Friday, July 31, 2009

Fermentation Friday - The sincerest form of flattery

While one as hobby-obsessive as myself never requires a special occasion to haul out the brewing equipment, there's a definite soul-satisfying aspect to crafting beers of a purely commemorative nature. Like in the poetic alchemy I discussed briefly the other day, imbuing a recipe with a sense of story, an essence of heart, makes for a uniquely satisfying experience. Over the years as we've experimented, there's occurred a natural progression away from devising beers in accordance to a sense of style or the urge to imitate, but rather to celebrate something, whether it's the aroma of lavender plants being scorched by the last gasp of summer's heat, or the dark candied fruit and old world spices of the holiday season, or the austere mood that accompanies the deeply grounding, fathomless life change of bringing one's first child into the world. And as is to be expected, as we've deviated from the conventional, the resulting beers have gotten odder - but they're personally odd, our odd, and in that was have become more homogeneous over time.

It's oddly ironic, then, that when formulating my customary annual beer for my beloved this year, upon asking what she'd like to have ready to pour on her birthday, I was, rather than being asked to capture the smell of the color purple in a malty bock or to synthesize the guitar music of Oscar Aleman into a crisp pilsner or distill the serenity one feels when dipping your toes into a completely still lake, only to see the tracing ripples distort the passing shadow of an eagle flying closely overhead into a balanced IPA, instead challenged to simply recreate the flavors of a commercially available beer.

Even more ironic, the beer in question is brewed as a tribute to that brewer's beloved, and is named in her honor: Birreria Le Baladin brewmaster Teo Musso's wife Nora. But who am I to deny a request that's simultaneously a birthday wish and a test of my brewing prowess? That brings us to this month's installment of Fermentation Friday, wherein I cast aside all aspersions of originality and novelty, and dive in to completely ripping off the most iconic Italian brewer of the modern age.

Nora is by all accounts an exquisite beer, a fluffy, semisweet, creamy golden ale that exudes a copious amount of floral and spicy perfume, one completely bereft of any hop presence and yet etched throughout with mysterious layers of flavor that slowly reveal themselves as you go deeper into the glass. Hearkening back to its namesake's Algerian roots, the beer is drawn with a distinctively Egyptian flair. Besides incorporating an ingredient known to most people as a gift of the Magi (or conversely, as a toothpaste ingredient), its grain bill includes kamut, an Egyptian khorasan cereal grain thoroughly unfit for brewing with, which was at one time believed to be a wheat of the lineage from the ancient Fertile Crescent. And in addition to its specialty ingredients, the core beer is designed to be served as an accompaniment to foods spiced in a North African manner.

Granted, coming from a guy who puts headphones on his fermentation tanks so that the yeast have music to enjoy while they work, this isn't even close to a "weird" beer. But it's an immensely personal one, one that succeeds in his quest: "A new taste is like a new way of communicating with people. My beers try to communicate new flavours and aromas to people." And when it came to sit down and draw up the plans for my version, it became painfully obvious that I was pleasantly in over my head, that the mere act of trying to recreate one of Musso's beers I was being forced to sketch the recipe a little like him as well, a position that was very freeing, joyful, creative, and bound to engender a beer poised to "communicate" something, hopefully something pleasant.

While our version shares many of the hallmarks of (and thanks to the myrrh*, bears a striking first impression resemblance to) the original Nora, it's decidedly stronger (over 8%  versus the original 6.8%). The agave worked to help keep the body nice and light, along with adding a bit of floral sweetness. The grape juice also helped cut back the density that I feared the wheat and kamut would be providing, while additionally adding a little bit of vinous tang and "mystery fruit" aroma that goes nicely with lychee, tropical fruit esters that the Belgian ale yeast can contribute. And on top of all that, despite my initial intentions, the amount of kamut was cut back to a serviceable but inconspicuous degree, mostly out of fears that my stovetop cereal cooking technique wasn't cut out for providing a more generous portion of fermentables in the mash.

