Monday, March 15, 2010

Bacchus Bier

It's not often anymore I can walk into a bottle shop and find a beer I've never seen, of which I have never heard. Even less so my local: Bottles 'n Bins, just up the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is where I started my exploration of beer and to say that I know their (very impressive) selection like the back of my hand would be to admit far greater familiarity with that extremity than I'm willing to aver.

So imagine my surprise. Standing, browsing their shelves with the supreme assuredness I imagine was enjoyed by Demetrius of Phaleron in the Stacks at Alexandria, I was suddenly struck by an undefined interstice in the otherwise orderly presentation of labels.

Bacchus, produced by Castle Brewery in Van Honsebrouck, Belgium, comes in the kind of stately 375ml bottle (not pictured) that sings to the potential purchaser of high quality ingredients prepared in ancient facilities by people who are paying attention. Though it doesn't say so on the bottle, this is a very subtle realization of a style endemic to the area of southern Belgium known as Flanders: the Flemish Sour Brown. Flemish Browns vary in color from a dark rust to a subdued ruby, and like their cousins, the Flemish Sour Reds, are notable for high acidity and strong noses of cherry and plum.

For its own part, Bacchus may be the most restrained Brown I've ever tasted. It seemed flat at first, and lacking body, but as the glass warmed I realized that this was due to significantly lower acidity than I am accustomed to in this style. Rather than heavy-handed and high-gravity fruit up front with enamel-stripping acidity to clean it up, Bacchus has a very light body and mouthfeel that allows more halting woodiness and vanilla to develop to complement the sour cherries and dark stone fruit; while I haven't been able to find any data to back it up, I am quite sure this beer must be aged in oak barrels. Without the cloying sweetness there is no need for anything to counteract it, so the brewers have allowed the beer to dry out significantly with just a complementary hint of vinegar. After the fruit, the spices sharpen from vanilla into something more like nutmeg before drying out entirely.

The truly remarkable characteristic of this beer is its carbonation, which is absolutely pinprick - only with incredible care and attention can an effect like this be achieved. It is a good analog for the experience as a whole: Bacchus is a well made, well-tempered example of a style that is frequently and easily overdone. Avoiding these pitfalls, it distinguishes itself by its reserve.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Try This At Home


1 bottle (~12oz) Samichlaus doppelbock (the dark one - not the Helles). Samichlaus should be served like a fine port, barely below room temperature, and no cooler than 60F.

1 bar dark chocolate, preferably around 70%. Dagoba Conacado is 73%, and works beautifully.


1) Pour the Samichlaus into two small stemmed glasses - port, for instance, or small sherry. Reserve about a third of the bottle, keeping in mind that this beer is stronger than many wines.
2) Break up and arrange about half of the chocolate on a nice little plate.
3) Take a piece of chocolate and chew it a bit, allowing it to melt.
4) Have a sip of Samichlaus.

When it comes into contact with the chocolate, the Samichlaus will foam a little bit, creating an incredibly rich chocolate-malt mousse. Experiment with different proportions: this little adventure is as much about texture as it is about taste.

The fun of this pairing is that the characteristics of the ingredients go against type: the beer provides the sweetness and the chocolate cuts it. Perhaps there is a nuttiness that the chocolate draws out of the beer. Maybe, at least with the Conacado, there is a certain fruitiness, a skin-of-nectarine tang that, with its almost tannin-like mouthfeel, adds to the tawny port quality the Samichlaus already possesses.

But truly, this pairing is not about all that. A flute of Perrier-Jou√ęt paired self-poured with a perfect strawberry is no less delicious; it is a scientific fact that Okhotnichya and zakuski will warm you even without a host to toast, but with these little indulgences no less than with the Samichlaus it is about having someone with whom to share.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mexican Food, Austrian Beer. Who Knew?

I was thrilled to receive my first write-in question last night! Check it:

Dear Brew-Ru,

I am having a party for about 20 to 40 people this Friday night where we are serving tacos and margaritas. What kind of beer goes with that? Is Blue Moon a good choice?

