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

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Getting Cheese Delirious

Chèvre interior, blue mold exterior! Served with a refresher from Leuven!

I’ve got a serious case of ‘ants in my pants.’ Look what UPS just delivered for Friday’s cheese and beer event! He was smirking as he bounced down the stairs. Was it the fact that I was caught listening to SOMA-FM’s Underground 80s music at a volume sufficient for a block party? I wouldn’t know, because I was momentarily distracted by the lyrics…

A little something to make me sweeter
Oh baby refrain from breaking my heart
I’m so in love with you
I’ll be forever blue
That you give me no reason
Why you’re making me work so hard

Erasure was the one-hit-wonder, in case you must know. Kismet, synchronicity, or just the hollow-graphic nature of New Wave? Dunno. As an old friend used to paraphrase from a very different band in the 80s “Nous sommes des fromages.” 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

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

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

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.

The Reinheitsgebot is Nonsense

There is a lot to be said for tradition, more so than ever with the current trends of cultural homogenization and closures of local businesses. And while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.

Its relevance in focusing the styles of Germany has been been as instructive and destructive as 13 years of Prohibition were in this country. Gose (pron: gōz-eh, a sour beer made with naturally salty water), breyhan (sour wheat beer), grätzer bier (highly hopped, pale, smoked wheat beer), and many varieties of fruit or spiced beers – gone! Some of these lost styles are only now being made again in a few of the more risk-tolerant brewpubs.

I’m not going to get emotional about it, no not me, not like the rabid advocates of this misappropriated and antiquated policy. But it is fair time we let the cat out of the bag.

The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced something like: HRHINE-hites-ghe-boat) literally means “purity order.” However it was not until 1908 that that term gained use as a title. Originally is was called the “surrogate prohibition” decree. It was laid down in April of 1516 by the Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X of Bavaria. But the concept is even older. A similar document, predating the other by over 80 years, was uncovered north of Bavaria in Thuringia in 1999.

The order has since been touted as a way of protecting the wheat and rye for the baking industry, ensuring strange ingredients were kept out of beer, or even as a consumer protection act, but it holds darker secrets. As far as beer quality goes, the code does not require traditional methods like decoction, nor eschew off-flavors like diacetyl. Growers are free to use pesticides, and brewers can use chemical additives and chemically extracted hop oils. No, the “purity order” doesn’t say anything about healthfulness. In fact, organic beer producers pose a real threat to the house of cards upon which this marketing phenomenon has been built.

Brewers had been using wheat and rye and medicinal herbs and mushrooms in their beer. What is now Germany was a region of rich and varied brewing traditions that had been documented as far back as “the Holy Roman Empire.” Why worry about what brewers put in their beer? If you make a beer with weeds from your yard and rye with fungus growing on it (ergot is a rye rust from which LSD was first isolated), people will either like or not. If they like it they’ll come back for more. If they don’t, well, the brewer had better find a different line of work. Then again, maybe that’s the sensibility of the modern free market, and as we’ll see, the Reinheitsgebot is not at all about a free market system.

Only a single stanza of the decree deals with ingredients – the rest is about price controls. In the highly touted ingredient portion, the decree stipulates that beer must be made exclusively from barley and hops and water. One commonly hears about how yeast hadn’t yet been described by Louis Pasteur, so it was fine that yeast was left off the list. But even brewers in this dark time knew that one cropped the barm from one batch to the next. No, there was deeper meaning in the Reinheitsgebot…

One way to think about it is that the Dukes had created a more restrictive definition for the word “beer,” along with the provision that anything not meeting the definition could be confiscated by the authorities without compensation to the brewer.

Modern historians endlessly quote one another, saying that the underlying reason for the rule was to ensure that there was adequate wheat and rye for making bread. Frankly, bread, beer, what’s the difference? – they are both hearty, nourishing comestibles and generally immune to Medieval sanitation problems.

There was no way the people were going without their beer, so if the overlords said this is the way it must be, you might as well roll with it. Besides, if you didn’t abide by the code the authorities would confiscate your beer without remuneration. What these historians fail to mention is who owned all the barley fields. You guessed it, the Dukes. The original Reinheitsgebot was market protection for the wealthy. And you thought American corporate lobbying was a new idea?

 

The Reinheitsgebot has been modified throughout history - the current definition bears little resemblance to the original. (Source: google, frequency of historical dates with regard to the rule.)

As time went on the rule was variously massaged, abandoned, lost and rediscovered, until it ultimately arrived in its modern form – as a shallow marketing tool to help push claims of traditionalism behind your beer product. How could I posit such claims? Well consider the following, which I’ve knocked down to only a handful of points.

The original decree affected only the feudal region of Bavaria. Later, as Germany began its long crawl from 300 fiefdoms towards today’s single nation, Franconia and Thuringia were added, and the Reinheitsgebot came along for the ride. But after a couple of centuries one heard much less about the decree. It became seen more or less as a rule for pricing and taxation on beer.

Almost from the beginning the rule was gradually modified. In the 17th century a provision to allow brewing with wheat was added, but only members of the aristocracy were allowed to do so. Reorganization in 1803 resulting from the Napoleonic wars saw the famed brewing cities of Bamberg, Nürnberg, and Bayreuth added to a growing Bavarian state. The Reinheitsgebot now expanded northwards. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, the states of Baden and Württemberg in southwest Germany were added.

But back in 1810 Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in Munich. Five days after the royal wedding the commoners were invited to a field for horse racing and, it goes without saying, beer drinking. The party grew into an annual commercial enterprise, and by 1818 mercantile beer stalls had appeared.

The grand wedding reception had inaugurated the Oktoberfest tradition. Some say the Reinheitsgebot had been lost in obscurity and largely ignored for the previous couple of centuries. With the rise of Prince Ludwig, a descendant of the of the original Ludwig X, talk of the Reinheitsgebot re-ensued.

