Empyreal Brew Day

Empyrean Brewing Company in the Haymarket district of downtown Lincoln.

Empyrean is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘the heavens.’ I admit to having to look it up. Empyreal is the adjective meaning ‘heavenly.’ And heavenly was generally my experience, Thursday, while I was able to brew my Dark Horse Münchner Dunkel recipe with Empyrean brewmaster Rich Chapin.

The power of positive, peripheral thinking is what got me to this opportunity. The facts in the case are as follows: it was my first time entering the Empyrean Beer Quest competition. Being new to town, I was unfamiliar with Lincoln’s water chemistry. I did not have expectations about how wooing of the public vote took place, nor did I have very much time to make the beer. All entries had to be lagers and I only had five weeks.

I analyzed these facts while wearing dirty underwear. Though it may seem at least a non sequitur, if not a downright disgusting image, the underwear thing is symbolic of letting go of expectation. It comes from a long ago discovery that when I just went out with dirty clothes I was more likely to meet up with attractive, friendly ladies than when I bathed and primped. Maybe it was pheromones left unwashed. But I think it was likely due to opening up a well of possibility in the universe, rather than trying to constrain outcome. There was something about putting distance between me and success that actually brought me closer to it. This is the peripheral vision part of the philosophy… I mean, not looking straight ahead at the positive outcome I desired, but scanning the horizon, ready to notice that cosmic opportunity I had denied direct focus. Have you lost a contact lens, and after much searching given up, only to find the damn thing the moment you stopped looking for it. That’s the phenomenon.

So this is where I put myself as I considered the aforementioned facts.  It would be a beer best suited to using undoctored  Lincoln water, therefore a dark lager. It needed to be of average strength given the time available, but have a rich flavor attractive to all sorts of beer drinkers. That left me with either a schwarzbier or a Munich dunkel. The latter is a little sweeter and showcases decoction mashing, so that’s the beer I chose. In a sense, none of this was up to me, the facts put me there. Then again, I might have come to the same conclusion by just making an intuitive decision. We can never know.

I have heard a lot of stories about Beer Quest. They range from how the event is jury rigged to how the winning beer brewed on the 15 barrel system will never taste like the original. Axioms and idioms have appeared in the parlance of the local brewers. “You’re better to finish first or eleventh, than anywhere in between.” That’s because the winning brewer gets a free keg of the scaled-up beer, and brewers finishing out of the top ten don’t have to share their beer with anyone.

Based on this one experience, I can tell you that the contest has rules. Some are abided by hard and fast, others lack a referee. There are inequities and home field advantages. Like a political race, you can induce voters to vote for you, the brewer, rather than for the best beer. It is a real life contest. It is fallible. The frustrations it engenders are synonymous with those in everyday life: when your favorite team loses the homecoming game, when the wrong candidate gets elected, when every restaurant in town serves the same spinach and artichoke glop. You are not going to change the occurrence of these things, anymore than I could change the brewing system my double decoction dunkel was brewed on.

Base malt for the recipe was 588 pounds of Munich malt - toasty, bittersweet loveliness.

After a two-temperature mash program, the mash is transferred to the lauter tun.

The first runnings from the lauter tun enter the bottom of the kettle. The chestnut color and malty aroma were much like my homebrewed version.

Once all the sweet wort was in the kettle, Rich took a sample for measuring the sugar content with a refractometer. So far, so good. Looks like we'll hit our target gravity.

In go the hops - French Strisselspalt - just like my recipe called for. Soon a wonderful lemon aroma captured our imaginations.

The wort was whirlpooled, then chilled right to 55 degrees. It travelled underground to the adjacent building where the fermentation vessels are located. Here Rich pushes the beer, a sizable yeast pitch (in the keg), and adds oxygen.

Here's where the Dark Horse is now busily fermenting. In a few weeks I'll be sitting at the bar trying it out! Hope you will be, too.

If anything, the trials and tribulations of Beer Quest mimic real life. For me, it was a personal test of attitude and vector. For others it may be a frustrating series of hems and haws trying to get outside the box of expectation and entitlement they’ve constructed for themselves. I know only this: that the more I know about beer, the less I know, and that as I contemplate what to brew for the next Beer Quest I will burn my road map and start a new journey from scratch. Winning is not everything. I’ll settle for 2nd through 10th.

Cheers! TPJ

Cheese and Beer Runup

With just a couple of days before our inaugural cheese and beer event in Lincoln, we received a nice writeup from Star City Blog’s beverage reporter Alexis Abel.

You can link to it here. Oh yeah, that fellow Cory was a trip – hope we see him on Friday!

If you live in these parts and haven’t gotten tickets yet. Do it while they last. Cheers! TPJ

Surely Surly isn’t Squirrely

I won’t go on (too) long about this, but it caught my attention and it galls me that an averaged-sized microbrewery in Minnesota is being kept from selling beer at its own facility by a strict reading of arcane 3-tier system rules – rules that have been modernized in half of the states without cataclysm.

I’m not in the trenches on this one. It is just an all too familiar story. I’m not from Minnesota and I’ve never even had a Surly beer. I’ve read two articles on the subject, and the quotations that follow came entirely from this piece and this other piece.

These journalists seem like good writers not prone editorializing, which is why I am writing this. Because I am outraged. All I’m going to do is repeat bits from these two pieces and add my own two cents. This is my editorial opinion.

The Background

Surly Brewing currently makes beer in Minnesota. Surly hopes to open brewpub which is costing them $20 million. This venture will contribute to the State’s coffers and commerce through permits, licenses, excise taxes, employment and employment taxes, purchasing of materials, and profit (and more taxes) paid by those who sell Surly’s beer in their networks and locations. [Ed. Who isn’t getting a slice here? It’s the distributors who want their 20-plus percent for stale-storing perfectly good beer in a warehouse while they collect graft, gratuities, or “sales incentives” from the top bidders. They’re P-O’ed that some business might have the gall to make beer and not pay them to ruin it! After all, they are entitled by law to distribute all the alcohol.]

The Board of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA) appears to be run by some faction of: 1) fools, 2) pantywaists afraid of legal action by the major breweries who fund the distributorships, or 3) chicken littles that imagine an incremental change in outmoded law will result in a total collapse of beverage retailing.

