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When sommeliers meet beer

What To Drink with What You EatDepending on what you drink and where you eat you might have thought sommelier refers to a mythical character in a fantasy restaurant world.

But there seems to be no way these days for a small-batch beer drinker to avoid the concept, and perhaps the physical reality, of a person – whatever you call him or her – handing out expert beer advice.

Of late:

– Don Russell wrote last week that there must be a better name, beginning his Joe Sixpack column with a discussion of the “dreaded ‘beer sommelier.'” Worrying about the “winofication of beer” he suggests instead using the term cellarman (or cellarwoman). “Calling the position cellarman, not beer sommelier, would maintain beer’s proud tradition as a distinct and worthy alternative to wine,” he wrote.

– Stephen Beaumont of World of Beer countered in a post at On the House a single expert might tend to all our drink needs: “So rather than craft a new term, let’s simply reinvent the one we have and acknowledge that the sommelier should be well-versed not only in wines, but in beers, whiskies, waters and cocktails, as well.” Beaumont already teaches Ontario sommelier students the basics of beer in a one-day program that is part of their wine education.

– In What to Drink with What You Eat, James Beard Award-winning authors Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page – both sommeliers – offer not only pairings for wine to go with food but also beer, spirits, coffee, tea and water. They clearly are not yet beer experts and a variety of spelling and categorizing errors will make a beer lover grimace and wonder just how seriously they take beer.

While the authors go into considerable detail, for instance, about wine choices with salmon, they simply write “beer, esp. Belgian ale, pale ale, or Saison, with grilled salmon.”

But Dornenburg and Karen Page have Credentials (with a capital C) and their book just won a 2006 Georges Duboeuf “Wine Book of the Year” award. It is printed on heavy stock with is filled with gorgeous pictures. Quite simply, beer finds itself it good company. Most of the people who buy this book will be wine drinkers who might look at beer a little differently.

This is not the book for somebody who drinks only beer, but for those of us who appreciate both grain and grape. For strictly a beer drinker, The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver is a better choice. Or they can wait until next year when The Best of American Beer & Food by Lucy Saunders will published.

In fact, the authors leaned on Oliver for expert advise – and any wine drinker who pays attention to what he has to say about saison should become a convert – if not spelling tips. His suggestions are listed in the “Best on the Best” chapter, which features lists from stars of the culinary world and spotlights the “connect the dots” quality of the book.

This book will surely end up as gift under many wine drinkers’ trees this Christmas because it provides a catalog of proven pairings – first with a chapter on what drinks to pair with various food choices, followed by one starting with drinks and then considering complementary foods. But the introduction and the final chapters offer lessons that go beyond reciting lists. These are the ones that best serve anybody – wine drinker, beer drinker . . . tea (?) drinker – who thinks about flavor, about flavors and about how they interact.

Which takes us back to the opening. Last week in the New York Times (free registration), Eric Asimov wrote that restaurants are practically begging for qualified sommeliers. He was writing about wine types. Now we’re asking those folks to tack on considerable beer knowledge.

What to Drink with What You Eat illustrates the challenges of doing that and hints at the rewards. To their credit, Dornenburg and Page looked over a list of “corrections” related their beer entries and still were pleasant enough to answer questions via e-mail.

Why should you tell somebody (interested in beer) that you take beer seriously when there are a variety of “beer mistakes” in the book?

We’re blaming neo-Prohibitionists.

How did you choose your experts? Oliver isn’t the only one who talks about beer, but he is the only one specifically from the beer world.

Clearly the primarily thrust of What to Drink with What You Eat is on wine, and our primary sources restaurant sommeliers, but we consider our love of beverages democratic and wanted to also include a number of experts to round out such subjects as spirits, cocktails, coffee, tea, water, sparkling juices and – yes – beer.

We attended the IACP Cookbook Awards where Garrett had received his award for The Brewmaster’s Table, which had brought that book – and Garrett himself – to our attention. Our Internet-based research had also unearthed Carlos Solis, described as “America’s first beer sommelier,” whose CIA degree and dual chef-sommelier position made him another interesting choice.

We’ll look forward to the pleasure of interviewing other beer experts in the future.

Do you think its accurate to say that wine gets much more attention in the book? Why is that?

