Articles in Beer

Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

In the early ’90s, I worked in a trendy London pub that served beers from around the world. One of those brews, served in bottles, was Anchor Steam. I had never heard of this so-called San Francisco beer and had my doubts that it actually had distribution in the United States. I was wrong, of course. Under various names, Anchor Brewing Co. had been around for more than 100 years by the time I “discovered” it.

America’s beer landscape was just beginning to shift in those days, from a country with only a few hundred breweries to one with an exploding microbrewery scene. (The revolution was sparked by Fritz Maytag, who rescued Anchor from bankruptcy in 1965 and revived America’s craft brewing industry.) By 1996 there were more than 1,000 breweries in the United States. Today there are nearly 3,000, and the surge shows no sign of abating.

Beer tastes have changed a lot since the ’90s, with hoppy brews taking center stage. While I enjoy the occasional IPA, I find many to be over-the-top hoppy, akin to over-oaked Chardonnay. I usually gravitate toward English or German-style beers. They’re flavorful, but also balanced, and low enough in alcohol that I can drink more than one and remain upright.

In my quest for flavorful, well-balanced beers, I recently rediscovered Anchor Steam. How had I forgotten it? With its creamy head, deep caramel color and malty flavor, it’s practically the perfect beer.

Making steam beer

Anchor’s iconic “steam beer” was introduced in 1896, but it wasn’t sold in bottles until 1971.

During a recent tour of Anchor Brewing Co., I was told that the beer was named for the steam that rose from the brewery’s rooftop as San Francisco’s night air cooled the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.

Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined the brewery the same year Anchor Steam made its debut in bottles, offered another explanation.

“Steam beer is just a funny name given to this beer that was developed on the West Coast at the time of the Gold Rush,” he said. “With the Gold Rush came a huge influx of northern Europeans and these guys wanted beer. So brewers started setting up crude little breweries. Some wanted to make lager beer, and one of the features of lager was that it was carbonated.”

This was done through a process called krausening (“KROY-zen-ing”), in which an actively fermenting beer is added to an older one to bring about a secondary fermentation. “It carbonates the beer, and it also has an influence on its flavor,” Carpenter said. When these highly carbonated beers were brought into bars where there was no refrigeration to temper the carbonation, they produced a lot of foam when they were tapped.

“Somebody said it looked like they were trying to tap a keg filled with steam,” Carpenter said, and a nickname was born.

Anchor still makes its steam beer in the traditional way, boiling wort and mashing malt in huge copper kettles.

Although the brewery’s production has increased over the decades and its offerings have expanded, Anchor hasn’t outgrown its artisanal methods. “We only use whole hop flowers,” Carpenter said. “We don’t use extracts and we don’t use pellets. Most small breweries these days do.” Another distinction, he added, is that the brewhouse is run “by people, not computers.”

Expanding and innovating

Carpenter does not expect much to change next year, when Anchor opens a second brewing facility at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The new brewhouse will nearly quadruple Anchor’s annual production capacity from 180,000 barrels to 680,000.

“Wherever it’s better for the beer for us to go high tech, we do,” he said. “For instance, our fermenters now are stainless steel, but originally those would have been pitch-lined redwood — just a nightmare to keep clean. So when it’s better for the beer, we do go modern. Otherwise, we try to stick with simple and traditional.”

Even so, Anchor is not stuck in the past. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010 and sold the business, the new owners asked Carpenter to start developing new beers for the line.

“When I started with Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam Beer,” Carpenter said. “Then we developed our Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine, our Liberty Ale — and many of those were the very first of their varieties in America. I think we’re still innovating.”

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

One such innovation was Anchor’s Zymaster Series. “The idea was that we would do these one-off beers from time to time and just see how they were accepted,” Carpenter said. “It’s a fun thing that shows our creativity. Not every beer has to be a winner.”

The series has included brews such as Mark’s Mild, Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale, Saareemaa Pale Ale, and (coming soon) Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA.

With the wild popularity of hoppy beers today, one might be tempted to think that Anchor is jumping on the bandwagon with its Zymaster Series IPA. Not so; the brewery’s Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition. At the time, Carpenter wondered if the public could handle all those hops. “Lots of people, including us at the brewery, wondered if anybody would drink it,” he said. “That was considered a brutally hopped beer when it first came out. Now it’s mainstream.”

