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Pete Brown’s Top 10 beers

Why should you care about a list from Pete Brown headlined The Ten Best World beers? (Since you might be asking yourself, who is Pete Brown?)

Maybe because he’s written two beer related books – Man Walks into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer and Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer – that are just plain good reading.

Or because his list, obviously intended for the UK audience, appeared in the The Independent. You’d want to read a similar list if it appeared in the New York Times. (Quick aside, it appears the Times’ next beer feature will be about wheat beers.)

The article isn’t available online, but Glenn Payne of Meantime Brewing was nice enough to send along a copy (I asked him; he wasn’t promoting Meantime, which made the list).

The 10:
– Budweiser Budvar (Czech Republic)
– Badger Golden Champion Ale (UK)
– Brooklyn Lager (USA)
– Gonzo Imperial Porter (USA)
– Meantime Grand Cru wheat beer (UK)
– Asahi Black Lager (Japan)
– Cooper Extra Strong Vintage Ale (Australia)
– Goose Island IPA (USA)
– Deus (Belgium)
– Duvel (Belgium)

Of the Badger Golden he writes: “This is the taste of summer evenings captured in a bottle.” And of Duvel: “Let it rest on your tongue for a while and the citrus flavours come out from behind the alcohol like a lover re-entering the room after slipping into something a little more comfortable.”

Kind of a new way to think about Duvel, eh?

Goose Island IPA is on a bit of a tear in the UK. Jeff Evans gave the IPA his only “9” (Editor’s Choice) in the April/May edition of Beers of the World. Evans wrote: “One of the world’s great beer aromas, with big, juicy, fruity hops leaping out of the glass. Earthy resins; deep citrus and pineapple notes” and “Astonishingly fresh tasting, outstanding pale beer. Will a UK supermarket please put it back on the shelves?”

Brown described the IPA this way in The Independent:

It can be confusing when beer is described as “hoppy” if you don’t know what hops are like, so this beer is an object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. The depth of its piney, grassy, citrussy bouquet rivals any sauvignon blanc. That, plus the zingy bitterness that follows on the tongue, is what hops are like.

An object lesson in the delights of the multi-talented little plant. Indeed.

The spirit of experimentation

What’s it take to brew a beer that wins in the experimental category at the World Beer Cup or Great American Beer Festival?

“That experimental category is really, from a brewer’s perspective, the most exciting one to win,” said Chuck Skypeck of the Tennessee-based Boscos brewpub chain. His experimental beers have twice won gold at GABF. “It’s really looking at experimentation and innovation. That’s really at the heart of experimental brewing.”

The matter came up in a story from the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., about Wallking Man Brewing in western Washington. Walking Man’s Bloot Voeste Bruin captured gold in the experimental category at the 2006 WBC.

Brewer Bob Craig innoculated Bloot Voeste Bruin with Kombucha to get fermentation rolling.

It (Kombucha) looks like a Silly Putty mushroom. It’s a fermented mass of yeast and bacteria that grows on a mixture of black or green tea and sugar. Kombucha dates to ancient China and Russia. Some people believe kombucha wards off cancer and everyday ailments. Others say it may cause liver damage.

Available in tea and soft drinks, kombucha sucks the saliva from your cheeks faster than a mouthful of aspirin and lime.

Bloot Voeste Bruin isn’t all that outlandish a beer. It took its inspiration from Duchess de Bourgogne, a popular Flemish red ale. And Craig shouldn’t be viewed as a brewer of only oddities. His hop-driven beers quickly established a loyal Northwest following and Walking Man IPA also captured gold at the World Beer Cup.

Belgium’s eating and drinking tradition

While doing some filing I came across a few notes takien from the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook by Ruth Van Waerebeek and Maria Robbins.

Quite honestly, the best way for me to keep track of these lovely quotes is to store them here.

“Given this bounty of wonderful food, it may surprise you to learn that there are few cookbooks devoted to Belgian cooking published in Belgium. The reason is simple. In Belgium, the secrets of cooking are still transmitted orally. Recipes, techniques, tradition, tastes and passions are passed along from generation to generation . . .”

The book emphasizes a strong link between brewing and cooking traditions (see below), so a few points seem worth emphasizing:

– In a conversation with Brother Joris, the monk in charge of brewing at Abbey Saint Sixtus (Westvleteren), he explained why he did something a particular way. He simply learned the practice from Brother Filip, the previous brewer. “That’s our training,” Brother Joris said. “The knowledge is passed on from brother to brother.”

– To celebrate 60 years of operation, Bert Van Hecke is producing a special version of St. Bernaruds Abt 12 at Brouwerij Sint-Bernardus, located not far from Westvleteren. For 46 years, Sint-Bernardus produced beer under contract for Westvleteren – beer that was sold under the Saint Sixtus label in the United States.

Because the head brewer from Westvleteren helped set up the Saint Bernardus brewery, it seems likely he brought along the original Westvleteren recipes, and Van Hecke says that to his knowledge the recipes haven’t changed since.

