Friday, September 30, 2011

Pumpkin season: a family recipe

It is that time of the year again. The weather is getting chillier, cloudy days are more numerous, the leaves start to slowly turn. Mostly reds this early, but soon in that great palette of browns, yellows, reds, greyish, purple,... But the most unmistakable sign that fall is here, is the number of pumpkin beers appear on the shelves of our preferred liquor stores or bars.

One of the things that most surprised me when I made the voyage across the Atlantic to settle here, was Thanksgiving. Let no one ever dare to even think that Americans have no culture. I will point to the lavish Thanksgiving meal, with all it's delights as celebrated virtually all over the 50 states in similar fashion, right before I stuff their bellies. Standing out was the pumpkin pie. Served slightly chilled, with a nice layer of frothy whipped cream, is a taste of heaven. I must confess I repeatedly over-indulged on this treat.

Pumpkin beers is another new thing, one I am still warming up to. Some are just horrific experiments with a taste of vegetables that I prefer in a more solid form, on my plate, with a beer to accompany them without any such off-flavor like smell and taste. Others are actually quite enjoyable, Punkin Ale by Dogfish Head as an example. I have a Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale in the fridge, waiting to be sampled. (What pumpkin or fall beers are your favorites? Leave me a comment and let me know what to try next!)

In this great Pumpkin Onslaught I cannot forget to mention that great pumpkin launching festival and competition, called Punkin' Chunkin'. Trebuchets, air cannons, catapults, torsion catapults, centrifugal, and human powered launching platforms are constructed by fans from all over the country, who gather early November to test 1 thing: who can chuck that pumpkin the furthest? Crazy, but awesome! If you want to combine beer, pumpkins, that Roman or Medieval or engineering side of you that rarely has a chance to shine, this is definitely the event for you.

But let's add a traditional flavor from the old world, with a family recipe for a great pumpkin soup! Rich, thick, creamy, it is a perfect meal to nourish you and heat you up when coming in, that autumn chill in your bones. And yes, pumpkin beer pairs well.

So here goes:
For 3-4 people:
*a 12-15 lbs pumpkin
*8-10 strips of bacon
* 6oz. of heavy cream
*1 roll of Pillsbury Crescent Seamless Dough Sheet
*1 medium sized yellow onion
*(1/2 lbs of ground beef, optional)
*salt, pepper, powdered nutmeg and allspice, dried basil flakes

-Cut the pumpkin in 4 parts, remove the seeds and inner soft parts
-Cut the parts in thinner strips, which you then peel (potato peeler is a great tool)
-Cut the strips in cubes, about 1inch square.
-Place the pumpkin cubes in a large cooking pot, and add just a shallow bottom of water
-Cook on the stove for 30 minutes on medium-high, closed with a lid.
-Add pepper, salt, some nutmeg, allspice and basil
-Brown yellow onions and add them as well.
-After half hour (or when the cubes are soft) puree the cubes and onion. (I use an electrical hand mixer) so you get a thick, homogeneous liquid.

Pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, Punkin Ale. Life is good!
When the cubes are on the stove, take 8-10 strips of bacon, cut them in small pieces, and bake them crisp in a pan, and keep them apart (only add them after mixing, one can also add very small pre-cooked balls of ground beef). Take a tube of Pillsbury Crescent Seamless Dough Sheet, place on an oven sheet, cut with a long knife or pizza cutter in cubes, half an inch for each side, sprinkle salt, pepper and dried basil flakes on top, and place in the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Now add the bacon to the soup, bring to taste with some more salt/spices per your own taste, and serve at your table. Pour some heavy cream in the soup on your plate, garnish with the baked dough squares, and some parsley or something to add some green. Voila! Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beer styles: relic of the past, or cherished tradition?

Since the boom in homebrewing and breweries started in the early 1980's, a lot of new styles have emerged, and  the freedom the (home)brewers have enjoyed in creating their beers have made a good number of people question the need for styles altogether. Before we tackle that question though, we need to look at some of the facts (and some of my own more subjective opinions, for what they're worth).