Although he says IPAs are here to stay, Carpenter predicts that the style will become less extreme. “I think they will be a little lower in hops and have more body,” he said. “I think those types of beers are going to be around forever.”

His favorite beer, however, is still the classic Anchor Steam, and this beer drinker is inclined to agree.

Main photo: Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

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The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

As a food writer first and foremost, I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival for the booze so much as for the grub in the booze.

Pretzel stouts, macadamia nut porters, kiwi and taro-root India Pale Ales, a kumquat-honey double wit and a Märzen made with grits — for me, the Brewers Association’s flagship event, held annually in the fall in Denver, is a multicourse banquet writ liquid.

Granted, the more experimental the adjunct is, the harder the beer generally is to make and/or sell. Take Two Roads’ Urban Funk, a zingy wild ale the Connecticut brewery made with yeast that the Sacred Heart University biology department captured during Hurricane Sandy, of all things. Most of the following, then, are one-offs or highly limited releases with little to no distribution. So consider this your inspiration for adopting the slogan “Must-Have Beer, Will Travel.”

The meat and seafood counter

Champion Clam Bake Gose and Mas Cerveza: Here’s Gose in a nutshell: a sour wheat beer originating in Germany that’s brewed with a touch of salt as well as coriander. Here’s Gose in a clamshell: delicious. Down in Charlottesville, Va., Champion head brewer Hunter Smith starts with the recipe for his Face Eater Gose but eschews the pink Himalayan sea salt he usually adds to the kettle in favor of whole Rappahannock Olde Salt clams, which lend a briny grace note to the light-bodied, gently tart base. Just for kicks, there are hemp seeds in the mash too.

Smith has also collaborated with chef Tomas Rahal of Charlottesville’s Mas Tapas to make a beer tinged with the flavors of Spain — specifically the bones from one of the world’s great hams, jamón ibérico, and smoked pimentón (paprika) as well as smoked gray sea salt. The result: a distinctly savory and, yes, smoky but smooth ale that, at the festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion, beautifully complemented pan con tomate topped with sliced octopus, courtesy of Boulder, Colo., restaurant Basta.

Dogfish Head Choc Lobster: Its reputation for nuttiness notwithstanding, this Delaware pioneer hardly broke virgin ground when it began dropping Maine lobsters and cocoa powder into the boil for a robust porter two years ago. After all, chocolate porters and oyster stouts made with their namesake ingredients aren’t unheard of, and neither are dishes that pair shellfish with sweet elements like vanilla. That said, this summertime brewpub exclusive isn’t sweet at all. Imagine adding a splash of cocoa to some watered-down coffee and then drinking it in the proximity of sea spray. Somehow — and I’m honestly not sure how — it’s better than it sounds.

Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout: Speaking of oyster stout — this isn’t. Denver’s craft granddaddy took to brewing with roasted bull’s balls as an April Fool’s joke in 2012, and the response was such that it now produces a small batch once or twice a year. The bourbon barrel-aged version I tried at the festival had all the roasty, toasty, moderately creamy qualities you’d expect, with the bonus of a mellow yet unmistakable meaty savor.

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The Shady Character porter from Forbidden Root. Credit: Courtesy of Forbidden Root

The garden

Moody Tongue Cold-Pressed Paw Paw Belgian: What Jared Rouben, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef behind Chicago’s few-months-old “culinary brewery,” calls the “tropical fruit of the Midwest” — the indigenous, commercially scarce paw paw — rightly elicits comparisons to mango and papaya. In this ale, however, it shows as more crisp than juicy, more fragrant than downright fruity. (Better yet, Rouben’s also about to release — get this — a Shaved Black-Truffle Pilsner.)

Piney River Sweet Potato Ale: If you’ve had it up to here with pumpkin beer, this Missouri-made alternative could be your new jam. Forget candied “yam” — the palate is freshly rootsy rather than overly reliant on baking spice, while the initially creamy mouth feel finishes as crisp as the roasted skin of the real thing.

