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Chocolate memories, courtesy of Boulevard

What if Dumon in Brugge sold Boulevard Chocolate Ale?

Boulevard Smokestack Chocolate AleHaving once accidentally driven a car into a large pedestrian-only square in Brugge I can assure you this is a city best enjoyed on foot. You can just stop and stare at the architecture. That the streets are narrow and winding becomes charming instead of exasperating. And there are the chocolate shops.

We are partial to Chocolatier Dumon. I cannot guarantee the chocolate there is any better, although I know it’s pretty good. First of all, I’m a sucker for molded chocolate “art,” even if everything we tried to bring back from our first trip didn’t make it in one piece. Second, the variety is spectacular. It’s a great place to just stand and inhale.

And that was the first thing I thought of when I worked the cork free of a bottle of Boulevard’s Smokestack Chocolate Ale. Cocoa dusted truffles. Rich dark fruits. Caramel and rum. A rush of aromas that themselves must be fattening.

Plus, on a personal note, there’s the Brugge (or Bruges) factor. In the movie “In Bruges” Colin Farrell’s character (Ray) mutters, “Maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f*cking Bruges.” He’s nuts. You want to spend New Year’s Eve here; you hope your niece marries somebody Flemish and the reception is here on a bright June day. No doubt that Chocolatier Dumon and the city of Brugge itself provide a halo effect for Chocolate Ale.

Last year seemingly every beer drinking soul in Kansas City went nutso over this beer brewed in collaboration with local chocolate hero chef Christopher Elbow. There were stories about people following delivery trucks and trying to bribe drivers into selling them a bottle directly. Some liquor stores were asking $25 a bottle (instead of the standard $9-$12) and we won’t even mention eBay. The beer disappeared fast.

I can’t tell you how fast it went here in St. Louis, because Sierra and I were still in New Mexico. However a month after the madness had subsided in Kansas City we visited St. Louis and drank it at Pi Pizzeria on Delmar. It was even brighter on tap.

Last year Boulevard produced 1,600 cases of Chocolate Ale, a standard run for a Smokestack seasonal. This year they brewed two-and-a-half times that, more than any of its limited releases ever. It’s on the shelves. I’m not predicting how long it will last.

I’m pretty sure they won’t have to advertise every bottle comes with a chocolate memory of Brugge. But they could.

Feb. 15: Boulevard Brewing announced it was offering refunds on a limited number of batches — up to a third of the bottles of chocolate ale sold — that the brewery said didn’t meet its standards. You can watch the announcement here.

Monday musing, local, & links

Start with this premise: “It seems that in today’s uncertain and flagging America, one sign of community prosperity and revitalization is a microbrewery or brewpub in town.”

The Ecocentric blog examines in some detail the role of small breweries in towns where they operate. The history gets a little iffy now and then, but ultimately Kai Olson-Sawyer makes a point that “just like with food, conscientious consumers are willing to pay a little more for better quality and for the local connection.”

The leap of faith here is that local equals better quality. It’s one thing for a brewer to say, “I can order the best quality malt in the world, the best hops, source yeast that provides whatever flavor you want and replicate water from any brewing region of the world.” Another to say, “Fresh hops from the farmer up the road are just as good as from the Czech Republic or the Yakima Valley.”

To my way of thinking the first beer qualifies as local. But not everybody would agree.

This is tricky territory. I loved my grandfather’s farm. I’m all for the idea of urban farming, for finding fresh produce (in season) within the city limits. I wish all the luck in the world to those farmers from Vermont to Southern California who are giving hops a whirl. I’ve had beers I’d buy again that were dry hopped with stuff from homebrewers yards (and donated to a brewery). But I know full well how hard it is to properly grow, pick and process quality hops. Which means most of the breweries around the world are going to buy most of their hops from some place not so close.

In all fairness, the point at Ecocentric blog was not to make localness exclusive, but there are those who would. And that’s not any better for local beer than trying to come up with arbitrary definitions for “craft” beer.

More stuff to read:

Boak and Bailey offer The six degrees of beer appreciation. “There’s a fine line between enthusing about better beer and being a snob.”

1 Wine Dude (Joe Roberts) calls “this the single most important piece of wine news in years” and the implications for beer should be obvious. Australian Wine Research Institute researchers have sequenced the Brettanomyces genome.

– The New York Cork Report gives us “Your Ultimate Guide to Pairing Beer and Cheese.” Hard to argue with pairing a fresh Catapano goat cheese and Southampton Cuvee des Fleurs.

