Friday, April 24, 2009

Fermentation Friday - But I don't even know her

Note to mom: Hi mom! Now that you've gotten cozy with your new iPhone and are regularly checking this site to see what your son's up to and whether or not there are any photos of (or by) your granddaughter, I thought it was be a good idea to give you a little "heads up" on today's writings. See, on the last Friday of every month, folks all around the globe post their thoughts on a common theme relevant to the hobby of homebrewing. I have a bad habit of writing seriously off topic items on these occasions. With that, consider yourself forewarned: This one gets pretty "inside baseball", if you will. There are no pictures of Mia, either.

When stuck in a particularly pessimistic mood, this whole "writing about beer" arena can come off as mighty insular at times, insular in a "pop will eat itself" sort of way, all Ouroboros-like in its circular back-scratching and back-biting, that pessimism perversely amplified during a week that's seen the beer blogosphere (which I'm beginning to wonder is just one big centrally located beer blog with one singularly big beer blog brain, based off the sheer amount of déjà vu one gets scrolling through their feeds over the morning coffee) all taking sides in a genuinely retarded debate around the cultural significance of a piece of filmwork whose title may remind you of a certain low-budget space opera from the disco era, alongside the near incessant reposting of another video piece that can't help make me think of a certain Nike campaign.

Thankfully it rarely takes more than something like a kit-bashing puddytat to alter one's perspective on things.

And thusly, one can view this little self-congratulatory micocosm of beer obsessives with a bit of charmed affection. Despite how the collective musings of a beer obsessed army can at times display what appears to be an alarming lack of perspective and a dangerous level of short-sightedness, there's an undeniably sunny song in there, one evangelizing the diversity, quality, and culture that the craft brewing movement brings to the table. And if you zoom in on that happy little planet of malt aficionados, you'd see a sub-population, racing across the surface, doing something for themselves, the worker bees, the oft-maligned but dutifully persistent homebrewers. Granted, they're equally - if not more - insularly referential, but unlike the folks taking up my precious "cats playing drums" bandwidth with redundantly embedded videos and press releases copied so quickly out of their email that there's little bits of broken html floating about the edges, homebrewing bloggers actually spend their spare time making stuff. And then when they write about it online, they typically help explain to others how they, too, can make their own stuff. That's pretty much all that's able to pull me out from under the cloak of blogging invisibility today. Proactive thinking. Let's make some booze, people.

And today's roundtable topic concerns the wonderful world of liquor (cue the dancing bottles). Safe to assume that we're not talking about the heated water that's used for rinsing the grains in your mash tun, liquor, better known as "booze that isn't beer" being put into service in brewing in order to add tints, shades, and shadows of other alcoholic beverages is not uncommon. The word "bourbon" alone appears five times on the BeerAdvocate Top 100 list (four times on the RateBeer Top 50), and the concept of reusing castoff whiskey barrels to age beers has become a stereotypical shortcut for brewers looking to cash in on "special edition" versions of their beers. In drawing inspiration from the craft beer world, a homebrewer has little to go on regarding the use of liquor outside of what would appear to be a conspiracy from the all-powerful secret cabal of coopers (yes, all four of them). Simply put, to most folks, liquor in brewing means barrels. We homebrewers soak oak chips in bourbon and brandy and maybe even get our club to all pitch in and try to fill one of those 31 gallon monstrosities, topping off the angel's share every so often while praying that it ends up tasting even close to its namesake.

Far be it from me to preempt what's guaranteed to be a far superior discussion on the topic, bolstered by one presenter's quantitative research, professional experience, and within an arena where one can even get some hands-on experimentation with the matter at this year's National Homebrewers Conference, let me simply say this: Don't limit yourself to attempting to imitate barrel flavors. Fun for a while, but easy to overdo and frankly, if you're a true hipster, it's totally played out. Instead, consider these two gateway scenarios:

- Once you've divorced the barrel character from the source liquor (and if you allow yourself to stretch "liquor" beyond the confines of simple distilled spirits, allowing for a more all-welcoming family of booze), consider what other flavor components exist in different varieties and how they can best complement what you'd like to achieve in your beer. Take a scotch ale, for example, in which you decide you want to add a particularly peaty character. What would happen if you complemented your addition of peated malt with the distinctively Islay aroma of something like Laphroaig? Or what if, in a an old stock ale, you wanted to add a hint of casky oxidization, and added a touch of musky Amontillado sherry? Or if in a stong, dark Belgian style ale, you wanted to emphasize the dark fruit characteristics of the yeast profile by dosing it with a spot of late harvest zinfandel?

- Beyond even that, think of the excellent extraction properties a high-alcohol solution can provide. The spirit you use need not be the end, but also the means by which you add character to your beers. Tinctures (like those pictured above*) offer a measurable, sanitary, and pleasantly controlled vehicle with which to gradually adulterate your beers. We've always sworn by the technique whereby you prepare herbal tinctures in a neutral vodka base, but in the end, many "spirits" that we know are nothing more than neutral grain spirits with various botanicals infused in them, like sloe gin. Consider the "infused vodka" rage: There's no reason why you can't use the exact same technique to add a touch of orange to your citrusy double IPA, some licorice to your Baltic porter, some lemongrass to your wheat beer, or some juniper to your holiday ale.

