Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beer pairing

A lot has been said about pairing food with either wine or beer.
Greg Engert wrote about this in his blog "What Wine Can Teach Us About Beer And Food" (Blogged on YoungAndHungry, Washington City Paper, August 10, 2010). He said:

And in truth, wine does taste wonderfully with many dishes, as does beer; they just tend to do different things when tasted in congress with food. One general idea I subscribe to is that beer tends to complement the flavors of food, while wine tends to contrast. This is born out by the processes involved in the creation of either beverage. The malts employed in brewing have been "cooked," resulting in flavors one will find in cooked food: roasted, caramelized, toasted, grilled. And beer is seasoned with hops, but often also orange peel, coriander, ginger, chocolate, etc. This allows for beer to echo the flavors found in foods also cooked and seasoned. I will admit that this sort of commonality makes beer and food pairing a bit more approachable, but it is different than what wine can do with food (and not necessarily better).

Wine can complement from time to time, but I prefer the interaction of contrasting flavors when wine confronts a dish. Wine does not have the cooked malt effect or the seasoning aspect of beer, but demonstrates a host of fermentation aromas and tastes resulting from its production. I think it is helpful to look at wine as a sort of additional saucing for the dish, and one that tends to transform the dish’s (and wine’s) flavors; beer and food have more of a tendency to mutually accentuate the similarities of aroma and taste found therein.

I had to think of this as I was salivating over a great meal at Delicious Heights, a great local restaurant/bar. I had ordered a 12 ounce seasoned and grilled Center-Cut Filet Mignon (yes, yes, I know, but after too many evenings that I had to work late, it was time to spoil my wife a little as she entered the last 2 months of her pregnancy, and to get myself in the process something nice as well), with a great Merlot butter, mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

I was craving beer, so I ordered a Chimay Grande Reserve ('Chimay Bleu') to go with this meal. This is a beer with a wonderful balance, a smooth mouthfeel, crisp, with a slight tingling because of mild carbonation, bready/yeasty flavours mixed with a spiciness and dark fruits, a fantastic beer! And what a delight to drink together with this meal! The slight dry hopiness worked perfectly with the asparagus, the malt and yeast went great along with the mashed potatoes and the meat, and the spices/fruity flavors were joined by the sweetness of the merlot butter. Just spectacular. As if each sip was a liquid continuation of the meal!

I was so impressed I can't help but using all these big words to describe that experience! And then I even forgot to mention how that very same beer was a surprisingly perfect companion to a oven fresh chocolate browny with vanilla ice cream... Definitely something you should try!

So next time you have guest coming over for dinner, or when you simply want to spoil yourself a little, think of a great beer to complement your food. It will be a great new field to explore, a whole new side to your favorite drink to discover!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Youthful beer growing up

About the place and role of craft beer in the United States

You’ve all experienced it. Checking out the beer selection in a second liquor store, you noticed a lot of new beers, some you recently enjoyed are no longer on the shelves, and as you try to make sense of the colorful label and the increasingly longer beer names (Belgian style Imperial oak barrel aged double hopped amber honey wheat, you’ve seen the likes), you realize that you feel lost. Even just 10 years ago, you felt confident in making beer your beverage of choice. Something you could enjoy over and over, without having to delve all too deep in exotic and encyclopedic denominators and terms that come with wines. There were a number of local breweries that made good brews, some larger regional brewers that supplied you with delicious ales and lagers, and Belgian, German or British imports if you wanted to shake things up and indulge once in a while. That seems such a distant past now…

Not that you now think of yourself as unrefined, but when you are done working, all you want is to sit down, relax. And enjoy a great brew, alone when reading a book or a paper, but even better when talking with friends and family at home, on your deck, or in some bar or pub. The last thing on your mind is to dissect the liquid in your glass, and with a dictionary full of words like IBUs, esters, brettonamyces and attenuation,  discover horse blanket, sweat socks, circus peanuts, canned asparagus, grass and cat pee in the taste and in the smell. Oh, sorry, in the nose.

If you noticed that brettonamyces was misspelled (brettanomyces, wild yeast from the family of the Saccharomycetaceae), you clearly do not belong in that group. This means that you are either a microbiologist or a beer geek. If you are the latter, you are delighted at the ever expanding streams of experimental beers, from in-your-face hop bombs that easily pass 100 IBUs to brews that display ever rarer exotic ingredients, funky, challenging, pushing the envelope. And why not? After all those years being starved on Bud and Miller, it is about time you had a decent beer that has actual taste! Nothing is more fulfilling to both the intellect and the palate then to sip and savor the newest creations from the masters in the craft!

However, it would be a mistake for either group to snarl at the other. There is a place for both, even a need to create a more balanced beer drinkers profile in the population. A broader base of beer drinkers who want more then Bud, but not exactly a hop-bomb or a skunky lambic imitation either, a base that in turn will secure the future of beer, even for more creative brewers. Let us look at this whole dazzling and exciting whirlwind of craft brewery production and innovation again, but from a different perspective.

