The Value of Consistency

One of my professors told me that anyone can make a good beer, but only a good brewery can make a consistent beer.  At first I disagreed.  I would rather have a good beer than a beer than tasted the same every time.  After tasting a few beers, some from my favourite breweries and some from breweries I didn’t regard well, I realised he was right.  All my favourite breweries turned out consistent product.  They also happened to have a good recipe to work from and brewed them consistently to recipe.

It only takes one or (sometimes) two badly brewed beers to turn me off a brewery.  If I turn up to dinner with my recent favourite that has gone sour or buttery, it’s likely I won’t buy it again to bring to a party.

A consistent beer demonstrates that the brewer knew what he was doing.  Even if he chooses to brew a beer that I’m not particularly fond of, maybe someone else is.  But I’ve come to agree with my professor – a good brewer is a consistent one.

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End of first term and the beginning of something bigger

I’ve been absent from posting lately as the school term comes to a close and exams crowd in.  I should probably be studying right now but thought I’d take the time to let my dear, small readership know we have bigger things brewing on the blogosphere.

As many of you know, my now-hometown of Dundas is fast becoming a food destination.  So over a night of strong brew and chicken wings, I conspired with five other food bloggers (each with their own unique expertise in the food arena) to combine our blogs into a superblog covering beer, whiskey, butchery, cheese, coffee roasting, restauranteurship and anything else we run into along our travels chasing The Great Morsel.  I’ll continue to write about beer and provide photography for the blog – which I’ll start naming as soon as we have a name.  Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, I had a chance to taste beer-in-process with the brewmasters at Steamwhistle and Mill Street, showing me their beers from day one after fermentation through to the finished product.  I’m also in the midst of fine-tuning a beer menu from the local fine-dining restaurant, Quatrefoil (who keep getting more and more amazing reviews).  And I had a chance to join Great Lakes Brewery for their Project Xmas launch, where they put four fine casks on for their loyal drinkers, including a jokey Polish Meat Sandwich lager – which tasted exactly as advertised.  You had to like garlic.  A lot.

So, more posts coming down the line after this week’s intense barrage of exams and hopefully next time I’ll have a name for Dundas’ new food superblog.

Cheers!

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Good beer gone bad

We’re currently studying the ways in which good beer can go bad – and there are many.  Beer can take on papery/metallic/lipstick flavours if laid flat, letting the beer react with the cap of the beer and oxidising.  But most offensive of all is when live yeast runs out of sugar to munch on and begins to cannibalise other yeast.  The flavour is a sewer-like and sulphury flavour.  That is the beer I drank tonight.

The Belgians are huge proponents of putting live yeast in their bottles to allow for continued flavour development as the beer ages.  A good bottle with live yeast can age for 5 years or more – bringing complexity and depth to the brew.  Or, sometimes the yeast runs out of food and turns on one another – such is the tale of my Brasserie Cantillon Grand Cru that I had been saving for a gathering of friends.

The bottle was capped and corked.  It poured without head or carbonation.  The typical Lambic sourness was intensified.  Five glasses were served and the typical response was to spit the beer back into its glass.

Beer is a fickle thing – demanding conditions for the living food to remain in peak form.  When there are a lot of flavours going on, an off-flavour can go unnoticed in small doses.  But when the beer is light and has an easy-drinkablility, it becomes easily noticed.  If you were to think of beer as a landscape painting, a full-bodied Belgian Lambic would be a jungle of different flavours.  A Coors Light, Victorian Bitter or Foster’s would be a grassy field.  A single tree (off-flavour) in a grassy field is easily identified, but in a jungle – a little harder to pick.  We picked it out – but only for the reason that in this jungle of flavour, this tree could have made enough sawdust to provide Disneyland with enough to mop up vomit for a year.

I’m going to replace the bottle, as I hear Brasserie Cantillon is a fine brewery and makes fantastic beer – and for $25 a bottle, it should.

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Moving wine from the dinner table

Midterms are over and I’m returning to the front of my computer to blog again rather than research the usefulness of wheat flour as an adjunct in beer (summary: sometimes wheat flour is good in beer to create a stable head or cloudiness).  In between reading lots of beer biochemistry and the science of suds, I’ve been looking at how food pairs with beer (summary: food is awesome with beer).

Beer is a food.  And it wants to be with other food.  This became apparent to me when I headed down to my local, well-stocked and well-informed cheese shop with a six pack of assorted craft beers after closing and worked my way through them and various cheeses to find the combinations that sang.  Stout and Stilton does this and so does Oktoberfests and Gouda.  The key seems to be matching the intensity of the two.  Big beer = big cheese.

What’s nice about beer as opposed to wine, is that the carbonation of the beer lifts the cheese from the tongue and creates this cheesey-beer brew in the mouth.  If you can get the marriage to really sing, it’s hard to tell where the cheese finished and beer starts – or vice versa.

It’s the same with food, although my research is inconclusive until I sit down with the talented people at Quatrefoil Restaurant and research my way through some duck confit and a Lagunitas Wilco Tango Foxtrot.  Once again, the pairing seems to be matching the intensity of the flavours.  Fresh, seasonal salad = lightly hopped, fruity Belgian Lambic.  Big, citrusy-hopped Double Indian Pale ale = hot, full-flavoured curry.  I should make a cautionary note here – a DIPA with a hot curry will greatly amplify the heat and awesomeness of the curry.

