Articles in Beer
Entering the Great American Beer Festival with a plan of attack is like going to Eataly with a three-item shopping list: Good luck sticking to it. This year, the exhibition hall at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver was packed with more than 600 brewers showcasing more than 3,100 products. Though my editor and I had discussed the recent resurgence of true Pilsners, I realized the second I walked in the door that I could no more limit myself to crisp Bohemian- and German-style lagers than I could pass up white truffles because I need button mushrooms.
Yet a general focus on lighter, low-to-moderate-alcohol styles was not only doable, but prudent if I hoped to leave the festival in one piece. Beyond that, I asked myself, which samples would cut through the palate fatigue with enough panache to warrant further investigation? Now that the fog has cleared, I stand by the following list in all its arbitrariness.
Cambridge Brewing Co. Shadows and Light
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At 10% alcohol by volume, this was an exception to my rule of sticking to more sessionable beers. Described as a “Maderized and Blended Experimental Very Old Ale,” it presents a mesmerizing port-like profile, showing raisins, baking spices and a touch of soy sauce. As brewmaster Will Meyers explains, “Shadows and Light was inspired by the techniques of oxidation and exposure to sunlight as well as extremes of heat and cold. All of these are things you are specifically instructed not to do when brewing beer (or wine, sake, cider, etc.) because ordinarily they’d destroy it, and yet beverages such as Madeira, sherry and Banyuls, not to mention some spirits, are treated in this specific way. I decided to find out if I could incorporate these techniques successfully — and after eight years of considerable effort, I was lucky enough to have achieved my goals.”
Sadly, only those within commuting distance of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., will have opportunity to try it; first released in May of this year, it will be tapped just once more, at the brewpub’s 25th anniversary party the first weekend of May 2014. Boston beer buffs, mark the date.
Elevation Beer Co. Engel Weisse
From a newcomer in Poncha Springs, Colo., this oak-fermented and -aged Berliner Weisse would, as my friend Amy observed, make a fine alternative to lemonade on a hot day, throwing shades of gingerbread and yogurt into the citrusy mix (4% ABV). According to sales manager Alexander Bustamante, it’s named for a snow-pack formation called the Angel of Mount Shavano “that looks over us here at Elevation,” it’s currently available seasonally only in Colorado.
For the record, I also appreciated two other refreshingly straightforward variations on the theme: one from Crabtree Brewing Co. in Greeley, Colo. (4.3% ABV), which garnered a gold medal in 2011, and one from Nodding Head Brewery in Philadelphia, which proved a pioneer when it debuted the gracefully fruity Ich Bin Eine Berliner Weisse (3.5% ABV) in 2000. Brewer Gordon Grubb observes that while the style’s reputation as “the Champagne of the North” might be overstated, “it does have some white wine characteristics, more tart than truly sour.”
Elysian Brewing Co. Great Pumpkin Ale
Sampling this Seattle brewer’s take on the predominant fall favorite at this year’s beer festival media luncheon was a revelation. So many of its peers come across as muddy or cloying; this was anything but. Crisp and sparklingly clean, it showcased its namesake ingredient not by letting it run rampant but by treating it and its baking-spice trappings with restraint. 8.1% ABV.
Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales Seizoen Bretta
This haunting saison, which nabbed a gold for its Hood River, Ore. , producer at last year’s festival, spoke to me in fleeting, delicately effervescent tones of musty cider houses, honeypots and savory herb gardens. Bottle conditioned with pear juice to 8% ABV, it stood up remarkably well to the milk chocolate-pumpkin mousse cake it was served with.
The Lost Abbey Framboise de Amorosa
By the time we cut through the crush surrounding the booth, this San Marcos, Calif.-based cult leader was fresh out of the Red Poppy Ale that had just scored a medal in the American-Style Brett Beer category for the second year running. But the barrel-aged sour we settled on instead was hardly sloppy seconds. (Indeed it took a silver back in 2011.) Despite whiffs of its own bretty funk, its raspberry juiciness remained breathtakingly pure from start to long finish. 7% ABV.
