Friday, September 26, 2008

Fermentation Friday - Where the wild things are

As someone whose routine for brewing typically involves two powerfully influential variables - nature and sloth - the concept of integrating native ingredients in the mind of adding an "indigenous" quality to our beers could seem a little redundant: We typically brew outside, and I'm also typically too lazy to bother minimizing the potential for something unannounced to make its appearance in the kettle. Just this minute, there's at least one beer quietly fermenting in the basement that had what, bay leaves? Plum leaves? Something seasonally shedding in the space above my brewpot falling into the midst of the boil, which was never discovered, chortling away in an anonymous fermenter. (The California bay laurel is easily denoted as indigenous, but the wild plum, maybe not so much.) Previous batches have had all manner of insect, twig, or airborne miscellany drop into the pot while I was watching - and I don't watch it all that much. "It's boiling," I say. "It's dead, poor thing. Give it an extra couple minutes to make sure it doesn't infect the batch." I never once thought those little bothers could become the topic of a blog carnival, but so it is, this month's Fermentation Friday.

What could a brewer like myself consider for a native element, that hasn't already ostensibly entered the brewing process without my conscious interference? Brian Hunt has already beaten us all to the punch by claiming the most iconic of local flora, the coastal redwood, as his personal hops substitution. I've got a number of oddities cropping up in the yard that, as Mario recently pointed out, make up a goodly percentage of the ingredient list for gruit spices, but that weedy potpourri includes so many invasive species that it hardly qualifies for indigenous status. Besides all that, what? The nanoclimate here on the orographic edge of Mt. Tamalpais is, as my good friend Alex would describe it, Ewok village. That leaves, after you've removed all the redwoods, just some ferns (sadly no fiddlehead), mushrooms, and loads of bugs. But hey, not just insects - we've got other, teensier bugs here, too.

But first, a digression...

Traditional breweries who experiment with wild yeast strains, most notably Brettanomyces, almost invariably include some statement in their marketing materials regarding how they had to utilize a completely separate fermentation facility to avoid any chance of cross-contamination in the main brewhouse. Vinnie Cilurzo, a man quite renowned locally for his dabbling with Brett makes a point to talk about the difficulties of being ostracized by various winemakers of the world-class Sonoma vintner scene, a puritanical and superstitious lot who are so afraid of that particular fungus that they won't even enter his Santa Rosa pub in fear that it'll sneak into the fibers of their clothes for a ride back to the barrelhouse like bacterial gremlins where they'll make themselves at home, all nice and funky like.

At the same time, the term "house character" conjures up such a cozy image, all fireplace glow and creaky porch swings and overstuffed down quilts, that it's favored by folks who want to inspire the taster to reconsider what on first blush might resemble a flaw, and redefine it in their mind's eye as an endearing quirk, a stamp of uniqueness, a symbol of handicraft. In brewing, "house character" is often just that, the character of the building in which the beer is brewed and aged. More so than mashing techniques or choice of malt or hops or anything else, it is often the yeast that delivers the potential to engender a brewery with a certain commonality amongst its beers, that unique stamp I mentioned above. Resident in the barrels where the beer is aged, in the air where the beer is cooled, wild yeasts typically don't have an initial dominance within the bacterial stew of a properly inoculated beer, but over time will come out and show off their true colors, to a point where small bits of Brett alone have been acknowledged for imparting beers (and wines) the impression of age.

Places where beer is truly spontaneously fermented, however, remain anomalies. The image of the Belgian brewhouse, whereupon finishing a day of boiling up a batch of beer they pump the wort up into a shallow cooling vessel on the top floor of the building, when the louvered windows open to the night air and the breeze from Brussels chills the liquor until it's ready for the fermentation tanks, bats and spiders and wild windblown beasties be damned, is not much more than a myth, with seldom exceptions. Even those beers that are cooled in open air for energy efficiency and laziness' sake (which I can totally dig) are then subject to very aggressive inoculation by highly trained house yeast strains which make quick work of the beer and leave little trace of nature's fingerprint.

But why not? Just because it's inefficient, unpredictable, potentially unsavory, and certainly unsanitary, why not throw all care to the literal wind and allow for your indigenous microflora take center stage in your next brewing adventure? The most famous yeast-inhabited zephyrs of the Senne Valley claim the local cherry trees as the sustaining force. Certainly, though, amidst all the laurels, madrones, redwoods and oaks of West Marin (not to mention the huge, locally cultivated, i.e. non-native fruit agriculture) there must be a somewhat decent cocktail of fermentation agents just waiting for the right sweet soup to take a dip in while converting it into some nice, weird beer.