Jailbreak Made Wit Basil: Basil seemed to be the herb du jour at the festival, popping up at several booths, but this Laurel, Md., newcomer owned the stuff, loading a Belgian white with fresh, sweet, green notes without sacrificing the subtleties of wheat, citrus and coriander.

10 Barrel Cucumber Crush: Nabbing the gold medal in the Field Beer category, this Oregon- and Idaho-located brewery’s twist on a tart wheat Berliner Weisse absolutely bursts with lemon and cucumber, enhancing the effervescence characteristic of the style.

The wilderness

Scratch 105: The farm, the field, the forest: This Ava, Ill., outfit is leading the return to growing and foraging for ingredients, brewing one-offs that evoke their terroir as thoroughly as any wine. This year, Scratch brought only gruits — hopless, plant-based concoctions — to the table, including one that contained, yes, 105 ingredients, from several types of mushroom to wild bee balm and other flowers to various roots, yielding a gingery, savory, musky, wonderfully complex sensation.

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Forbidden Root display at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Forbidden Root Shady Character: Like Scratch, this 3-month-old Chicago operation derives its inspiration from historical brewing practices, pledging allegiance to its botanical ingredients rather than conventional style. Take its porter, made with black walnuts and roasted chestnuts as well as licorice, star anise and black pepper — all of which express themselves in earthy, spicy harmony.

The complete dishes

Right Brain Thai Peanut: Heirloom beets, grilled asparagus, Mangalitsa pig heads. Traverse City, Mich., brewer Russell Springsteen will put just about any edible thing into his beer, but my favorite was this dead ringer for cold soba noodles. Made with peanut butter, Thai chilies, coconut oil and cilantro, it delivers a sharp kick in a velvet boot.

Short’s Bourbon Carrot Cake: I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that this Bellaire, Mich., brewery was the only one pouring three different beers made with marshmallows this year. Though its Key Lime Pie scored the gold in the experimental-beer category for its limeade-meets-lactose zest, the medal in my head went to the Bourbon Carrot Cake, with aromas of baking spice and dried fruit giving way to a mouthful of oak laced with cream — a boozy doozy.

Main photo: The Wynkoop Bourbon-Barrel Aged Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. Credit: Courtesy of Wynkoop

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New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

There’s something inescapably tacky about the thought of Cheddar cheese blended with  pickled onion or smoked ham and mustard, like a Ploughman’s lunch without the hard work. Nonetheless, blended cheese or cheese with extra “bits” (technically known as cheese with additives, although the industry is sensitive to the term), erupts over British cheese counters like lava down Krakatoa.

Such cheese with bits look like a larder gone hideously mad or a product of the sorcerer’s apprentice on acid. Over the years, I have had the misfortune to encounter cheese with piccalilli, garlic and mushroom, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, asparagus and leek, Guinness, Worcestershire sauce and pecan nuts, not to mention clashing varieties cemented together in weird layers. Colby jack or Cojack (as I like to call it) is an all-American combination of Colby and Monterey jack blended together before pressing that makes a “fun” snack. Right.

Phew, it’s all as cheesy as a Barry White song — and sells equally as well.

Ilchester has been a leader in the U.K. specialty cheese scene ever since they launched their Beer Cheese in 1962. Today, their selection also includes Mexicana™ chili cheese, Cheddar with Pickled Onion & Chives, and Marmite™ Cheddar. Yes, you either love it or hate it.

Booze as a ‘bit’ in your cheese

And, what is it with cheese with booze – on either side of the Atlantic? Red Windsor, marbled with red wine or Port (and coloring), may be of ancient lineage but frankly is an insult to Bordeaux and looks like it has leprosy. And don’t get me started on Cahill’s Irish Porter Cheddar: once tasted, never forgotten … but not in a good way. And there’s also Cheddar and Whisky, Chile Lime & Tequila Cheddar, Caramelized Onion and Rioja Cheddar.

In the U.S., you can find a Chocolate Stout Cheddar from Oregon or a nice Merlot BellaVitano from Wisconsin. Are we all so desperate for a drink?

Dessert cheeses also have a following: Lemon Crumble, Cheddar with Fruitcake, Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger. At least it makes life easier for those who never know whether to serve the cheese before or after the pudding.