I hesitate to think of what might become of combining those two concepts into a third, hybrid gateway, but there's little doubt that the more experimental amongst us aren't afraid of crossing the streams. I'll be first to admit a certain stupid fondness for the odd bourbon-aged this or brandy-aged that , but in the meantime, step back for a minute, and just consider what simple, strange, mystical concoctions you could unearth by simply thinking outside the barrel.

* From left to right: saffron and black pepper; ginger, myrrh, white pepper, and curacao orange; and the ubiquitous whiskey-soaked oak.

Congratulations. You've made it this far! More on the topic, from the archives:

- Miscellaneous musings on the boozy tango between beer and liquor.

- Our first foray into reverse-engineered cocktailesque beers, the Old Fashioned. (With a followup here.)

- The story of Tokyo Fog, the beer who loved bourbon.

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


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Belgium comes to 94117

Just over a week ago, on a clear and cool Sunday morning, I slipped into the pre-dawn air armed with a freshly sharpened chef's blade and a fully fueled butane torch, cruised quickly along the empty trellis roads that connect the scattered hamlets of central Marin, and scaled the Waldo Grade only to quietly descend into a still-slumbering and peculiarly vacant Lower Haight, through those fabled Dutch doors, to receive word of my next instructions. After having harvested one of the meal's ingredients the day before, my last directives had been simple: pack a nice blade and get a good night's rest. And thus it began.
Holding the key to my cheese n' beer loving heart.
To backtrack a little... It's Belgian beer month, which means the taps at Toronado are currently loaded with things like, oh Cantillon Grand Cru, Ellezelloise Hercule, and Struise Tsjeeses. It was but a year ago when, in assuming that we'd be the early birds, first in line to tap a flight of David Keane's annual cornucopia of imported wonderments, Des and I headed down to Toronado at our first free moment only to find it shuttered up, thanks to some mysterious and hitherto unknown special event. But based off the scraps of information we were able to glean from some considerably bent and slurry patrons, who shared lusty tales aside proffered dregs of some truly luminous rarities, it was then that I declared I'd find some way - by whatever means, if you want - to be on the other side of those locked doors when the following March's lambs and lions had marched through: in April of 2009, I was going to somehow be inside that kitchen.
More abbey cheese than you can shake a censer at.

And as it so happens, with the rusty tubes of my waking synapses gradually flickering to life as the caffeine made its steady course into my consciousness, that was the spot I found myself: Inside a bar still resonating from the nightlife that had only just departed scant hours before, alongside some familar and equally tired faces, with the unprecedented (and encore) privilege of joining Mr. Sean Z. Paxton for what was to be the culinary equivalent of the Ring cycle, a six-hour long gustatory bonanza nearly a year in the making (that is, since the last one).
Stinky gnomes and Westvleteren. As it should be.

Sean, as a man considered by many to be the premiere visionary in the realm of marrying beer with modern haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy,  is no stranger to the spotlight in the foodie-beerie circles. A well-known mercenary chef-for-hire, regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine, a speaker at the National Homebrewers Conference, and one who's consulted regularly by publications looking to get edubacted in the art of cuisine à la bière and beer and food pairing, his moniker of "The Homebrew Chef" alludes to his simultaneous passions of brewing, cooking, and finding harmonious inroads between the two. Here, under the auspices of Toronado's Belgian beer month, he's made it his mission to pull out all the stops. In a way, it's his tribute to Dave Keane's fearless ambassadorship of the challenging, palate-expanding beers of Belgium, aside from being a chance to flex some creative muscle for patrons who like having their culinary horizons broadened.
I imagine he's still airing out the suitcase all this arrived in.

First, the beer: Not only were there twenty beers with which to pair, but another twenty beers with which all the courses were prepared. And lest you think we're talking beercan chicken here, note that some of the world's most highly regarded and sought-after beers - Scaldis Noel, Fantome La Dalmatienne, De Ranke Pere Noel, Halve Maan Brugse Zot - never even made it to the table for folks to taste, only existing as ingredients within each of the twelve courses. Lest anyone be concerned that the day's events were going to be a retread of the classics, though, the day began with the first public West Coast tapping of a keg of Duvel Green, the new filtered, non-refermented, draft version of the quintessential Belgian strong golden ale. The next five hours saw a parade of Belgium's rainbow of beer diversity make its way to the tables, from the light and hoppy to the dark and strong through all iterations between, with the closing bookend on the day the 2007 Saucerful of Secrets that Sean brewed himself with Firestone Walker.
Well, that's certainly a lot of caviar. Or is it?

