. "I got a name for our flagship beer. It's called Epiphany." And she says, "I like it."

Happy International Brewers Day!

Mike Altman is the co-proprietor, along with his wife Anne, of the Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax, CA, and not to be confused with the son of film producer Robert Altman, lyricist of the M*A*S*H theme song.

* On top of their full-time careers, Mike and Anne are quite busy raising the next generation Altman brewer, their 16-month old son Joey.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The dichotomy of Supplication

Unraveling the twist of wire that cages a mushroomed mass of cork can quickly transport you to a supplicatory state, the capgun pop and curl of steam rising from a heavy bottle evoking a musty cellar, one rich and ripe with oak shavings, stained by acidic splashes of red wine, mysteries hidden behind dusty cobwebs, inviting a taste of toasted bread, tart cherries, slowly becoming engulfed in funky barnyard haze. There’s not denying the snob appeal of such a unique intoxicant. Demanding patience and attention, exclusionary beer with qualifiers of acquired taste ("You get used to it!") can naturally generate distrust.

Yet, this: The swell of a pushing crowd, the same fat cork flying above throngs of glasses amidst an elated cheer. Could it be? Amazing that, on the eve of a landmark announcement (the bottle release of their flagship IPA), this strange, wild, unorthodox brew would be the star attraction. A gamble that paid off, betting on good faith and camaraderie that our palates would come along for the ride, and would love it.

(This post was written in response to Stonch's call for concise reflections "on a beer": limited to 175 words, describing a tasting. I found it strenuous.)

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Äppelwoi experiment, part II

Amidst our continuing research into the essential heart of Äppelwoi, we decided it would help maintain our focus within yet another brutal heatwave to crack open a bottle of this decidedly, um, feminine target-marketed beverage, Sweet Pea apple wine. As it turns out, there's all the more reason to slog wearily onward into the Hessen-jive riddled German online "resources" in our brewing safari to discover the secrets to reproducing Frankfurt's malic elixir, 'cause this stuff ain't it.

Not bad, per se, just not the same thing. In fact, were you to pair this side-by-side with a nice, say, Fumé Blanc, or an equally light Edelzwicker, you'd likely consider them distant, strange cousins, what with the similar green apple and stone fruit aromas, and crisp, quick finishes leaving just the tiniest dance of alcohol tingle on the tongue. Of course, whereas that's the opening descriptive salvo of a decent white wine, it's unfortunately the entire possible analysis of the Sweet Pea. It just doesn't have anything else going on. No impressions left by yeast, fermentation, aging, nothing. As clean and shiny as the stainless fermenters in which it was likely born and bred.

Äppelwoi, on the other hand, isn't shy about revealing its scars, its age, and its stories of childhood trauma. It's rustic, a tad funky, varies in character wildly depending on what time of year you order it, and has nothing in common with the stuff in the bottle pictured above except that apples were involved*. What exactly do they do those poor apples? The research continues. Utilizing the latest in lazyblogging technology, ie Google translation, a picture of the process is beginning to emerge. But even with the linguistic assistance of my mother, born and raised in the area and keen on colloquialism and the local patois, there's quite a few missing links to fill in still. On top of that, there's a real challenge in working through the texts we've found so far in dealing with the vast multitude of fart jokes that are endemic to the discussion of Äppelwoi. Truly. The fact that young Äppelwoi incites flatulence by virtue of it's copious amounts of live yeast is something heralded in song and honored in poetry. In homage to the undoubtedly awesome ice-breaking power of the stuff, it's known locally by the endearing name of Hosenschisser.

Hopefully next time I post on the subject, we'll have a clearer view not only of how it's done, but how we can aim to do it ourselves, once I finally discover that the catalog of words I'm working on translating are a menagerie of slang terms for humorous bodily noises.

* And I should admit that the inclusion of peaches in the Sweet Pea should have been some indication that we were dealing with a unique specimen of fruit booze. But, as there are a number of mysterious adjunct fruits mentioned in the chronicles of making Äppelwoi (namely the curious "Speierling", "Mispel", "Eberesche", "Quitte" and "Schlehe") that are included for the various components they can provide to balance the acids, add tannins, and emphasize aroma, it didn't seem that far-fetched to add some peaches into the must.