-Wondering in Pebble Beach

Dear Wondering,

Blue Moon would not be my first choice. Tacos & margaritas usually sport sharp, astringent, and spicy flavors and a beer like Blue Moon which is very soft and sweet, with a texture more like a wheat beer, will go against the grain. Actually it will get straight bowled over. Beverages with higher viscosity (in beer it comes from the sugar content, and is called "gravity,") will hold spice compounds to your tongue and palate, both exacerbating the spiciness and hindering easy movement between, say, chili verde and chili colorado tacos. Here are a couple of suggestions for specific brews and general styles that will lift and carry the spice away, preparing you for your next bite:

Mexicans are no fools - their beers may be given short shrift by some aficionados, but are pretty much perfect for their cuisine. Light, dry, highly carbonated and slightly bitter, they are based on a style called Vienna Lager, which itself is essentially a light lager in the same vein as Pilsners. That being the case, there are any number of beers that you could serve which would fulfill your needs without forcing you to resort to Corona: any German or Czech pils such as Spaten, Franziskaner, Czechvar, or even Austria's Steigl lager. You want to be careful of beers with an agenda of their own.

There are also a number of Californian beers that would work. West Coast IPAs have higher gravity than most lagers, but balance it out with much stronger bitterness than pretty much any other style of beer. Their characteristic citrusy, pine-needley aromas compliment most Mexican food well. Maybe it's chauvinism, but when it comes to spicy food these are the brews for me.

- The Brew-Ru

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A little background - Ales and Lagers

There are only two kinds of beer: ales and lagers.

This comes as a surprise to most people. "But what," they say, "about all of those porters, stouts, pales, pilsners, Flemish reds and Belgian Whites? What about all those acronyms - the IPAs and the ESBs, the IRSes or RISes (but notably not RUSes)?" This is one of the rare occasions where a basic wine comparison is informative rather than confusing. Just as Vigonier and Cabernet Franc fall neatly under the umbrellas of "White" and "Red" respectively, so do all of those beer styles you've heard mentioned fall under the aegis of either ale or lager.

"This is all well and good," I hear you saying, gentle reader, "but what the hell does that mean? The taxonomy of the tartaric and the tannic is tautological - what logic allies itself to ale and lager?" Well I'm glad you asked.

The first beers brewed were accidental ales. In a barrel of sweet barley water yeast set to work, a pleasant accident still familiar to us in the form of sourdough bread. These ambient, airborne, naturally occurring yeasts are the same ones that to this day create the true and traditional lambics. Over time, brewers bred for particular characteristics and developed strains and sub-strains specific to a beer, brewery, or brewer.

Ale yeasts are sub-species of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as "Brewer's Yeast." It typically does its business on top of the fermentation vessel, and always for shorter periods and at higher temperatures than its cousin lager; the result is typically but by no means always stronger in flavor, less translucent, and higher in alcohol. Ales cover a wider range of the flavor spectrum than lagers, and include pretty much everything you drink that isn't a pilsner.

Down in the caves of Germany brewers used to hide their fermenting barrels to protect them from the spoiling heat of the central European summer - before refrigeration this was the only effective protection from runaway fermentation that would turn any brew to vinegar long before it could be served. But while their backs were turned trying to figure out if they had really been turning ontologial wine into doxologial blood, the Germans' Saccharomyces cerevisiae mutated into an equally real Saccharomyces pastorianus.

Lager is the German word for "store," or "to store." Pastorianus yeast typically ferments on the bottom of its vessel, and always at lower temperatures and for longer periods than its cousin. For reasons involving words like "phenols" and "esters" this leads to flavors that are most easily described as "clean." Lager includes the wonderfully refreshing and bready Stiegl and Weihenstephaner Original, which are both clear sparkling golden brews that leave little to be desired. It also includes opaque Schwarzbiers (blackbeers) and beef-jerky Rauchbiers (smokebeers). And Budweiser.

And that's it! A short intro that is both exhaustive and a survey. Ales and lagers run the gamut, and beyond that there are trends, but not rules, about color, style, strength, origin, and flavor. We'll explore them further in future Backgrounds.

