Category Archives: food and dining

Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Beer City”

Oy!

Just two days — TWO DAYS! — after I responded to a Facebook post about yet another list of supposed “Best Beer Cities,” and sagely decide not to follow further the fruitless path of argument, I come across still another such list. It’s orchestrated in a different, although by no means unique, fashion, but is as flawed as the other and all the rest for one simple reason.

There is no such thing as a frigging “Best Beer City!” Or Cities! Period. End of story.

Look, I enjoy a good list as much as the next guy, and I’m not exactly the kind of person who back down happily from a robust debate, but there are simply too many factors at play to ever resolve the issue of best beer city. In the mind of the drinks guy over at the Seattle P-I, whom I will neither name nor link to for reasons related to past conversations, brewery count would seem to be the defining factor. For Magnolia’s Dave McLean, it’s history, longevity and food and drink culture. For Jeff Alworth, the deciding factor is craft beer in dive bars. And for me, well, I like a great beer bar over a great brewery and think that the ability to get a diversity of local, regional, national and international beers is key, as is the opportunity to enjoy a really good meal with a glass of really good beer.

But that doesn’t mean I know what city is best any more than it means Jeff or Dave or P-I guy does, mainly because, like the beer I drink, where I like to drink it changes with the circumstance! Put me on the west coast and I might be happy as Larry in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and in awe of the beer scenes in each city. Pick me up and plant me in Denver or New York City or Philadelphia and I’ll be equally delighted there. Teleport me to Montreal and you’ll soon find me at Dieu du Ciel or Cheval Blanc or Au Pied du Cochon, most likely with a wide grin on my face.

Let me put it another way. The northern German city of Köln, or Cologne, is known for a single style of beer, one which most people find rather unremarkable. It has not — to my experience, at least — fine dining restaurants where you can sample excellent beer with your meal, and neither has it a plethora of good beer bars. Yet thanks to its general pedestrian friendliness, fabulous old city district, exceptional culture and, dammit, the superb quality of some of those kölsches that others sweep aside as ordinary “lawnmower beers,” it is one of my favourite places in Germany, Europe and the world in which to drink beer.

And please note, that was “favourite,” not “best.”

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Hungry? Three Beer Cookbooks for Your Kitchen

I had hoped to get this post up before I left for Belgium last week, but unfortunately ran out of time before I was able. Hopefully there are still some of you out there who have yet to complete your beer-associated shopping this year and can still use this info. (After you pick up last year’s World  Atlas of Beer and the new Pocket Beer Guide, of course!)

Following a bit of a lull, there has been a relative explosion in craft beer cookbooks this year, including the three that I found arriving upon my desk this fall. Each has something quite different to offer.

Begin with the Basics: David Ort’s Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook is the sort of book any aspiring cook will appreciate, although I could understand it being seen as a little too simple by those who already know their way around the kitchen quite well. Recipes are mostly pretty rudimentary – from soft pretzels and Welsh rabbit in the “Snacks” section to mains like sausages and lamb shank and desserts such as ice cream and brownies – but are also well organized, prettily photographed and come (mostly) with a suggested beer pairing, to boot. I might have liked to see a bit more about beer included – it is a large part of the title, after all – but in general this is a good pick for beer aficionados with an interest in cooking.

More Advanced: the south-of-the-border yang to Ort’s yin is John Holl’s American Craft Beer Cookbook, and it is a beauty. Here, the recipes all come from beer places, much as they did in my 1997 Stephen Beaumont’s Brewpub Cookbook – take that all you reviewers writing that Holl’s book is the first of its kind! – and there is plenty here to set your mouth to watering, like pan-roasted sweetbreads in a sherry-bacon vinaigrette, cocoa-crusted pork tenderloin and Asian-grilled salmon salad. In fact, leafing through the book for the umpteenth time since I received it, I still cannot find a dish I don’t feel like cooking, which is impressive considering that the thick paperback contains 155 recipes! Like its Canadian counterpart, some dishes contain beer while others don’t, but here only some have beer pairing recommendations, and frankly there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why that is the case or why those specific beers are suggested. But all that said and done, I still find this to be a most appetizing cookbook.

And for a Relaxing Read: Fred Bueltmann’s Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a cookbook, yes, but it is also so much more. The New Holland Brewing owner and advocate includes in his self-published work much of what I bemoan as absent in the two above books, including 15 pages on “The Art of Pairing,” multiple sections on beer styles and the seasonal suitablility thereof and even a couple of pages on building your own beer cellar. On the downside, the layout can seem a bit muddled and confused at times, the quality of the photos could have been improved and a tighter edit would have been to the book’s benefit. Still, it’s an entertaining read and Bueltmann’s passion for bringing beer to both the kitchen and the table shines through on every page.