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Friday linknibbles - Ignorance, beer, bliss

In which we continue to stubbornly refuse to make mention of a rumored merger between two behemoth brewing companies that I couldn't ever bother to care less about, give even the tiniest winge of interest in any of their actions or their respective brands, except, maybe, for the fact that I proposed to Des after fortifying my resolve with a glass of Leffe Blonde*. Damn! I've said too much!

Instead, we'll make this simple: Of the treasure trove of discourse that's arisen ever since Charlie Papazian started blogging and, unlike some celebrity writers, openly reacting and following up on the threads in his comments section, nothing beats the chatter sparked by the question: What is good beer?

Taste it. Is it the character? Is it the soul? Is it its birthplace? Read the posts, read the comments, and then ask yourself if you felt you were better off before... Back when you could just stretch out under a shady oak on a hot summer's afternoon, and let the cicadas lull you into a swoony haze while a pint of IPA cooled your hand, then your brow, and then your belly, without a thought, a thought in the world.

* That link does not, in fact, have anything to do with that rather *meh* Belgian ale mentioned, but with the place where it all went down. Interestingly, it's next door to what used to be Syvia Beach's original Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, where Joyce's Ulysses was first published. And, for a time, American maverick composer George Antheil lived in an apartment upstairs from the shop. As you can see, he often locked himself out and would resort to scaling the building facade to access his window. Doubtless, as a self-penned "bad boy", he enjoyed the attention. More interestingly, the first date that Des and I went on happened to be a performance of American maverick composers, an evening whose highlight was the San Francisco Symphony reading Amériques by French-born, but decidedly American-bred composer, Edgard Varèse, who also happened to be Frank Zappa's musical idol. Which brings us back to beer (beer! beer!).

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Session #17: Rounding it up

Time to repay you all for your patience. For your enjoyment, here's an annotated guide to the entries for this month's Session. Despite the fact that our American beer-writing brethren were busy shooting bottle rockets at each other in Belgian beer-fueled revelry, folks still made time to pull off their bbq mitts and bang out some Session posts in response to the topic broached last month, around the time of the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

The responses - 2831, at last count - fell into three distinct categories which could be summed up thusly: those who thought the question was bollocks, those who thought the question was bollocks but figured cracking open a stout would appease the Session gods, and those who humored me by admitting a certain fondness for the unorthodox beer out of season, for one reason or another (or none, like me).

The "eff off" crew, which ironically followed what the topic was about by doing their own thing regardless of expectations:

Lew Bryson of Seen Through a Glass comes right out calling me a geek, says "Screw that," and proceeds to play the topsy-turvy game by "going to a brewpub owned by Englishmen and drinking English-type real ales brewed on an English-made system with English yeast" on the Fourth of July. Brilliant.

Al at Hop Talk was about to call me on my bluff, but then it started raining.

Amy, author of Brewing Battles, says "Forget you, I'm having a panache." To which I say, "A what?"

The "I'm sorry, honey, but this dude from San Francisco totally told me I had to pull some strong aged stuff out of the cellar and write it up instead of doing the dishes," taking one for the team crowd:

Stephen Beaumont on his That the Spirit blog calls me on my bluff, throws all caution to the wind and literally tests out the paradox of drinking anti-seasonally, to a zydeco soundtrack, nonetheless.

Matthew from Southern Suds hits a Baltic porter that starts with a letter that's really hard to find on your keyboard - but does it! - in a day-end review, capping a beach outing of toeing the line with pilsners and weissbiers to avoid drawing any unwanted attention.

Keith at Brainard Brewing takes his chance on the soapbox to try to inform the world of the existence of Bigfoot. With decent success, mind you.

Bill at Beerjanglin' then doubles up on his round, not only extolling the graces of Bigfoot, but gives some thought to the somewhat debate-prone Triple Bock.

Jon at The Brew Site heeds the call of what appears to be an owl possessed by Satan and digs deep, real deep, into the pumpkin patch of autumnal ale.

The Beer Nut swings the bat at a weird Belgian bock in hopes for anti-seasonally-ing the rest of the crew, but winds up finding himself a little let down.

Ray at The Barley Blog heard the call, and heeded it, in one simple syllable: stout.

