Category Archives: drinking quality

Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

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Last Week in Las Vegas – 4 New Belgium Beers

In addition to having the great pleasure of hosting a terrific beer dinner at Fleur by Hubert Keller in the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort and presenting a seminar on cider to a rapt audience at the VIBE Conference, last week’s Vegas jaunt afforded me the opportunity to sample a bunch of new New Belgium Brewing releases. Impressed? Damn right I was!

The tasting got off to a great start with the Lips of Faith Gruit, a golden and herbaceous brew with a nose of wet grass, jasmine, oily florals and elderflower cordial. Being someone not normally enamoured by gruits – I’ve had a few of these unhopped, herb-and-spice brews that were vaguely appealing, but can’t recall one I’d be inclined to reorder – I wasn’t expecting a lot from this beer, but boy, was I in for a surprise.

The start of NBB’s Gruit is soft and floral-accented, but leads to a wonderfully constructed mid-palate of spicy, earthy-minerally notes and gentle sweetness, accented by a hint of licorice emerging in the second half and a surprisingly dry finish which was, to me, faintly and surprisingly reminiscent of a good gin. Simply, this is the best gruit I’ve yet come across and sufficiently impressive that I held the remainder of the bottle in reserve and chose it as the beer I’d finish at the conclusion of my tasting.

Next up was the new year-rounder, Snapshot Wheat Beer, a sandy-gold ale with a dry, citrus-accented aroma and a light and lemony body with a slight herbal character emerging in the middle. The surprise here is what I later learned is a lactobacillus tarting up of part of the mash, which results in a quite dry and tangy, refreshing finish, something which made me note that Snapshot “tastes like what might happen if a Belgian decided to riff on the Berliner weisse style.”

Third in my tasting was a reinvention of the 2003 experiment, Transatlantique Kriek, which sees a New Belgium ale blended with cherry lambic from Frank Transatlantique KriekBoon. Vibrant red  and nutty with cherry pit and dry cocoa aromas, this most attractive brew segues from lightly sweet and cherry-ish to more a tart cherry and herbal body, finishing with a slight booziness – although nowhere close to its 8% alcohol strength – and a lingering bitter cherry taste. But for its formidable strength and the fact this was a mid-afternoon tasting, I would have hung around to finish this one, too.

The final beer was the latest in the brewery’s Hop Kitchen series – and honestly, is there another brewery around with this many beer divisions? The new RyePA is piney and resinous on the nose, as you might expect, but with a spicy kick of black pepper mixed with something bready and umami-ish. The body is full of hops, for certain, but restrained as well, in the tradition of NBB’s Ranger IPA – spicy orange with hints of tropical fruit giving way to a more profoundly fruity body, dry and spicy but with notes of kiwi and starfruit. With a finish that is both palate-cleansing and bitter, I was left with the impression that, despite its not inconsequential 7.5% alcohol strength, this would be an ideal brew for sipping alongside a medium-heat curry.

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Advice for St. Patrick’s Day

Okay, so evidently St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day this year; it’s a whole friggin’ weekend. Which means that the madness and mayhem will commence tomorrow.

While I’ll personally be laying low this year, as I do around March 17 every year, many others will be running riot over the next four days, drinking beer and whiskey that they seldom if ever otherwise drink, calling anything that’s green “Irish,” including bog-standard lager dyed with food colouring, and generally using the feast day of an Irish saint as an excuse to get plastered. Which is fine.

But if you’re going to “do” St. Patrick’s Day, at least do it right! Which means paying at least a bit of attention to the following:

1) If you must shorten the name, repeat after me, St. Paddy’s Day. Not St. Patty’s Day or plain Patty’s Day. “St. Paddy’s Day.”

2) There are many more Irish whiskeys out there than just Jameson. Try one or two. You might just find yourself drinking Irish whiskey more than just once a year.

3) What I said above about whiskey? It applies equally to Irish stout.

4) If you must do shots — and on a day that is sure to be filled with drinking, I would counsel strongly against them —  limit yourself to just one or two. Five or six or more whiskey shots is a sure-fire route to drunkenness and eventual spewing.

5) Wear green, wear funny badges, wear silly hats if you wish, but accept that you are not, in fact, Irish. Not for a day or for a minute. (Unless, of course, you really are Irish.)