I’ve just made another run to Buffalo for beer today and my fridge is humming contentedly, full of beer waiting to stand proudly on the dinner table beside the haughty wine bottle.

Oh, and I had a chance to pop into Bar Volo for their Cask Days event – which boasted 55 casks to sample from.  The photos from the day are the most accurate witness – although I remember enjoying all of the beers greatly, especially those from Quebec.

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The best I ever had…

I purchased it from my butcher and it was red and flecked with small specks of fat.  I took it home and ate it the next day.  It was rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper while the grill heated up.  Six minutes a side and four minutes rest.  I ate it with a peppercorn spiced beer from Quebec.  Its fat was butter, the meat was sweet, soft as a twinkie and slightly nutty.  If I’m ever granted a last meal, let it be this steak again.

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Beer of the Month – Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale

There are a lot of beers that raise a smile, a few that draw a laugh and a handful that melt the back of your brain and explode your heart with happiness.  To be fair, given the right time and place, any beer can do this.  But it’s those that consistently astound the palate with flavour and depth that I – and most beer enthusiasts – laud.

After some request for pointers as to where to start in the broad marketplace of craft beer, I thought that by compiling a list of beers that are consistently impressive, I might recommend a ‘Beer of the Month’.  And this month, it’s Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’.

Good gravy this beer is good.  It’s a sour ale, with a body as big as its heart-warming characteristics.  It flushes the palate with sour fruit and aromatic, floral hops – with a short, but lingering finish.  The intensity dies quickly, leaving behind that sour, robust hopiness and balance that is oft missed by a degree here or there.

This one also pairs nicely with a creamy triple-brie or old comfort cheese.  And if you get a chance, pick up a bottle of Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Wild ale – femented with wild yeast, in the spirit of our Belgian, lambic-beer making brethren.

Really phenomenal stuff.

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A lesson in the sensory evaluation of beer

I’m four weeks into the brewmaster course and getting an idea how the course is starting to pan out.  Sadly, we’re not brewing yet, while the brewhouse equipment is being constructed, but that leaves time for the tomes of theory and liters of practical knowledge that must be absorbed and imbibed.

Suffice to say, sensory evaluation classes are the highlight of the week.  We gather in the tasting room – the same as the wine students do for their libation of choice – and learn the language and techniques to deconstruct and describe beer.  In this regard, we’re fortunate to have Mirella Amato guiding the class with selections of good beer and passion for the brew.

This week was an ingredient tasting lesson.  Water, malts and hops were sampled alongside beer (for the yeast – cough, cough) to deconstruct the brew into its elements in order to understand from which ingredients the notes in the finished product originated. These are some malts.

Malt is the basis for beer and a number of spirits.  It’s made by germinating grain (usually barley) to convert the starchy seed into a fermentable sugar.  Once it’s sugar, it can be transformed into alcohol with the help of some yeast.

Hops are also a good addition to beer.  In the last 800 years, they’ve become a standard ingredient to add bitterness and aroma; help retain the head on a beer and prevent spoilage with its antiseptic qualities.  Many people, upon smelling fresh hops become what is commonly known as a ‘hophead’.  Their aroma is infectious.  These are some pellet hops.

When tasting a beer, you want to get your nose into it right away.  There are a lot of volatiles in a beer that will disappear in a minute or so that you don’t want to miss.  But before you go sticking your nose in the glass, make sure your beer isn’t too cold.  A cold beer, much like winter, is an aroma-less thing and not really worth stopping to take a whiff.  Your beer doesn’t need to be room temperature, but it also shouldn’t be ‘Rocky Mountain Cold’ as Coors Lite ads would have you drink it (to hide their terrible, terrible flavour).

So you’ve got your 6-10 degree Celsius beer, popped the top off and stuck your nose in it.  Hopefully you’re noticing a few things in there – maybe a bit of caramel, some grassy hops, some bready yeasts, whatever.  After a whiff or two, you stop noticing the flavours.  This is the time to take a whiff of your sleeve and clear your olfactory senses for another whiff.

Some beers can be snorted like this for 10 or 20 minutes.  The aromas will morph as the beverage warms up in your hands.  Generally speaking, the better the beer, the more pleasing character it will reveal as it warms.

Usually at the point that you start salivating is when you should take a drink.  I like to give it a big swish and create lots of foam in the mouth on the first sip.  This gives a feel for how watery or full-bodied the beer is.  And unlike our wine-drinking cousins, we drink every drop.  It’s only after it’s swallowed that the bitterness of a beer comes through.  Then, depending on the beer, you might wait for a few seconds or a full minute to let the after taste ride out.

Palate fatigue is an issue when you have five or six beers on offer.  This is when your taste buds become so overwhelmed with flavours that they pack it in and stop being as receptive.  In that case you can do the same as when you clear your olfactory senses and give it something new to sense.  Crackers work best for this.

As you’re smelling and tasting, write down the things you’re smelling.  Anything from ‘bananas’ to ‘my grandma’s old car’ is sufficient.  Even if you don’t really taste it but it just reminds you of something similar – write it down and you’ll usually find it’s close to the mark.

And now you drink.  Enjoy your beer, because that’s what it was made for.  And if anyone asks, tell them you’re judging its drinkability.

But mostly, don’t take beer too seriously.  Tasting beer is a fun way to explore the depth of a beer’s character and think of foods that might pair well.  But I guarantee that if you switch to good, locally made, craft brew – whether you dissect the taste or not – you will appreciate the brew much, much more.

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