Steph at reminds us that stout's not just a syllable, it's dessert, too.

Melissa at Bathtub Brewery cuts straight to the business and goes on a total stout rampage, going so far as to suck Steph into her vortex of blackness.

Ted at Barley Vine then ups the ante on the stout game, turning the volume up to XS! (That doesn't mean "extra small.")

Tim at Sioux Brew also played "stout drinking lab rat" for an evening and subjected himself to a phenomenal brew, for the sake of science.

Bill Brand, via his What's on Tap blog, uses the opportunity to write a (scoop?) review of Stone’s 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, paired nicely with - I hope this isn't a typo - "grilled roast beer."

Rick at Lyke to Drink reminds us that behind ye olde stouts lie the malty underworld of scotch and doppelbock...

On top of that, there was an unquestionable "Christmas in July" mood that swept the group, with both Shawn "The Beer Philosopher" over at the Aleuminati and Boak of Boak and Bailey's cracking open some special something somethings that were by all means certainly meant to be enjoyed in a yuletide way (something I plan on doing tomorrow as well, my kindred brethren).

The "no sudden movements, keep smiling, and Rob will eventually go away" folks:

A kindred spirit, Mario from Brewed for Thought fired up similar barbecue-driven images, evoking "burning meat on an open fire...roasted meats, dusted in charcoal and a thick smoky BBQ sauce," finding a perfect companion in his favorite stouts and browns.

Loot over at thinks brewing and drinking seasonally is too fun to quit, but too cedes in the presence of the almighty 'cue.

Joe from Beer at Joe's shows the world exactly what July in San Francisco looks like, for those of you who don't believe us about the grayness, and does it in true style with what appears to be the gourmet's version of an Egg McMuffin and one of the greatest Belgian-style stouts in the world.

Jay at the Brookston Beer Bulletin traces the history of seasonality in brewing, and thus beer drinking, ending at the cul de sac known as HVAC circle, allowing for barleywine, anytime.

Rob at Sophisticated Brews comes right out and name-checks two of my all-time favorite beers in an undisguised bid for my eternal admiration. And I haven't tried the third one he'd mentioned, yet...

David from Musings Over a Pint admits what I fear may be my own weakness, the continual appreciation of a "big a quiet friend who will sit and 'just be there' while you relax and wind down from the day's activities," even while I'll equally admit that a "day's activities" for me might just be, um, "tasting beer."

Matt at Flossmoor Station Brewing Co. describes what could only be thought of as the Bizarro world of beer-drinking environments... those where you do not drink beer!

Meanwhile, the completely unrelated Matt at A World of Brews admits that even the rotation of the Earth, the gravitational pull of the Sun, and a good day of lawnwork cannot sway him from a love for IPA.

Wilson at Brewvana is apparently drinking the same Kool-Aid that's flowing around here, indulging himself in an appropriately-titled Dark Beer Summer.

Jon at Beer Obsessed admits that if it weren't for the fact that there's no such thing as summer in North Berkeley, he'd be cracking open sixers of Czech pils in no time. But since it's freezing...

Christina at Beer for Chicks goes for the gusto by admitting, against all odds, compromising her professional integrity, a disgusting, filthy truth.

Alan at A Good Beer Blog then goes and makes mention of skinny dipping with Christina in a way that makes me feel kinda funny.

And lastly, Troy at Great Canadian Pubs and Beer writes up a self-effacing yet perfectly solid post that features none other than the great, mysterious smoke monster objectified in my own post on the subject.

Phew! Be sure to check The Barley Blog for the next Session announcement, as Ray will be hosting our next meeting on Friday, August 1st. Thanks all, for the excellent entries!

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. If you contributed a post but don't see it above, that means it was likely devoured by my email client's spam filter, so feel free to comment to this post so that I can amend the roundup. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.


Friday, July 04, 2008

The bird is rich

The Session #17 - Embracing oppression

In the realm of wine and food pairing, one of the elements that's taken into consideration when marrying the two is whether or not your aim is to complement characteristics of both - matching a Sauvignon blanc with prosciutto-wrapped melon, for example - or, instead, to provide an exciting contrast between them - like pairing a citrusy Chardonnay with shrimp that had been tossed in olive oil and garlic. Either way, the aim is to produce a third, almost ghostlike taste impression that hovers between the two like one of those Magic Eye pictures, or that finger sausage thing you may have done in grade school: In one case, you've conjured up an übermelon via playing up a highlight quality of both the wine and the food; in the other case, the two work together to create, in a sense, a third, new dish, with the acid from the wine cutting into the oil in the same way that adding a lemon would contribute a bright new dimension.