Great chart from the pop chart lab.
The American craft beer revolution definitely has impacted the world of beer. But there have been other places as well where movements, similar to the American craft beer movement, have come up more or less independent. In Belgium, for instance, a number of very small breweries started to challenge the 'traditional' beers, and added new tastes. Similar moves happened in other countries as well. It is helpful to note that the American craft movement really broke through only in the last 3 or so years. After a slump between 2000 and 2006, the number of breweries started to bounce back again, and Craft Beer somehow became part of the mainstream. Every self-respecting restaurant or bar, for instance, has at least some craft beers on their lists (I know, a lot of room for improvement, notably on the vision behind the beers, and teaching the bars and restaurants that there is so much more to craft beer than to treat it just as the hot novel thing). People are now much more aware that craft beer exists, and that is huge. The exchange with other breweries around the world has really come up in these last few years as well. You see Belgian breweries making American styles, or beers mainly intended for the American market (IPA's, Belgian IPA's, sours, saisons,...) and those new flavor profiles and vision is trickling down to the beers they make for their local drinkers as well. Some of my friends in Belgium tell me that they really like the more bitter beers (meaning the IPA's), brewed with hop varieties hereto unknown to them (Simcoe, Cascade,...).

With this explosion of growth and the continued new discoveries of so many beer drinking people, it isn't but normal that the old styles are shaking in their foundations, being challenged, replaced, added onto, etc. Some people think that is the new norm, in a very post-modern worldview that does not really like 'strict rules'. But I would contend they are mistaken, and that this is only a phase of finding a new equilibrium. One that in a later period of time can be challenged of course, but a new equilibrium nonetheless.

People mistake freedom as 'absence of rules', where that absence would only be the worst kind of nihilism. True freedom is having rules in place, but with the ability to choose whether or not to follow them. Beer styles work the same way. A brewer is under no circumstances obliged to follow any set of style guidelines, does not need to understand the tradition and heritage from any given beer style or substyle he or she wants to brew. But it offers a much deeper understanding of their craft, that more often than not will allow them to make better beers.

To me, beer styles are like different cuisines. Each has their own traditions, styles, history, a different understanding of the ingredients and flavors and how to put them together. If you want to name your beer a 'Belgian Triple', you can follow that tradition and understanding closely, or give it a twist by applying them more loosely. But there is a point where your beer will cease to be a Belgian triple or a triple altogether, which is something you as brewer need to understand and acknowledge (by no longer calling it a Belgian Triple, to begin with). An overly assertive hopped triple is not a Belgian Triple, regardless of the yeast you used. It will be a pale ale, leaning closer to IPA. A triple derives most of its flavor and character from the yeast and the way the malt was treated, not from hops. Understand that, and you can make awesome triples, even playing with the new hop styles as you now know how these hops can add to the beer, in a supportive role, not leading. Similarly, adding too many jalapeños to a shepperd pie, will make it much less a British dish and more of a Mexican or fusion type dish. You can do it, it might taste delicious, but it isn't British anymore.

The FAQ section of the BJCP website has the following paragraph:
The groupings in the Style Guidelines are somewhat arbitrary, and often did not represent a unanimous decision of those on the Style Committee who worked on the document. There are two conflicting schools of thought represented in the guidelines. The first says that Style Guidelines should describe beer in the way you would think about it historically, or the way you would teach it in a study class. Similar to a Michael Jackson book, subcategories of beers should always belong to a logical style family from which they are derived. The other school of thought says that subcategory descriptions are the vital notion, and that style categories are simply logical groupings of similar beers for purposes of judging. This group believes that beers from many style families can be combined into judging categories so as to reduce the sensory differences a judge will encounter in judging a single flight from that category.
As you might have guessed by now, I am firmly in the first school of thought. Beer styles are not solely there to help judge a beer in competition, but to tell the drinker what to expect. The style designation will give a lot of information about where it comes from, it's history and tradition. It is a way to respect all the brewers before us, who put their heart and soul in their brews, making them unique, to the point of becoming a style. Honor them in their achievement, and find new ways of brewing to create your own style (you'll find that very hard, and will gain new respect for the brewers of old). Above all, do not hijack an existing style to hide your own limited grasp of the rich diversity of beer.

