Articles in Beer

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.


Picture 1 of 3

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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One element at the heart of Sam Calagione’s Delaware brewery not yet tapped on the Discovery Channel’s “Brew Masters” series is his love for the pairing of brews and food. Calagione, the charismatic

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.


Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.

Photo: Sam Calaione of Dogfish Head.
Credit: Courtesy of Dogfish Head

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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’sFood 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.

Susie Norris' Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

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

For the fruit filling:

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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  7. 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.
  8. In a medium bowl, toss the fruit slices or berries with the arrowroot, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and salt.
  9. Fill the pie plate with the sliced fruit or berry mixture.
  10. 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.
  11. 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

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