Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beer Flavor Exploration part 2

Last night we had the second and final part of our beer flavor exploration. It was a great evening, and very pleasurable as this time we did take a closer look at the 'good' flavors. This are flavors that are usually wanted in certain beers, but if present in large amounts or in other styles of beer signs of trouble (infection, poor yeast health, or problems with brewing technique/equipment). A lot is determined by personal taste as well.

One of the main factors that determine flavor and aroma are called esters. Typically fruity, they are produced inside the yeast cells, and then leak out into the beer, imparting with typical flavors. A famous one is called Isoamyl Acetate, and gives that typical aroma and taste of bananas. Typically found in weizen beers and some other heavier beers (Westmalle Tripel, for example), it can signal problems with yeast health, fermentation temperature or oxygen supply in the beer if found in large amounts or in beers that should not typically have this flavor. Another common flavor was 4-Vinyl Guaiacol. As a metabolite of ferulic acid, it is formed by fermentation of barley malts by certain top-fermenting yeasts, but could also be produced by wild yeast as well. It has a characteristic taste of cloves, or a hint of phenolic, and gives beer a more 'spicy' touch. Another flavor discussed was Ethyl Hexanoate, another ester, but this one imparts hints of aniseed or ripe apples to the beer. It is also a pheromone to certain insects, including the fruit fly (drosophila).

The blind taste test at the end of the evening proved challenging, as some of the flavors were very subtle. Jessie DiNizio won this blind tasting test as the only person to reach a perfect score, congratulations! She won a cool key chain bottle opener from Beers Not Bombs, a group that makes jewelry and bottle openers from bronze. The bronze has a very unique source: the copper needed to make it comes from disarmed nuclear weapon systems! "Beating swords into ploughshares" is a great ideal, but beating nuclear missile silos into bottle openers, now that is just excellent! Of course certified radiation free...

Anyways, another great event discovering new ways to look at beer and to enjoy beer. If you need a drink today to help you cool down in the heat wave currently hovering above the US, may I propose either a Paulaner Heffeweisen or a Sly Fox Royal Weisse? Very refreshing, and I am sure you will be able to pick up some of the flavors described above... Cheers!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pictures of the beer flavor exploration

With thanks to Tim Besecker for being the unofficial photographer of the evening!

Giving an overview of the sources of the flavors, when and where they can be found.

Drinking beer that tastes like stinky feet, and still paying attention to isomerizing alpha acids
that also oxidize and split of an isovaleryl group that becomes the source of the funk. Great group!

Tasting attentively, John Harmon lays the foundation to win the blind tasting.

The quick overview sheet for the evening

Part of the prize, 'Pannepot' by Flemish brewery 'De Struise Brouwers', top rated on RateBeer,
second only to the Westvleteren Trappist Brewery.

Beer Flavor Exploration

When you learn to cook, a great way to build up an understanding of flavors and what does and does not match, is to sample the foods. Or one can grab some basil, crush it between their fingers, smell the aromas, then put a pinch on their tongue to get a sense of the taste. This works with any other possible ingredient, and when you later on eat a meal, you will be able to discern (depending on how much you practiced), to tell what kind of ingredients and spices have been used. As it would be your turn to cook next, you will also know how the tastes work together, what spices you can or should not use to get that specific flavor and touch that you want to bring out.

When brewing beer, that is not quite possible. One can taste some of the malt, to get an idea of what flavors they will carry over to the finished beer, and hops will allow that as well. But brewing is part magic. Someone once remarked: "A brewer does not make beer, only wort. The yeast makes the beer." There are so many chemical reactions that go on throughout the whole brewing process!

So last night I invited a number of friends and the New Jersey Beer Club for a small 2 night beer flavor exploration at the Stirling Hotel (next Wednesday is the second part). The first evening we explored 5 so called 'off-flavors', flavors you should NEVER find in a beer(with few style related exceptions), as they are surefire signs of errors in the brewing/packaging/tapping process, infections from various sources, etc. If you ever get a beer with such a flavor, sending it back is the only thing to do... The next evening we will present 5 flavors that can be found in normal beer, and that define styles. We discuss in a very accessible way what those compounds are, where they come from, what beers you can find them in, what beers you should not find them in.