6) A cocktail made with crème de menthe is not by definition Irish. Neither is one made with Midori.

7) Imperial stout is not a beer built for all-day drinking.

8) The green-dye-in-lager thing? It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Just. Don’t.

9) Lining up to get into a bar is stupid. If there is a line-up, go somewhere else for a drink or two and return later to see if the line-up has dissipated. If it has not, just accept that it was never meant to be.. (The sole exception to this rule is when the line-up is covered, heated and licensed.)

10) That “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt? Leave it at home.

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THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer

People are stressing over craft beer these days. They’re saying it is irrelevant, or that it’s jumped the shark tank or gone mainstream. All of which is probably true, to greater or lesser degrees, but fails to address the central point. Which is that craft beer is simple to define.

But first, let us look at what craft beer is not. It is certainly not what the Brewers Association defines craft beer to be*, which is to say it has little to do with size or ownership or, saints preserve us, tradition. Craft was never the BA’s to define, so there is no reason we should arbitrarily accept their understandably self-serving definition.

(Two notes: “understandably self-serving” because, let’s face it, their raison d’être is to function as an industry representation and lobby group for small breweries, aka craft breweries. And it was never theirs to define because what is to my knowledge the first verifiable instance of its use, in Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, was published in 1977, long before the BA came into being.)

It is also not “revolutionary,” “honest” or – spare me from this word, please! –  “authentic,” as the fellows from BrewDog seem to think. And neither is it evil-in-a-keg, as the hierarchy of the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) sometimes appear to believe.

Simply, craft beer is beer created from the perspective of producing great tasting beer. Not beer that will fit a certain market segment or beer that should appeal to males aged 21 to 29 or beer that will be at its best when served a degree or two above freezing temperature, but beer designed to be full of flavour and character. Period.

Craft beer = birra artigianale = bière artisanale = cerveja artisanal artesanal=  cerveza artisanal = (I think) håndværk øl. It’s beer for the world of beer drinkers who care about the taste and character of what they’re drinking, whether it comes from one of the largest brewing companies in the world or the person brewing in their restaurant kitchen down the road.

Size and ownership and ingredients can have an impact on whether a beer might be defined as craft or not – big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev have consistently proved themselves to be poor stewards of brands brewed for flavour rather than for perceived market appeal – but mostly they are matters of personal politics. Which is not to say that these factors are unimportant, just that they are not specifically what defines a beer as craft.

Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage, hoping that others would agree and thus purchase their wares. When CAMRA fought back against the rise of bland keg ales and lagers, they were in effect defending that ethic, just as early American microbrewery operators were emulating their spiritual ancestors by brewing beers with greater flavour and character than what was flooding the market at the time.

And today, from Seattle to Singapore and Rome to Ribeirão Preto, craft brewers are still supporting that same idea, and in so doing shaking the very foundation upon which the modern beer market has been built. So I guess yes, maybe craft beer is a bit revolutionary, but it’s still principally about flavour.

* Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association wrote me to express the following: “One factual point–the Brewers Association does not define craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a U.S craft brewer.” I countered that it could be argued one begets the other, but his point is well taken. Essentially the BA is providing membership criteria rather than seeking to define craft beer as an entity. This note is added two days after the original post appeared.

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Beer for Thanksgiving: It’s Simple!

So I hear that next Thursday, November 28, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I’m a Canadian, so typically I only become aware of the U.S. holiday when I start seeing stories pop up about what to drink with the Thanksgiving meal, like this one, this one and this one. And usually, as with the three just noted, each article features numerous options, all the better for editors to draw audiences and writers to cover their asses.

Me, I’m reckless, so I’m going to tell you about the one and only beverage you need at the table for your turkey dinner. It is traditional gueuze lambic.

Believe me, it works, and deliciously so! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed turkey and lambic on numerous occasions and have served it to my friends who “don’t like beer” and to beer aficionados who don’t particularly like lambic, to unanimous delight. In fact, I cannot think of a single occasion where someone has not expressed great pleasure at the combination, often coupled with a fair degree of surprise. Plate the turkey and pop the corks of gueuze from Cantillon or Drie Fonteinen or De Cam or Tilquin or last month’s category winner at the Brussels Beer Challenge, Lindemans Cuvée René, serving it in wine glasses or straight-sided tumblers or even champagne flutes. You won’t regret a drop.