Here's how it ended up:

6 lbs Pilsner malt extract
2 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
2 lbs white wheat
1 lb flaked kamut
1 lb Crystal 15L
1 lb CaraFoam
1 lb light agave nectar
1 lb Sauvignon Blanc grape juice concentrate

1 oz East Kent Goldings for 60 minutes

WLP550 White Labs Belgian Ale Yeast

Place kamut in small pot with just enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, stirring often and adding water occasionally, until it resembles a thick porridge, around 10 minutes. Add to steeping grains. Steep grains for 50 minutes at 149° F. Boil for 60 minutes, adding liquid fermentables in kettle during last 15 minutes. Once vigorous fermentation has subsided, add small amount of tincture of Curacao orange, ginger, and myrrh, gradually increasing bi-weekly over the course of 6 weeks until balance is achieved. Carbonate to about 3 volumes. Find yourself some shawerma and enjoy.

* Honestly, if you're thinking about brewing a beer with ingredients like kamut, agave and myrhh, and want to pick them all up at the same time along with a sixer of Torpedo you could do worse than living in a place like Fairfax.

This month, Pfiff! has the privilege of hosting Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. If you'd care to participate, either post a comment here or send me an email, and I'll include your entry in the roundup that we'll be posting over the weekend.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reminders - Italian Modernists & Fermentation Friday

When Jay Brooks went to witness Italian brewer Agostino Arioli brew a batch of La Fleurette with Vinnie Cilurzo and the Russian River Brewing team in Santa Rosa, he summed up the origin of this uniquely peculiar beer quite nicely:
How Agostino’s La Fleurette came about is a romantic tale. Seven years ago, he met a girl and fell in love. Awash with the emotions of new love, he set out to create something that would be “a celebration beer of personal happiness.” So he started experimenting and after a year of trial and error was satisfied with the beer and released it commercially as La Fleurette. To the kettle he adds turbinado raw sugar and orange blossom honey, but he also adds black pepper because, as Agostino puts it, “love is also spicy.” At the end of the boil he dry hops, or rather dry-flowers, the beer with both roses and violets.
This is precisely the vein of artistic spirit running through the current generation of Italian brewers that inspired us to want to host an event celebrating their individuality. Whereas it's arguable that American craft brewing boom was borne of a Wild West approach to re-imagining the ales of the British Isles, there doesn't appear (beyond the slightest Belgian whiff) to be a similar obvious precedent for what the Italians are doing right now. That's not to say that their approach is recklessly improvised: Despite an apparent lack of stylistic benchmarks, the Italian beers we're seeing come stateside have poetic roots, such as beers made with carob and chestnut in memory of the scarcity of food and sweets during World War II, beers modeled after the brewers' lovers, and recipes designed to evoke memories of the exotic foods the brewer had experienced in travels to India and Nepal. Combine that level of soul with with oddball techniques (only adding hops in the last 10 minutes of the boil?), odder ingredients (farro? wormwood? myrrh?) and the Italians' much romanticized love for food, and you have something truly unique emerging out of an area that has never been (and most likely never will be) known for its beer.

That's a rather lengthy way of reminding you that if you're in the SF Bay Area and want to try some of these exceptional creations at a centrally-located, public transit-friendly, private venue alongside some equally tasty food with a lively group of beer enthusiasts, you're in luck, as we've still got a handful of seats free for our dinner on Saturday, August 15. There's more information at the original post here.

On a similar topic, as our Fermentation Friday post will hinge on an inimitably Italian beer, let this also serve as a reminder that we're proudly hosting June's edition this Friday, so if you're a homebrewing blogger or a blogging homebrewer, you owe it to yourself to read the original announcement and get ready to join us on the 31st.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Little update from Big Sky

the land of ubiquitous carved bear sculptures and no recycling
The biggest news from our recent foray into the land of shining mountains actually came as a rumor before we'd even gotten on the plane, that Flathead Lake Brewing, a topic of minor previous discussion here, had shuttered its doors for good, the owner having set off for presumably greener pastures, rumored to be a new venture in the sprawling metropolis of Columbia Falls. It was a tale that proved true, as it turns out we passed the closed doors a mere ten days after they'd ceased operations, a tale made even sadder as I was regaled with a story (one filled with disgusted and puckering facial expressions) from my father-in-law about how they'd attempted to foist some new, weirdly sour, vinegary concoction on him, one he deemed so wretched, he sent it back, professing to me that if that's what they thought good beer was, he wasn't surprised they'd closed down. From the sounds of it, the Flanders brewing techniques they'd started experimenting with last year, starting with a pretty delightful oud bruin, had been well in the works, but we'll apparently be waiting a while longer before wild ales establish themselves in the Wild West.