Minnesota Public Radio states that the MLBA “represents Minnesota liquor retailers and wholesalers.” [Ed. Hello? What about the producers – the brewers and the distillers? Some 3-tier system when the agency in charge represents two of the three factions in this age-old farce. Who put these guys in charge and how does a brewer get fair representation?]

The Characters

MLBA Executive Director of Smug: Frank Ball. (Source: minnesota.publicradio.org/)

MLBA Executive Director Frank Ball, who earlier this week reportedly stated “We’re not opposed to any [emphasis added] of this. We want them to build a brewery. Surly has a wonderful product.” (Subtext: but we aren’t saying anything about actually selling said product.) A day later his tune was less catchy “We’re not talking about tires, batteries or accessories. This is alcohol, and it’s highly regulated. There’s a reason this law has been on the books since 1933.” [Ed. Yeah, because do-nothing bureaucrats can’t get past the bathroom mirror to modernize laws that were instituted in the wake of a) the Great Depression, b) 13 years of Prohibition, and c) lobbying by gangster-owned distribution networks].

Omar just wants be able to sell his beer at his new brewpub, but a capricious law says he's too big. (Source: blogs.citypages.com/)

Then we have brewery owner Omar Ansari. Seems sort of like Minnesota’s answer to Sam Calagione or Greg Koch. He has big plans for a destination brewpub that would draw big dollars to whichever city he chooses. “We’re not looking for the three-tiered system to go away. All we’re asking is to sell glasses of our own beer at our own facility.”

While Ball fights back with “You’ve got to play fair and Surly is asking for an unfair advantage. It would be one thing if they were a smaller brewer. But when you make over 3,500 barrels, you’re a pro and there are rules to follow.”

Meanwhile, other brewers in Minnesota, those without such grandiose plans, sound like 3-tier poster boys. According to Ted Marti, the president of Schell Brewing, “Our retailers are our lifeblood; they’re the reason we exist.” [Ed. No. Your customers are the reason you exist. Remember them, the people that buy your beer?] And then you have Mark Stutrud, founder of Summit Brewing. “We cannot survive without the three-tiered system.” [Ed. As lopsided as the 3-tier system is, all Ansari is seeking to do is sell beer at his location. He is not seeking a dismantling of the system. And for the record, total dismemberment of the 3-tier would likely result in Bud Light bars on every street corner like so many Starbucks. Hey how’d that happen?]

Final Analysis

Levy states that the 3-tier “separates manufacturing, distribution and retailing in the beer business.” Not exactly true. It does not prevent a major beer manufacturer from owning a substantial piece of a distributor. Just look at all the beer delivery trucks that say “so and so distributors” on the cab door, while the entire box is paneled with A-B or Miller-Coors hype.

When the major shareholder in the distribution company and the majority of product moved by that distributor are the same mega-brewery, it takes very little effort to: a) slow-pedal the small guy who is obliged by law to contract with a distributor, of which there is often only one! and b) fail to represent their beer fairly in the market because the squeaky palm gets the grease and by other nasty tricks like removing product from retailer shelves and stealing tap positions.

A small brewery signing an obligatory contract is like a promising musician signed on with a major record label. In other words, sorry to hear that. In this day and age of diversified sales and marketing strategies, social media, and mail order beer sales, it is simply outrageous that wholesalers use their bully pulpit, puppet liquor boards, and fat wallets stuffed by the smaller brewers’ competitors to continue to throttle the commerce of small brewers by referencing corrupt rules that weren’t fair when there were only 75 breweries after Prohibition was repealed and are even more outrageous now that there are over 1800 breweries.

I venture to guess that the reason Ansari is seeking a change in the rules is the absurdity of the following scenario. Under current rules, since the brewery is producing over 3,500 barrels of beer annually (more like 10,000), they exceed Minnesota’s brewpub definition. If they wanted to sell beer at their new location they would have to contract with a distributor and pay them 20, 30, 40% for the privilege to move a keg of beer from the brewery to the taps in front. Distributors/wholesalers argue that they are entitled to cut by law. It is bad enough that when they actually move craft beer from point A to B they don’t add that kind of value worth their fees, charging this bribe for doing nothing but a paper chase is un-freakin-believable.

As the old timers say, “For crying out loud!” I am getting surly. Well, I would if I could. Until then, I’m just plain pissed.

TPJ

Orchestrating Successful Cheese & Beer Pairings

Cheese and beer go really well together. They have for centuries. They grew up hand in hand in small settlements where early people first harvested grains and domesticated milk-giving herds. That may be old news. The newsbreak, though, is that today we live in a global village ensconced in thousands of cheese and beer choices. We have limitless possibilities to pair artisanal cheeses with craft beer from any place, anytime we want.

So why not get together with a few of your friends, or a few hundred of your customers, and orchestrate a perfect cheese and beer pairing?

Overture

Let’s begin with some precepts and traditions that leave your audience clamoring for an encore.

For cheese pairings that are not tied to a specific brewery or distributor’s line, it is best to select your cheeses first, then find the beers that harmonize. Fine cheeses are expensive, and at least in most places in America, selection is limited. If you have access to a huge variety of cheese or are planning on a tasting that pairs beers from a single source, say a brewery or a locality, choose a variety of beer styles to allow more flexibility in cheese selection.

The amount of cheese you serve depends on the event. If it is a course in a dinner, choose two or three cheeses and provide no more than one ounce of each cheese per guest. For full blown cheese and beer tastings you will want four to six varieties, serving between an ounce and an ounce and a half of each. A beer size of four ounces works well. You may also have some condiments, crackers, plain bread, and drinking water.

Cheese flights ready for the curtain to come up. (Source: ontolondon.blogspot.com)

There is a tradition in cheese tasting of working around the plate clockwise from the 6-o’clock position. Your guests may not be experts in cheese and may not recognize which cheese is which simply hearing the name of it. Starting at a set position allows everyone to stay together and pair the right cheese with the designated beer.

