Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving thanks for Fermentation Friday... er, Wednesday?

The gracious homebrewer gives thanks this time of year to his family for their love and support, whether it's...
On the bottling line,
With the corking machine,
Or with quality assurance.

Or all of the above. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

(Something a little different for this month's Fermentation Friday.)


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Old-fashioned home brewing

Legend has it that the beloved troubadour of San Francisco, Herb Caen coined the term "beatnik" at North Beach's Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe (better known as Specs). Would be wonderful were it true, had he not actually used the term in print ten years prior in the Chronicle. And as Richard Simmons (no, not that one), the proprietor of Specs points out, it's not as much a destination for beatniks as much as it's been a mecca for bohemians since the late '60s. In the space between Vesuvio's and Specs, in fact, one could probably write the story of the City's modern art movement, between the legions of cheap, thirsty night owl poets. musicians, dancers, and artists looking for something a bit stronger than an espresso at Trieste for fueling their imaginations.

Whereas Caen's drink of choice is historically agreed to have been "Vitamin V" (as in, a vodka martini), there's another cocktail that Specs doles out in equally enthusiastic measures, that being the perennial bourbon mixer of choice, the Old Fashioned. An incredible bit of magic, that. Between some good Kentucky corn whiskey, a little sugar, orange, bitters, some water, and garnished with a cherry, there's a true sense of alchemy at the results, a bit of mixological hocus pocus that attests to it being considered the origin of all cocktails. Like many of the classic drinks in its family, it's a Calder-esque game of balance between sweet and bitter, grain and fruit, wood softness and mineral hardness. Sound familiar? If you've ever brewed beer, the issues of balance between malt and hops are always ground floor concerns, with grain aroma competing with yeast esters slightly higher up the ladder, and for those of you who have played around with oak, it's the exact same rainbow of contrasts that anyone who has enjoyed a barrel-aged beer would find themselves observing.

What goes around, comes around. When recently thrown to the wind this lazy question, "What should we brew next?", a particularly vocal bad influence suggested I give up homebrewing altogether and step up to the world of liquor distillation and make him some nice small-pot secret-time whiskey-style hooch. Which, sadly, isn't in the plans for the near future. But through a glimmer of inspiration, the thought dawned on me, what possibility is there for brewing a beer that could take bourbon's place, and in its most glorious and honored form? What possibility was there in brewing a beer that mimicked a top-shelf Old Fashioned?

After hashing out the final details about what's integral to making an Old Fashioned work while enjoying some inspired barrel-aged libations at the Firestone XII release party, there were certain things we agreed on as being elemental to the success of this little experiment:

- It needs to look right: Sounds obvious, but it's often underrated just how much we take appearance into our accounting for taste. Hitting that flat-out sexy shade of polished mahogany, glints of red and orange evident against the light meant we'd get to experiment with CaraRed for a change.

- It needs to smell right: Alex has gotten me addicted to the stupidly awesome habit of flaming orange peels onto the surface of my Old Fashioneds, which results in giving the aroma a slightly marmaladey touch, one that I thought might be replicable with the judicious use of the right type of hops at the right time in the boil (although admittedly, we'll be flaming a fresh-picked orange over the kettle for good luck). Options are pretty limited at this point, so we'll be experimenting (there's that word again) with some organic Belgian Admiral hops for both bittering and aroma. Beyond that, a successful beer-as-bourbon analogue would need that distinctive aroma of charred oak and that sparkling hit of hot spice. Thanks to the simple genial wisdom of Griz, that part's easily covered.

- It needs to taste right: Any undistilled beverage trying to compete with bourbon is going to meet its biggest challenge in providing fire, that simple burn of a high proof alcohol, and it's a heat we'll only be able to get close to mimicking by making sure we've got a strong elixir on our hands. The original gravity for our batch will come in around 1.090, meaning that with a good clean fermentation from the English Ale yeast, we'll be looking at around 9.0% alcohol by volume. The malt will be paired with a slight hint of brandied cherry to outline a relative sweetness, with a good deal of cheap pilsner extract, British pale and honey malt adding a grainy mouthfeel, and the yeast hopefully completing the fruit overtones.

