Friday, February 27, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Next to godliness, in housewares

Unbeknownst to me prior to becoming a father, there is a near-universal bit of singsong that parents and teachers deploy whenever attempting to make the act of "cleaning up" a positive, enjoyable activity. The lyrics to this paean to orderliness likely vary slightly by geography, as all deeply rooted folklore tends to pick up local variation as it germinates. Hereabouts, it goes a little something like this:
Clean up, clean up
Everybody, everywhere
Clean up, clean up
Everybody do your share
And with a loopable melody optimally composed for (or by) a toddler, it's an insidious earworm that only fades into the background when other, more sinister ones crawl out of the darkness (Moondance, anyone?). Furthermore, if you happen to be blessed with a particularly sonant child, the mere act of trying to shovel a pathway through drifts of Legos often results in being rickrolled out of the blue by the overeager youngster, invariably leading one to either bow down and aquiece to having CUCU permanently embedded in ones auditory cortex, or to succumb to living in complete unkempt squalor in hopes of never invoking another torturous utterance.

In related matters, Matt, enterprising homebrewer that he is, looks to be fishing for tips from the rest of us on improving his sanitation practices under the auspices of this month's Fermentation Friday. Lucky for him, he's also a new dad, which means there's just one piece of invaluable advice that's too fitting to ignore:

I hope that helps. Oh, and never allow soap to touch any brewing materials. Plus, you just can't go wrong with one-step. And the oven and dishwasher can also provide good sterilizing if used correctly. That's about it.

Here's wishing Matt the best in all the adventures he has in store.

Many thanks to A World of Brews for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. And if you really need to get that song out of your head, feel free to get into a round with your friends with this little drinking song from the late 16th century. You're welcome.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Localize it, pt. 4 - Some closing thoughts

The completion of the premiere SF Beer Week seems an opportune time to close the door on our recent ruminations on "local beer" in its many iterations. In many ways, actually, a local theme did emerge throughout the ten days of competitions, dinners, and other festivities, what with a San Francisco brewery taking a medal at Toronado's storied barleywine fest, some of the country's finest chefs a la cuisine a la biere showing off on their home turf, North and East Bay breweries receiving honors at the Bistro Double IPA festival, Anchor revealing their very first barrel aged beer, and local bloggers hosting events to easily rival the pros, all amidst the reemergence of the "official" beer of the week, a historically recreated batch of pale ale hearkening back to the area's distinction as ground zero for the new craft brewing movement. And despite the appearance of some of the industry's highest profile figures, the most exciting "meet the brewer" event featured none other than one of our own.

And arguably, that could be the best lesson learned from our first ever rally for Bay Area beer, that the bash was at its best when it was celebrating hometown successes, be they brewers or bars or chefs or restaurants. In retrospect, some of the activities that would have been unmissable under any other circumstances - visits from brewers from abroad, for example - looked like nothing more than filler. Hopefully next year, the local businesses who strangely opted to sit out this year's beer week will recognize the goldmine of opportunity that they missed out on, and will enter into the fray when February rolls around again, making it an event where one really does "come for the bay, stay for the beer." We'll just have to see, won't we?

And on a side note, I'm still haunted by those growlers, too, the ones we saw getting filled up at Russian River on the day Pliny the Younger was tapped, how wrecked they must have been when they finally made their way into hands over 3,000 miles and who knows how many warm, oxidized, flat UPS-rattled days away. Retelling that horror story to another aficionado, he replied, "that beer doesn't even taste the same once it's been in the glass for five minutes." At Toronado, the bartenders were uncorking the 20th Anniversary ale in front of the buyers to make sure they didn't try to sneak out with them to post on Ebay or worse, which made me wonder how Vinnie and Natalie must feel about having their hard work represented so falsely and sloppily. Brewers care about how their work is perceived, simply. Something that tastes so good because it's fresh, because it's local, it's hard to imagine what those long distance traders look to really get out of the deal other than a fresh tick on their "to have" list.