So therein lies our next challenge. While it's arguable that my indolence when it comes to certain sanitizing methods has led to a sort of "house character" all its own, we've never gone truly wild. Before it gets too cold, while the persimmons and apples are still on the trees, while the walnuts are just starting to crack, the chestnuts just starting their homicidal dives off the boughs, the tomatoes and peppers beginning to wilt on the vine, and the pumpkins and squash are spreading their way across the fields in their last gasps, I think we'll cook up a nice, welcome broth of malted sweetness and leave it out for whatever guests may decide to come enjoy it. It doesn't really get more indigenous, after all, than the invisible nature that you breathe every day, that surrounds you and instinctively reminds you when you smell it again for the first time after some time away, that you're home.

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


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dissidents and dissonance, notes from the underground

If you've noticed a dearth of additions here of late, you're likely alone. That's part of the charm of the way this new media is digested, isn't it? We all subscribe to a gamut of spottily updated resources from around the web, and after a while it becomes a blur of content devoid of the linear narrative you can slip into when you're only following the exploits of a handful of writers.

It's not for lack of liquid material, mind you. But a quiet rule in publishing content here has been to limit myself to commentary that at least carries the veneer of insight. As the past couple weeks have been riddled with sicknesses, stresses, and a shaky return to the full-time grind, my capacity for insight has been duly diminished and the desire to share nonexistent. But rather that let this page languish too long, a little roundup of recent goings-on might be due, a quick gasp of breath before going back underwater.

- What prompted this brief return to soliloquy is the beer pictured above: A very fine, reserve offering from Deschutes in the Flanders brown style, the Dissident inspires a bit of thought on the state of the American craft brewer and their special releases. A deep, ruddy cherry ale that crackles with the sour tang of wild fermentation and the slightest musk of the barrel, it's wholly reminiscent of something you might expect to find in a cafe in Ghent. (Although it could potentially use another year in the cellar, what with a residual sweetness that left it tasting just a tad young, the same impression we recently had while tasting the new Ten Commandments release from Lost Abbey. Are breweries rushing their special releases out onto the market early? The press release said The Dissident had already spent 18 months maturing. But I digress...)

While brewed with cherries from the Northwest, there's nothing "Northwest" of note in the beer, which came as a little bit of a surprise considering how much of an impact Deschutes has had as a flag-bearer for the area's idiosyncratic brewing scene. While Mirror Pond and Black Butte both represent for many folks the ethos of the FNWONWCB (first new wave of Northwest craft brewing, not to be confused with NWOBHM), the only thing that struck me as being particularly American about The Dissident is its alcohol level (9% according to the bottle, versus the 11% it lists on the press release, but still up from the 5-6% you'd find in an oud bruin or Flanders red). Does Rodenbach do this? Do they celebrate their continued success by rewarding their fans with an anniversary California pale ale? It's a testament, perhaps, to what is happening behind the scenes in small brewhouses around the country, where brewers' worldly palates are being greenlit by the company number crunchers and marketing flacks alike, seeing the voracious appetite of the online beer enthusiast community as being recession-proof enough that there's minimal risk (and potentially excellent mark-up potential) in letting the brewers experiment in foreign styles in the cause of expanding their repertoire. It's arguable that the market for Rodenbach would not be so kind to their experimentation, and were the monks of the abbey of St. Sixtus to present the world with a Westvleteren Mandarin Orange Hefeweizen for those hot monastic summer nights, there'd likely be riots.

- Meanwhile, over at the Aleuminati, I've been involved in an open source brewing project of sorts, a groupthink recipe tinkering collective with the ambitious goal of creating a beer that even the most initiate of homebrewers could attempt, while being scalable in scope for the more ambitious of us, designed with the intent of being a good gateway beer to more expansive beer tasting for those looking to hook their unknowing friends into this little cult we call "beer snobbery". It's a little like a dubbel but with a bit of American oomph, and it's entitled The Indoctrinator. While the recipe itself is set (in silly putty, or mud maybe), there's still time to brew your own batch and get in the trading circle. Once everyone's confident their batch is sufficiently conditioned, we'll be shipping samples around to do our own personal horizontal tastings.

The morning after brewing up our version, I found it burbling away with a rhythmic regularity that momentarily entranced me like a Louis Hardin ostinato, and I was thrown: Has a day of listening to 5-year olds hack their way into the canon of Western music distorted my musical perception to the degree that I'm hearing regularity and pulse in the randomness of nature? So of course, I filmed it. See if you think I'm crazy.