Just as with tasting a flight of beers, there can be palate fatigue. It is generally advised to move from mild, low acidity cheeses to blues or washed rind cheeses of greater intensity. Occasionally, the cheeses will be ordered more in relation to their milk type and age, putting younger goat’s and sheep’s cheeses first, then the older cow’s milk cheeses. The tasting order is really up to the planner where the judicious juxtaposition of textures, age, and rind can create exciting cheese drama. (Yes, I said that, cheese drama.)

First timers will benefit from a straightforward methodology for the tasting. Each should begin by getting familiar with the beer by sniffing and sipping some. This is a good time to recognize the major flavors in the mouth, including: grainy, toasty, malty, fruity, bitter, resinous, herbal and floral. More on beer flavor can be found at beersensoryscience, along with a nice version of the famous Meilgaard Beer Flavor Wheel.

After the beer has cleared the throat, place some cheese in the mouth. If the cheese has a distinct rind, start with some pâté from the center of the cheese, leaving the rind for a subsequent bite. Let that cheese soften on the tongue forming a paste. This only takes a moment, but it can be hastened by pushing the tongue upward until the cheese hits the roof of the mouth. Make a mental note of the principal cheese flavors and textures, which might include: creamy, buttery, nutty, sweet, tart, minerally, salty, musty, mushroomy, herbal or grassy. More cheese flavors are listed in this Italian cheese wheel, this French wheel specifically for Compté, and this source, too.

With the cheese soft on the tongue, add a sip of beer and notice how the cheese and beer combine in the mouth. At the very least there should be a happy balance between the flavors and intensities of both. Notice how the beer lightens the cheese texture and lifts it from tongue. Though we don’t usually eat this way, swishing the cheese and beer in the mouth enhances the reactions between the two and brings about a crescendo of flavor. In the best pairings you will observe harmonies, where the beer and cheese ennoble each other releasing hidden tones related to terroir and ingredients.

Providing a note card for people to jot down impressions is essential for commercial tastings. Casual sessions at home will benefit from this, too. It is common for a guest to enjoy a particular pairing and not be able to remember the names of a peculiar cheese or beer the next day.

Improvising

Cheese-beer tastings do not require a theme, although thematic pairings can be instructional. One approach is to have a “milk vertical.” Start by picking a type of milk, specifically, cow, goat, or sheep. Offer a range of cheeses made with that one kind of milk, working from the mildest to the strongest and saving blue mold and washed rind cheeses for the end.

You might pick all cheeses with a manufacturing similarity. For instance, bloomy rind or blue mold cheeses, or perhaps cheeses made by the cheddaring process. Cheeses could be grouped by texture, by region, or even a crazy, aesthetic theme. You might plate various cheeses that all have holes in them. On game day, say if you’re a Princeton fan, you could play off team colors with orange cheeses paired with black beers.

Generating Applause

Your cheese tasting can only be as good as the cheeses. You must find a reliable cheese monger and take the time to explore new styles. Most will happily give you a small taste of cheeses that interest you. Grocery chains may have the best price, but most of these cheeses will be produced by large factories and will typically be tamer in flavor. You want idiosyncratic cheeses from smaller producers that have been handled and sold by cheese experts.

Seek out local cheese producers. Their products haven’t suffered in transport, you can support local agriculture, and save a few dollars. As with craft beer, it is possible for artisan cheese makers to make almost any style they set their mind on. Absolutely first rate cheeses of many classic and emerging styles are now made in America. You just have to find where they’re hiding. Of course, finding treasured cheeses offers value to your guests, who can now purchase good local cheese instead of industrial imitations.

Researching pairings is key to finding the best combinations. Here a flight of mostly goat's milk cheeses are tasted with three different styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian witbier, and American wheat beer.

If holding a professional tasting for a paying audience, you must conduct trial tastings. What people are paying for is not just some cheese and some beer. We’ve probably all been let down by ill-rehearsed food-beverage events. Guests deserve to be entertained, educated, and wowed. Time permitting, trial tastings are even a good idea for a home pairing.

Trial tasting can allow you to discover where the cheese and beer you thought would surely match… simply don’t work. While each is good on its own, together they somehow get metallic or ammoniac or sour. Just as one pale ale differs from the next, cheddar is big universe, from young, bland and rubbery to grassy, nutty, crumbly, minerally, sharp and quixotic.

There is no substitute for knowing your audience. If hosting a casual tasting among friends there’s no need to be formal. Set out the cheeses on a nice wood or stone surface, provide cheese knives, and a little sign with each cheese name, milk variety, and place of origin. You may find that even in the most casual settings your guests will want to jot down their favorites for later, so provide a pen and paper.

In a more commercial environment, make sure you’ve done your homework on each cheese and each beer. Anticipate audience questions and be an authority. Know the manufacturing basics for each cheese. What type of milk? Pasteurized or raw? Special finishing with white mold or washed in beer? What season of the year was it made? Who makes it, a nunnery in the Pas de Calais or an old woman in the Alps or a huge factory in Lille? Understand why this cheese is special. Know why you chose it and rejoice in the complexity and balance of the beer pairing that you have chosen.

And there’s one last thing, that little three-letter word: fun. Any two persons’ tastes will differ as much as two blue cheeses. There is no absolute answer. Approach your cheese and beer pairing with a healthy attitude of discovery and you will excite and inform while the ancient and magical rhythms of cheese and beer do the rest.

Cheers, TPJ.

p.s. If you are in Nebraska, don’t miss the Cheese & Beer – Far & Near tasting. Friday, March 4, 2011, 6 pm at the Derailleur Tap Room in the Bricktop, 1427 O St., Lincoln, NE. Tickets are $45 and on sale now. Here’s the poster for the event and more details on the pairings are found here.

Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near

It has taken long hours in planning, scheming, and tasting, and now we’re just two weeks away from an awesome event: Cheese and Beer ~ Far and Near.

From the Press Release:

The Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop pairs their exclusive craft beer selection with handpicked cheeses from around the world. Cheese and Beer – Far and Near is a guided tasting designed to astound Nebraskans with exciting flavor combinations.

Five substantial portions of cheese with snifters of fine beer will be provided. The fascinating origins of traditional cow, goat, and sheep milk products will be described for cheeses from Nebraska, Massachusetts, England and France. Special ales and lagers from sought-after breweries in the US, Belgium, and Norway will be expertly matched to the cheeses and interesting facts of each beer’s production, ingredients, aromas, and flavors will be given.