As you might understand, neither Brother Joris nor Van Hecke is handing out detailed information about their recipes but based on what they will say the recipes for Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12 are no longer the same. That’s what happens when things are passed on via verbal communication – they change, maybe for the better, maybe not.

– Not not only are recipes passed on but also tastes and passions. Just as important. Make that more important.

Another great quote:

“What makes them (brewers) unique is that over the centuries these beer brewers have remained faithful to their origins and traditions and thereby have developed a degree of perfection, originality, and variety unknown in any other country in the world. The same can be said for Belgium’s extensive and varied beer cuisine.”

Understand why it matters that the passion be kept alive?

A ‘complex’ beer issue

We love lambic in our house, yet I suspect I could spend the better part of the day asking others who live in our village about it before I found somebody who knew lambic meant beer.

But, goodness, all the attention it is getting these days could make you think it might be the Next Big Thing. We’re all in trouble if it is because we’re gonna run out of lambic real fast. For for instance, Cantillon – a subject in many of the discussions linked below – brews all of 800 barrels a year, about the same amount as the modest-sized brewpub up the hill from our house.

Following an article in the New York Times and a couple of blog posts by Eric Asimov you’ve got this:

A Lambic Primer at from Daniel Shelton of Shelton Brothers.

Followed by spirited discussions at Rate Beer and Beer Advocate. (Thanks to Jonathan Surratt for the links.)

These discussions wander off in esoteric directions and raise as many questions as they answer, but it’s ahrd to quit reading.

I’m drawn to two subjects. First, the role of tradition and if tradition allows room for innovation. Without innovation there would be no Double IPAs, so I’m voting for innovation and figuring there should be some wiggle room when talking about tradition.

Second, the sweetness versus complexity argument. Gee, does that sentence equate sweet and simple? No apologies.

I’m reminded a late night discussion a year or so ago with Yvan De Baets, a Belgian brewer in waiting who wrote the history of saison in Farmhouse Ales.

“One of the main goals of Belgian brewers should be to fight against the Coca-Cola flavors and those kind of gadget tastes,” he said. “We should be about cultural tastes, not (sweet) animal tastes.”

Amen (although I’d like to ask brewers of all nations to act as responsibly).

Who owns the beer revolution?

OK, change of plan. Yesterday’s discussion about whether consumers will continue to accept the idea Foster’s is “Australian for beer” when four out of five pints are brewed in the United Kingdom was to be followed with more about the importance of authenticity to both brewers and beer drinkers.

We’ll do that, but instead of starting from conversations during the Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle (the insiders’ view), there’s an outsider’s view worth reading. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov writes in his blog, The Pour:

I always enjoy writing about beer. Occasionally, though, I am mystified by the hard-core beer lovers, who crave respect and recognition for the wonderful artisanal brews that are now available, but sometimes seem intolerant of anyone outside their realm who addresses the subject.

Let’s own up to the fact he’s talking about us. If you’re reading this then you must be hard-core, because this blog is a niche within a niche (the craft beer market). That doesn’t mean you have to be intolerant. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t think intolerant is such a bad idea (sorry, I do).

Hear him out.

I can understand their feelings, I think. Many of them have carried the torch for beer for many years without much recognition, and they naturally feel a certain amount of ownership of the subject. After a while, insularity becomes comforting, especially when the culture as a whole seems so much more interested in industrial swill than great beer.

But the attitude goes deeper than that. Many connoisseurs I’ve spoken with want to see beer given the same sort of cultural obeisance as wine. They want it to be regarded as a complex, delicious, worthy art form, yet they quail at the pretentiousness that trails after wine. In fact, beer lovers are so afraid of anything that even hints of pretension that they ward it off like God-fearing peasants making the signs of the cross at vampires.

Put a bunch of beer-lovers in a room and chances are you will see an utter disregard of fashion: goofy T-shirts, bizarre ties, wild, unruly facial hair and haircuts that could not possibly have been rendered by a professional. In short, you have the same determinedly nonconformist demographic as you would at a science-fiction convention.

Calm down. He admits that at the end he’s having a bit of fun. Back up to the part where he talks about ownership (that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look in the mirror while you read the rest).

Listen to Saint Arnold Brewing founder Brock Wagner, whose customers donated money so the brewery could upgrade its system. “I can’t really say why they did it other than I’ve come to realize I may own the stock, but it’s not my brewery,” he said. “It belongs to everybody who drinks Saint Arnold beer.”

Maybe you don’t find it easy to be so generous. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the American beer revolution has been about reclaiming the soul of beer from industrial producers, and that required a certain brashness.

Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione put it this way in his Craft Brewers Conference keynote address:

“Americans will always vehemently protect their right to create an alternative. Not just an alternative to giant breweries – which is what we represent – but to the increasing corporatization of American culture.

“It’s not outlandish to recognize our boiling kettles as modern day melting pots – the sources of beers as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them. Made by people as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them.”

That’s about as authentic as it gets. It belongs to all of us, and to none of us.

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