Here's the recipe. Consider it an Extra Specs'cial Bitter, in honor of that great, great watering hole, and the world of art that's poured forth as a result of its capacitation. Worst case scenario, it doesn't taste like an Old Fashioned as much as a Belgian double IPA. Things could be worse. As long as it stirs the soul and enables a little bit of deep, strange thinking, it's doing its job.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Imbibers One Hundred

A lazy Friday meme, taking off where the Omnivore's 100 started, courtesy of the Art of Drink, via Underhill-Lounge:


1) Copy this list into your blog, with instructions.
2) Bold all the drinks you’ve imbibed.
3) Cross out any items that you won’t touch
4) Post a comment here and link to your results.


If you don’t have a blog, just count the ones you’ve tried and post the number in the comments section.

List of Drinks You Must Try Before You Expire

1. Manhattan Cocktail
2. Kopi Luwak (Weasel Coffee)
3. French / Swiss Absinthe
4. Root beer
5. Gin Martini
6. Sauternes
7. Whole Milk
8. Tequila (100% Agave)
9. XO Cognac
10. Espresso
11. Spring Water (directly from the spring)
12. Gin & Tonic
13. Mead
14. Westvleteren 12 (Yellow Cap) Trappist Ale
15. Chateau d’Yquem
16. Budweiser
17. Maraschino Liqueur
18. Mojito
19. Orgeat
20. Grand Marnier

21. Mai Tai (original)
22. Ice Wine (Canadian)
23. Red Bull
24. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
25. Bubble Tea
26. Tokaji
27. Chicory
28. Islay Scotch
29. Pusser’s Navy Rum
30. Fernet Branca
31. Fresh Pressed Apple Cider

32. Bourbon
33. Australian Shiraz
34. Buckley’s Cough Syrup
35. Orange Bitters
36. Margarita (classic recipe)

37. Molasses & Milk
38. Chimay Blue
39. Wine of Pines (Tepache)
40. Green Tea
41. Daiginjo Sake
42. Chai Tea
43. Vodka (chilled, straight)
44. Coca-Cola
45. Zombie (Beachcomber recipe)
46. Barley Wine
47. Brewed Choclate (Xocolatl)

48. Pisco Sour
49. Lemonade
50. Speyside Single Malt
51. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee
52. Champagne (Vintage)
53. Rosé (French)
54. Bellini
55. Caipirinha
56. White Zinfandel (Blush)
57. Coconut Water
58. Cerveza
59. Cafe au Lait
60. Ice Tea
61. Pedro Ximenez Sherry
62. Vintage Port
63. Hot Chocolate
64. German Riesling
65. Pina Colada
66. El Dorado 15 Year Rum
67. Chartreuse
68. Greek Wine
69. Negroni
70. Jägermeister
71. Chicha
72. Guinness
73. Rhum Agricole
74. Palm Wine
75. Soju
76. Ceylon Tea (High Grown)
77. Belgian Lambic
78. Mongolian Airag
79. Doogh, Lassi or Ayran
80. Sugarcane Juice
81. Ramos Gin Fizz
82. Singapore Sling
83. Mint Julep
84. Old Fashioned
85. Perique
86. Jenever (Holland Gin)
87. Chocolate Milkshake
88. Traditional Italian Barolo
89. Pulque
90. Natural Sparkling Water
91. Cuban Rum
92. Asti Spumante
93. Irish Whiskey
94. Château Margaux
95. Two Buck Chuck
96. Screech
97. Akvavit
98. Rye Whisky
99. German Weissbier
100. Daiquiri (classic)

My off-the-cuff suggestions for altering this list? Kefir, kombucha, any wet hop ale, gueuze, Turkish coffee, mulled wine, vintage Napa Cabernet, Campari, Orangina, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and, lastly, Dark Lord. And now I'm thirsty.

Happy Friday, everyone.


Who's the Healthiest of them all?

There hasn't been much pimping of local beer biz around these parts lately, partially since there hasn't been much pimping of anything, and partly because other local writers have been doing such a proper job of reporting on all beer-related newsiness. One recent development, however, seems to have avoided the warranted blogosphere press: the transformation of Healthy Spirits from a neighborhood shop into an undisputed beer destination, currently boasting the largest bottled beer selection in the Bay Area within a space that can't be more than 600 square feet.