The cost is $45.00 per person for the event, expected to cost upwards of $65-70 in larger cities. Tickets go on sale at the Derailleur Tap Room at the Bricktop at 4 pm on Friday, February 18th. Tickets are limited to the first 50 persons and are expected to sell out quickly.

For the past several weeks, Craft Beer Manager Jason McLaughlin, organic cheese maker Krista Dittman, and I have been tasting various cheeses against special beer selections. We’ve been looking not only for solid pairings, but pairings with synergies that release hidden flavors and liberate nuances. If you’ve ever added a few drops of spring water to a single malt whisky, or combined vanilla with lobster, you know what we’re talking about.

As a preview, I thought I’d list the courses in general terms. Maybe as we get closer I’ll provide more specifics, but that might take some prodding!

  • French abbey cheese, pasteurized cow’s milk, lightly washed rind, served with an abbey quadrupel from Belgium.
  • Artisanal chèvre log, blue mold exterior, paired with a Belgian witbier.
  • Rustic Spanish cheese, raw ewe’s milk, quite surprising with a Belgo-IPA and side condiment.
  • ‘Swissy’ farmstead cheese, raw cow’s milk, with a malty, nutty doppelbock.
  • English farmstead cheddar, raw cow’s milk, dances with a resinous American double IPA.

Jason and I will MC the event. He will describe the beer we’ve chosen, after which I’ll outline the cheese and guide the pairing of the two. We also have two special guests: Marty Wells from The Saucy Cook and Krista from Branched Oak Farm.

This is a high energy event that will last about an hour and a half. Come with an appetite and be prepared to be wowed. There will be cheese drama. Yes, that’s what I said cheese drama!

Cheers! TPJ

Extreme Beer Fest Photolog

This weekend’s little trip down the road to Omaha was really rewarding. This coming from a guy jaded by so many beer fests that he sometimes goes begrudgingly. Not this one, though. Things were off on the right foot, soon after arriving at the Best Western Seville Plaza. It was cheap, located in a neighborHOOD a mile and a half from the venue, so the cab fare wouldn’t break the bank. Better than that, they had a free van driven by a cool old dude named Larry who not only dropped me right at the joint, but he picked me up within minutes of a phone call after dinner after the festival. Big tips for ole Larry, for sure. Plus, the place was home to these gentile old southern gals, “Okay sugga” this and “what can I gitcha hon” that.

As for the beer fest, no more effusing, just pictures and few captions. They say it all.

 

Love those old farmer dudes. They enjoy their beer, not to mention that New Year's Eve dance where I saw them all doing Y-M-C-A!

Upstream brought on the goods. And I learned that jockey boxes were "fer leanin'".

Pretzel paradox.

Odells bringing on the Avant Peche. Too cooked and jammy for me... maybe if they served it on toast.

Enthusiastic volunteers and thirsty pilgrims. Not too many dumbass cloggers, too. If you mutter 'clogger' under your breath, most people will apologize and move away, unless they're loaded, in which case they can no longer hear.

"Why am I smiling? Don't be silly. Look what I'm serving!" For the record: St. Bernardus Abt and Tripel, Aventinus, etc...

Good job organizing and supplying able volunteers and plenty of good brews. See you next year. Cheers! TPJ

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – Recap

It has been too much lately, reading the exploits of my friends who only seem to frolic, never work. My old buddy Rodrigo reportedly has some sort of high-tech job, but all I see on Facebook are videos uploaded from his surfboard-mounted digital movie camera. Another friend, Phil, now living in Oregon goes snowboarding down Mt. Hood when he’s not doing… Come to think of it. What does he do?

Though I have been known to strap on snowshoes, I’m not too keen on drowning in the surf or ending up a crumpled pile of fleshy bones after suffering the effects of gravity. This week I goofed off in my own way. I cooked, I brewed, I ate, I laughed.

I even got in an argument with a drunk guy and called him by a piece of digestive system anatomy… to his face. I’m opinionated, but I rarely share that epithet in mixed company. We made up. He bought me beer. What will our next meeting bring?

It’s Sunday now and I’m basking in the success of being in my own, indefinable way, the champion of un-work.

Here is my nugatory rundown of the week.

  • Monday I ate lunch and contemplated Tuesday.

  • Tuesday was the day for the chocolate and beer. I kept my fingers crossed that chocolates would come from Lincoln’s Chocolatier Blue and they did! The beers were a variable bunch provided by a local distributor. By his own admission, the rep stated he hadn’t much experience with chocolate and beer – and it showed. But the deeper message that was planted in my brain had to do with the biases inherent in distributor-chosen selections. I feel a bitch session coming on that I’ll have to post in my Gripefruit section very soon! However, there were two delicious pairings, both with Weyerbacher beer (Easton, PA):
  1. Belgian-styled quadrupel Quad with the holiday spice chocolate (“You got your apricot in my custard!” “You got your cloves in my peaches!”)
  2. Rum Soaked Currant praline with Weyerbacher Tiny (“Bing, bang, bada bing bing bang.”)

  • Wednesday I brewed my traditional Baltic Porter,  a dark, potent lager that will cold condition towards perfection (what, can’t I aim high?) for a couple of months. Thanks to my new book Yeast (White and Zainasheff, Brewers Publications), my yeast cell counts were (say it like Carl Sagan) in the “billions and billions.” Within six hours of pitching the fermenters were rollicking and spewing stuff that only a homebrewer could love.