And then, the food: One course which I got to have my hand in (hence the freshly sharpened knife) was the cheese course, consisting entirely of Belgian, mostly abbey cheeses hand-carried by Sean himself in a single, 60 lb. suitcase just days prior to the event. And thanks to the beauty of sous vide cooking techniques, much of the actual cooking had already been taken care of, with curing, infusing, marinading, and pickling all having been done in sealed plastic bags, which was a comforting convenience as Toronado, in case you'd never noticed, doesn't actually have a kitchen.
My, my, what are you going to do with all those black truffles?

Ah, but of course.

That's correct. Somehow, some way, the entire twelve-course meal for seventy-odd diners with prepared with nothing more than an immersion heater and a couple of propane burners. And if there's a real bit of artistry at work in a dinner like this that needs to be spotlit, I think it has to be the orchestration of such a massive culinary undertaking with such limited resources. Sure, there was the "wort honey", a batch of pre-hopped homebrewed beer that Sean made, reduced to a caramel-like consistency, and blended with a local honey. And sure, there was the homemade pork pate and duck rillettes. And yeah, there was the aforementioned Cantillon Iris and bone marrow gastrique. But seriously, managing to supervise an amateur staff in a room primarily designed for drinking, coordinating the delivery of the equivilant of 900 dishes of five-star cuisine via a space the Toronado staff lovingly refer to as "the birth canal", and singlehandedly bringing this menu to life with not much more than a pot of hot water, a couple tanks of propane, a crack torch and a syringe?

Now that, my friends, is kitchen professionalism.

If you haven't already, go ahead and mark off April 4, 2010 on your calendar, as you've now got plans that day.
Because if you were duck fat aioli, you'd be smiling, too.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

18 Reasons and at least as many homebrews

Before we finally get around to completing the now nearly two-week old saga of the Toronado Belgian beer dinner, a quick interlude of the homebrew variety: This Thursday evening, we'll be joining a few other local recreational fermentation enthusiasts for a tasting at 18 Reasons, an arty foodie non-profit space in the Mission as part of the monthly SF Beer & Cheese group we've been semi-regularly attending. Jesse, whose brett-spiked witbier I had the unexpected pleasure of sampling this past weekend, will be pouring some of his wares alongside David, the SFB&C co-founder who introduced me to the group at last year's wild ale tasting, who will have his robust porter to sample, and a couple other brewers bringing the likes of a Belgian dubbel, saison, Simcoe IPA, and a Belgian strong dark ale aged with prunes.

But what are we bringing? In the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, I'd like that to be a decision best left to others besides the authors. Like chance music for the belly, the whim of teh internets will dictate what'll be crawling up from the cellar Thursday night. I've embedded a little poll below in which you can vote for as few or as many as you'd like on exhibit. Here's a quick reference guide to the options:

Imperial Pilsner - Just seeming to hit its stride now, a 9% lager based off a strict pilsner malt base and with a fresh bit of dry hopping in the keg. Pictured above with its little hoppy friend.

Black Lav - Definitely further up the dark end of the experimental alley. It's a saison. But it's black! There's some history behind this one here.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie - The most recent of our "tastes like" explorations, this one's finishing up as this is written, and is a but of a wild card in terms of what it'd taste like as young and green as it is. Details on its origin story can be read here.

X'07 - Our annual holiday ale, this Belgian-inspired dark one from the winter of 2007, which Jesse referenced in his post about last weekend's debauchery, amazingly hasn't all been emptied yet. We wrote a little bit about it back in August.

X'08 - Same idea, different beer. This past season's batch.

The Indoctrinator - Before the Inoculator (the last of which disappeared into the sun-warmed gullets of this past Sunday's Golden Gate Park denizens), there was the Indoctrinator. I bottled a couple magnums when we finished this Belgian-style dubbel back in October and have been sitting on them waiting for the right occasion. Is this it?

Old Ale - Nearly guaranteed to be nasty, it's a two (three?) year (m)old stock ale aged on oak that's seen some serious and strange refermentation in the bottle. Will probably explode. I still have some left.

Appelwoi - A cider. This one. Not beer, but not water either!

Go on, now. Vote!

And sure, it's just 48 hours away, but mark your calendars!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

From trellis to table

Just thought it would be fun to take a minute here to illustrate one of a million elements that goes into coordinating a brilliant dining experience, one thread intertwined with the likes of a 60lb suitcase full of cheese, an impromptu propane tank replacement, a last-minute veggie sausage, and the looming thread of an imminent power outage. In seven acts:
Cutting the red bines, like something out of an Millet painting.

The target crop of our day, Moonlight Farms' baby Cascades.
There's only about a two week window per year you can do this.

"Belgian asparagus" is tender enough to eat raw, leaves and all.

Less than 24 hours earlier, these guys were still pushing the soil.

The prep work's not much other than checking for stowaways.

A little butter, a little water, a little bone marrow gastrique...

And the finished product? You'll just have to go either here or here to check it out.
PS - I'll likely get around to posting a more detailed account of my most recent evening with "The Homebrew Chef", but couldn't resist leading in with this little tale of one the dinner's ingredient's heroic journey from the dusty back country of the Russian River Valley to the tables in Lower Haight.