A little background

I don't mean to opaque - really - so I've decided to start a series all about beer itself, as opposed to specific brews or particular bars. I would like it to be a guide for the perplexed, and of course part of the point is that I don't necessarily know which parts of the things I say aren't clear, so while the format will be more or less free-form, the goal is for all of you to


This can be about anything, anything at all. You want to know why Pabst deserves their Blue Ribbon? Great. You want to know the specific pH of Westmalle Trippel v. Achel? I'll see what I can do. Why I keep talking about lambics as sour and dry when they're clearly the beer equivalent of wine coolers? Bring it on. I want to know what you want to know. So don't hold back.

Thank you.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My First Time, Pt. 2

Now don't get the wrong idea. Jason is not some seat-of-his-pants, take-the-money-and-run thrill jockey. He is a trained French chef. That is, his training is French. And the next dish, our main course for the night, demonstrated his skill admirably. For the better part of an hour the aromas of bacon, various veggies, chicken, spices and wine filled the house while his Coq au Vin simmered. When the IPA had finally quenched the habañero fire, we plated up and sat down. Jason and I couldn't agree on one beer to pair with this dish, so we fought each other on land and sea had two:

Beer #6: Gulden Draak
The Gulden Draak is one of those singular Belgian beers that defies easy description, or at least refuses to fit easily into an established style category. It is dark, dark golden and strong; its sweet dark fruits (raisins, prunes etc) added dimension to the Coq, meeting the savory flavors on their own level and preventing a heavy, traditional French dish from dulling the palate after a couple of bites.

Beer #7: Allagash Double
This Double is the beer you would expect from the best Belgian-style brewers this side of the pond. No question that it is an American iteration, but certainly no worse for it. Although one could be forgiven for taking the Gulden Draak for a double, the differences are certainly distinguishable with these two beers side-by-side: the Allagash has lower alcohol and gravity, and includes substantially more roast to its malt. Some of the fruit is still there, but putting it together with the chicken emphasized its savory side in a way I had never previously experienced.

A bit of a break now. Simple spinach salad with some of Jason's homemade raspberry vinaigrette, fresh raspberries, and a bit more of the gorgonzola. To really make it pop? San Pellegrino. Perfect.

This is my favorite thing about events like this: after a while everyone gets into the act and you find things you never intended on the table or in a glass. Hannah, for her wedding, made and canned her own chocolate sauce as favors for her guests, and brought a couple of the extra cans up to share with me (chocolate sauce + pita chips. I said it.). Topped with gingham, they were so cute sitting there on the counter that we just had to open them up and dip fresh-picked strawberries in them. More San Pellegrino. Brilliant.

Finally it was dessert time. The sun had gone down and the fire was lit, we were cozy around a table filled with half-full glasses and covered in stray chocolate sauce, and Jason was ready to reveal his real triumph for the evening. The sorbet had been an amusing divertisement, but the real work had gone into perfecting a sweet custard version of a favorite cocktail of his and Matthew's: Ginger-Soy (on account of Matthew's lactardadness) custard with a gelée of lime, ginger, and Sailor Jerry's. Not one to skimp, Jason made sure we could taste every ingredient; it had a pleasant kick, too.

This was also my final chance to show off and I didn't want the opportunity to pass me by. I had all kinds of ideas for possible pairings, and decided that there was no reason at this point to start skimping, so I brought them all out:

Beer #8: Sam Smith's Imperial Stout
Thick and roasty, sweet and herbal, this beer is all one could possibly ask for at the end of a good meal. It is stout enough to stand up to an authentic Cubano, but nimble enough to dance with a delicate vanilla ice cream. It's almost too much for me to describe all of the competing flavor combinations - each one was as distinct and recognizable as an orchestra section, and just as easily melded into a balanced, symphonic fullness.

Beer #9: Unibroue Trois Pistoles
These Canadians make a mean Belgian - before Allagash came on the scene I would say that they outclassed any American brewery at Belgian inspired brews. Trois Pistoles is one of their darkest, and hits all the right notes: deep roasted pitted fruit edging towards chocolate, and the distinctive aroma of Unibroue's house yeast. While it didn't reach quite the same soaring heights achieved by the Imperial Stout, it elicited no complaints.

Beer #10: Tadcaster Porter
Better known by its nom de tasse, Taddy Porter, this beer is absolutely classic and definitive of the style. When poured it starts out a little sharp and light and surprisingly refreshing for being so dark, and as it warms all of the velvety roasts come out to romp with each other. Faint minerality in the well-water adds a characteristic that is very difficult to pin down if you don't know what you're looking for, but just that touch brought out enough differences in the custard to make the Taddy Porter something more than just a lightened version of the Imperial Stout.