How will this work? There will be a generic light beer with little flavor of itself. We will spike 1 liter of this beer with the concentrated and isolated flavors in 5 pitchers, plus a pitcher of unspiked beer as a reference. The compound of each flavor will be present in 3 times the taste threshold. We'll pour two thirds of each pitcher to give each 6 glasses, 1 for each flavor and the reference, and then we'll discuss each, as they have the opportunity to sample them as they explore each flavor as it is presented on its own. After this first round, we'll dilute the remaining beer by filling it up again to 1 liter, so we get to sample the flavors at 1 time the taste threshold. At that point we give a blind tasting test, so they can put their newly acquired skills to the test, and win a special beer prize!

This was a great success, and everyone went back home having learning something, after a lot of fun as we went through a bunch of quite horrible off-flavors, from creamed corn/canned asparagus over stinky feet to cardboard. Some of the group were home brewers, so they had encountered some of these, and we could give some pointers as to why those flavors appear in beer, and how to avoid them. A very common one is DMS, or Dimethyl Sulfide. Tasting and smelling like bad vegetables (asparagus and corn), it is a normal in-between step in the brewing process, and a very volatile element. So during the boiling most of this will dissipate out of the wort. Unless, of course, you had the boiling pot covered for some reason... Another one, Diacetyl, tastes like butter/butterscotch, and if encountered in a beer from a tap, almost always a sign of tap lines that are dirty and have become infected. Another 'favorite' was Isovaleric Acid, a compound that comes from oxidized iso-alpha acids that can be found in hops, and are a sign of stale or old hops. This tastes like bad cheese, stinky or sweaty feet,... A real crowd-pleaser! You can, however, get this in much softer form because of either voluntary use of wild yeast, or by contamination, specifically in sours (think lambic style beers).

As a brewer, it is important to be able to identify these bad flavors during brewing, for purpose of quality control (we would never want you to taste these in our beers, and you never will!), and to be able, if we find them, to keep the beer from being sold and to pinpoint the source of the contamination or error so we can fix it. For beer lovers, it was just fun to explore this normally inaccessible side of beer. We all are looking forward to next week, as that night we will tackle good flavors! 

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11, 1302: Battle of the Gulden Spurs

Happy feast day to all Flemish, and to all those who carry Flanders in their hearts!

On this day a Flemish army, consisting mainly of peasants and militia from the free cities, completely defeated an army of French knights, the pride of the nation. This was one of the first times an army of knights was defeated by commoners, and it sent shock waves throughout Europe. 5 years earlier, in 1297 the Scottish, led by William Wallace, defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This and the battle in 1302 were only the first to mark the end of an era where knightly armies would dominate.

Another important feature was that this battle was one of the very few popular uprisings of the common people against their lords (in this case, king Philip IV from France) that was actually successful. It underscores the strong sense of freedom and justice the Flemish had, which indirectly but in an important way contributed to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. For a great article about this, read this article by a good friend, David Baeckelandt.

Of course, namesakes of the great saint William were present, in roles of leadership and with feats of bravery. One William, named William van Saefthinge, was a lay brother at the abbey of Ter Doest. A really tall and strong man, he is said to have rushed to the battlefield when the armies gathered, donning an old rusty suit of armor he found in the barns of the abbey. Upon reaching the site of the battle, he traded his horse for a sword, and entered the fighting. It is told that it was he who threw Count Robert II of Artois, the french commander, from his horse, after which the count was killed by other soldiers.