(Des, meanwhile, has disavowed any knowledge of this video and will not admit to the possibility that anyone in this household is enough of a dork to have generated it.)

- Speaking of brewing, we also got around to throwing together a kettle of that hereto theoretical lavender-infused black saison on Saturday afternoon, bringing the amount of partially-fermented homestuffs in the basement to an unforeseen 25 gallons, a possible new record. Lord knows what we'll do with all of it. Good thing I've got another batch planned for brewing in the next few days. While it's obviously too early to post tasting notes, the phenomenal sensory overload that arose from adding the hydrosol to the pot was intense enough to make us wonder if we'd come across something wonderful, or terrifying. It'll be ready for Halloween, appropriately.

- Lastly, I'll most likely be AFK for the coming weekend as it's one jam-packed with birthday celebrations in a true Oktoberfest by way of autumnal equinox fashion, but I'd be remiss if there wasn't a nod to the Northern California Homebrewers Festival that will be going on concurrently, most specifically the brewer's dinner that Sean Paxton has planned. Hot diggety delicious dog. Maybe next year that'll be Mia's idea of a good time, camping up in the Sierra foothills with a bunch of homebrewers, but this year we'll stick to a pony ride and a day in the park with cupcakes...

(And thanks to fellow beer blogger Bailey for the Lomo photoshopping trick. Like most hipster grups, there's a Holga in our closet, but we hardly ever take it out. Instead, there's something delightfully ironic about using all of today's most advanced technologies in digital imaging to attempt a recreation of an iconic, singular, and strangely loveable classic. Hey, it's kind of like a storied Oregon brewery aping a historic Flemish beer.)

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Session #19 - Not just schwartz and weiss*

Because in the end, the transatlantic image of beer in Germany can be reduced to the image of a grinning Fraulein with a Halbe Maß of helles Lagerbier surrounded by Lederhosen-clad, tuba-wielding, fantastically-mustachioed Mensche. And to that end, lootcorp 3.0 isn't going to let us propagate that myth. More so, they'd like us, for this month's Session, to approach the topic of beer vis-à-vis Germany with the delicacy, thoughtfulness, insight, and wisdom that is the hallmark collection of attributes we ascribe to our lot, the beer blogger. Thus, no oompah jokes. No rolling out of barrels or any such sort. No Schuhplattler. Our duty is to strip away the weathered, simplistic facade of the Munich biergarten and provide a plain and simple informative reflection on the country's other, less marketed contributions to the world of brewing. Just the beer.
Awful, awful, awful beer. Make no mistake: Just because it's a country renowned for its storied association with the history of beer, a country famed for its reputed purity law, it's gargantuan drinking vessels, and a certain yearly celebration that begins with the letter O, that doesn't mean they're free from brown-bag level rotgut swill. Granted, it's swill that's been brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, but swill all the same. And before you think this is an excuse to launch into some unflattering tirade, snarkily thumbing my nose at the country that brought us Salvator (even though it was made by Italians), allow me to explain that as a German myself (at least according to my passport), I have tremendous pride in knowing that behind all those glistening copper kettles and brewing institutes there's still a base-level, wretched pilsner for those who don't really want to taste what they're drinking, but can get a quantifiable (5.0%!) buzz all the same. And thanks to parents who found themselves waiting in the Frankfurt airport last month with little to do, we've gotten our hands on some beer that reflects the untold, seedy underground of German brewing.
And for those who dare to taste the untasteable? Well... Rather than clean up a translation of the text on the label, let's share this rough Googlization of 5,0's marketing spiel:
Only one black red yellow box! No elaborate embossed with gold! Only a simple design! No expensive TV advertising! This goes to savings you have! We have almost everything saved! Except in the quality after the German purity law! Ingredients: water, barley malt and hops! Put your money better! Pay less now for a good Pils without frills!
Charming, no? Especially the unintended rhyme at the end - definitely the way to go when they almost certainly bring this special brew stateside. As far as what's on the inside of this beguiling package, we did at least agree that it smelled German. Beneath a Budweiser acetaldehyde apple funk and within a few layers of cardboard, there it was - that classic noble hop sparkle of a Continental pilsner. But that was it. It was unsurprisingly watery, not particularly bitter or malty, with a finish that disappeared off the palate like a phantom. After combining it with a little bit of spicy food, it immediately took on the character of Corona. I needed to steady myself with a 90-Minute just to get through writing about it. Silver lining? Even the grubbiest of grubsteak German pils is actually not that bad. It would seem that there's something to be said about that much-maligned purity law in instances like this...