Session #51 roundup posted, plus #51.5 suggestions

The SessionPut your beer and cheese shopping shoes back on. Jay Brooks has already posted the roundup for The Session #51, which is full of cheese and beer ideas for a special mid-month session.

He’s organized the results in an easy-to-read format that pretty much doubles as a shopping list.

The mid-month session is open to everybody, so even if you didn’t join in Friday feel free May 20.

The Session #51: Simple pleasures

The SessionBefore the clock strikes twelve here in the Mountain Time Zone on Session Friday just a few thoughts vaguely related to our assignment for Session #51, hosted by Jay Brooks and called “The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off.”

I apologize for not exactly staying on track. If you read Jay’s post or Bryan Koselar’s you’ll see this was a great social and perhaps educational opportunity. But this was not a party week around here, nor was there time to round up friends or beers.

Sierra and I enjoyed a simple “cheese night,” very nice but not the same with mom a thousand miles away. (We’re packing like crazy, discarding, condensing, etc., and should be in St. Louis for the Heritage Festival.) But without my favorite beer drinking companion a simple beer night became simpler still.

The kid and I shared Maytag Blue Cheese (from Jay’s list), Manchego aged 12 months and cave-aged Gruyere. I wasn’t about to open a bunch of beers I wouldn’t finish.

I don’t remember how “cheese night” became a regular but always anticipated event in our house. Certainly not because we can hoof on down to the store and buy something made locally. Great cheese at Whole Foods, yes. From anywhere nearby, no.

Cheese mongerPerhaps that is why during our Grand Adventure we scooped up Wisconsin cheese in Wisconsin, Vermont cheese in Vermont, French cheese in France. Why we sought out places where cheese is made (quick bit of advice, not every road leading to a Vermont cheese facility is fun driving, and the worst case scenario is you might find he road out blocked by sheep and the gate you came in through locked). Watching cheese made is not as exciting, or as personal, as seeing somebody make beer, or potato chips for that matter. More on a level of Moose Munch or Jelly Bellys (sorry, but we find it hard to pass on any factory tour that includes ingestible samples at the finish).

Then you meet the guy above at a Saturday market in the French countryside. He slices off really thin slices (just a taste) and he tells you Americans hate this. “You like it? You’ll hate this.” And you like it as well. And pretty soon you’ve spent 37 euros on not very much cheese. You give him a 100 euro bill. He says he’ll have to get change for the neighboring booth. He returns with 13 euros. You tell him you gave him a 100 euro bill. He apologizes and you leave happy, because you’ve only spent something like $40 a pound for cheese at an open-air market.

That’s not a complaint. The cheese was great. And it was great during a picnic lunch with wine. Let’s be honest, wine would have served the cheese Sierra and I enjoyed tonight just fine. But that wasn’t the assignment, was it?

I had Boulevard’s Smokestack Tank 7 with “meal” portion, eating mostly Gruyere and Manchego. It was tougher to pick what to have for dessert, to stand up to the Maytag Blue. I thought about an Imperial Stout, a Double IPA (if locally brewed Marble were in 12-ounce bottles instead of 22s that likely would have been the choice) and then decided on a 2004 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine.

Tank 7 is a beer with some heft, 8 percent alcohol and plenty of hops (flavor, bitterness, citrus and juicy). The Gruyere and Manchego are cheeses with finesse, but with age their flavors grow more intense. Their earthiness and that in the Tank 7 play well together, peppery notes stronger when the beer and cheese are joined in the mouth than they are in the saison by itself.

Tank 7 doesn’t seem quite as confident matched with the Maytag, but underlying fruity notes and a touch of sweetness don’t give up against the richness of the blue cheese or the tangy notes that imply vinaigrette must be nearby.

I chose Bigfoot to stand up to the Maytag, and its deep, rich maltiness (accented with oxidized sherry notes) certainly did. But it wasn’t so big it overwhelmed the Gruyere. In this case the saltiness of the cheese enhanced the malt sweetness, and in turn made the hop bitterness more satisfying. And the Manchego was a total surprise. Too many cheeses made with sheep’s milk smell like a hot county fair 4-H barns in the Midwest in August. That’s not a earthy aroma; that’s sweaty wool and sheep shit. Manchego is earthy.

Tonight, after this long week, I was mostly interested in drinking the Bigfoot, so a tiny bit of each cheese was plenty for dessert. Then two-thirds of the way through the beer I got to thinking about the Manchego. I headed back to the fridge for another piece. I let it sit on my tongue and took a sip of Bigfoot. I inhaled and the aroma took the direct route to my brain only aroma knows.

Alaskan rain forest. Wet. That’s a good dirt smell. Thank you, cheese. Thank you, beer.

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