The reason it works relates principally to the combination of flavours on the plate — bird, gravy, potatoes and veg, maybe a cranberry sauce or some turnips, plus usually a bunch of salt. The lambic serves to cut through all that with its tartness and carbonation (from bottle refermentation) and acidity, striking to the heart of, and accentuating the flavour of, the star of the table, the turkey. It won’t compete with the other flavours, and neither will it drown them. In fact, about the only other beverage that approaches the utility and perfection of lambic at Thanksgiving, in my view, is the beer’s vinous cousin, champagne.

And where next Thursday’s dinner is concerned, that’s all you need to know. You can thank me later.

 

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Another Reason the Craft Beer “Bubble” Isn’t About to Burst

I mentioned it here a week ago, but in light of this story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it deserves reiteration:

When addressing only sales in bars and restaurants, the market share of craft beer in the United States vaults from roughly 6.5% to 15%!

Or, in other words, when beer drinkers are looking for something special — as you do when you’re out for the night, rather than drinking at home  — they are increasingly turning to craft beers. And as the relatively brief history of microbrewing/craft brewing shows, it’s only a matter of time until those bar purchases begin appearing on a regular basis in the home fridge.

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“More Bad News for Beer” is Actually Good News for Beer

My colleague and friend, Jack Robertiello, recently wrote a story for Nightclub & Bar Magazine entitled “More Bad News for Beer.” I was intrigued and surfed over to the website to read it, and then walked away smiling. Here’s why.

The “bad news” that Jack reports is almost exclusively about the big name, mass-produced convenience beers that we all know and probably don’t love all that much. You know the ones I’m referring to, those that distinguish themselves from the competition by how cold they are, how long they’ve been around or how “innovative” their bottle may be. (Amusingly, the side panel ad that appeared when I loaded the online version of the story promoted the “new bottle” for Miller Lite.) And yes, for such brands the news truly is bad.

At the heart of Jack’s story is a recently published consumer survey reporting declines in the overall popularity of beer and the numbers are indeed, on the surface, at least, bleak. Two percent fewer adults of legal drinking age were identifying beer as their “go to” beverage compared to the same time period in 2012; 21 to 27 year olds were deserting beer in significant volumes, with 33 percent saying it was their favourite alcoholic beverage as compared to 39 percent a year earlier; and three percent fewer men were siding with beer than did in 2012.

Thing is, though, those sad numbers are almost exclusively about big beer. How do I know? Well, check this out: “The major reason given by 21-27 year olds when asked why they are consuming less beer – 39 percent said they are ‘getting tired of the taste of beer.’” Sounds more like comment about a Bud Light or Coors Light than it does a Dogfish 60 Minute IPA or New Belgium Ranger, doesn’t it? And about craft beer, this is about the most negative thing Jack has to report: “…and crafts, while increasing dramatically, offer a wild and ever changing array of selections that can make the average consumer’s head spin.”

Too much selection and variety in craft beer may be an issue down the road, but judging from the bar owners and operators, and consumers, I’ve been speaking with over the last year — not all of them by any means beer aficionados or craft specialists — it isn’t now.

In fact, where bars and restaurants are concerned, variety in craft beer appears to be a big selling point, since people generally go out for experiences they can’t otherwise get at home, ie: new varieties of draught beer. But don’t believe me, believe the Adult Beverage Insights Group of the research firm Technomic, who report that when only bar and restaurant sales are accounted for, craft beer’s overall market share skyrockets from about 6.5 percent to an impressive 15 percent of total beer sales.

So yes, this really is a good news story.

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Bigger, Stronger, Hoppier…Just Stop It!

In case you missed it, a Scottish brewery called Brewmeister announced yesterday that they had topped their own record for the world’s strongest “beer” – reason for the quotation marks to follow – with a 67.5% alcohol liquid called Snake Venom. The bottle, The Scotsman reports, comes with a warning that no more than the contents of a single, 275 ml bottle should be consumed per sitting.

There is so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. But I’ll try.

First up, unless Brewmeister has somehow come up with a way for yeast to survive in a ridiculously high alcohol environment, this is not a beer and neither is it the product of brewing per se. It is something that was once a beer before it was freeze distilled into a spirit, as are the slew of other “world’s strongest beers” that have come to market in recent years. (I’m looking at you BrewDog and Schorschbräu.) When you brew a beer, you ferment out sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. When you concentrate that alcohol by eliminating a large amount of the water content, that’s distilling. Period.