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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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Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection

No, I’m not going to waste your time or mine whinging about the lack of decent beer selection at fine dining restaurants. That situation is improving by the day, at least in major North American cities, and besides, it deserves noting that for every good wine place that lacks a decent beer list, there are probably two or three beer places serving crap wine.

No, my bitch today is about restaurants that decide to dip their proverbial toe into the good beer waters and do so in a way that would, if done in a similar fashion with wine, would earn the place naught but ridicule. Exhibit 1 being the new Seafood Fest menu at Toronto’s Nota Bene, a downtown resto with impeccable food credentials.

Seriously, this place has been awarded accolades like they’re going out of style, as anyone can clearly see on their website: Talk of the Town Award of Excellence; Best New Restaurant; Independent Restaurateurs of the Year; etc. Its wine list features 170 selections, and its back bar is certainly decent enough. And the beer selections for its August long seafood promotion?

  • Stella Artois
  • Hoegaarden
  • Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
  • Goose Island Sophie

If you noted a theme to these picks, you’re right: They all come from the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, by several degrees the largest brewing company in the world. So it’s a fair guess that some money was involved in the crafting of this promotion.

While I give fair dues to AB InBev for putting together a beer deal with such a respected restaurant, I can only shake my head at the lack of judgement at Nota Bene. You don’t have to be a beer expert to understand that, with the lone exception of Sophie, these are all astoundingly ordinary beers. (For non-Canadian readers, Keith’s is not an IPA by any reasonable definition of the term, tasting as it does more like a mainstream lager.) And in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, even Sophie isn’t quite what it used to be back when Goose Island was still independent.

Ten years ago, this might have worked at an upscale Toronto restaurant; people then weren’t terrifically beer-savvy and imported brands still carried a bit of cachet. But today? When the LCBO down the road from Nota Bene is selling Saison Dupont and Renaissance MPA and Founders Centennial IPA and locally-brewed King Vienna Lager? I think not.

To find a parallel, I try to imagine Nota Bene piecing together a month of wine and food pairings featuring Fat Bastard, Little Penguin, Yellow Tail and Fuzion, but somehow that seems rather unlikely. So why, I wonder, do they think they should get a free pass doing the equivalent sort of promo with beer?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps esteemed chef David Lee tasted his way through dozens of beers before deciding that the ideal match for mussels and frites is Stella and the perfect accompaniment for Maritime lobster is Keith’s, in which case I completely withdraw my criticisms and invite Chef Lee around for a beer tasting sometime, so that I might introduce him to some more diverse and interesting flavours. But if not, then Nota Bene has done itself a serious disservice.

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Would the Aspen Food & Wine Classic Feature Yellow Tail in a Food & Wine Pairing?

I’ve never attended the celebrated foodie festival, but judging from a quick run-through of the wine seminar schedule – Showstopping Champagne, Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Bordeaux’s Extraordinary 2009 Vintage – I’m guessing the popular party wine might not be a featured pour.

So why are organizers of the Aspen Food & Wine Classic featuring Stella Artois, then?

When I received the press release, which you can read in its entirety here, I was stunned. Here is a well-respected, nationally recognized gastronomic festival featuring what is, by almost any standards, a profoundly ordinary lager in a showcase seminar, specifically “Stella Artois Presents: The Beauty of Pairing Belgian Beer and Food.”

If it were merely the sponsor beer being poured at the Welcome Reception and Publisher’s Party, which it is, I’d be able to give the event a pass. Sponsorships are a big deal for such festivals and I’m sure Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer and owner of the Stella brand, are paying for the privilege of being associated with Aspen Food & Wine. But to take it into the seminar level, featuring it in such credibility-defying partnerships as “Chocolate Panna Cotta, featuring endive foam, orange coulis and blue cheese” and an unnamed lamb dish is to undermine greatly the event’s claim as “the crème-de-la-crème of culinary festivals.”

Aspen Food & Wine, you disappoint me. Twenty or even ten years ago, it might have been okay to engage in such foolishness, but beer and food pairing has come a long way since then and people aren’t about to be fooled by such obvious pandering to a big money brand. In your actions you have done a great disservice to the multitude of Belgian beers that actually do pair well with complex dishes, not to mention the many domestic breweries who craft their own wonderfully food-friendly beers. (And by coincidence are featuring them this weekend at Savor in New York City.)

Most of all, however, you show your ignorance as to the state of craft beer around the world today. Maybe in the future you should just stick to food and wine.