Throughout the 20th century, the amount of breweries in the US was dwindling, from slightly over 1,500 in 1900, to a handful in 1975. The prohibition was of no importance, as the decreasing trend from the first 2 decades continues in 1933, as if nothing had happened. It was part of a broader trend, and in the fifties and sixties everyone ate wonderbread, with a touch of miracle whip, drove around in a Chevy or ford and drank a glass of Budweiser. Just before 1980 that all changed for beer, with the sudden insurgence of home brewing, which in turn gave birth to the first ‘microbreweries’. This was a clear reaction against the conglomerated behemoths that dominated the beer market (and still do). Deprived of tradition and continuity by 2 generations of poverty in choice and style, the brave home brewers and small craft brewers literally had to reinvent beer. The obvious shift to taste, and lots of it, by indulging in great amounts of hops, was a first attempt to compensate. Then a more refined and subtle race to deeper layers of taste, acquired by using exotic ingredients in shockingly new combinations became the new thing. You cannot read about the current top brewers without reading about globetrotting expeditions for rare spices and plants, which at some point in the next few months will appear in a new daring special release.

Europeans are shocked when they find out about chili pepper beer. But they were shocked as well when Michael Jackson stated that the US was the best place on the planet to drink beer. About that, he was right, as there are more styles, more choices, and a greater array of flavors and character than anywhere else. It truly is an exciting time and an exciting place for beer lovers! But that being said, there is a growing concern about where this will lead to. The increased complexity and unpredictable availability of brands and styles is hard to follow and understand. Just try to define craft beer, for starters, and you will see how this new beer reality defies all definitions. Beer sommeliers and Cicerones are one attempt to create order, and beer sites and groups try to educate more and more people. But what about the breweries themselves?

Going back to the two groups of people from the beginning, I believe that there is a distortion in the craft brewery’s world. The focus on innovation and the cutting edge has become a sacred cow. No one brewmaster dares to grow too fast out of fear of being labeled a sell-out, or is afraid to no longer be able to wield supreme creativity. Dogfish Head Brewery recently announced that they are pulling back out of 4 states, because they cannot keep up with demand, and they did not want to just expand.  Sam Calagione said: “our choice to keep experimenting and pushing the envelope instead of allowing ourselves to be mutated into the 60 Minute brewing company, comes with its own challenges.”

As much as I love Sam and his beers, I scratched my head when I read that. What is wrong with providing great beer to as many people as possible? Especially when so many still need to discover the amazing depth and flavors that beer can give them? When the bold in-your-face style that is now a badge of honor only discourages prospective beer lovers?  And how long can you be ‘innovative’ until that in turn becomes old, and people start settling in styles and tastes that they like? Surely, styles and tastes that the brave new frontiersmen have developed. And brewers should always maintain at least a streak of that daring, that drive for the new, the innovative. But at the same time, they should realize that there is a place for brewing with less ambitious goals. Breweries that have a few great beers, or even just one, that people can learn to know, like and love. Beers they can expect to always have access to. Comfort beers.

So I think that there will be a maturation, where, in all its righteous passion, the adolescence of the brewers, pushing them to outdo each other in innovation for innovations sake, will give way to a more mature and stable phase. Where renewal and experiments have an important place, but where they feel free and confident to just make great beer, without the pressure to prove themselves ‘small’, ‘craft’, ‘hip’ or ‘at the cutting edge’, over and over again.

This evening, I came home from work, and I wanted a beer I know and I love. Tomorrow, when I am off, I will plunge in the unknown and be adventurous and try a new beer creation. I am a beer geek, and I am a simple drinker of beers I love. And there is a place for both.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

At this feast of Saint Patrick...

Got some 'Dubliners' on in the background, some other more contemporary Irish folk artists lining up, having corned beef with cabbages for dinner, and ready for some whiskey, Harp, perhaps with dessert some Paper City Riley's stout. A good day to stop work, and celebrate life and a great Saint. Next year, Saint William will be part of celebrating Saint Patrick!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lenten beer, a sacrifice?

Lent is about to begin, traditionally a time of fasting. One of the pillars of beer development and keeper of tradition, the monasteries, had the habit of brewing their heaviest, highest quality beers for exactly this time of year. Hardly a contradiction: to be able to fast, and still sustain their bodies for all the hard labor required for the upkeep of the abbey and the grounds, they compensated their decreased food intake with fuller, heavier bodied and stronger beers. Not bad at all... So in solidarity with the great brewer-monks, I will not give up beer. And not just that, but I will seek out heavy, rich beers. May this lent give you as well clarity of purpose, and the experience of great beer to sustain you!


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Support your local brewery!

There is a lot that goes into starting and running a small independent brewery. And those brave brewers deserve our full support. So, on a fun note, what beer from a local brewer have you lately been drinking?

I tried the River Horse Tripel Horse, from the River Horse brewing Co., located in Lambertville, NJ. A nice brew, try it when you find it!

Leave a comment about your latest local discovery!