  • It was also a good time to save some spent grains from the brewing. I had an idea, actually I thought it to be a revelation, that I could make pumpernickel rye soft pretzels. The trick to using spent grains in bread is to purée them in a blender with some warm water. Otherwise you end up picking coarse grain husks from your teeth. The recipe included stone-ground rye flour, molasses, caraway seeds and a few standard bread ingredients. I won’t post a recipe here, not because the pretzels weren’t good – they were delicious – but because a black pretzel has a rather unappetizing appearance. Judge for yourself…

  • While the infamous pretzel dough was rising I met up with beer maestro Jason to try out a few more of our cheese pairings. We had settled on certain cheeses but were still searching for the specific beers to knock it out of the park. We settled on a date (March 4) and number of tickets to sell (50) and we are sure to sell out early. There is a practical size to a cheese-beer tasting; even this one will have 250 measured portions of cheese, the same number of beers to dispense, plus accouterments. Then everything has to be at the right temperature. I hope we’re getting prep help the day of…
  • Thursday rolled around and there were still pots and pans to clean from beer and pretzel operations. I put off the cheese making to Saturday. But I did stick with the plan to attend a six course beer dinner at a Greek restaurant called The Parthenon. If you read my previous thoughts on beer dinners, you know that I believe it is a good idea to have some moderate strength beers in the mix so you don’t turn into a “pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course.” What I failed to estimate were the portions of food. The first course of spice-rubbed chicken drumsticks pressure-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, sitting atop couscous flavored with lemon juice and blanched almonds was huge. What would pass for a chicken tagine entrée in some Moroccan restaurants was more food than an entire upscale beer dinner. By the fifth course, we were slung over the back of our chairs, our arms akimbo and eyes at half mast. Awesome, filling, soul-warming food. Then the soup bowl sized crème brulée, redolent with vanilla seeds. It had the consistency of melting ice cream. Here’s a similar recipe with a discussion on the key ingredient: vanilla bean paste. Oh mercy. Yes, if you’re wondering, we ate the whole thing.
  • Friday, is it Friday yet? Coasting just a bit. I spent most of the day researching an article for All About Beer magazine. Something about ancient beers and their cultural and ceremonial importance. Now, that is work. Sorry. Didn’t mean to mention the “w” word. I was trying to convince you that I am really just a professional goof-off. Back to being indolent… I made a batch of cider. Although I follow my own recipe, I’m going to let you in on a guilty little secret

  • Saturday – the Day of the Satur. I pause to imagine I know what a Satur is… some sort of man-beast mythic creature. Perhaps the body of a cow, a chalky green hide of lizard scales, angel wings, and man’s head that looks like Wallace. Or maybe I was channeling my inner cheese god. This day was for blue cow’s milk cheese in the British tradition, i.e. Stilton.

  • Saturday night it snowed again. A fair dose. After an hour and forty minutes of shoveling against the drifting snow, icicles on my eyebrows, I returned to the warm interior. No hot chocolate tonight. I have invented a new hot toddy that appeals to my woodland upbringing, my Scottish heritage, and, well, a desire to consume alcohol. I call my drink Woodsman’s Fly Dope because of its memorable aroma. First I make a big mug of strong tea using Lapsang Souchong tea. The tea has a huge pine/juniper smoke aroma and flavor. It brews a deep rust-colored tea with substantial body. So much body, in fact, that a wee dram of Scotch whisky is needed to lighten it up just a bit. The smoked tea and the peaty Scotch merge. Wisps of campfire memories wend their way through your skull like the figments they represent. Sleep will come, and dreams will weave my week into one confusing mural.

So, Rodrigo and Phil, right back atcha!

Cheers, TPJ.

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – What a Week!

What a Bohemian week it will be… I’m reminded just how cool Lincoln-town really is.

Thankfully a homebrewing homie turned me on to the Nebraska Beer Blog, maintained by a guy named Nick Spies. He keeps up on all the area events, of which there are many. I’m already in training for Omaha’s Extreme Beer Fest coming up next month.

Tonight I’ll be at one of the area’s best package stores, The Still, for a chocolate and beer tasting. It remains to be seen what beers and what chocolate. The distributor conducting the tasting is from Omaha, so the chocolates may not be coming from Lincoln’s newest treasure: Chocolatier Blue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. CB’s chocolates rely on Italian dark chocolate and fresh, local fillings from organic cream to roasted filberts to pears and bay leaf… world class pralines and I can ride my bike there!

Exceptional cream is blended with organic butter and 70% dark chocolate for a rich ganache then encased with a dark chocolate shell. (Courtesy: Chocolatier Blue)

Then tomorrow, after an early start on brewing (I’m cooking up a baltic porter by double decoction), I’ll be heading out to Bricktop. Bricktop is a dance club at night, run by a cool guy who escaped from Patchogue, Long Island.

Bricktop owner Dave loves 80s music, beer, girls, and of course, the Huskers.

In the early evenings, before the doom-tah-doom-tah-doom-tah starts, the place is called the Derailleur Tap Room and caters to beer connoisseurs. DTR’s beer master of ceremonies, Jason McLaughlin, and I are planning a cheese-beer pairing event in the near future. We’re going over a few of the pairings with beer fresh from the taps.

I’ve been studiously developing pairings with imported cheeses sourced from The Saucy Cook and some local gems from nearby creamery Branched Oak Farm. Beer can pair magnificently with cheese – uh – much of the time. It is not as forgiving as some beer apostles may lead you to believe, however. Some of my attempts to date have brought out a stark metallic note in the cheese or accentuated oxidation in the beer. But many of the pairings exhibit dramatic synergies that release hidden flavors in both the beer and the cheese. Stay tuned for the specific pairings!

One cheese I know we will feature is this lovely sheep's milk cheese from the French side of the Pyrénées: Ossau-Iraty. Sweet, nutty, semi-hard with slight vesicles.

Thursday morning I’ll be making cheese – this time an enriched cow’s milk blue. I’m shooting for something like Saint Agur. Mine will be whole, vat pasteurized cow’s milk with some whole cream added. The blue mold (Penicillium roqueforti) is introduced during the acidification (the first step in cheese making) and will take off after the finished cheese is pierced with a sterile pick and matures for two to four months in a cool conditioning room.

The "melts-in-your-mouth" enriched cow's milk blue from france - Saint Agur. (Source: http://www.relishcaterers.co.uk)

Then in the evening I’ll be attending a six-course beer dinner at the area’s renowned Greek restaurant, The Parthenon. Thankfully we will not have to choke down salty, husky Greek beer. I look forward to meeting whoever masterminded this dinner because they have had the good sense not to choose a lineup of big beers. All too often, when strong beers are served at this sort of thing I have seen a group otherwise eager beer lovers turned into a pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course. Beers of modest strength with a good depth of flavor are what you need. That’s why I’m looking forward to the main course: grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade and saffron orzo, served with Sprecher Black Bavarian-styled lager.