So there you have it. Enjoy reading others' stories of quaint kellerbiers and obscure eisbocks and the odd Ur-Bock. It's good to know that (besides a tidal wave of revolting alcopops) there's still a market for cheap, tasteless lager in the land that made lager great. Stereotype dismissed. But if there's one stereotype of Germany's beer culture that exists solely as a result of it's undeniable, awesome truth, it's this: There's an entire country of young, beautiful German girls who are totally into beer, and can't wait to hang out with you. They probably even want to talk to you about decoction mashing and hot side aeration while you loosen their dirndls! And thanks to strong genetic traits, they all look the same. It's a fact!

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by lootcorp 3.0. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

* And please pardon the horrible pun.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Slow Beer Nation

Rodger Davis mans the bar while Shaun O'Sullivan
taps a virtual cask*

At first, there hadn't been any plan to write anything here about Slow Food Nation, as I knew that the assembled armies of local food and drink writers would not only do it justice in words and images, but also because, despite my particularly deep love of all things foodie, my inner editor hastened to remind me that the bulk of the 50,000 square feet of display and interaction was devoted to things other than the main topic of this particular site, that being beer. Sure, I had taken the liberty of printing up a list of the breweries that were representing (of which there were around 60) and circled, highlighted, and added obligatory exclamation points next to the specific beers that were going to be available (of which there were around 150). But like I said, this certainly wasn't a beer event. It was a food event, one that just happened to have a neat little hop-adorned tent outside where you could grab a beer to enjoy alongside your wood-fired pizza (or your chutneys, or your naan, or your ceviche, or your ice cream, or your chocolate, or your tea, or your salumi).

Granted, the tent was staffed by a continuous rotation of brewers ("Tell me what you think - I made it" was a typical refrain) and brewery insiders, pouring beer from three gorgeous reclaimed bottle-glass bars - for draft, cask, and bottle, respectively - while also making the rounds at a fourth bar which was set up as a "meet the brewer" scenario, with guided tasting flights being offered from their particular brewery. And they made an effort to actually pour the beers into appropriate glassware when possible (like when Des ordered a Salvation and Bruce Paton took away her original glass and replaced it with a flute). So if you wanted it badly enough, squinted just so, and really tried hard to ignore the enormous cavalcade of comestibles looming right over your shoulder, tendrils of otherworldly aromas snaking around you like horror-movie fog, you could have pretended it was a beer event. But then it would have been even less attractive to comment upon, since beer festivals tend to bring out the complainer in me.

I won't complain, for example, that none of the top-shelf beers remained on the boards by the time the doors to the last session of the event opened, since I'm sure that next time the pavilion curator [*Cough* Ahem, you! You there in the Brookston shirt!] will try harder to control the rotation of the truly rare beers to make them available to folks coming to any one of the four events, not just the first. Fact is, even though my number one choice was long gone off the boards (along with numbers two through sixteen), I did get to taste it, thanks to the warm generosity of Stone's Dave Hopwood, who had set aside a special bottle of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout on the first day to enjoy by himself at the end of the festival, yet offered up a healthy pour to put a quick end to my unmanly blubbering, weeping and begging.

And I certainly won't complain that the pretty price of entry ($58!) included a limited number of tasting samples, because a "taste" from the beer pavilion amounted to a full serving, meaning that while Lost Abbey's Witches Wit isn't the most robust offering of their line-up, I had a delightfully full glass of it to accompany me on the 200-yard stroll back and forth through the food and spirits pavilions, and still enough to wash down some phenomenal albacore niçoise. Which then left room for a Matilda. And a Little Opal. And a Transcontinental. And an Old Guardian.

So much for not writing about Slow Food Nation, eh? I might as well mention now that we jumped on the vermiculture bandwagon this past weekend as a way of sustainably composting the leftovers from our biodynamically resourced organic, hand-crafted, and homegrown foods. Happy now? We're total foodie dorks hiding behind the toughened veneer of beer drinking.

Good thing the worms like spent grains from brewing. Otherwise y'all might think I'm getting a little fluffy around the edges. Beer is, after all, as William Brand suggested, "one of the original slow foods."

* With education as a high point on the Slow Food priority list, the cask trailer was streamed via video to a monitor at the bar so that folks could see what cask ale is all about. Ancient brewing traditions meets Big Brother.

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