Yes. Readers of our previous books (e.g. Becoming a Chef, Culinary Artistry, Dining Out) tend to be fine dining enthusiasts as well as professional chefs and restaurant professionals, so our primary focus was on interviewing restaurant sommeliers for their expertise. While this is changing to include a fascinating array of beverage pairings (including sake, spirits, beer and non-alcoholic choices), their primary focus is still on wine.

Are there times you think beer and wine mix well on the same table?

Yes – when it’s done thoughtfully. We have personally enjoyed beer as part of a tasting menu pairing with an appetizer or dessert, and appreciated when it’s been served in an appropriate portion size and glassware to allow a smooth flow from one course to the next. Scott Tyree of TRU in Chicago has paired beer with a sausage-based appetizer, and chef Sandy D’Amato of Sanford in Milwaukee served us a dessert course paired with three different beverages – including a beer. During the course of our book tour, we’ve interested audiences in beer by having them taste a Belgian Framboise with cheesecake at the end of the meal, and watched the energy level go up because people just couldn’t stop talking about it!

What did you learn about beer while writing the book?

We both hold sommelier certificates, and generally consider ourselves to be wine-centric (especially Andrew, who grew up in the Bay Area not far from Napa Valley) – but creating this book has helped to make us both more beverage-centric. We’ve learned that there are instances when the ideal match is something OTHER than wine. We once ordered in $10 enchiladas mole from our neighborhood Mexican restaurant and paired them with a $2 bottle of porter – and were absolutely blown away by how fabulous the match was. We swore there was no bottle of wine on earth that could have tasted as good with it!

We’ve also learned how biased many people are against beer, which just makes us want to crusade even harder FOR it. Many people, it seems, have formed their opinions about beer after sipping an uncle’s Budweiser as a kid and being grossed out by its bitterness. Many otherwise worldly gastronomes haven’t even bothered to sample the wide variety of beers that are out there in the world simply awaiting their pleasure – and it’s a shame.

One of Karen’s greatest accomplishments on our book tour was to get a woman TV anchor who said she hated beer to taste a Belgian (kriek) beer on camera, and to admit that she loved it! Wine drinkers can be brought over to become beer lovers, one person at a time – or, in the case of the TV show anchor, whose show is viewed by hundreds of thousands – many more at a time. They just need to try what’s in the bottle.

We’re proud of the chart “If You Like This, You Might Also Like That” on pp. 16-17 of WTDWWYE, which we hope will get more Champagne drinkers sampling lambic beers, and merlot drinkers sampling Chimay Blue, and Riesling drinkers sampling Hoegaarden White, etc.

Book review: Extreme Brewing

Extreme BrewingWhen Vinnie Cilurzo stepped to the helm at Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula, Calif., in 1994 he started out by brewing the first commercial Double (or Imperial) IPA anybody had ever heard of.

“Our equipment was pretty antique and crude, so I wanted to start out with something that was big and, frankly, could cover up any off flavors,” he said.

Call is homebrew logic. We’ve heard it before and we pass it along. After you’ve brewed that first batch of beer from a kit what do you do next? Make a big ol’ stout or a nasty barley wine, something bold enough to overwhelm any flaws. You can jack up the alcohol by adding more extract. This doesn’t require taking the intimidating next step (to all-grain brewing).

I don’t recall those suggestions ever including the likes of “Peppercorn Rye-Bock” or “Crandaddy Braggot,” but then Sam Calagione wasn’t in our homebrew club and besides the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware hadn’t yet come up with most of the recipes he offers in Extreme Brewing: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Brewing Craft Beer at Home .

Calagione wrote Extreme Brewing with novice (even pre-novice) brewers in mind. “I don’t want to overwhelm people with technical stuff,” he said while he was still working on the book. “Otherwise the beginner is going to think, ‘Wait a second. I’d have to be a rocket scientist to make a 10 percent beer.'”

Calagione carefully lays out a path even a rocket scientist could follow, introducing equipment and ingredients and then explaining the relatively simply process of stove-top brewing a minimum of equipment.

Bottling

The first recipe is for A-to-Z Brown Ale and the steps literally go from A (Heat the water for use in the brewing process) to Z (Store the bottled beer before drinking).

Calagione also leans on many friends for expert advice. So Calagione’s step-by-step recipes are augmented by plenty more from other award winning brewers, Wyeast Labs founder David Logsdon offers tips on handling yeast and Garrett Oliver — brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table — writes about pairing beer and chocolate.

