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Archive | October, 2009

Book review: The beerbistro Cookbook

The beerbistro Cookbook

Let’s start out with what’s wrong with The beerbistro Cookbook. It’s too dang pretty to risk taking into the kitchen to refer to. This book is pure food and beer porn.

Before moving on to what’s right about the book I must offer a longer than usual disclaimer. Co-author Stephen Beaumont is a long-time friend of our family (I even know his secret hotmail address). He links to this site and has written nice things about Brew Like a Monk. Likewise I occasionally link to his.

The beerbistro CookbookDuring our family’s lengthy travels we happened to be in Toronto the day after Daria’s birthday. She decided, with absolutely no coaching, she’d like to celebrate at beerbistro. Because our timing was terrible we had picked a time that Stephen, who helped start the restaurant as well as co-authoring the cookbook, was in New Orleans. However he did alert co-author Brian Morin, the chef and driving forcing behind the bistro, we’d be in town.

After we’d ordered our first beers (I started with the local King Pilsner, at Stephen’s emailed suggestion) Brian surprised us by showing up at the table to chat. We talked about beer, about cooking with beer, about the local food markets and his shopping trip earlier in the day, and similar topics. Sierra, our daughter, was totally taken with Brian. She was doubly taken by the Cheese and Lager Fondue. She is triply taken with the cookbook. So although Stephen and I are good enough friends I’d be comfortable enough criticizing the book I know better than to cross a starry-eyed 12-year-old.

Which takes us to the first good thing about the book. These are recipes Sierra and I can make, written to include ingredients you can find. Brian is big on local and fresh but also sensible. After one more bit of food porn a few more positives:

The beerbistro Cookbook

– Your friends will enjoy the primer. You may not need to read about beer’s history, beer styles, how to pour a beer or even beer at the able again. But these remain foreign concepts on much of our continent. Also be advised you don’t want to glaze over what seems familiar. The beer and cheese primer toward the end is exceptional.

– Beer in the kitchen. It starts with a philosophy about all ingredients, one of which happens to be beer.

– Beer Styles à la beerbistro. Twelve basic categories “recommended as an accompaniment to the recipes or, in many cases, as a descriptor of the beer called for in the recipe.” Thus the styles become quenching, sociable and soothing. Or spicy: “Well-rounded ales with a natural spiciness, either from fermentation or spice addition or both. Look for Belgian or Belgian-style strong blonde ales, such as La Find du Monde and Westmalle Trpel, and complex North American spiced ales, such as Dogfish Head Midas Touch and AleSmith Grand Cru.”

– The recipes. Including more with mussels than even a Belgian could imagine.

– The recipe for Rochefort 8, chocolate, and chocolate chip ice cream. Best dessert I had in 14 months on the road. I’m not one inclined to do anything with Rochefort 8 other than put it in a glass and drink it, but there’s no pain in parting with three bottles to make six cups of this ice cream.

Sierra gets the last word, and she actually has a question that amounts to a bit of criticism: Where’s the fondue recipe? But she can forgive that omission. Leaving out the recipe for beerbistro’s Belgian-Style Frites . . . that would be unforgivable.


There is no ‘I’ in sugar

Excuse this crabby little rant, but I’ve started reading The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer and the author’s repeat a misstatement I’ve come across several times in just the past week, writing Belgian brewers often use “candi sugar.”

No the don’t. They mostly use what we call plain old sugar.

Yes, there are historical references to “candi sugar” and a few brewers use a product called by various names that include “candy” but they are not at all like the rocklike hunks sold as “candi sugar” in the United States.

Nope, when you taste a brooding beer like Nostradamus from Caracole that’s barley malt and about 15 percent sucrose. I’ve been to the brewery. I’ve seen the big sacks of sugar. They look a lot like the bags of plain white sugar at Westvleteren (which also uses a dark syrup). The whole sugar/syrup thing can get a little dense, so since rather than clutter this space I’ve posted a sugar primer at Brew Like a Monk.