Beer #11: Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouche Brut de Normandie
Ok yes, it's a cider. But the people at Domaine Familial Etienne Dupont know what they're about, their family has tenderly tended the same orchards since 1837, and turn their fruit into some of the most complex beverages around. This particular style is dry and tart but wonderfully apple-y. The natural carbonation turned the custard into a kind of apple-ginger-rum-lime-mousse-in-your-mouth, and was my reach for the night. Like the evening as a whole, I was thrilled with how it turned out.

Just before we finished the custard, Benny pulled out a special treat he had saved for Hannah, but a whole bottle was too much for any of us at this point so she shared it out and we were treated to one more délice.

Beer #12: Boon Oude Kriek
This traditional Cherry Lambic is the perfect example of its style. While Cantillon holds the crown for pretty much every other kind of lambic, Boon's Oude Kriek is dry and tart but not astringent and has more cherry flavor than should be allowed in a bottle. When the barrels of lambic get stuffed with fruit, it all goes in: stems, fruit and pits. After the yeast works its way through the meat of the fruit, it breaks down any greenery and starts in on the pits. This is an almost militantly anachronistic technique that produces beautiful almond and woody flavors as it warms. The tartness of the cherry and the dryness of the lambic clear the palate, and are a fitting conclusion to any meal, especially one as adventurous as this.

It was only our first try, but this meal was an eye-opening experience for most of us. Beer dinners we've done before, but with just the resources available to each of us we managed to put together a meal, the quality if not the structure of which would challenge any restaurant on the planet. It's an idea we've all had had on occasion, and we finally made it happen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My First Time, Pt. 1

Twelve beers. Eight courses. Seven hours.

This is an idea we all have had on occasion, because it makes perfect sense and we all know just how much fun it would be, but it takes a certain someone to do what needs to be done to really make it happen. In our case, that person was Jason.

Our resident food arteest was finally tired of waiting around for everybody else to get their acts together, so one night a few weeks ago he had me over, all innocent-like. He poured a couple of his homebrews for me - I didn't realize that I was being softened up before he hit me with the body blow of his first menu for this as-yet-unnamed food 'n beer event! Reeling, I went for my notepad and we knocked noggins to come up with beer pairings that could go toe-to-toe with an adversary who's pedigree ranged from traditionally French to nouveaux Windward, experimental Meso-American to Californian potage. When the dust settled we had done it: a menu that made no excuses for its almost complete lack of cohesion, but each individual dish would be delicious and fresh at the least, and truly palate-expanding at the most. Their pairings were a smattering of complimentary and contrasting flavors and textures, each beer as adventurous in its own right as the dish with which it was paired.

Beer #1: Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella 1900

We were too excited to wait. We had to have it. My buddy Benny has been hip to lambics since he and his wife Hannah visited me last summer and enjoyed a touch of the Boon Oude Kriek; he was thrilled to find this brew at our local package store. The Bruoscella is extremely unusual to see in the US, and is the only beer of its style that is imported to our hither shores. An unblended lambic is more comparable to a single malt whiskey than anything else in these terms only: it is the rare single batch that is so finely crafted that it can be bottled and sold as-is rather than being mixed with other lambics or refermented with fruit to cover up its flaws. It is not for the faint or uninitiated, and we dove right in.

There is no need to belabor it. This beer is amazing - if you love lambics. It is dry, dry, sour, tart, pucker up and kiss the barnyard ground in the morning mist delicious. It has almost no carbonation and would be amazing if you have the fortitude to cellar it for a decade or so. I would imagine that the almost stinging citrus peel would mellow and become more like fresh-split cedar, but I don't really know. We were too excited to wait.

Beer #2: Krait Champagne Lager

OooOOOooo - Champagne Lager! Sounds fancy!

I'd been holding onto this beer for a couple of years waiting for a good opportunity to pull it out. I wanted to note and celebrate Benny and Hannah's visit as well as the first successful as-yet-unnamed beer dinner event, and what else would a bunch of Brewdies toast with?