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Best Beer Place of 2012: A Tie!

I travelled a lot last year, covering around 70,000 miles by air and plenty more on the ground. Along the way, I visited a lot of beer places and enjoyed a lot of good times with good people.

Such plenitude makes choosing a favourite, or even five favourites, a difficult task, but in the end I arrived at two beery destinations that stood out for me. They are, in some ways, very similar enterprises, and in others quite different. But they share in their hearts a commitment to great food and excellent beer.

They are: The Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, United States, and Bir & Fud in Rome, Italy.

The Moth was the first I visited in 2012, so it shall be the first discussed here. Offspring of the beer bar chain, Flying Saucer, itself with 15 (about to be 16) locations mostly in the southern U.S., the Moth is a creature of a decidedly different sort, with a more formal but still casual aesthetic, a fine list of beer offerings on tap and in the bottle, and a creative menu that veers from basic sandwiches in the afternoon to steak frites and other brasserie favourites at night, each listed with a recommended beer pairing.

Other places do the same, of course, and some execute it with equal or even greater success. But the Moth does it in Dallas, not exactly a long-standing craft beer Mecca, and does it with grace, style – quirky though it may be – and taste. In three meals enjoyed thus far, I’ve yet to sample anything I would consider even mediocre, much less sub-par, and the beer list is always as carefully selected and stylistically diverse as its Texas location allows it to be. Kudos to Moth navigator Keith Schlabs, Chef David McMillan and the whole Dallas crew on a job very well done.

Bir & Food, although showing equal dedication to the victual side of its menu, is the pizzeria yin to the Moth’s Belgian-esque, gastropubby yang. Smaller in size but no less selective in its offerings, it sits on a back lane way in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, almost directly across the street from another great Italian beer destination, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, informally known as the “football pub.” It’s sometimes cheek-to-jowl crowded and jostlingly busy, but inviting even on a cool late autumn Roma night.

With fewer taps and a lot less space, management at Bir & Fud has to be circumspect in what they carry, but that doesn’t mean quality need be at all compromised. The eighteen taps pour all Italian craft beer and the international bottle list is judiciously chosen, all waiting to accompany quite excellent pizzas and other dishes. Judging by the crowds on what I was told would be a “slow day,” the people of Rome appreciate the effort.

So, for 2012, I salute two beer places that highlight the joys of great beer and fine cuisine: The Meddlesome Moth and Bir & Fud!

Tomorrow: 2012’s Ontario Brewery of the Year!

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Hence My Lengthy Absence…

Wow, has it really been a month since my last post here? Apparently so, but in my defense, with good reason. You see, I’ve been drinking…

Okay, more seriously, I’ve been travelling in support of the North American release of The World Atlas of Beer, which I’m pleased to say has been very well-received by both the beer and general interest presses. Tim and I spent just over two weeks travelling from New York to Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, all over Texas, Denver and finally Chicago promoting the book. And yes, it did involve a fair bit of drinking.

My favourite event? Oddly enough, that came at the tail end of the trip, after Tim had buggered off to Quebec City, leaving me to handle Chicago promotions on my own. My first stop was Rockwell’s Neighborhood Grill, where I hosted a beer and whisky and cheese pairing during which everyone seemed to have a great time, the pairings clicked rather uniformly and rather amazingly no one got terribly drunk. Good hardy drinkers, those north Chicagoans.

Beer finds along the way were numerous and far too many to relate all in detail, but I can say for certain that I won’t soon forget lunch at Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham – for reasons both burger and beer – and Natty Greene’s from neighbouring Raleigh likewise made an impression with their Minuteman American Rye.

Down in Texas, I had my first extensive sampling of the beers of Jester King and walked away quite impressed, particularly with the brewery’s low alcohol offerings. (Paging Lew Bryson! Lew “Session Beer” Bryson! Please come to the bar.) One day later, new arrival Karbach Brewing caught my attention with a few beers, in particular a commendably restrained Rodeo Clown Double IPA and a wonderfully toasty Karbachtoberfest.

Up in Denver, there were beers aplenty, but one that stuck out as particularly memorable was the Odell Porter aged in barrels formerly used to mature a fernet-style amaro made by the local distiller, Leopold Bros. Herbaceous, piney, mint and of course roasty, it was a love-it or hate-it beer for certain, but I fell resolutely in the former camp.

Then, in Chicago, there was that beer-whisky/whiskey-cheese thing at Rockwells. Let me tell you, if you ever get the chance to sample together  Knob Creek Bourbon, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and the French cheese known as Brillat Savarin, aka “sin,” take it! You will not be sorry.

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