There are combinations that are meant to go together but such inventions as White Stilton with Apricots or Blueberries and Wensleydale with Mango and Ginger have no natural, logical affinity. Wensleydale with Cranberries, for example, marries sharp-tasting fruit with rich-flavored cheese in a disturbing combination that is inexplicably popular. Personally, I’d demand a divorce.

Cheese with date and walnut, apple and celery, or Thai spices feeds an obsession with novelty for novelty’s sake, a mass flavor-of-the-month mentality in a pick ‘n’ mix culture. Block-produced Cheshire with pear and almonds is as different from Appleby’s legendary hand-crafted production as, well, chalk from cheese.

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury's supermarket in Manchester, United Kingdom. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Part of the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s supermarket in Manchester, England. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Thankfully, peanut butter hard cheese has never made it past the dairy door — as far as I know. But it is probably just a matter of time.

Good cheese as a base is key

On the other hand, where there is a good cheesemaker you’re more likely to find a good cheese with bits: the delicate network of soft green veins that distinguishes Fowlers Traditional and Original Green Derby comes from natural sage, not lurid artificial coloring. Dutch Gouda with cumin seeds is a centuries-old, tried-and-tested combination. An artisan Cornish Gouda with Honey and Clover is now being made by a Dutch family in Cornwall (my jury-of-one is still out on this).

Dartmoor Chilli, Meldon (with English mustard and Ale) and Chipple (with spring onions) are all made on the base of the well-esteemed, sweet, mild Curworthy cheese. The Sharpham Estate’s Rustic is flavored with chives and garlic; and Wedmore, made by scattering chives through the center of each round of aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy in Somerset captures the flavors of the lush Somerset meadows.

There can be a fine line between those cheeses that contain bits and those infused with an extra dimension of flavor, such as Cornish Yarg, wrapped with nettle or wild garlic leaves, or the coating of fresh herbs that add interest and contrast to soft cheese such as award-winning Rosary Garlic and Herb Goats Cheese. And the best smoked and washed rind cheeses, which are brushed with wine or cider, are about discretion not domination.

One problem with cheese with bits is the suspicion that it is a way of adding “extra value” to inferior, poorly textured, mass-produced cheese without adding extra care. No manufacturer will ever plead guilty, but the fact is: If the quality of the base cheese is poor, whatever you add won’t make it any better.

Cheese as an entrée point

But as fast as flavors come, they also seem to go.

These additives are fashion products. Maybe this sort of fun cheese can give younger folks, for many of whom cheese is just something that drips off a burger, an entrée into the cheese world and will lead them to better products — much as has happened in wine. Indeed, it may be that opening up the market, adding range and variety, may even save some standard cheeses from decline.

Maybe. But I still think the person who put Jamaican jerk sauce into cheese should be forced to eat it every day.

Main photo: New on the market in the United Kingdom from Marks & Spencer: White Stilton® with dried sour cherries and a candied orange peel coating, left, and Cornish Cruncher Cheddar with white balsamic vinegar and red bell pepper with a red bell pepper coating. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Michelle Crafton, Scott Berger, center, and Robby Crafton from Big Alice Brewing at Brewer's Choice. Credit: Corey Offsey

Local sourcing is an increasingly mainstream priority for restaurants, chefs and almost anyone producing food or beverages. But it’s not such an easy proposition for craft brewing. Unlike butchers who know their pig suppliers or jam makers who know their berry farmers, craft beer makers have a hard time finding local sources of hops and other beer ingredients.

“Everyone talks about local beer, but probably only the water and the brewer are local,” said Robby Crafton, brewer at Big Alice Brewing, during the recent Brewer’s Choice event at New York City’s Beer Week.

Truly local beer is hard to make. This is not the brewers’ fault. Blame it on a regionalized agriculture system that has centralized areas of grain production and processing.

New York state used to be a prime hops producer, but humid summers invite fungal predators, so farmers quit growing hops there. In the United States, hops are now grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest.

Grain production used to be routine in the Northeast too, but climate challenges and westward expansion pushed the crop elsewhere. The last malt in the area was probably made in Buffalo, on the western edge of New York state. Grain processing lingered there because of its great transit location on the Great Lakes. Now, most malt comes from Belgium or the Midwest.