For Friday? I don’t know, might make a cider. Or if my venison connection comes in, it could be venison sausage with juniper and allspice.

Cheers! TPJ

Winter Migration Memoire – Departure

Journey is often on my mind. Not the irksome 70s band, I mean journey the process of moving through life. A journey, to my way of thinking isn’t a little undertaking. It isn’t trudging through of foot of snow to pick up some beer before the shop closes. Though I’ve done that and labeled it ‘epic.’

Journeys takes planning and commitment, or at the very least, powerful external forces acting upon us. How come? Because on some level we know that to journey is to toil. It may tire the body or challenge embedded beliefs. We have to accept that it is going to get harder before it gets better. And it does get better, it’s just that becoming comfortable with that notion might require some trust in yourself or your chosen itinerary or your ambitions of self-renovation. Journey is unclear. If the path is fully illuminated it is just a walk through a foot of snow to the beer shop.

Real journeys are not limited to the physical sort, those involving arduous travel. They can be of the emotional-spiritual sort with inner travails of cellular reprogramming… biochemically morphing your physiological response and your neural pathways.

Changing your religious beliefs involves journey. Journey could be finding a new attitude towards life while healing from a could-have-been-fatal disease.

Journey can be nearly freezing death while winter camping in Nova Scotia as images of an ice-bound bearded trapper and Micmac funereal stands and a fearsome man-bear spiritual figure taunt you to stay awake or else suffer the same frozen fate as that begrizzled long ago man motionless in ice.

Journey can be finding a ‘new’ interest in something halfway through your life, then gradually discovering that you know all about it, that you have known all about it all along. It could be music or woodworking or hospice care or abstract math or bass fishing or Tai Chi or growing vegetables or loving people unconditionally.

Journey will have unexpected consequences, synchronicity, unlikely meetings with average people who somehow peer right into you and know you and love you and teach and heal and surprise. Journey is supposed to be tough. That’s alright, it has rewards. When the voyage embodies both the physical and the metaphysical I am always left with more energy than I started with. You wonder why people go on a fast or run ultra-long distances or travel in non-touristic places. They are simply people who value certain kinds of journey. They have undertaken them before, they have realized growth from what they assimilated, and now they want more. I call this ‘growing forward.’

I am this way, too. At least I hope to be so.

My new seasonal migration route is between the expansive prairies of Nebraska and the tightly nested hills of Vermont. It is a formidable drive between two places that are important to me. These are places where I am rooting into the fabric of daily life, smelling the earth, noticing the distant horn of a freight train, writing. They are the same place really. You might not agree, if only because you think first of the physical world. That’s fine. I’m not trying to convince you of either place. These places are the poles of my pendulum and I expect most of the journey takes place as I swing from here to there.

As I said, it is a demanding drive, the better part of 30 hours. And while parts of the Interstate system are familiar to me from other migrations, parts are also new. More importantly, the main line of this drive opens up possibilities of discovery in places like central Pennsylvania, the Southern Tier of the New York panhandle, and the cities and farms of central Iowa. What lies in these places? I mostly don’t know. But I will surely get off the main track and see-feel-know for myself.

About a week ago I made the drive from hill to prairie. I wanted to have time in the daylight to close things up and that left me with a shorter first day, say seven or eight hours of driving. As the distant, white and fuzzy winter sun crept cautiously into the barren tree tops I made the last efforts to pack the truck, lock down the buildings, pack a lunch, say a prayer, and descend from my icy roost.

During this trip I knew my inner process would shift across what I call the five stages of journey. There is a planning step in which you gather your provisions, again the cache could be literal, things like food and maps and a coat and a toothbrush. Provisions could be the deals we make with people, Please do this if I don’t come back. You won’t have everything you need and you won’t need everything you brought. This truth leads one to pack fewer and fewer things as one become more experienced in journeying. This lightens the load, so to speak, and emancipates the voyager.

Embarkation follows. This is a period of excitement and alertness. There is a joy in celebrating that you’ve gotten this far, that you are underway. Your fertile imagination grows bounties of ‘what ifs?’ But you will end up realizing few to none of these dreams, because in order for journey to do its medicine you have to let go. Let go of preconception. Let go of path. Let go of need. Let go and just go.

As the toil of the journey wages on there is a time of uncertainty, of second-guessing of one’s motives, of self-doubt. This midpoint, though not necessarily right in the middle, can seem endless and monotonous. It is the time in a long race when you fantasize about a juicy hamburger or when that ache in your leg seems to dominate your perceptions above all else. This is the time, since having been on previous journeys, that you know is a passing feeling and that however interminable or uncomfortable you must push through.

The fourth stage is “horse coming home to the barn.” If you’ve ever seen the phenomenon, you know it is only a metaphor when applied to people. Horses really do pick up their energy when they know they are almost home. There is a downhill feeling at this time. It’s as if the real ‘work’ of the journey has taken place in the hard part, the interminable midsection. When I’m on my way to the barn I feel exhausted but not sleepy. I keep on going.

When I’m traveling with others this is the time they really resent me. I seem to just keep going and going, while they might be succumbing to the wear and tear of the mid-section, the germ they breathed on the plane a week before finally taking hold. If I had to explain why they get run down while I don’t, I would say it is because they didn’t embark on a journey. They didn’t plan, they didn’t schedule, they didn’t imagine when and where we would go off the plan, when we’d let go. They just went on a trip, while I was undertaking a journey. There is no better or worse, right or wrong here. Journey is fundamentally a personal pursuit.

The fifth stage hits me after arrival. I am alert and immersed in a glow of being self-aware and present in the moment. Someone will say, “You must be tired!” And I have to watch the signals I give, because I’m not tired yet, I’m thrilled. I reflect on the journey and take stock in the experiences. I marvel at how certain people and places seemingly conspired to make me see something or learn something about myself, or give me hope for this sorry lot we call the human race. Yes, there is fatigue, but it is a well-earned, rich and satisfying exhaustion from which one plunges into restful sleep.