So, drink your beer tonight, with a toast to the old brewmaster, and enjoy the brilliance of how they managed to create a style, with all those elements and ingredients so well put together to offer you that well balanced and rich brew you're sipping.

* The first image is a chart from the Pop Chart Lab. Check out their site to purchase a print from this great beer style chart!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politics made easy: the beer example.

As I was browsing through some articles in Belgian newspapers, reading up on the political situation there (after more than 450 days of negotiations, Belgium still has no government!), I came across a very interesting and clarifying post by a certain Mark Pollentier.

First some background information. Belgium is a parliamentary monarchy, meaning that we have a king, who officially is head of the country, but basically has only ceremonial powers. Elections between a multitude of parties put in place a parliament and a senate, with the Prime Minister coming from the party with most of the votes. The northern part of the country is Dutch speaking (Vlaanderen, or Flanders), and the southern part is French speaking (called la Wallonie). There is a very small part in the east that is German speaking, annexed after the first world war as compensation. Brussels, the capital, is officially bilingual Dutch-French, but lies entirely in Flanders. (Please bear with me, there is a point to this that involves beer!)

There has been a lot of animosity between the Flemish majority and the politically more powerful French speaking part, since the beginning of the country in 1830 (a rebellion against the Dutch king Willem I, instigated by French agents and with French money and aid). From this moment on, the French speaking part and the upper and middle class in Flanders, who also were French speaking, would regard Flemish as an inferior language, reflected in one policy after another. Examples are numerous: Flemish (a regiolect of Dutch) was initially not recognized as an official language of the country, it took about 70 years before the Equality Act of 1898 ruled that the written text of laws and royal decrees in Dutch would have the same legal value as those in French, and only in 1932 was Flemish officially the language for education in Flanders. This developed the territorial principle: the official language is determined by the location. This means that in Flanders, Flemish is the primary language, in Wallonia French, and Brussels, the capital, would get a bilingual status.

In modern history, Belgium has been divided in 7 parts: 3 regions, based on territory (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-capital), 3 communities based on language (the Flemish, French and German speaking communities), and a federal level governing above these regions and communities. In Flanders, the region and community were combined to ensure a more streamlined and efficient system.  (See the Wikipedia page here for an overview and more background)

Now, back to the beginning of the story. Today, Belgium still has no government, since the elections of June 13, 2010. One of the main, if not the most important stumbling block in the negotiations between the Flemish and French speaking parties, is the electoral jurisdiction Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. As it overlaps the bilingual Capital and several Flemish counties, it creates a lot of conflicts. The French parties are trying to expand their influence in the Flemish ‘randgemeenten’ (peripheral municipalities) around Brussels, to create a large Brussels Capitol Region under their control. These municipalities have large French speaking communities, who received special privileges, called ‘facilities’, meaning they can receive official documents and services in French, even though they are living in Flanders. These ‘facilities’ were meant to be phased out, but they have only been strengthened.
The Flemish demand to end this bundling of Brussels with a part Flemish electoral region was enforced by a Supreme Court ruling, with a deadline of 2003, which has still not happened (meaning that all electoral results are de jure invalid because violating the constitution). The French speaking parties demand compensation for the split of this electoral jurisdiction, the Flemish oppose that and insist that there should be no compensation to execute the constitution.
So, there you have it, a very quick overview, still incredibly complicated. This text I mentioned earlier does a much better job. Which clearly must be because it uses beer as the vehicle to explain this situation. Here goes:

Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) explained with beer:
Every evening your new neighbor comes by to drink a nice cool pint of beer: he happens to have no fridge yet.