So back to my rant. This matters because:

– What makes Trappist ales and beers they inspired special is not a secret or special ingredient.
– The brewers add sugar for a practical reason — not because of any flavor the sugar might contribute — to boost the level of alcohol yet deliver a beer that isn’t sweet or cloying. Put in positive terms the beer should be “digestible.”
– It’s an adjunct. And that’s not bad.

Phil Markowski, author of Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition an brewmaster at Southampton Publick House, puts it better than I:

“I believe that there is still a fairly prevalent anti-adjunct bias among many American brewers, both amateur and professional, that makes them hold back from using enough sugar to achieve the same level of dryness that the classic Belgian examples exhibit. It seems that many of these brewers tend to think of adjuncts as ‘dishonest’ ingredients.”

They’re not, so let’s call them what they are.

And now there are too many hops?

HopsThe OregonLive headline tells you pretty much all you need to know: Glut of hops unlikely to lower beer prices. This follows a story in Washngton’s Tri-City Herald earlier in the month: Abundant hops harvest is bittersweet.

That’s agriculture or you. As I wrote in 2007 there’s nothing new about wild swings in the price of hops. But now I have a new source (Hop Culture in California from 1900) to quote:

The price of hops on the Pacific Coast has ranged all the way from 5 cents to $1.10 per pound, which amply illustrates the extreme variability and uncertainty on the business side of hop culture.

At 12 cents or less per pound, hop production involves a loss. At 15 to 20 cents, the grower can make a fair living and may get something ahead. it is the wide fluctuations in price that have caused so many failures in the business of hop culture. The price of $1.10 per pound in 1882 proved a calamity to the legitimate grower. It led many to embrace in the business with dreams of sudden wealth. Disaster to nearly all was the natural result.

Back to the present in Washington:

Brenton Roy, president of Oasis Farms northeast of Prosser, said this year’s crop was “100 percent contract,” which meant any surplus hops would be left in the field. Roy estimated he left about 4 percent of his crop on the vine.

“For us it’s not going to have a large impact, but I’m sure for some growers it will,” he said.

Roy expects this year’s overabundant crop to enlarge the hops surplus, which he said will lead to a decrease in contracts.

Roy said he thinks Washington’s hops acreage will have to decrease by about 5,000 acres for supply and demand to balance.

And in Oregon:

“The only time I’ve heard of hops left hanging was back when powdery mildew hit so hard that some yards weren’t worth picking,” says John Annen of Annen Brothers Farms and chairman of the Oregon Hop Commission. “But never industrywide — these are perfectly good hops unpicked because there’s no warehouse space and no spot market for uncontracted hops.”

Barley prices, for malt, also have come off their highs, but declining costs prices for two key beer ingredients won’t translate into prices on the shelves. “Pubs and breweries face all sorts of increased costs, from stainless steel brewing vessels to employee health care, freight and fuel costs, and hops are perhaps the smallest part,” John Foyston writes at OregonLive. “Plus, most brewers contracted for their hops for years ahead during the shortage, and those contract prices will be higher than 2009 spot-market prices.”

For a bit of perspective, the $1.10 peak in hops prices in 1882 would amount to a little over $24 today. In 1900, pickers made 60 cents to $1.10 pounds of green hops, the average being about 75 cents ($19 today). A hop drier earned $2.50 to $5 (almost $128) per day and board. Field foremen were paid $1.50 to $2 per day and board, so hop drying was a premium skill.

Glassware, terroir and wine myths

Last week Joe Stange blogged about The Mythology of Glassware. Perhaps that’s why Gourmet moved a very long story about Riedel glassware to the free section of its archives. It’s titled “Shattered Myths” so I don’t think I’m spoiling the punchline when I quote from the end:

Georg Riedel finally seemed to be vindicated when media around the world trumpeted the results of a study conducted at the University of Tennessee. “A U.S. study found that the shape of a glass can have a big influence on chemicals in wine,” the London-based Daily Telegraph glowed, in August 2002. “Wine really does taste different depending on the kind of glass it is drunk from, according to research.”