And lastly, in closing the book on this first experiment in formally saluting the Bay Area's beer scene, it's only fitting to donate a moment of remembrance to William Brand, whose tragic death wove a somber undercurrent beneath the proceedings. Critically injured just two days into the celebration, finally succumbing to his injuries eleven days later, he was such an anticipated presence at so many of the events that his absence was a somewhat strange and chilling entity, despite the nightly toasts held in his honor in dozens of taprooms, restaurants, dining rooms, and brewhouses throughout the region. There's little I can add to the chorus of sympathies being sounded out around both journalistic and beer circles, but he will be sorely missed.

(Image above from SF Beer Week's culminating liverbasher, the Toronado Barleywine Festival: Firestone Walker Abacus Blend, Elysian Old Cyclops, He'Brew Human Blockhead, and Ballast Point Three Sheets.)

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Gold fashioned

And it's gone. Sitting here with a minute glass of the keg's last sputtering gasp, it's a fair reminder why even the strangest of experimental batches often deserve to be doubled in volume, just in case. The subject in this case is our Old Fashioned ale, five gallons of which has passed on, with another phantom five gallons presumably lurking in a darkened dusty corner of the garage, just waiting for me, ready to appear when I'm at my weakest and say, it wasn't just a dream. Really? You don't remember deciding to make a double batch at the very last minute?

Make no mistake: While excellent, it wasn't by any means a perfect recipe. Of course, an optimist (and as it's an attitude I'm not entirely familiar with, I had to go online to find one to vouch for me) would argue that the success of the first batch only lends to the opportunity for it to be improved upon, a chance to pat oneself on the back with one hand while stirring up a fresh mash in the kettle with the other. Having shared (a tiny amount) with the conspirator who helped me chart out the taxonomy of the classic Old Fashioned cocktail for use as a jig for the composite beer recipe, I was able to wrangle (a tiny amount of) tasting notes from his inital impression: "just slightly sweet, not cloying, with hints of orange in the finish, mingling with spice and a little oakiness".

But did it taste like an Old Fashioned? "Not really."

Oh well. "Inspired by" doesn't necessarily need translate to "unmistakable from", which means we won't be stealing the crown from Southern Tier as the Jones of tastealike brewing expertise. Despite the high level of alcohol, there wasn't nearly the heat one gets from true liquor. Regardless of our bourbon oak aging, there wasn't much by way of toasted char effect as there was the merest hint of vanilla and black pepper. And the cherry came through only in the keg's last few days, as the merest whisper, warning me not to toy too much in the future for fear of creating a potentially horrifying Nyquil-like undertone.

As a cocktail, it was a failure. As a beer, on the other hand, it was a success.

One arena in which that was distinctly true was as a singly-hopped beer, in which just one variety of hops was employed for all the bittering, flavor and aroma, with the organic Belgian Admiral hops we used laying down a distinctive but mellow bitterness on the front end and allowing for some serious marmalade overtones in both the aroma and finish. And as a double IPA (which at its core it really was) it was our most successful attempt yet, sticky and rich with an interplay between bitter and sweet that made it exceptionally drinkable despite what the stats would lead you to believe. Chewy and deep, yet clean on the finish and with a rousing bitterness, the question in my mind now is: What would it have tasted like if we'd skipped out on all the flaming orange and mystery tincture mumbo jumbo? Were those the secret hidden elements that held it all together, or would it have been even brighter, crisper, more satisfying without?

I guess we'll just have to find out, soon. The keg is empty now, remember. So much for the year of the session, eh?

(This post is in part a response to Drew, a commenter who didn't leave any contact info but who cared enough to ask how this recipe came out. For the rest of you, just pretend I wrote it for you because I knew you were so, so curious.)

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Session #24 - The trouble with tripels

"I try to be a good beatnik, but it's hard." - Del Close

I wished I loved, without prejudice, all Belgian ale styles equally and unabashedly. The seemingly bottomless well of variety in the Belgian brewing tradition is, after all, one of its great attractants. Here, in a country smaller than Maryland, one can literally lose oneself in the crisscrossing mazes of traditional styles and groundbreaking innovations, is where countless folks find their first true appreciation of the diversity and depth that the seemingly simple act of brewing beer can provide, myself included.