In beer terms, one could argue that we've all been trained to pair our choices in regards to the contrast they provide, with our environment as the other variable. Think, for example, if instead of being inundated (but oh, there are worse ways to be inundated!) with "winter warmers" during the cold months, you were presented with beers that actually reinforced the chill - say, light, pale lagers served at near-freezing temperatures. Madness, you say. Those of you who stuck around to talk some sense into me would probably then note that the bevy of robust, complex, and yes, warming ales that make themselves at home amidst sunless hours of winter do more than ward off the effects of Jack Frost: they also pair much better with the rich comfort foods of the season. Take, for example, porters with endlessly-cooked stews, Belgian dubbels with slow-roasted root vegetables, and doppelbocks with the seasonal depression-lifting power of chocolate. It could be said, then, that while the beer styles that we traditionally associate with wintertime are in contrast with the weather, they do, however, complement the cuisine (which doesn't get much more literal than the sharing of spices between traditional European Christmas cookies and Christmas beers).

Which brings us to the present, at which we northern hemisphere-dwellers have just passed the opposite solstice, and along with it, summer and its litany of pale, light-bodied, lawnmower-friendly, 6-pack just ain't enough you gotta buy 'em by the halfrack, "you done with that? I'm gonna stick it up this chicken's butt", enough with the wheat already, "I like mine with lime", but undeniably refreshing seasonal offerings. Which I can understand on many levels, even while pretending to ignore the fact that summer in San Francisco is, well, you know... (It makes even more sense now that I live just far enough outside of the grip of the maritime weather phenomenon that we can watch the fringes of the eagermost tendrils of fog creep threateningly into view over the coastal ridge, only to be vanquished by the righteous dry heat of the proper emperor of the season, a complete stranger to those of us who grew up in the City, the sun.) And certainly, the suggestion that one would enjoy a nice, warmed goblet of Quelque Chose after rounding the bases after a few midday innings would invite some to examine my sanity. Don't worry: I get it.

So there's your weather-based contrast, right? Cold out: warming beer. Hot out: cooling beer. If the above equation were to work, then you would assume that the cooling beer would be in line with summertime cuisine by complementing it. But for me, summer means barbecue, and that's where the math breaks down: A kickass barbecued meal almost always deserves a more thoughtfully chosen beer pairing than your run-of-the-mill (by which I mean "premium" or "select", naturally) fizzy yellow stuff. In order to truly complement the sweet, spicy, smoky, greasy and oh-so-carcinogenically-good experience of the grill, I find I have to dig a little deeper into my fridge to make the pairing really sing.

The idea for this Session came to me as the days began getting longer and warmer, the produce at the farmer's market began to shift into high summer mode, and the thought of doing any cooking inside of a house that was breaking 90° was unimaginable. With the primordial call of the beast sounding a low rumble from my outdoor altar, I quickly noticed that even the summer seasonals I most look forward to, alongside all the usual suspects of wits, saisons, and geuezes, weren't really clicking. When I found myself, delirious from the heat, sweating, panting, and paralyzed from trying to not exert any effort while lying prone in front of an enormous shop fan, desperately craving a Gulden Draak, I knew it might be something to investigate here.

And so, a quick set of pairings with some otherwise unethical choices for summertime beer enjoyment which play into the hands of the season, embrace the inevitable, celebrate the circumstance, and fight fire with fire:

Strong, pale, and bitter: Anyone who's desperately searched for a remedy to the scorching spice and piquancy of a skewer of classic grilled Creole shrimp would be wise to reach for a West Coast style IPA like those from Lagunitas, Bear Republic or Stone that can both temper the heat through its citric acidity, crisp effervescence , and capiscum-soluble alcohol, while asserting its own aromatic spice character to elevate the subtler flavors in the shrimp seasoning that might've gotten lost amidst the burn. Of course, it's even more effective if you reach for a double IPA, instead...