So I drive from the hills to the prairie… by way of hours of backed up New Year’s Eve traffic on the Connecticut freeway system. Carl knew better. He always took the Taconic Parkway. A little longer, curvier, hillier and serene. The New York State Thruway is a blessing, too, not because I would ever take it, but because it runs parallel to the Taconic, just on the other side of the Hudson River. Most everyone takes that road instead.

Taconic Parkway view facing the Catskills.

The Taconic is a proto-interstate built on old Indian byways. It winds through the foothills east of the Hudson. Beyond the river valley old towns with Dutch names lurk in the forest and above them tower the Catskills. On this day they look positively massive as they peer through wintery clouds, as the first mantle of this year’s snow merges with the clouds like a forgotten Japanese ink drawing of Mt. Fujiyama hanging in a long-abandoned motel room.

The views from this road never look the same to me. It is as if the roadway slithers around its general course and each time I drive upon it I see places I don’t remember seeing before. I like to say Taconic the Algonquin way: make a mouthful of spit and say taghkanic. It gives me chill, like whenever I hear bagpipes – a reminder of distant lifetimes that I know something about. I know something about it, but I do not deign to explain it. I would just be making up stories. Next trip, no more Danbury Dip. Take the Taconic.

Then on to Pennsylvania, a northeast state that always surprises me how long it takes to traverse. I had an appointment with a homebrew shop in Akron the next day. I had to get pretty far along, at least halfway across the Commonwealth. And so it happened that I had looked around for breweries near where I thought I might end up. It was a loose plan, one that allowed for me being energetic enough to carry on for a couple of more hours. But I also knew that I’d be in the third stage, the self-doubt and time-moves-slowly stage. There was a little town called Millheim, somewhere off the freeway and in the folded limestone hills east of State College. A beer writer I trust had said some good things. The only accommodation nearby was a family-run place, a cluster of five single cottages, a mile to the east. By the time I arrived they would have “rolled up the sidewalks,” as my mother was fond of saying.

It was dark now, and had been for a couple of hours. I managed to not overshoot my exit and soon found myself at a stop sign, headlights peering through inky dark into impenetrable woods. No buildings, no lights, no sign of habitation. Left turn. Winding road warning sign, whew, down to 20 miles per hour just to stay out of the woods. I needed to come down from the highway speeds to this new place, a place with such a winding, plummeting little road that I thought I might be in Dummerston, VT. Had I really been driving for nine hours? Had I left Vermont? How could I be this turned around?

With a new breath the lay of the land began to agree with me and after going down into a stream valley and up the other side, and down again, the road straightened out somewhat and I came upon two flashing red tail lights on an as yet invisible and slow-moving thing, a tractor I thought. But as I pulled on by I saw it was an Amish buggy, a sleek black pony clopping along sending frosty spirals of steam from its nostrils, nearly the only thing illuminated by the light on the front of the craft.

I was to pass five more identical buggies in the few miles it took to get to Millheim. My first thought was how undereducated I was to think that the Amish only lived in Lancaster County. Of course they would be here, in verdant vales and foggy meadows, along age-old farm roads, atop rich damp soil. Of course. I’m traveling these twisting, late night roads with Amish buggies and snorting ponies and it should be said, with headlights and taillights, the price of a high speed society “evolving” around this idyllic existence. The long barns and white clapboarded farmhouses, dimly lit by their Spartan inhabitants… A sliver of moon just hinting at the murky meadow’s edge where it meets the deer-filled old sugarbush… A dip in the road, a narrow concrete bridge, a trout stream passing beneath. I’m beginning to understand this place and I haven’t yet seen it in the daylight.

Somehow I already knew I would be back, especially if the beer was good. Every great pilgrimage needs a few good way stations and I’m not averse to returning to a place. But I can become jaded by so many brewpubs. Sometimes I just go to say I’ve been, to check them off a list. But beneath that is the real reason I hunt down new beers: because every one out of so many is really delicious, made by interesting people, set in a fascinating backdrop, or otherwise hints at a little bit of treasured and elusive synchronicity that happens when my spirit guides just happen to be in the same room with me. It has been a while since I found one of those amazing places. I was overdue. I did not want to become a curmudgeon, a stiffy, a person with ever-narrowing beliefs, such as happens with age. I see it all around me. Part of this journey was the sometimes difficult rehearsal to keep my eyes open and not tell my eyes what to see. It takes practice to let go and be only in the present moment. Journey is ironic like that, that while one usually plans the undertaking, at some point the planning has to evaporate. When that transition occurs you find yourself in another place that you see as if for the first time. It is like waking up in a friend’s guest room all disoriented. Where am I? How did I find myself here? Where is here? That changeover from planned to purely spontaneous is the thing that happens in the midstretch of journey. For me it is what journey is all about. And you can’t predict it, you can’t wait for it. It might never come. It’s like happiness. You know it when you experience it but you can’t always know how you got to that state. You find yourself there, and in that place you can find yourself.

Though I felt the unknown was just around the bend I was still being practical, still conscious of a plan, but I could feel effort and posture and itinerary blowing away, like the last durable brown leaves of winter finally dislodging from their oak and beech limbs. My last conscious thought for the day was that it might not be worth coming back here. While trying to keep an open mind my mind began to open.

Was this a place you could ride a bike, fell a tree, organize a lawyer’s records, patch a broken soul, any of these or all? Does it have the local-ness, the genuine full-bodied lifestyle I crave these days? Whole-some-ness? These are questions that shot past me. Were their answers relevant, worth seeking? I’m writing them down so fast, so fearful of missing a thought, that I’ve broken a sweat. That’s what happens when the richness of being present overflows me.

To be continued… TPJ

LambicLand – Getting the Scoop

Tart cherries added to lambic (wild-fermented wheat beer) will mature into a wine-like delicacy called kriek. (Source: beermad.org.uk)

As a beer traveler and sometimes tour guide I admit to a certain one-upsmanship. That being the occasional need to outsmart the geekiest of the beer nerds. I dig out tidbits that never hit the mainstream websites and aren’t in the more well-known guidebooks. If I’m on top of my game I don’t even make a big thing of it, but behind the scenes I am really doing my homework.