Secondly, who cares?! Producing the world’s strongest “beer” is right up there with producing the world’s most caloric hamburger and the world’s most tannic wine. It’s an empty, useless gesture than has nothing to do with the item intended to be consumed and everything to do with laying claim to a pointless title.

Thirdly, this is irresponsible to a massive degree. The one bottle per sitting that the brewery recommends you not exceed contains an enormous amount of alcohol, 185.625 millilitres by my calculations. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent in pure alcohol of drinking just under 62% of a 750 ml bottle of 40% alcohol spirits, or in other words, enough booze to potentially make a person very, very sick.

And fourthly, this kind of “bigger, stronger, hoppier” bullshit is precisely what craft beer is NOT about! Beer should be about flavour, not strength or massive, unbridled bitterness, and headline-grovelling attempts like this simply undermine everything that skilled and dedicated artisanal craft brewers around the world are trying to achieve. As Garrett Oliver once famously stated, no chef goes bragging about how they make the saltiest soup, and neither should anyone proud of their brewing skills be wading into the “bigger, stronger, hoppier” realm.

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Real Beer Tips for Fitness Fanatics

Apropos to the mess of an article described below, here are some pointers for people watching their weight and/or in training who might like to mix a flavourful beer or two into their lifestyle:

1)      Remember that the majority of the calories in beer come from alcohol, and so two chugged 4% alcohol light beers are roughly equal to the caloric content of one full-bodied, 8% alcohol and slowly enjoyed porter, stout or Belgian ale.

2)      Alcohol gets priority when your body is processing calories, so try to stem the impulse to nosh on a plate of cheesy nachos alongside your pint.

3)      Unpasteurized beer still contains all of its nutritional content, whereby pasteurized beer might contain fewer vitamins and nutrients. Also, brewer’s yeast is the source of a wealth of B complex vitamins, so choose bottle-conditioned or unfiltered and unpasteurized beer to get the best food value in your brew.

4)      A great way to enjoy flavourful beer and still stay hydrated and relatively sober is to alternate between glasses of beer and water. It will also keep the overall calorie count down, since you’ll likely wind up drinking fewer beers.

5)      Don’t drink beer purely for the sake of drinking beer. Drink beer because you enjoy what you’re drinking.

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A Bit of a Beer Tasting

I hosted a small beer tasting with some drinks writing colleagues last night. These were the stand-outs:

Allagash Coolship Resurgam: A product of the brewery’s spontaneous fermentation program, this beer, bottled in June of last year, shows a maturity of character that was lacking from the early Coolship brews. The body was a bit too oaky – which we chalked up to the youth of the barrels, at least relative to the decades-old ones used in lambic breweries like Cantillon – but the aroma was superb, with notable fruitiness lingering beneath the top layer of horseblanket and a fascinating herbal depth that recalled sage and lavender. Simply, a wonderful beer.

New Glarus Berliner Weiss and 20th Anniversary Strong Ale: Two remarkable brews from my U.S. Brewery of the year for 2012. Although the Berliner was curiously restrained on the nose, the body delighted with a mix of tangy, lemony sharpness and soft, soothing papaya, with a bit of sour milk thrown in for good measure. Not as aggressive as some in the style, and I think all the better for it.

The 20th Anniversary Strong Ale was simply excellent, not style identified by the brewery, but to my mind sort of a midpoint between abbey-style dubbel and sticke altbier. Sweet and raisiny at the front, it opened up in the body while remaining paradoxically restrained and dried fruity, with a backdrop of earthiness and burnt walnut. This, we agreed, is something we could drink in abundance over time.

Deschutes Black Butte XXV: Having waxed rhapsodic over last year’s anniversary Black Butte, both on tap and in the bottle, I fully expected this to delight and it did not disappoint. In fact, although 0.3% alcohol stronger, it was very much reminiscent of last year’s, albeit a bit more berry fruit-ish and currant-y. In particular, I liked the added resiny, rosemary-like herbals in the background of the body, which I did not note last year, and the cherry/currant influence on the boozy, warming finish. It was the final beer of the night, and an excellent note on which to end.

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