“Scientists prove the right glass matters,” declared Decanter magazine. “It’s official—wine really does taste better out of the right glass.” The findings were cited by everyone from New Scientist magazine to American radio legend Paul Harvey. Riedel himself must have been relieved. “It is great,” he told a reporter, “that independent scientific research supports our philosophy.”

But when I tracked down the researcher who did the study, she groaned. Then she started laughing. “I can’t believe how reporters ran away with this thing,” says Kari Russell. “That’s because so many people want to believe” that glasses make a difference. First of all, Russell is bemused that nobody seemed to realize that she wasn’t a renowned scientist, but a mere college senior (she’s now working on a Ph.D.). And she didn’t do some big, rigorous study: She rounded up just a dozen subjects.

And what she finds even more bizarre, she says, is that Riedel wouldn’t have liked her findings if anybody had reported them correctly, because they don’t support his claims at all. “Glass shape does not affect the perceptions of the average consumer,” Russell told me. “That’s my conclusion.” To put it bluntly, her subjects couldn’t tell the difference between Merlot in Champagne, red-wine, or Martini glasses.

Now to terroir. This just in from the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America:

When it comes to theories about terroir (how soil, weather conditions, landforms and other local circumstances define the character of wine), scientists believe we know less than we think. They now say the belief that minerals could influence the flavor of wine is flawed, considering that the quantity of minerals in wine is so small that it can’t be detected through human taste and smell. On the other hand, geologists said the soil’s water holding capacity can have an influence on the wine taste, but this notion has barely been researched.

Perhaps not quite myth busting, given that terroirists argue there’s much more to expressing place than the mineral flavors in wine, but that’s the dirt on dirt.

For the record, we like wine in our house and we like our glassware (for beer and wine). I might have mentioned that anyway, but this post by Eric Asimov sealed the deal:

The irony is that great beer and great wine are on the same team. The enemy of beer is not wine and the enemy of wine is not beer, just as the enemy of bread is not fruit and vice versa. But the enemy of good beer and good wine, and good food in general, is bad beer, bad wine and, yes, bad food.

What unites this team is the striving for real wine, real beer, and real food, as opposed to cynical product. That is the problem, and I think most people realize this no matter what they say or do. Craft beer’s battle is not against wine but against decades of cynical marketing from the giant breweries, which have done everything possible to portray beer drinkers as asinine fools. The enemy of good wine is the atrocious marketing that makes wine an aspirational commodity, just another luxury good to purchase for its status value. That has to offend the reverse snob in all of us.

Fellow wine lovers, fellow beer lovers, unite! We shall not permit ourselves to be pitted against one another. Do not be fooled by false choices. You do not have to choose beer or wine. Just good or bad.

Somebody writing for the New York Times doesn’t need a link from here, but I feel a need to add the obvious: we don’t need to see beer following wine down the aspirational path.


Hop culture in California circa 1900

These days “Hop Culture in California” means bitter beers, beers with lots of hop flavors and aromas, and this time of year beers brewed with fresh hops. But in 1900 it was the title of Farmer’s Bulletin No. 115 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Just a couple of excerpts (for now):

In New York States several varieties are cultivated, while in England and on the continent of Europe there are numerous varieties. But on the Pacific Coast there is practically but one variety of hops grown, called the “Large gray Americans.” There is a variety known as the “San Jose root,” but it is destroyed wherever found. It is darker in color, has a smaller vine and more leaves, and is poorer in yield.

The variety used was not native to California, but brought from Vermont. And place made a difference. “. . . regardless of the kinds planted, great variations in hops result from difference in soil, climate, and and methods of culture. This is clearly shown by the fact that in California from roots having a common origin different growers in different localities are now producing green, medium, and golden hops.”

Hop growing in California began in 1855 in Alameda County. Prior to that the only hops used in California were brought “around the Horn.” When brewers in Sacramento began using fresh, strong California hops “they used the same quantity, with the result that the beer was too bitter for use. Consequently they began to reduce the quantity used for a brew and to mix them with the old imported hops.”

Not any more.

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