Strong, dark, and bitter: Roasted malts? Astringent blackness? Add to that the hints of smoke and coffee you get from an imperial stout like North Coast's Old Rasputin and you've got a nice foil for that hunk of evil, charred beef (or tempeh!) that you're planning on piling up with a blue cheese and chili dressing. And when you turn to your cabernet-sucking tablemates, "How much more black could this be?", they'll be forced to answer: "None. None more black."

Strong, pale, and sweet: Belgian strong golden ales and tripels aren't your only choices here, as some German winter specialties also kinda fit the description (southern hemisphere friends, you're in luck!) such as Weltenburger's Winter-Traum, but few of them match the devilishly innocent-looking Belgians, like Delirium Tremens, in complexity and richness, or their ability to stand up to a fat and pungent bacon burger with Gorgonzola cheese, where the bready yeast aroma complements the bun, the slight sweetness works with the caramel flavors in the meat, and the extreme carbonation and dry finish help clean the fats from the palate.

Strong, dark and sweet: Not that I ever need an excuse to venture into the deep end, it would be easy for me to dedicate a book of sestinas to the food pairings one could achieve with high-alcohol, dark ales such as the aforementioned Gulden Draak and its Belgian kin, barleywines, and old ales. Instead, let's keep this one simple and perfect: pulled pork sandwiches with a wee heavy scotch ale like Orkney's SkullSplitter. The sweet smokiness of the pork gets a leg up by this island concoction's tireless malt backbone for a truly coma-inducing umami richness.

Hopefully, none of the above pairings would appear disastrously ill-conceived. Alongside the rich, sweet, and spicy flavors one typically associates with memorable bbq, there belongs a comparable set of rich, sweet, and spicy beers. Divorced from the food they're meant to adjoin, though, the selections of a double IPA, imperial stout, Belgian strong golden, and scotch ale seem like ludicrous choices for the perfect summertime quaff. Granted, it doesn't entirely explain why while being punished by these inhuman conditions, I'd be craving a perilously wicked black Belgian strong ale that's nearly as alcoholic as Riesling and demands a loaf of bread and a chaser of water just to avoid feeling overwhelmed, but maybe, deep inside, I enjoy embracing the oppression of this relatively new experience of a summertime distinguished by heat, sun, and fire, rather than this.

* The image at top is for decoration only. I do not endorse or condone the drinking of Bamberg's rauchbier without the supervision of an adult who can, after you've had a sip, remind you that you asked for it.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer, which just so happens to be hosted this month by yours truly. If you've got a post of your own that you'd like to add, either email me at or comment on this site so I can include it in the roundup tomorrow. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Laconic reflections on a pint

In a word: Unctuous

A reader who's spent more than five minutes perusing the content of this site could likely deduce that I have a difficult time with brevity*. And like an ironic torture device out of a splatter flick about beer writers, pub-running beer blogger Stonch has put forth a writing competition that seems designed to punish my propensity for pompous, prolix prose: describe, in no more than 175 words, a beer. Any beer. I'm worried that at that length, I won't make it past the brand of socks I was wearing before hitting that text limit, let alone even mention the beer I enjoyed while wearing them (black athletic crew Gold Toes, old enough that the toes aren't much gold anymore, and the left one's a real quitter). Nevertheless, enjoying a good challenge now and then, I'll likely take the bait and hammer something out, even if my continental residency precludes me from procuring the oh-so-delectable booty.

Back in 2007, incidentally, Stonch hosted another contest (in conjunction with the stateside A Good Beer Blog) which revolved around beer photography, a subject which I have a certain sick fondness for. It's too bad Matt from didn't send in any entries, as it would have been a surefire victory for the West Coast team.

So, anyone else game for trying to bring a (admittedly token) victory to Team West Coast (we need a better name, methinks), just in time to celebrate International Brewers Day?

* Number of words in this post: 251

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Reminder! The Session this Friday, born on the...

Fourth of July, y'all. Pocket those cherry bombs for a precious few moments, thus forever preserving those delightful digits of yours, and tippity-type your entry for this Friday's carnival. Either email me at or comment on this post to get your writings in Saturday's roundup!

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.