Tons of great, un-recyclable canned craft beer in Montana
On the more positive side, though, was an unexpected proliferation of locally brewed beers being stocked in grocery stores, more often than not in cans, laying claim to the treasured square footage that had not long before been the sole domain of the majors. Even Glacier has gotten on the bottling bandwagon (sadly lacking their much touted IPA), alongside the newly-in-cans Big Sky heavyweight Moose Drool, Bayern, Harvest Moon, and the standout new favorite, Kettlehouse IPA and scotch ale, both packaged in lovely pint cans.
Because some occasions demand an icy pilsner
Seeing a resurgence of locally crafted beers in an area that has long been lacking, despite the area having an agricultural history closely tied to the brewing industry, is a heartening development, and as our growler-filling visits to Glacier proved, these breweries aren't just riding on the coattails of lakeside tourism to pay their bills, with the taproom consistently hosting a roundtable of regulars, either fresh off their bikes for a pint and a glimpse of the Tour, or catching up on local gossip while getting their cooler of growlers filled for the back of their pickup.
Oh whiskey barrels, what secrets do you hold?
A final stop worth noting was this newer addition to the Flathead brewing community, Lakeside's Tamarack Brewing company, a seriously impressive two year-old brewpub situated creekside at the base of the Blacktail Mountain ski area, housed in a building whose architecture is a twisted amalgamation of alpine ski lodge and urban warehouse brewery aesthetic. And while we were off-season for the "Old 'Stache" whiskey barrel aged porter, their year round stout was an acceptable consolation prize, giving us a reason to add yet another bottle to our growing Montana growler collection.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Introducing the second annual Pfiff! beer and food tasting - The Italian Modernists

It was last August when we found ourselves sitting around the patio table, weighed down in our seats by the twin burdens of good food and good drink, when the topic of conversation turned to what unifying themes we could explore in subsequent gatherings. But while there's no end to which we enjoy our fill of barrel-aged imperial thises and thats and peculiarly spiced holiday ales and unclassifiable Belgian nanobrewery miscellany, none of the ideas bandied about managed to spark the dim light of inspiration we needed. It just so happens that we're lucky to exist in a time and place where stylistic panel tastings aren't terribly difficult to come by, thanks to some pretty fine watering holes and the odd renegade social group. Putting on a tasting for a tasting's sake seemed arbitrary and redundant. Not to mention, as it turned out, the greatest pleasure we gleaned from the event came from the challenge of pairing each beer with foods that presented them in their best light, seeing as we were pouring some that were potentially challenging to unaccustomed taste buds. It was obvious that whatever guiding principle the next tasting would be focused upon, the food would play an important, if not more elevated role.

But it wasn't more than a few months after we'd closed the books on that day's affairs that the next subject we'd be attracted to became more apparent. If there's one thing that was made terribly clear at Slow Food Nation, it's that beer is taken very seriously as a part of its ethos. Its interesting to note, though, that despite the attention it lavishes on finely crafted beer, the Slow Food movement has its origins in the loosely populated agricultural heart of Piemonte, an area dominated by wine grapes within a country that's perhaps only second to France in having globally established wine as the cultivated palate's beverage of choice, particularly in consideration when pairing with fine foods. But things appear to be changing. Where the Slow movement has taken root, brewers with similar philosophies are beginning to flourish. In a place that's devoted to celebrating their regional specialties, beers are being designed with ingredients true to their own "Ark of Taste", and envisioned in terms of being enjoyed in tandem with the cuisine as an equal partner in the gustatory experience. Hence this year's event: The Italian Modernists.

Like last year, the event will take place in San Francisco, and will be a small, informal affair with the goal of tasting a wide variety of rare beers alongside some tasty nibbles. Festivities will take place on Saturday, August 15, at 3:00 p.m. Seats for this year's dinner are $45. For questions, or to reserve your place at the table, you can either email me at or leave a comment on this post with information about how I can get back in touch (and as I'm generally able to reply to emails within the day, if you haven't heard back from me, it's a good sign your message has been relegated to my junk mail folder, in which case you might want to tap me a second time). I'm also happy to announce that Healthy Spirits will be officially providing all of our beers this year, which helps guarantee you've got a local resource to stock up on any of the beers we'll be pouring, and we'll have the pleasure of their beer manager, Dave Hauslein, also in attendance. If last year was any indication, it'll be a fun, long afternoon of relaxed tasting, and we hope to see some new faces at this one!