Of course it’s work. You have to shuttle yourself through the warp and weft of local customs, language, and geography. In Belgium, I dress in plain, dark clothes, speak softly, and don’t ask anything important in the first hour. Unlike a lot of American tourists, I have no objection to changing my dress code and lowering the volume of my voice in a beer café. I’d like to think that I’m not the American that gave American’s a bad name in the first place.

Point being, it’s the little nuggets you accumulate while exercising discretion that really make you worth hiring as a tour guide or as an author. Same’s true for an earnest traveler with a thirst for experience: little facts just make the journey more tangible, more memorable.

Once, in Namur, Belgium, I met an interesting chap named Georges. He told me he had found a great beer near Charleroi that nobody knew about. By telling me, he was giving me, in his words, “a scoop.” Georges’ mom was American and his pop was a Walloon. In true Belgian style he spoke a basket full of languages. His English was so good he spent Saturdays translating British comedies into French.

“It’s called Cuvée de Trazegnies. It’s really good,” he told me. “Go there and find it. Then you can tell your people about it.”

Right! So, on to the little town of Trazegnies (pron: trazsh-knee). I gassed up in the small town and asked directions.

“Excusez-moi monsieur. Connaissez-vous la bière Cuvée de Trazegnies?”

“Ah, Brasserie Lannoy…” and then some patchy directions, which managed to get me a few streets closer. Repeat. Get closer. Then finally to a shop window with said beer. But the place was closed. The lady in the market across the street told me the father of the man who made the beer ran a charcuterie, through the next town, near the motorway. He might have some beer in the cooler.

This was followed by trying to solicit more help from a lady in the next village’s town hall. We were going nowhere fast until she realized my French pronunciation was not due to being a Dutch-speaker from the north of Belgium. See, dressing like the locals confused the locals!

“Vous-êtes flamande?”

“Non, je suis americain,” I replied.

“I speak a bit of English,” she offered, now that she didn’t have to defend her heritage to one of those Flemish brigands. There were soon maps being photocopied and outlined in yellow marker, and in due time (actually about three minutes down the road) I came to said charcuterie. Indeed the beer was there. I bought a bottle of the blonde and bottle of the brune.

That evening I ended up at another brewery. I brought the beers with me. The brewer and his wife studied the labels, scrutinized the corks. Tasting seemed to be secondary. After a short tête à tête they said they had no idea who made the beers and knew nothing about this brewery. It was less than 20 minutes away from them! We decided the blonde was a good one and the brune “not so good.” I still didn’t have my scoop. I hadn’t met Monsieur Lannoy, I hadn’t seen the brewery. To make matters worse, my companions told me that the labeling on the two bottles was so precise and equal, that this beer could only have been made at a large and somewhat modern brewery.

Cuvée de Trazegnies wasn't made by Brasserie Lannoy after all. It was made in neighboring Binche at the Brasserie la Binchoise. (Source: http://www.lionnet-th.net)

Later, after more research on my own, I discovered the beer was being brewed on contract for Lannoy by Brasserie la Binchoise. It was a bière d’etiquette (literally “label beer”), a contract beer made on behalf of someone who didn’t even have a brewery. Well, it might have been a scoop.

I’m telling this cautionary tale to make a point: that it takes a lot of effort to chase down beer in Belgium. Same’s true for a lot of places. This was just one example. Similar pursuits have lead me to all sorts of wondrous places, like a cheese ripener’s caves or a Vermont farmhouse cidery with big dogs (but no cider in sight) or a descent into private lambic maturation cellars. The outcome may or may not be important, but the process can bring on a mighty thirst.

Esoteric beer guidebooks and travelogues are some of my resources. Wherever there is beer there will be some person with too much ambition and a spouse with a good salary. They take up the cause and chronicle this region or that style or other. I have a shelf load of out of print doozies. And what’s odd, half the time the book is written by an outsider. Sure Michael Jackson came to America and told us about real beer. Larry Hawthorne wrote the best book on the Munich beer scene. And a sometimes dodgy clutch of Brits have devoted themselves to describing beer in Belgium, Holland, France and elsewhere.

LambicLand is THE scoop.

Today I’m giving up on one of my trade secrets. Why? Well, I’m not running any trips soon and the landscape of lambic beers is so tenuous that I’d be just plain mean for keeping this timely information to myself. Take my little story about Cuvée de Trazegnies and multiply it by a hundred. That is what Tim Webb and his co-authors have endured to produce the second edition of LambicLand – A journey round the most unusual beers in the world.

California brewer Lee Chase, the author, and Tim Webb in a well-known little Bruges beer bar...

I met Tim a few years back in a Bruges beer bar. I found him easy-going and super knowledgeable. I already owned an earlier edition of his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, now in its sixth incarnation. One thing I’ve always liked about his books, they don’t draw arbitrary lines between the brewery and the retail establishments where you can find the beer. Sure, sometimes the brewery itself is atmospheric, but it can be anything from awkward to impossible to get into some breweries. Continental formality really requires advance appointments for most brewery visits. If you’re contrary to that, if you’ve coerced brewers to give you tours on just showing up, then you are the Americans that give Americans bad names. Pay attention.

Mr. Webb, along with Chris “Podge” Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, have chronicled every lambic brewer, gueuze blender (geuzesteker), cherry steeper (kriekenweker), and diminutive local serving everything from faro to kriek to oude geuze to the most challenging vieille lambic. One of the peculiarities of the lambic scene is the small number of actual brewers and the vast number of permutations created from their beers by the brewers themselves and blenders and steepers.

When I think back to my escapade of looking for that scoop on Cuvée de Trazegnies, I realize I have nothing on these guys. Their level of dedication and effort at once humbles me and pisses me off. Why am I pissed? Because with a short, claustrophobic jump through the Chunnel, these bastards are there drinking lambics and gueuze while the rest of us are destined to take what little the importers can wrangle, or be happy with armchair travels through the most peculiar and rewarding beer landscape that ever draped the planet.

My hat is off to the authors for this excellent work. I hope they at least break even. If you are planning explorations of any kind in the great Republic of Belgium, this book is a must-have. Available from Cogan & Mater, along with several other great titles on beer.

Cheers. TPJ.

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