New Belgium Coconut Curry Hefeweizen
The name of this brew, released in July as part of the Fort Collins, Colo., giant’s Lips of Faith series, says it all. Creamy touches of coconut and banana combine with spikier, more savory hints of garam masala, yet the effect is surprisingly smooth and relatively subtle. 8% ABV.
Scratch Brewing Co. Carrot-Ginger Saison
Specializing in the use of locally farmed and foraged ingredients, this Ava, Ill., brewer impressed me with the easy balance it struck between warm, earthy sweetness and a cool, clean bite. Of the inspiration for the farmhouse ale, first released in July at 6% ABV (but available only locally), co-founder Marika Josephson says, “Squash and sweet potatoes have obviously been done in a lot of fall beers, and we figured that roasting carrots would give a similar flavor. But we wanted to spice up the carrot a little, so we decided to use wild ginger and a small amount of peppercorns.”
Smuttynose Straw-Barb Short Weisse
If, as my friend Mark suggested, the name of this fruited Berliner Weisse out of Portsmouth, N.H., alludes to shortcake, it does itself a disservice. Rather than conveying any sugary, baked-dessert message, it delivers the floral perfumes of strawberry and rhubarb to back its tartness. Smuttynose enjoys fairly wide distribution on the East Coast, so keep your eyes peeled for the recent release. 3.5% ABV.
Weyerbacher Eighteen Weizenbock
Forgive me for including this dark, malty wheat beer. Not only does it break my style rule at 11.1% ABV, but as a one-off made in honor of its Easton, Pa., producer’s 18th anniversary in June 2013, it will soon be sold out across Weyerbacher’s distribution network if it isn’t already. Should you track it down, though, you’ll be treated to a veritable chocolate-banana milkshake of a pour.
Top photo: A beer being poured at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Brewers Association
New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.
I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.
Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.
The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.
I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.
Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?
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Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?
Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.
The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.
Bread makers know the cost of cheap
We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.
We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.
Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.
Sowing outside the grain belt
That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.
There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.
Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?
Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran
In my hometown of Petaluma, Calif., less than 20 miles from the Sonoma Coast, freshly shucked oysters are about as easy to come by as bread and milk. We eat them every way we can: raw on the half shell, barbecued, baked and deep fried.
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As an added selling point, he told me it was made by HenHouse Brewing Co. in Petaluma, an operation so small it doesn’t even qualify as a micro-brewery.
How could I not try it? I took a sip of the richly colored stout and found it to be smooth and creamy, with a subtle chocolate flavor and a refreshingly light body. If I hadn’t been told it was made with oysters, I never would have guessed. And did I mention that it was absolutely delicious?
Oysters and beer have a shared history
I’ve since learned that oyster stout is not exclusive to HenHouse or to Northern California. About a dozen U.S. breweries currently make oyster stout, including Upright Brewing and the Fort George Brewery in Oregon, the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, Flying Fish Brewing Co. in New Jersey and Harpoon Brewery in Boston. Each has its own spin on making oyster stout, with some using only the shells or the meat, and others using both.
The concept may sound novel, but oyster stout’s history can be traced as far back as Victorian England.
“It used to be that oysters were an everyman’s food, and stout was the everyman’s drink,” explained Collin McDonnell of HenHouse Brewing Co. “So you’d go to the bar and get a pint of stout and a bowl of oysters.” Eventually, someone came up with the idea of adding oysters to the beer during the brewing process.
To find out how oyster stout is made in modern times, I visited the tiny HenHouse brewing operation, housed in a leased corner of a co-manufacturing facility that makes soap and cosmetic products. The brewery was founded just over a year ago by McDonnell, Shane Goepel and Scott Goyne.