This book stands in contrast to John Palmer’s How to Brew published earlier this year. How to Brew will take you all the way from the first batch (presented as simply as Calagione does his) to building your own equipment. Palmer illustrates how to master processes that Calagione lets a brewer skip, and Palmer also explains the science behind those processes.

Calagione chooses to emphasize what makes extreme beers different so, for instance, he has primers on brewing with fruit, with spices and different sugars

In the end, if you want to fabricate equipment and build a home brewery that mimics a professional operation then Extreme Brewing isn’t for you.

And if you don’t enjoy hassles that extend beyond brewing with a kit then it’s not for you. Or if you are afraid of occasionally failing and ending up with beer that has an aroma akin to one rising from a dump bucket at the end of a long night of tasting then this book isn’t for you.

But if you think you want to try brewing, Calagione assures you can. “Making good beer is a skill,” he writes. “Making exceptional beer is an art form.”

He does that in part by sharing discoveries made during his own journey. “As I think back to the first few batches of homebrew that I made over a decade ago, I am amazed that the beer was drinkable at all,” he writes.

Extreme Brewing is properly educational, very approachable and certainly inspirational. If Calagione doesn’t sway you over to the extreme side, then give Bryan Selders, one of the lead brewers at Dogfish Head and another contributor to the book, a chance:

“Extreme brewing is like driving 90 mph on a winding road that you’ve driven a million times before — except it’s nighttime and raining, your headlights have burned out, and the Department of Transportation has removed all the guardrails to upgrade them.”

Ambitious Brew: A not so bitter history

Ambitious BrewMore than 10 years ago Mark Dorber, the venerable publican from London, told perhaps 30 beer enthusiasts who had gathered for a seminar prior to the first Real Ale Festival in Chicago, “The god of beer . . . is not consistency.”

Dorber might appreciate the new book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer but he surely wouldn’t enjoy the underlying story told by Maureen Ogle. A historian by training — her previous books include All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890 — Ogle explains in detail that is painful for thousands of American beer drinkers who think like Dorber just how America drifted into a beer monoculture in which homogenization in pursuit of consistency ruled and niche markets merited little attention.

The book would be more accurately subtitled “he Story of Industrial American Lager” because it pretty much skips the first 200 years of ale history and doesn’t return to ale brewers until Ogle examines how microbreweries changed the American beer landscape just as dynamically as an earthquake might have.

Ogle’s story begins in the 1840s because that’s when beer surpassed spirits in popularity and an industry emerged. She tells a sometimes romantic tale of immigrants who successfully pursued the American Dream. (If you close your eyes you might see sepia-colored brewers toting bags of grain to a brewing kettle.)

How and why did they deliver us into a beer monoculture? Ogle makes it pretty straightforward: they developed beer suited to the American palate. Consumers were as complicit as brewers in the relentless march toward blander beer.

Did it have to happen that way? If brewery operators clung to the notion that every decision had to be based targeting a national audience and maximizing sales then it seems that way whether it was 1880 (“The men had no choice but to push their beer into distant markets”) or 1970 (when she writes brewers had “no choice” but to use additives because competition demanded lower prices).

The brewers who succeeded under these rules “recognized what is fundamental to any brewer’s success: the need for consistency. . . . so that each glass of their beer tasted the same every time.”

But consider this. She cites a report from The New York Times that “as long as the ‘greater part’ of the nation’s beer flowed down American gullets,the mostly German-born and bred brewers had no choice by the 1870s but to ‘modify the flavor of their beer to suit American palates’ rather than those of fellow immigrants.”

There are those words — no choice — again, but also the fact plenty of German customers were still drinking beer. Wouldn’t they have bought a traditional German product? For that matter, weren’t there English and particularly Irish immigrants who would have supported brewers of traditional ales like those sold in the United Kingdom?

As extensive endnotes and a massive bibliography indicate, Ogle was nothing if not thorough in her research. And she doesn’t have answers to those questions. It seems nobody collected, or at least saved, that information.

They are questions we ask today because even at a time that American industrial lager has become more like itself than ever before small-batch brewers in America have succeeded by catering to sometimes small niches.