Everyone’s going local

However, a growing preference for local goods is helping change things, and brewers are excited about the flavors they can get from freshly malted and regionally grown grains.

“There’s a beautiful softness and fluffiness from the spelt,” said Joe Grimm, who was pouring Grimm Artisanal Ales’ spelt saison at Brewer’s Choice with his fellow brewer Lauren Carter Grimm.

“Historically, this has been a cool micro-trade show/hangout,” said Kelly Taylor, from KelSo Beer. “It’s awesome that we can take that GrowNYC component and add it to the event.”

Taylor, along with Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43, and Dave Brodrick from Blind Tiger ale house, organized Brewer’s Choice with June Russell, from GrowNYC. GrowNYC is the parent organization of Greenmarket, which operates 55 farmers markets in the city, and Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project.

The organization promotes regional grain in a number of ways. Greenmarket set a minimum percentage of local flour that farmers market bakers must use. The grains project collaborates with other groups on initiatives, such as New York Farm to Bakery, which paired New York City bakers with millers from New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

This recent collaboration with Brewer’s Choice echoes a 2010 bread tasting at the French Culinary Institute in New York City that put local flour on bakers’ radars and in their mixing bowls. Now local malt is in the hands of regional brewers.

Valley Malt, a pioneering malt house in Hadley, Mass., supplied 6,000 pounds of malt to 20 brewers, who had to use at least 30% local grain. Malt from startup Farmhouse Malt also came to Brooklyn. Other beers at the event featured local ingredients such as honey and apples.

In search of local ingredients

In general, brewers are curious about local grain, but limited availability and high cost keep them from using more of it.

“The fact of the matter is that local grain is three or four times the price,” said Taylor, who uses some local grains at KelSo and also at Heartland, where he is the brewmaster. Although the resulting beers have a certain terroir, the extra layer of flavor is very subtle and delicate. The beers, he said, are not two or three times better than others. “But from a social and economic standpoint, it’s 100% better.”

The value, he said, is in trickle-up economics. When local farmers prosper, the economy grows.

“I think in a couple of years this could be 100% local,” Taylor said.

Part of the problem is that small-scale malts, unlike their big-market cousins, don’t have easily understood or well-known performance characteristics. Their qualities vary and working with them can bring uncertainties for brewers. Russell identified another problem on Carbone’s radio show the night before the event: the processing bottleneck. There are not enough small malt houses in the Northeast.

Since New York state’s 2013 Farm Brewery law linked licensing to use of local products, a number of startup malt houses in the state are beginning to address the need. Like the recent Farm Distillery and Farm Cidery Laws, the new law makes it easier for small-scale producers that use local products to get necessary licenses.

If this was local malt’s debutante ball, her many suitors loved the dance. People kept tipping their glasses for pours even after the lights went up and security started guiding the lively crowd out of the hotel.

“It’s over,” Bill Herlicka, of White Birch Brewing in New Hampshire, told one hopeful drinker after he’d unscrewed the taps on his Bill’s Brown Rye and First Sparrow.

The rye was made with Danko, a Polish variety of the grain. Herlicka described the result as sweet and bready, with an interesting coffee quality. Typically rye makes a beer that is dry, sharp and spicy, he said.

Herlicka said brewers would love to use more local ingredients for a number of reasons, including the fact that customers also prefer it. He would be willing to pay more for local ingredients if he could promote that on his beer’s label, he said.

“I would use more local grain,” Herlicka said.

Top photo: Michelle Crafton, Scott Berger, center, and Robby Crafton from Big Alice Brewing at Brewer’s Choice. Credit: Corey Offsey

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A beer being poured at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Brewers Association

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

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

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Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

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.

Amy Halloran. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

Amy Halloran. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran

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.

Beyond beer

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?

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

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HenHouse Brewing Company's oyster stout.

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.

But until recently, I’d never had oysters in my beer. That changed when the bartender at a neighborhood restaurant introduced me to oyster stout, a beer brewed with local oyster shells and meat. Before I could raise an eyebrow, he assured me that although the idea may sound fishy, the beer isn’t.

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.

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Collin McDonnell takes a break outside the HenHouse Brewing Company's tiny brewery in Petaluma, Calif. Credit: Tina Caputo

“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

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