HenHouse brews its stout with the shells, meat and liquor of oysters from nearby Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, and Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. in Inverness. Using local oysters, McDonnell said, gives the beer its unique personality.
“Northern California is really one of the meccas for oysters,” he said. “That, to us was a real opportunity to put terroir in our beer. You’re not going to get Northern California oyster flavor from Chesapeake Bay oysters or from English oysters. Those oysters will all have their own distinct flavors and characteristics based on the ecosystems that they grow in. So the idea that we could, by putting oysters in our beer, really give it a place in the world was really exciting.”
Balance, local flavors set North Coast oyster beer apart
Even using local oysters, there are batch-to-batch variations. “The oysters don’t always taste the same,” McDonnell said. “Some are a little bit salty, some are sweeter.”
HenHouse uses about 3 pounds of whole oysters and 3 pounds of shells per 31-gallon barrel. The shells go into the vat first, where they’re left to boil for about 30 minutes. The idea, McDonnell said, is to beat up the shells and get the mineral character out of them. “The shells are very high in calcium carbonate, and that gives the beer a really refreshing minerality and adds to the texture,” he said.
The whole oysters are bagged and boiled for a shorter period of time, so as not to impart too much oyster flavor. “You get some of the sea breeze and oyster character from the whole oysters,” McDonnell said. “But you’re not trying to make fish beer. You’re trying to make beer that hints at oysters.” Wild-crafted sea salt adds a touch of salinity that helps the stout pair well with food.
“The nice thing about the oyster stout, to me, is that it’s so food friendly,” McDonnell noted. “We wanted to make culinary beers, beers that you have with food.”
That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s culinary mecca in the Napa Valley. Along with a prix fixe menu priced at $270 per person, the Michelin three-star restaurant features the HenHouse oyster stout on its beer list.
That’s quite a step up for a beer that started out as Victorian England’s version of Pabst Blue Ribbon. But even so, oyster stout is still a beer for the everyman.
“One of the things we said from the get-go was, we want to make beer our friends can afford to drink,” McDonnell said. “We’re not into expensive beer, we’re into affordable, local beer. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make an oyster stout — that ‘everyman’s’ story really appealed to all of us.”
Top photo: HenHouse Brewing Company’s oyster stout. Credit: Tina Caputo
None of it was made for TV, he says, noting that about 80 percent of the projects filmed had been on the 2010 calendar since the beginning of the year.
The sixth episode of the season, though, is the one that will finally connect Calagione’s beer with cuisine. The episode, still to be scheduled, chronicles the Dogfish Head team consulting on a beer for the Batali-Bastianich food and wine emporium on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Eataly. “Watching them (Mario and Joe) get into the beer makes him hopeful that a lot more foodies will recognize the possibilities.”
We solicited Calagione’s opinion on how to partner food with the beers he offers year-round – the 90 Minute IPA, the 120 Minute IPA, Raison D’Etre, Indian Brown Ale and Midas Touch. (In 2011, they will also offer Palo Santo Maroon).
The IPAs, he says, work best as aperitifs, appropriate for cheeses, especially fatty and stinky ones. The India Brown Ale stands its ground with acidic foods such as tomato-based dishes, making it perfect for spaghetti and meatballs or pizza. Raison D’Etre is positioned as the ultimate steak or hamburger beer. The sweeter and maltier Midas Touch, made with white Muscat grapes, saffron and honey, complements spicy foods such as gumbo and chili.
Brewing is art
Dogfish Head is positioned on the TV show as an out-of-the-ordinary brewery with off-center products. That facet of the company was driven home on Dec. 8 when Dogfish Head announced the 2011 roll-out of 20 beers with limited availability. An ancient ale program of four brews, for example, runs May to September. Three different bottle-conditioned beers are released through the year, one month at a time; the seasonal brews — Aprihop, Festina Peche, Punkin and Chicory Stout – are tapped two or three months at a time with no two available at the same time. Next November, they will release a new beer, Brand X.