Perhaps that’s why regulars in several Internet discussion groups – ones who would like the book to be called “The Rise and Fall of American Industrial Lager” – found Ogle’s account hard to swallow, and a variety of lively online discussions followed. It makes no sense to them that consumers would have embraced beer brewed with six-row barley malt (which they consider inferior) and adjuncts (mostly corn) rather than one with made traditional European (two-row) barley malt.

Yet Ogle documents time and again what happened to brewers who shipped beers with “too much barley” or ones that were too dark in color, and similar results weren’t acceptable for those who would become Beer Barons. The evidence it pretty overwhelming.

That she doesn’t vilify breweries who succeeded doesn’t mean she glorifies them. She documents business practices that certainly weren’t admirable and there is no better example of their imperfect vision than how they got broadsided by Prohibition &#151 another subject covered in depth.

BudweiserNot all of this is new to those who know American brewing history well, but the focus on the national brewers is different. Ogle offers a particularly telling comment from August A. Busch in 1920, shortly after Prohibition became national law. “We had to forget that we were brewers, bred in the bone and trained that way for years,” he told a reporter, a painful process that he likened to “Tearing trees up by the roots.” Once the people running the companies tossed aside their brewing roots was there ever any going back?

The drift toward beer with less flavor did not occur in a vacuum; by the 1950s flavor was out of favor. Ogle writes that drinkers asked for “an even less demanding version of American lager: a sexy vibrant beer that went down as easily as instant mashed potatoes or pudding and never asked much of its recipient.” Consumers were in charge, and the president of the Wahl-Henius Institute, a leading brewing school, told brewers they might prefer full-bodied, hoppy beers but they weren’t the ones buying the beer.

The trend never really stopped. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that from 1950 to 2004, the amount of malt used to brewed a barrel of beer in the United States declined by nearly 27 percent and the amount of hops in a barrel fell by more than a half. Some of this can be attributed to more efficient use of ingredients, but according to the Siebel Institute in Chicago the IBUs (a measure of bitterness) in industrial lagers have declined from between one-third and one-half in the last 20 years.

The Journal provided those numbers in a story that discussed flavor “creep,” in this case how Anheuser-Busch’s beer became less bitter over many years. “Through continuous feedback, listening to consumers, this is a change over 20, 30, 40 years,” said head brewmaster Doug Muhleman. “Over time, there’s a drift.” Because A-B carefully preserves its beers Muhleman could use a range of beers brewed between 1982 and 2003 to make his point. The reporter WSJ found the difference in taste between two beers brewed five years apart indistinguishable. Yet the difference between the 1982 beer and 2003 was distinct.

Imagine what would have occurred since 1870.

Ogle makes the ramifications clear in the last quarter of Ambitious Brew when she writes about the emergence of craft breweries and the mavericks who disrupted America’s beer monoculture. She recounts conversations we’ve never heard before and initiates new ones. Her affection for these brewers &#151 understand that when she began she knew little about their beers &#151 is apparent but doesn’t blur her historian’s vision. She makes it clear that craft brewers, like the immigrant entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century, are competing business operators and they don’t always talk like members of one big happy family.

Many might be happy buying the book for this thin slice of history, but would be silly to skip the first 257 pages. Industrial lagers still dominate in America although they no longer define American beer, and they frame many of the discussions the book has already produced. Eavesdropping on these sometimes spirited debates has been almost as entertaining as reading the book. They are just what a good history should provoke.

Beer snobs and snarky prejudices

Old breweryFriday the New York Times had a story about Ambitious Brew and Saturday the Wall Street Journal chimed in with a review. Given that I’ve already posted a longish (three-part) interview with Ogle at Beer Therapy you might be tired of the subject.

That won’t keep me from writing an actual review of the book. For now though I want to share my “ah-ha” moment in reading the WSJ review (that sadly sit at a pay site). The Journal focuses on Prohibition, how it came about and how beer changed when it ended. Then Eric Felton concludes:

It was a taste that favored bland beer, and the brewers bowed to that public preference until the microbrewery revolution that got going in earnest about 20 years ago. Ms. Ogle tells that story with appreciation for the new school of brewers but without the snarky prejudice against the big corporate beer companies that is so common to today’s beer snobs. It is one of the virtues of her history of American beer that Ms. Ogle isn’t afraid to admit admiration for the bold risks and ambitions of the capitalists — then and now — who have made beer their business.

Ah-ha.

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