Occasionally, though, on foisting upon a guest a squat, thick-stemmed snifter of vaporous, glowing ale, bronzenly tinted by a mysterious alchemy of malts and gifted with an aromatic cloud rich with yeasty spices, along with the inviting introduction, "c'mon, then, try it, it's Belgian", the retreating recipient's reply comes back like a reflex: "Sorry, but I rather don't like sweet beers". So goes the uphill battle of beer ambassadorship. There is, in some circles, a stigma or unknown origins, about the relative sweetness of the Belgian beers, one that in light of their jaw-droppingly wide variance, continues to astound me.

And while I'd prefer to believe that their exposure to Belgian brewing is limited to being suckered into sampling some fruity, saccharine-laced bastardization of a lambic or some monastically-themed "abbey ale" of questionable quality, I have to admit that the truth is often harder to face: I honestly find a large proportion of the highly vaunted golden ales brewed with an eye towards the great Trappist tradition unappetizingly sweet. There, I've said it.

I don't particularly care for tripels.

And it's not just the level of sweetness - one that tends to cut through the mouthfeel thanks to the lack of other sensory obstacles, a generally low bitterness level, and an extremely minimalist malt profile - it's the kind of sweetness that keeps me from reaching back for multiple tastes, a type of sweetness that folks often liken to tropical fruits like pineapple and mango, a result of a ton of white sugar (up to 25% of the fermentables, if my memory serves) being chewed up by a distinctive family of yeasts. It's a sweetness, along with a commonly overpowering level of carbonation, that sets my lizard brain into alert mode, warning me of the easy potential for a nasty headache and my stomach in search for something bitter to get it settled.
"with laagje slagroom or ice-cold yet never only because... all gnomes are enraged."

Thankfully, as it's likewise impossible to categorize and classify the whole of Belgian brewing, it's impossible to categorize and classify the entries in the world's field of tripels. This one's different (and one I've already noticed as the subject of a few other Session posts).

Once upon a great rare while, a particularly crazy bunch of artisanal brewers from the gnome-infested forests of the Ardennes comes west to sample what some other Europeans may have dismissed as one-dimensional and harsh, the hop-driven ales of the new craft brewing movement in America, and, returning to their candlelit tree-trunk hovels to lazily rock in a chair by the pot-bellied stove with a tumbler of Chouffe Coffee on ice, look back at those foreignly bitter concoctions with a bleary sort of fondness. That's exactly when something like this happens: the Houblon Chouffe IPA Dobbelen Tripel, an idea wrought of (apparently) enraged gnomes, aggressive hops, and a palate willing for the none-too-sweet.

Emboldened by a liberal use of Amarillo, Saaz, and Tomahawk hops (a gnome with a tomahawk, an image sure to haunt my dreams now), this is more of a loopy mash-up of a beer than anything else, a curious dance between American and Belgian styles that, interestingly, predates a lot of the US takes on the Belgo-American hybrid. There's an apparent bready yeastiness to this one, and a slight minerally sharpness that reminds me of one of the other tripels I do enjoy, Chimay's Cenq Cents. And the hops, while not nearly as muscular as you'd likely find in a stateside iteration, provide an enjoyable interplay that livens up a style that I (in weaker times, long ago, before I knew any better) have dismissed as vaguely dull and one-dimensional. There's almost a farmhouse level of grassy earthiness, too, far removed from the pristine cleanliness of some other examples I've experienced, and a finish that's brighter and sharper than the creamy, dull, hyper-effervescent lingering that also seems to follow the ones I have a harder time appreciating. But is it then really a tripel? Says so on the bottle, so I'll take it.

And share it with my wife I did, per David's instructions, but lamely and distractedly didn't gather her impressions. Such is the way it is, finding oneself discussing things other than beer once in an odd while.