Most fascinating to me is how this has all come about, all within your typical urban corner store, similar to dozens within a mile's radius and amongst hundreds within city limits. Unlike a business that's made it their outright original goal, as part of a model to establish themselves as outright beacons for beer geeks, this little shop that stands within a quick stroll of my childhood home is a sort of accidental mecca for beer hunters. The big question for me, though, is: Do they have the largest selection in the Bay Area? Last I checked, Dave, their beer manager, informed me that they were up to 570 choices with more on the way, with two new shelves being put in since the photo I took last week to corral them (which you can now see here). It says a lot about the management to allow their mom & pop store undergo such a focused transformation, one riding on the somewhat feverish and fantastical vision of a single, beer-obsessed soul.

See this as a shameless plug for an institution I admire or just as a reflection on the curious development in my old stomping grounds, whichever you prefer. Just make sure you stop by if you can, and marvel in its unexpected glory (and pick me up something while you're there).


Friday, November 07, 2008

Brew like a mook

And it smelled like roses
Finally, thanks to the Italians, "beer" can mean whatever you want. There's been a whirlwind of attention lately being given to the Italian brewing scene, and while it's a whirlwind that albeit reeks of "next big thing" trendism and seems eerily connected to an influx of imported Italian beers flooding the market at decidedly prohibitive price points, there appears quite a bit to be excited about. With the culinary ethics of one of the world's deepest, most soulful cuisines, the Italians look to have said "Chi se ne frega?" to staid style and guidelines, and are brewing with their gut. And here, in a country where there remains a certain puritanical view on alcohol enjoyed on its own merits but a near universal acceptance of alcohol as a complement to fine dining, these beers have an excellent chance of taking root.

Our first introduction to this new spectrum of offerings, in fact, was through one such fine dining experience. One of the honestly creative and stunningly flavorful creations made by Le Baladin's Teo Musso, Nora tastes like the eccentric offspring of Dany Prignon and Sam Calagione: a sweet, ephemeral, nectar-like brew that hosts such ingredients as unmalted kamut, ginger, myrrh and orange peel. But what exactly is it? When you look around, you see that folks attempt to use Belgian beer verbiage to walk you through an understanding of what to expect, what with Nora and it's "classic strength of a saison." Maybe it's the cork-finished bottles, or maybe just the simple mystique of continental ales with innovative artisanal flair has been for so long seen as an earmark of Belgianosity that we Americans can't appreciate it through any other filter.

Take the Barley BB Dexi, for example. ("Barley", awesomely enough, is the name of the brewery.) An ale brewed with "sapa of Cannonau grapes" and orange peel, it's a 10% birra artigianale that the brewers from the Associazione Unionbirrai suggest you enjoy at 60° in a Chablis glass. In a beer drinkers game of Balderdash, one could have loads of fun trying to pin this one inside an understood stylistic camp. Is it a barleywine? Certainly doesn't taste like it: Sort of like a wild hybrid of beer, wine and a Negroni, rather. The exception seems to be the norm, when you take into account that this is a tiny niche market that's also home to beers like Birrificio di Como's Malthus Baluba, a dark ale brewed with pineapple, apricot, ginger and rue, and Birra Troll's Palanfrina, a Castagna ale brewed with chestnut flowers, dried chestnuts, chestnut honey and chestnut jam.

When these beers first started making an appearance here, the diverse and esoteric nature of their ingredient lists, Dali-esque bottle shapes, and completely cryptic labeling schemes could have lead one to think that we were at the whim of some mad importer's fever dream. Certainly they were only the weirdest of the bunch, picked purely for their novelty, right? But when Stan Hieronymus notes that there are "at least 40 chestnut beers" being brewed in Italy, one gets the impression that what's different is what's normal. And as Stan also points out, in a sentiment that includes at least one interchangeable word, "To understand Italian beer means at least beginning to understand Italian culture."

In the same way that "Va fangul" means a completely, quite importantly different thing to Italians than it does to Italian-Americans, one has to wonder what Italian brewing can mean to us here. Brew with an Italian soul rather than a Belgian one, is my instinctive reaction. When I once poured a glass of our annual holiday ale for a friend, one who happens to be quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about beer, he asked me what it was. I responded that, for lack of a better term, it was in the vein of a Belgian-style Christmas beer, to which he told me he thought it was a little too dark. I had no ready reply, since I didn't know there had been a standard set for what color my beer was supposed to be. It was the color I'd wanted it to be, I knew that much. It's that huge leap in thinking that will make the transition of Italian beers to our concepts of evaluation so abrasive and intriguing. Too dark for what?