So you gladly allow him the beer out of your fridge (facilities).
But days become weeks, weeks become months and months become years, and your neighbor now feels so at home at your place that he decides what and when can be drunk (the contrarian mayors of the facility-municipalities who refuse to speak Flemish).
When you bring that up to him, he reacts furiously and seeks the support of his family who lives down the street (the French speaking people in Brussels).
They support the behavior of your neighbor, and demand you open up your house for the whole family (continued ‘frenchification’),
whereby your fridge becomes property of the family (attaching the facility-municipalities to Brussels),
but where you still have to keep the fridge filled daily (financial transfers from Flanders to Wallonia and Brussels).
When finally the peace justice declares that you are right and that the neighbor has to go drink his beer with his family (ruling of the Supreme Court),
the neighbor and his family demand that you buy them a fridge (compensation for the French speaking), and that you come fill it again daily (continued financial transfers).
That is what BHV is all about!

Why be complicated, if some beer can help explain it so much better?

Cheers, and 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beer bloggers and brewers at the Ship Inn

This weekend, I had a very good trip to the Ship Inn in Milford, New Jersey. It is a great English style brewpub, very nicely built not too far from the banks of the mighty Delaware, right next to a small stream that connects with it just about a hundred yards further. It boasts to be the first brewpub to brew beer for consumption on premise since the prohibition. Ann and David Hall converted this 1860's Victorian style building into a pub, and in January 1995 opened up their brand new British style 7 barrel system. On their website they describe themselves very nicely as follows:

The Ship Inn offers casual dining, British and American pub savories, freshly brewed beer, and live entertainment in a traditional English pub atmosphere. We endeavor to provide simple, honest, home-made food from local and ecologically responsible sources when possible.
Now that is a great place to go, if you ever make it to the Lehigh Valley area. (With fall at the doorsteps, this region is just beautiful to drive through, with some very scenic roads along the Delaware river, following an old canal, with the occasional bridge to jump from the Pennsylvania side to the New Jersey side of the river. If you're not too far from here, this is something you should do this fall, and then make a stop at the Ship Inn for some great food and beers!)

So, I came down here to chat with Greg, a.k.a. the Pour Curator. Goal was just to chat about beer, about the brewery I plan to start, my background. One of those great moments where you get to meet cool people because of a shared love for beer, and make new friends. We had been emailing back and forth a bit, and finally had a chance to meet in person over a beer. Talking about beer over email is not nearly as satisfying as talking about beer in a bar, with a nice cold brew in hand. It was a great meeting, and we both loved the beers we tried. Some were very sessionable at about 4.1 to 4.6%, and Greg correctly noted that this was quite an achievement: making a low ABV beer like that, that is still as balanced and nicely flavored as the ones we had, is not a simple thing to do!

But then I had a great chance meeting with Lea Rumbolo, 'In charge of all the brewing' at the Ship Inn, who was working to make an improved version of their first Belgian style beer, a very nice Wheat beer called Giggling Monk. Apart from being one of the few female brewers around (there seem to be more and more brewmasters like her, and I am glad to see that, spearheaded by these women-brewers, more and more women start to enjoy great beers, with a passion that belies the old notion of beer being a male monopoly), what struck me most was her background. She is a trained chef (studied at Northampton Community College), and was/is chef at the Lovin Oven and at the Red Spoon, and was at the right place at the right time, asking to be allowed to learn to brew at the Ship Inn. She brings this whole different mindset to brewing, a sense of cleanliness that was drilled into her at cooking school (any brewer/homebrewer knows how easy it is to mess up a beer because of equipment that wasn't sanitized properly), and a very solid understanding of flavors and how they work together. In the updated recipe for the Belgian style wheat, for example, she uses this one extra ingredient, very lightly, to help create a fuller body, while not really being noticeable itself: she knows that adding certain ingredients with not too much flavor of their own, or in really low amounts, can be a tremendous help in bringing out the flavor of the other ingredients. So great and balanced beers is what she is coming up with.

Personally, I find it very intriguing to see her combine those different skill sets in the Ship Inn brewpub. Instead of the hit-or-miss approach, she tries to put together her beer recipes with a lot of thought and understanding of what she wants to accomplish. And all that while being a woman-brewer, in the great tradition of the (very) old brewers, reflected in the fact that the beer deities of Egypt and the Ancient Middle East where all female. It seems a winning combination to me, and I will be checking out the beers she will come up with for sure!