Production varies widely, from the hundreds of thousands of cases of the 90 minute IPA to as little as 3,000 cases of 12 ounce bottles of a specialty brew.
Their first brewed beverage was Shelter Pale Ale, made in 12-gallon batches in three small kegs with propane burners underneath that they brewed three times a day, five days a week. It allowed them to try multiple recipes and in 2002, seven years after they started, they opened a full-scale brewery in Milton, Del. In 15 years, they have catapulted from the smallest brewery in the United States to the 38th largest.
The growth that followed the move to a proper brewery was so accelerated that Calagione felt the need to put on the brakes — for three years. Between 2002 and 2008, the company grew annually in revenue by 40 percent as the beer was distributed to 31 states despite no national distribution network and of the 100 or so employees, only seven are sales people.
The TV crews arrived a year into the three-year plan to cut back growth to 20 percent through 2011. All the beer Calagione and his team is seen making is already allocated, a fact that he believes helps make the show a bit more honest and not a chronicle of a beer company planning an expansion.
“Knowing that there is a limited supply of beer, we hope this can be more of a celebration of renaissance of craft brewing,” he says. “We’re one example of 1,600 small breweries, and if we go to a second season, I think we will get to show more of our industry.
“The unwritten message is that brewing is an art form just like music and writing. The global, commercial beer world is dominated by conglomerates with no interest in unique liquids. The success of Dogfish Head is the same as all small craft brewers. We bring business to the human scale — it’s all about having conversations with your neighbors and your fellow brewers. Look at the locavore trajectory of the last five years or so and it’s not coincidental that it aligns with the breakdown of commercial industry.”
‘A good name for a beer company’
Placing that human element into a business environment was one of several story lines in a recent episode that covered Dogfish Head partnering with a surfboard manufacturer, artists installing a tree house on the brewery’s lawn and reminiscing with father about the day, at the age of 25, when he said he was going to become a brewer. They were on a walk in Maine while on vacation and his father, upon hearing the news, looked up at the street sign that read Dogfish Head Lane and commented that it would make a good name for a beer company.
The issue at the center of the episode though is what to do with two tanks of the 120 minute IPA that have failed at the quality control level, resulting in the lost of half a million dollars worth of product. After re-tasting and examining their options, they decide to pour the ale down the drain and then re-analyze their recipes.
“Seven or eight years ago,” Calagione notes, “that would have put us out of business. We always assume there will be some beer that has to be tossed but the budget line for that is not in the middle six figures.
“I had some trepidation is showing that story, but it’s the realities of a small business. Everything does not go in a straight line and when you take on a challenge, not everything works out.”
Brew Masters airs at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. This Thursday, Calagione explores creating an ancient Chinese ale.
Portland’s food philosophy prizes the sustainable, organic and seasonal in a way that makes other cities look like beginners. The International Assn. of Culinary Professionals convened Portland in late April for its 32nd annual conference. This year’s theme, “The New Culinary Order,” reflected a growing passion from food professionals who support eco-friendly values and oppose highly processed and relentlessly marketed corporate foods. For Portland, this approach is nothing new.
On a bike tour of North Portland’s artisan eateries, chef Bryan Steelman of Por Que No? taqueria explained how rainwater from his restaurant roof was captured and recycled onto local vegetables. Chefs Jason French and Ben Meyer of Nedd Ludd , a back-to-basics wood-fired cafe, explained the meaning they found in butchering the animals they serve and pickling the cucumbers they grow in their backyard organic garden. At Grand Central Bakery, chef Piper Davis stressed the importance of moving the new order values from upscale boutique levels to mass production. “Until the movement goes mainstream,” she argued, “we won’t change the way the world consumes.” Her warm strawberry rhubarb pie and piles of croissants made from locally sourced stone-ground wheat won the case that artisan values can transcend the challenges of large-scale production (she owns six bakery cafes in the Portland area — all with such luscious pies and pastries). Other stops on the tour arranged by cookbook author Ivy Manning (“Farm to Table Cookbook”; “The Adaptable Feast”) were Toro Bravo for tapas, lemon and olive asparagus, and sangria; The Meadow for chocolate and salt; Lincoln for sweetened rhubarb and cream.