William of Jülich was one of the main leaders of the uprising, being strongly opposed to the annexation policies of the French King. He was archdeacon at the prince-bishopric of Liège and the son of William of Jülich and Maria, a daughter of Guy of Dampierre, Count of Flanders. His connection to the count and his wish to avenge the imprisoning of his uncles Robert III of Bethune and William of Dendermonde by the French king presumably explains his support for the Flemish resistance. An extra incentive for this support could have been the murder of his uncle Walram of Jülich by the French after the Battle of Bulskamp in 1297. The Flemish resistance led to the unexpected victory over the French during the battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. (excerpt from wikipedia). Legend has it that William of Jülich, who died in at the Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle as he had broken so deeply through the ranks of the French that he and his knights were able to wound the King and made him flee the field, and who's remains were never found after the battle, will return when Flanders is in direst need.

After the battle, hundreds of golden spurs -sign of knighthood- were collected from the battlefield and hung up in the Church of Our Lady, giving this battle its contemporary name: the Battle of the Golden Spurs. A modern day monument, erected near a highway leading to France, depicts a large spur in concrete, with the point of it aimed directly at Paris. The battle gave Flanders only a short lived independence, but it ensured that it was never fully integrated in France, keeping its language, culture and identity.

So ponder with Mr. Baeckelandt the many Flemish influences on the Americas, and toast to the heroes of long lost times who kept that Flemish identity alive! With the unfortunate near absence of beer in French culture, it is safe to say that on this day, our rich beer culture was saved as well! Cheers to that!

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July: important Williams and beer.

Happy birthday, America! As Americans all over the world celebrate their independence day. On July 2, 1776, the second continental congress approved a resolution of independence,  and 2 days later, on July 4, 1776, they signed the declaration of independence, thus officially rejecting British rule.

One of the reasons that fueled the unrest and dissatisfaction with -and ultimately the rejection of - the British rule over their American Colonies was beer. Beer was an important factor in life in the colonies, as were the taverns, which served a central role in their communities. It was not just a place were the locals could drink, but it was where they met, were travelers could find a hearty meal and drink on the way, it was the place were many court houses held their sessions. At times, things would go out of hand, and the British rulers tried to regulate 'drinking and tavern disorders'. But it wasn't until they dared raise taxes on beer that illustrious people such as Samuel Adams and James Otis started a movement of civil disobedience against such a treacherously levied tax. Very soon colonials started a 'buy American' trend, to prefer American brewed ales over imported British ales. To the point that the Boston Tea party (the leaders of which having organised this event in a tavern, or what did you think?), are rumored to almost having decided to dump ale in the harbor. Regardless of where it comes from, such action would have been the purest form of alcohol abuse, but luckily enough sound judgement ruled the day. Just imagine, though, having 'Beer Party Patriots', 'Beer Party Express', etc... Regardless of politics, we can all agree that heaving tea overboard was a much wiser move.

6 of the signers of the declaration were named William, who 'lived life to the full, but balanced', in spirit with our patron saint. Another hero of the war of independence was Col. William Stacy. Born in Gloucester, MA in 1734, he was active in the war from the very beginning, having fought at Lexington and Concord, and later at Bunker Hill and other battles. Col. William Moultrie was also important in the first moments of the war. Defending fort Sullivan in Charleston Harbor, he fended off a 12 hour attack of 10 British warships, sending them badly crippled back in defeat. This greatly encouraged the surrounding states, renewing hope in the cause of independence. General William Whipple, another, had signed the declaration, and commanded a New Hampshire militia brigade in battles at Stillwater and Saratoga against the British general Burgoyne, and later another militia brigade at the battle of Rhode Island.

Of course, we cannot fail to mention the commander of the continental army, George Washington. One of the first things he did upon taking command was ordering a fixed daily ration of beer for all troops. This greatly helped enlistment, keep good spirits, and was often healthier than plain water.

So, when you sit back today, in celebration, or if you're not an US citizen, just sitting back after a long day, sip your beer and toast to those valiant men who fought for freedom, giving us that extraordinary document (declaration of independence and the constitution, documents that sparked a wildfire of freedom in Europe as well, starting with the French revolution in 1789: the praised French 'Declaration of the rights of men and citizens' was inspired by it. So was constitution form 1791, as was the Belgian constitution from 1830, to name a few). Know that beer was important in making that all happen, and then toast to the brewer who gave you that fine drink you are enjoying.