As a homebrewer who capitalizes the third letter of his last name, it's been with a certain vested interest that I've been following the whole unfolding saga. How do we brew, from where do we draw our inspiration, and to what standards do we hold ourselves accountable? It's obvious from the stories that are emerging post-Slow Food Salone del Gusto that food is the primary motivator. Not only in the way that the beer pairs with food, either, but brewing the beer itself with a cook's mindset, curiosity for ingredients and eagerness of experimentation. This seems to run parallel to the mindset of many American homebrewers, a bunch that paradoxically gets mocked routinely for it's love of making up rules to follow but at the same time floods the "fruit", "herb/spice/vegetable" and "specialty" beer categories at competition time with all manner of wild, fanciful concepts. Against a backdrop of rule makers and rule breakers, there's a third, quieter subset of rule ignorants, passionately approaching their craft with no other aim than to cast their artistic vision within the vessel of nourishment, capturing something genuine and pure and turning it into an elevated experience. Always with an eye on the food, and on simplicity, and on surroundings. Perhaps it's not a purely Italian endeavor, but it's certainly distinct from the way we've been taught to appreciate the Belgian beer experience from abroad.

And on that note, a quote from Marcella Hazan:
"On an afternoon slowed down by the southern sun, it was one of the best ways to while away the time, watching life dawdle by as you let the granita's crystals melt on the tongue, spoonful by spoonful, until the roof of your mouth felt like an ice cavern pervaded by the aroma of strong coffee."
(Apologies to Stan for mangling his quality book title for my punny abuse.)


The Session #21 - Savor it, the favorite

So what's your favorite beer? Your favorite band? Really? And your favorite color? Favorite animal? Favorite imported washed rind cow's milk cheese? Anyone who gets as rankled as I do by questions like these, ones which are supposed to reveal something deeper within the psyche of the answerer will appreciate this complete, pathetic, groan-inducing cop out: My favorite beer is the one that's in front of me. (Have fun with that one, therapists.) Cliché as it is, there are doubtless going to be about a dozen other smartasses taking part in this month's Session that have prepared the same answer (if they don't say "the next new beer I try"). But how many of them have such a pungent distaste for judging that they've never written a formal beer review in the manner so lovingly embraced by the BJCP and those much maligned beer review websites? Unfortunately, our host this month has asked us all to play along nicely, so that's what we'll be doing.

Now then, what's in front of me? Aha! It appears to be a N'Ice Chouffe from the good folks in the Ardennes, they with the kind garden gnome brewing assistants and bitchin' theme songs. Feel free to listen along as you read the review (you'll have to provide your own crackling fire and snoring dog sound effects).

For those of you new to the BJCP school of beer reviews, here's a quick summary of how this works. You're asked to break down the components of appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel, and then add an overall impression weighting to balance your score. The rub, of course, is that your impressions need to be reflected off the official guidelines that are outlined in the BJCP book. How accurate those guidelines are is a pretty hotly contested topic. And on top of that, as beers seem to be getting stranger every day (more on that later), the less useful the whole system appears. While I don't disparage the honing of one's critical faculties, there's just so much more to tasting than this white labcoat approach. Furthermore, while it misses out on the enormous influences of a more holistic, experiential tasting experience, it also manages to suck a bit of the soul and (for me at least) all the fun out of it. But I digress...

That said, let's do this thing:

What's it called? Exam Beer: N'Ice Chouffe Limited Edition 2007

What kinda beer's that? Subcategory: Belgian Christmas ale as brewed by small, subterranean earth elementals.

Anything weird in it? Special Ingredients: Thyme, curaçao peel, dark "candy-sugar". That's right, folks, I said thyme.

Check it out... Bottle Inspection: Looks fine to me. A little too closed and full of beer for my tastes, but that's easily remedied.

No, really. Appropriate size, cap, fill level, label removal, etc.: 750mL, filled to the brim and topped with a crown. Silk-screened label. Next.