In support of sustainable
The sustainable movement now has many faces nationwide: Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaigns, the Academy Award-winning documentary “Food, Inc.,” Michael Pollan’s bestselling books “An Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” Alice Waters’ decades of leadership and her pioneering restaurant, Chez Panisse, and the cultural initiatives of the Slow Food organization. The IACP’s keynote speaker, author Ruth Reichl, the final editor of Gourmet magazine, echoed the message that Portland and food-appreciating communities continue to serve up: food unites, enriches and sustains people, and sustainable values are more important for us than the industrial values of speed, efficiency and profitability. The new culinary order eschews fast, processed foods disconnected from their roots and celebrates local, artisan and authentic fare.
Spring seasonal dishes in Portland include sophisticated versions of rhubarb, delicate asparagus, lamb and dungeness crab. These, in addition to the year-round availability of salmon, microbrewed beers, food trucks and local spirits create a voluminous bounty in a city that prides itself on its resources. Restaurants that showcased spring foods at the Nines Hotel included Paley’s Place (serving local, sustainable and award-winning fare since 1995), Nostrana, Tabla, Moonstruck Chocolates and many more.
To bring the Portland spirit to your own culinary order, make this pie dough recipe adapted from Grand Central Bakery’s excellent cookbook and fill it with fruits from your local farmers market.
Fruit Pie With All-Butter Flaky Crust
For Grand Central Bakery’s pie crust:
2½ cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup cold butter (2 sticks), cubed
3 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg for egg wash
1 tablespoon water
4-5 cups of fresh fruit (such as a mix of sliced strawberry and rhubarb, or fresh blueberries or sliced peaches)
3 tablespoons of arrowroot or cornstarch
3 tablespoons of sugar (white or brown)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Make sure all your ingredients are cold. The best way to do this is to measure them all out, then place them on a large plate or tray and place the tray in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
- After the ingredients have chilled, mix the water and lemon juice together and set aside. Place the flour in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the cold butter cubes and combine on the lowest speed for about a minute or two. The texture of the mixture will change to rough and mealy.
- Add ¾ of the water and lemon juice mixture and mix very briefly. You should still be able to see pea-size chunks of butter, and the dough should start to hold together. If it is still crumbly, mix a little longer, then finally add the rest of the water.
- Form the dough into 2 disks, flatten them and wrap in plastic wrap or tightly in a large Ziplock bag. Allow them to chill for 1 hour.
- Once the disks are chilled, unwrap them and sprinkle the work surface and the dough with a little flour. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin to about 10 inches in diameter and about ⅛-inch thick.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
- Gently place the dough in a 9-inch pie plate, wrap with plastic wrap and allow it to rest in the refrigerator as you repeat the process with the other disk, which will be the upper crust. You can wrap the second disk in plastic wrap and place it over the covered pie plate to allow them both to chill and rest.
- In a medium bowl, toss the fruit slices or berries with the arrowroot, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and salt.
- Fill the pie plate with the sliced fruit or berry mixture.
- Top with the other crust. Pinch the inch two crusts together to create a fluted edge. Cut a few decorative slices in the top of the crust to allow steam to escape.
- Finally, mix the egg with a tablespoon of water and brush the egg wash on the crust before baking. Bake until the pie crust is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling — about 35-40 minutes.
Susie Norris is a chocolatier, TV producer and author of the book “Chocolate Bliss.”
Photos from top:
Portland rhubarb. Credit: Bruce Block
Strawberry-rhubarb pie. Credit: Courtesy of AdLife Marketing