The Krait was tasty, slightly toasty, and might be something that I'd buy again if I ever saw it, ever. It reminded me more than anything of the DeuS Brut des Flandres, an ale also made in the Champagne region using traditional techniques to ferment, settle, and remove the yeast. The Krait was even more clean and pure than the ale, no surprise really, and the Champagne carbonation was fine pinpricks on the tongue. The flavors this let through were a bit of a revelation for me: the beer was oh so subtle, but fruitier and more full-bodied than my favorite light lager, the Weihenstephan Original. Three cheers for cross-border collaboration.

By this time the food had started to come out, and no bad thing either. We were able to put Jason's home-candied walnuts & gorgonzola together with the Broucsella, to great effect. As one would imagine, it takes a certain kind of cheese to stand up to a real lambic. A real gorgonzola does it, and all kinds of fun, fermentation-related flavors follow. The walnuts were sweet enough to cut the bite of the beer just a bit, and added their own woody, nutty flavor to the mix.

Beer #3: Fantôme Saison Printemps 2009

I love this brewery, and I love this beer. Benny had kindly served me up a bottle during a recent visit to Los Angeles, and it reminded me just how extraordinarily well they make 'em. This one is perfect for a spring afternoon in Flanders, terribly refreshing but obviously chockablock with good stuff - nutrients that will sustain you 'till eveningtime. A faint sweetness with Fantôme's characteristic spicy funk made it a match for my own addition to the menu: baby portobellas with the stems pulled cruelly from the caps, chopped up and mixed with goat cheese and basil, the mixture then stuffed unfeelingly back into the caps, rolled around a bit in some sourdough crumbs and quickly fried in very hot olive oil until the crumbs are browned but the cheese isn't runny, while muttering unintelligibly to one's self. The secret to this dish? telling the mushrooms just before they go into the pan that you're going to "destroy them all." Fried mushrooms & cheese with beer under any circumstances is good - with beer of this quality one really feels lucky.

So why not have another?

Beer #4: Fantôme Saison

Their year-round flagship ale, this Saison is a bit of an iconoclast. Saisons, like most Belgian beers, are more of a concession to the inherently human need to name things than a strict style, but on the whole they tend to be dryerish, can be a little spicy with some pepper esters, but ultimately are a showcase for truly excellent barley malts and endemic Belgian yeasts which produce slightly tart and citric but mainly bready beers. Fantôme, in all fairness, is all over the place. Sometimes french-bready, sometimes San Francisco sourdough, the only real certainty from batch to batch is that, if you close your eyes and try, you can actually see Belgian farmhands in the field popping a bottle in the heat of the mid-afternoon and quaffing deeply before finishing the day's harvest.

With these four beers open we were able to do some experimenting with our next appetizer. Jason and his missus Missy throw this one together when they have apricots and nothing better to do: Apricots. Split 'em, pit 'em, & stuff 'em with chevre. Wrap 'em in prosciutto and then into the oven just until they're warmed through and as messy to eat as possible. Served with a drizzle of syrupy real balsamic vinegar and a pinch of shredded basil.

This treat has something for each of the beers: tangy apricot skin and sweet meat for the lambic, herbal basil and creamy cheese for the lager, and a full rounding-out of the saisons. Oh, and prosciutto. If a beer doesn't go with pork, pour it out and start over.

But all of this was a prelude. Appetizers were all well and good, but Jason's goal with this nascent group is to push his own boundaries as a chef; we were about to find out what that really meant. From the freezer he pulled a container filled with a bright orange concoction, flecks of green here and there. Into the conspicuous corn-chip cups he had brought went a tablespoon of mystery, and out from the kitchen it came. "All at once," he said, and all at once we popped the entire construction into our mouths. Sorbet, obviously, said my tongue. Cold and sweet, but what's that bit of tang... and suddenly my mouth erupted into a firestorm of delicate spice and fine frutiness that I was unable to parse - and the unmistakable peppery bite of cilantro. I don't think I have ever fully appreciated the true depth of flavor hidden behind the heavy-handed heat of the habañero pepper. Beer #5 was Big Sky's IPA, and it did just what it was supposed to do: popped those peppery esthers right to the top of our mouths where we could taste them again, and then washed them away, preparing us for our second bite of Habañero sorbet - if we dared.