Sniff it! Aroma (as appropriate for style) (out of 12) Comment on malt, hops, esters, and other aromatics: Wait, "as appropriate for style"? I didn't know there was a "thyme-infused artisanal Belgian Christmas ale as brewed by elves and/or fairies" style. There certainly ought to be. Smells heavily of punky dried fruits, sweet date and raisin and grape and a hint of pineapple and another hint of earthiness. Must be the gnome factor. No apparent hops. 10.

Look at it! Appearance (as appropriate for style) (out of 3) Comment on color, clarity, and head (retention, color, and texture): It's a dark, slightly murky brown. Looks like dirt. Gnomey! 3.

Give 'er a sip! Flavor (as appropriate for style) (out of 20) Comment on malt, hops, fermentation characteristics, balance, finish/aftertaste, and other flavor characteristics: Tastes pretty darn great. Oh, you want more? REALLY darn great. With a cherry on top. 20.

Mouthfeel (as appropriate for style) (out of 5) Comment on body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency, and other palate sensations: Highly carbonated, warming and sticky. Leaves the palate clean but only after after some subtle coaxing, like by yawning, suggesting we had to get up early for work in the morning, noting the time... 4.

And now feel free to skew the results to your personal prejudice. Overall Impression (out of 10)

Comment on overall drinking pleasure associated with entry, give suggestions for improvement: Suggestions for improvement? Sounds dangerous. What happens to people in fairy tales when they try to tell gnomes what to do? I'm not terribly sure, but it's apt to be something particularly nasty, probably involving tiny arrows made out of pine needles and acorn catapults and poisonous mushroom-tipped porcupine quill spears. No thank you. 10.

Tally ho. Total (out of 50) 47!

Clinical, no? That was exhausting. And it involved math. I can't wait to enjoy a beer again. Hope you enjoyed this introduction to the judging techniques of a certified beer judge, as it's more than likely the last time you'll see it referenced here...

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

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

A spooktacular Fermentation Friday roundup

What better way to nurse a hangover brought on by last night's overindulgence of candy corn and gimmicky Halloween-themed beers than with this, a roundup of these most excellent contributions to yesterday's Fermentation Friday? A bevy of truly inspired pieces of horror nonfiction which left our own entry looking terribly lacking, these tales were penned by some intrepid souls perchance to warn and admonish less educated souls, but more likely simply to frighten them:

Starting with Adam at Beer Bits 2 (the originator of this monthly carnival), we have a serial post of sorts, a type of penny dreadful for the homebrewing set. Part I is here. Part II is here. Part III is here. Part IV is here. Awaiting Part V...

Keith at Brainard Brewing talks about dancing with the devil, and lives to tell the tale without any blown bottles.

Thomas at Geistbear Brewing Blog tells of how an innocent-looking pot of wort can quickly morph into a blubbering, sticky geyser of sweet, sweet horror, and the "rule #1" that came out of his experience. (Des' rule #1 would have also come into play.)

Matt at A World of Brews reminds us all that sometimes, the waiting is the hardest part, an unmatched psychological dread. It's a tale with a happy ending that nevertheless inexplicably made me want to reread The Pit and the Pendulum.

Mel and Ray both chime in over at Bathtub Brewery with their separate trials by fire over the old brew cauldron.

Steph at tells of loss, pain, agony, and disaster, all through the filter of a story about a corny keg with sticky poppet valves.

Andy at Rooftop Brew recounts the harrowing tale of encountering a ghost of brewing past, covered with hair nonetheless. (Sounds like you might want to clean out your dryer vent.)

Damon at Life With Beer reminds us that beyond our vision, gremlins are always at work, and with the simplest crack in our defenses, they can get to work, wreaking havok while we wait unawares.

John over Brew Dudes taps into a trope of the horror genre in his tale of woe. In teen slasher films, there's always the cocky, overassured jock who, in the end, gets offed in a wholly ironic way, like being impaled by his state championship trophy or decapitated by his hockey stick or some sort. What if that character were a homebrewer? (And no, nobody dies.)

Marcus at Final Gravity reminds us of another psychological terror at the heart of homebrewing - that of becoming the paranoid mad scientist obsessed with checking readings and measurements until it absolutely possesses you.

Jon at The Brew Site says: IT LIVES. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to this month's Fermentation Friday! Next up: November 28th, with Dr Joel at The Grain Bill. Let's see if he can avoid a topic surrounding Thanksgiving. Good luck!