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Announcing July's copycat stole a rat put it in her Sunday hat Fermentation Friday

And for my next trick...

As ruthless experimenters, we're loathe to ever admit attempting to clone anything familiar in our brewing endeavors, instead opting to expend most of our efforts on doing something wholly other, whipping to life concoctions of pure imagination, beat out of thin air, pulled from the dark edges of existence over the precipice of possibility into the weird and funny world of the real. Individual, unique, individually unique, singular creations that pay sole allegiance to the imaginations of their creators. But damn, if there aren't some existing beers for which we wouldn't kill to know the alchemical code, turning cheap bunches of slightly rotted grains into bucket after delicious bucket of perfectly crafted copycat elixir. And that's the topic of this month's Fermentation Friday, which we at Pfiff! have the pleasure of hosting this month: Homebrewed doppelgangers. What beers have you attempted to duplicate in your own homes, or which ones have you always wanted to reproduce, but have been wary of attempting? Here's a chance to not only post some recipes for feedback (or secondary counterfeiting) but also a chance to maybe nail the recipe you've always hoped to figure out, but haven't had luck in getting quite right. Got a spot-on Pliny that shames the LongShot version? Can't quite pin down that elusive whatsit character in your wannabe Orval? Submit your post on Friday, July 31, and either comment with a link here on this post or send an email to in order for me to include your submission in the round-up. Who knows? You may get the feedback you've been looking for to finally nail down that dead ringer recipe for Stroh's that you've been honing for the past 10 years...


Friday, July 03, 2009

The Session #29 - Return to Flathead Lake

Recently, this comment appeared on a post that I published last year:
Just saw your comment on working through the pain from last year...good comments and helpful hints, except the Flathead Lake Brewing comment "not all craft beer is brewed equal"...this is true, but not in the way you presented it: Flathead Lake Brewing has won every award for brewing in the state, beating out all the big guys, and has actually brought home two World Beer Cup awards, which are the most prestigious awards in brewing. As far as "we've run out of beer, again"...well that's just crap, as an employee there, we have never "run out of beer", we have just run low because we sell so much of it to local yes, not all craft beer is brewed equal...if it was, Glacier Brewing, Kettlehouse, and some of the other beers you mentioned would be winning international awards and running low on beer as well...
Anyhow, my two cents...keep up the good work...just keep it accurate. :) Cheers!!! - Info
To which I replied with this:
Info (if that is your real name!), I appreciate getting feedback from employees at breweries I've mentioned, and apologize if it seemed I was ragging unfairly on Flathead. My comment about them running out of beer stems from two separate visits I made back in the summer of 2007, when I was refused growler service because as the person working stated, they were "running out of beer". Without speculating further on what was going on at Flathead back in '07, I will say this: A return visit this past summer showed a *very* different brewery, one that had on tap a number of great beers, some fun experiments in the works, and absolutely no problem filling up a number of growlers for me with some excellent sustenance with which to spend my evening staring at the lake. I apologize for not putting that positive update on this post earlier.
The truth of the matter is, you're put at a serious disadvantage (and I'd be curious to hear what Stan has to say on this) whenever you try to establish an informed opinion about anything, not least of which a brewery, based off brief, singular visits.What's been said about first impressions often haunts the words of blogs (and Info, that's "blog" as in "web log", not to be confused with a travel guide, nor something that anybody reads anyway), capturing quick observations, often read divorced from the greater timeline, one that can frequently be misconstrued as concrete, permanent, final judgments. Unfortunately, though, most blogs, this one included, oftentimes neglect to amend their stance on particular experiences regardless of a change of heart on a subsequent visit. Something tells me if I'd be more proactive in expressing my pleasant return to Flathead last summer, Info wouldn't have felt need to comment in such a way that seems a little disparaging to the other local breweries in his/her community.

This month's Session pertains to tips and strategies on the road of beer travel. Lesson learned? Simply, don't be shy about voicing your impressions, but alternately, be prepared to reevaluate those impressions after repeat visits. And that said, be willing to revisit places that may have disappointed the first time around, because there's really nothing more rewarding than being proven wrong. Ultimately, I'm certainly looking forward to revisiting Flathead Lake Brewing again this summer (if only to fill another growler with that Flanders brown of theirs) to see what fresh surprises they have in store. This time: more pictures, more notes, and a promise to make good on updating our impressions. I'll hunt out for Info, too, if just to apologize in person.

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