The latest ode to the Reinheitsbegot: the Kuchlbauer museum in Abensberg, Germany. It houses an exhibition on the German "beer purity" tradition.

So the Reinheitsgebot’s influence grew throughout Bavaria and other German city-states. In 1919, at the close of WWI, further consolidation took place when the Weimer Republic was formed. As a condition of joining, Bavaria, the largest single participant, asserted that the purity law had to apply to everyone else in the Republic. Even some other countries, Greece and Sweden for example, adopted the standard. In the most amazing display of vibrato, Germany even tried to leverage their participation in the EU with the five-centuries old ball and chain. But in 1987 the EU ruled it an obstacle to commerce. Which it always was.

Some American brewpubs and microbreweries even began touting the rule as a marketing device. It’s not so surprising. We’re victims of the preferential retelling of history and we love a hero. Just as we still think Benjamin Franklin was a great and mighty man of all seasons. No, he was a misogynist, turned-with-the-winds kind of guy who took credit for the work of those around him. But we really do admire that portly gentleman dangling a key from a kite string, don’t we? Now even Ben Franklin is a marketing device with the oft-misquoted “Beer is living proof that God loves us…” bit.

This is not to say that there aren’t other obstacles to beer commerce and that megalithic global corporations don’t dominate the market. There are, and they do. But at least the Reinheitsgebot is finally being seen for what it is: antiquated, price fixing, trade control, and pap marketing.

I’m not alone in thinking the Reinheitsgebot has outlived its usefulness:

[Note: with this piece I am inaugurating a new category on the Palate Jack called Gripefruit – my bitter editorials. Don’t fear, there will always be sweet stories to temper the bitterness.]

Cheers! TPJ

“New” Beer Style: East Coast IPA

Brewers and brewphiles have been clamoring lately about Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA, as a new beer style. In that spirit I offer my proposal for a not-so-new beer style called East Coast IPA. Incidentally, I’m not the first to ponder this question. What is an East Coast IPA and how does it differ from a West Coast version?

One of the many full-bodied, malty/fruity East Coast IPAs.

In a nutshell, it is a malt-forward, moderately bitter ale, just a tad over average beer strength. Common flavors can include pronounced fruitiness, e.g. apricots, apples, or strawberries. Hop aromas and flavors can be a muddy mix of earthy, musty, or balsamy notes. And diacetyl, that wretched, oily butter flavor and sensation, is far too common. The last bit can be explained by the proliferation of the Ringwood strain of yeast on the oriental side of the continent. But as for the dearth of hops and the banal strength of these beers, the best answer is found by digging deep into the New England psyche and palate.

Now really, I’m a lover not a hater. I’m also a 9th generation New Englander, so bear with me as I make comments that could be viewed as specious. Some have speculated that the West Coast uses more hops because they are closer and fresher. I don’t buy that, what with FedEx and hermetically sealed bales of hops. It isn’t the water, because brewers adjust the water to whatever they want. The grains are from the Midwest or from Europe, so all American brewers have access to the same ingredients. Why the difference?

Think of it this way, the traditional foods around here are boiled vegetables, beef, and potatoes. There are no chilis and few tropical spices in this lineage. Excessive bitterness favors certain foods, including spicy foods. In New England you’d be surprised how many people think Taco Bell is good Mexican food. To me it is neither spicy nor good. That’s not to say things aren’t changing, but old habits die hard. Magic Hat amped up their IPA a couple of years ago and Otter Creek is launching a hoppy American black ale this fall. It is also colder, on average, than most of the West Coast. That’s why we like a little sweeter beer around here – we’re trying to burn the sugar to keep warm.

Not your average East Coast IPA!

I’ve come to the conclusion that IPAs are interpreted differently on the two coasts because of the breweries’ mindset, not that of the consumer. I believe in the axiom that if you brew it they will come. Stone and Dogfish should be evidence enough on that score. In my own instance, I find most East Coast IPAs (except for Smuttynose IPA and some occasional one-offs), to be fat, flabby, or weaker than what I have come to appreciate as an IPA. Others, like Ipswich and Harpoon are dreadfully austere. East or West, an IPA should be a hop explosion, an aromatic festival, and the bitterness should cling in the mouth while building appetite and excitement. After all, when I want wine it is chardonnay over chenin blanc. When I choose a whisk(e)y I want a Scotch single malt, not a Crown Royal. When I want a dull, buttery beer I’ll order an Abita. On second thought, probably not.

I decided to put my views to a simple test, relying on brewery websites and Beer Advocate for inputs. I tallied up ten major IPAs I can easily obtain when I’m in Vermont, and ten others that I would find if I were based in, say, San Diego. I stayed with the mainstream brands that are widely available in bottles and I didn’t list any of the IPA permutations: double IPAs, black IPAs, and one-off releases. In other words, I tried to avoid bias without getting too scientific about it. Here’s what I found (shown with 1 sigma standard deviation):

  • New England – 10 IPAs
    • strength: 5.8% ± 0.4% abv
    • bitterness: 51 ± 10 IBU
    • aroma: medium
  • West Coast – 10 IPAs
    • strength: 6.4% ± 0.7% abv
    • bitterness: 62 ± 18 IBU
    • aroma: strong

Not only do the West Coast IPAs use more bittering, they also put in more flavor and aroma hops. Since some of the New England examples relied on American hop varieties, it isn’t clear to simply say that East Coast IPAs are essentially English-styled IPAs, though many are.

Maybe it was the autumn chill, but I am hankering for an IPA with a bit more warming and a hop blast. I think I’ll pick up some Smuttynose on my next trip to the packy. Enjoy! TPJ

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