With that, I think it's only appropriate to once again pull this old chestnut off the shelf for some deep listening. Be sure to play this next time you're in the presence of a Chouffe, just to get the full effect. Enjoy.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by David at Musings Over a Pint. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide. You can also follow this month's entries on twitter by searching for posts marked with the #thesession hashtag.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Localize it, pt. 3 - The Younger the better

Admittedly, I am not, nor have I ever been, a starry-eyed fanatic of Pliny the Elder. Despite passionate dalliances with the coterie of Russian River's offerings, including an ashamedly fanboy exuberance over any of their Belgian modeled brews, this flagship IPA has always struck a curious chord on my palate. Every year, though, along with the demise of the football season and the emergence of a certain gigantic rodent from the frozen landscape, comes another iteration, one that warrants a quick foray up through the construction equipment rental yards, cow pastures, and dreadfully vacant car dealerships that pave the way through southern Sonoma county: Pliny the Younger. And while I was boggled by the level of delusional clamor I saw - people literally purchasing hundreds of dollars of growlers (as it's on tap, and at the Santa Rosa pub only) with the intent on shipping them to folks outside of driving range - it would be untruthful of me not to admit a newfound fresh, starry-eyed fanaticism that it managed to inspire.

The curious chord at the heart of the Elder, for me, has always been its coldly sharp bitterness, an effect I'm tempted to liken to the experience of a morning gone frost-bitten on a subalpine camping trip, one of those places where despite the promise of a warm afternoon, the summer's heat can't compete with the barren cold that follows a cloudless night, forcing one to wake squiting into the sunrise, in shock. There's a quick, prickly forest bite like pushing past pine and fir, cutting needles unyielding in their harsh, scraping way, a somewhat masochistic thrill of taking a deep, bracing breath, calling it invigorating. It's enjoyable, without question, but for me it's enjoyable in the same doses and frequency as camping is. When my palate needs readjusting (to wit, the lupulin threshold shift), when something brisk and just a tad punishing will settle things, the Elder is as honest, fresh, and distinctively local as beer can get. But the Younger, perhaps thanks to the loads of collateral impact that come along for the ride when you try to amp an all-malt beer up to over 10% alcohol, all those peskily unfermentables, that richly complex malt residue, is a completely different beast, with a glowing core of mandarin orange and a strange insistancy, a strange permanence in the glass that just demanded extra attention and a bit more reflection.

Perhaps it was the way that despite its proximity to the most depressing day of the year, the sun limped along in the sky, hesitatingly keeping things warmer far longer that it should have, lingering stubbornly in a rusty sky instead of plummeting behind Inverness Ridge like it was supposed to. This stranger, stronger sibling seems to be wrought of a deeper, warmer wellspring, an effluent life of depth that's only hinted at beneath the frost of its paler brethren. Like an impossibly warm summer's morning, the prickly edges of those evergreen branches have been softened, revealing a greener, more floral side, dense waves of pollen alongside eager blossoms perfuming the air. It is by no means a "hot" beer, the alcohol level is dangerously well hidden, but has a warmth of balance and a restorative sense to it, a soulfulness. This is Pliny the relaxed, Pliny the assured. Any semblance of shrieking , potentially sharp, spiky edges have been muted and mellowed, peaceably calmed, allowing for a richness of essence that lends itself to the kind of deliriously overwrought elucidation that can only come with long, slow, ruminative tasting.

But there's something Italian here, too, I could swear. A connection to the bold digestifs of the culture that brought us elixirs like Campari and Sanbitter, the bitterness that lingers in the back of the throat made me think of Orangina, of a time before sucrose, a strange sort of parallel of being a child newly introduced to taste in five dimensions, and of being the overstuffed omnivore that I am now, settling back into the rhythms of the evening, full, fat and happy with a glass of something comforting and easing to accompany the darkening of the sky.

And soon it will be gone, fleeting, not worth trying to save and store and cellar (and pity those poor folks in far off lands with flat, lifeless growlers of the stuff trying to figure it all out while pretending to ignore the dent it's made in their credit card bill), but exists truly just an act of local beer done perfectly, in a way that no other I can think of at the moment sums it all up, the life out here, so justly, so well, all of it. A great reminder of how lucky we are, and for what's possible.

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