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Beer: Simple or complex?

French wine philosopher Pierre Boisset once said:

“Wine is at the same time simpler than people say and more complex than they think.”

Pretty easy to plug in the word beer for wine and make as much sense.

The quote comes from Hugh Johnson’s delightful memoir A Life Uncorked and he bring it up to make a point.

“Any fool can make a subject complex and any fool can say it is simple. But how much do you have to understand to grasp the essentials?” Johnson asks.

He goes on to write that most people try either too hard at wine or not hard enough, that it is an all-or-nothing passion.

“So what does the reasonable, perfectly balanced person need to know? That wine is not one thing, but many. To appreciate it you don’t have to swallow an encyclopaedia, but you do have to pay attention.”

Again, the analogy holds up well, just as it would for cheese, jazz or … pick your passion.

Your own personal beer aromas

A couple of months back I wrote about how our beer drinking experiences may improve as we develop a better vocabulary to discuss what we are tasting.

A paper delivered by a wine expert last month shows it is never that simple.

Decanter reports:

Clues to understanding why we all perceive wines differently were unveiled by an American scientist at the Masters of Wine Symposium in Napa.

Speaking at the June gathering of MWs, which takes place every four years, Dr Charles Wysocki, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an organisation devoted to taste and smell, said wine is “tasted” principally by smell.

Humans have only a few hundred stimuli for taste, but can distinguish thousands of different smells. Wine aromas, however, are not the same for everyone and quite possibly as unique to each individual as a fingerprint.

No surprise that context turns out to be very important. For instance, you may forever react to a particular aroma based upon your experiences the first time you smelled it.

You may also form an opinion based on how it is presented.

Wysocki also demonstrated, using an audience of wine professionals from around the world, that putting the same aroma in differently labelled bottles produced radically different perceptions.

If a pungent, mouldy cheese-like aroma was labelled “food,” the audience tended to rate it as pleasant. If it was labelled “body,” it was considered unattractive.

But back to to aroma/taste and how it might fit in with previous experiences. Donavan Hall touched on this in writing about the character of Orval, which changes over time.

One of my friends described it as “wet saddle blanket,” but I have to say I have no idea what these people are talking about. I grew up on a working farm. I had a horse for a pet. I know what horse and leather smells like. I had my nose in my fair share of wet saddle blankets and Orval reminds me of none of the experiences.

Personally, Michael Jackson’s use of “hop sack” (he also included “fresh leather”) in describing Orval left the aroma of that beer and the term hop sack so closely connected in my mind that if you said “hop sack” I would imagine the aroma of Orval first. If you handed me wet burlap that once held a bail of hops and it smelled different I would think, “This is not what hop sack should smell like.”

Weiss beers and tradition

In one of its periodic forays into beer, a New York Times tasting panel tackled American-brewed wheat beers, looking primarily for the best “American versions of Bavarian-style brews.”

This can be a bit confusing.

As we expected, the American wheat beers were all over the map, with brewers taking great liberties with the style. This caused no small amount of consternation among the panel, particularly with those beers that styled themselves hefeweizen. Magic Hat Circus Boy, for example, calls itself a hefeweizen, yet it has a floral aroma that is wholly uncharacteristic of the style. Widmer Hefeweizen, which the panel rejected, was another beer that bore little relation to the style.

“You’re trading on the good name of an actual, established style to sell something that’s different,” (panelist Garrett) Oliver said, likening such uses of the term hefeweizen to labeling American white wines as Chablis. “It’s confusing and frustrating.”

As a quick point of order, American Hefeweizen has become pretty well recognized – with its own category at the Great American Beer Festival – as a separate style, with beers from Widmer and Pyramid labeled “hefeweizen” considered benchmarks.

The beer rated tops by the panel was Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyner Weisse, where Oliver brews. He’s a frequent participant on these panels and Eric Asimov writes “Mr. Oliver didn’t identify it as his own beer, but was unembarrassed by the panel’s unanimous approval.”

This certainly doesn’t call to question the validity of the results, because the tasting was “blind” and Brooklyner Weisse is an outstanding beer. In-Heat Wheat from Flying Dog in Colorado (a beer that has its own reserved spot in our fridge), Samuel Adams Hefeweizen and Magic Hat Hocus Pocus ranked just a notch lower.

The panel also tasted a few German versions – although they didn’t know that during the blind tasting and those were not rated with the others. One, from Erdinger, did not make the cut, but the other two, from Schneider and Franziskaner, “might well have been our top beers of the tasting.”

Since the discussion here often turns to the importance of tradition in brewing, it is interesting to see that the way brewers of Schneider (G. Schneider & Sohn) and Franziskaner (Spaten, owned by InBev) produce weiss beers has changed.

Schneider leans heavily on tradition – George I founded the brewery in 1872 and according to the company’s website the first words from George VII (born in 1995) were “Schneider Weisse” – and that extends into the brewhouse.

Schneider still employs a decoction mash (where part of the mash is removed, boiled and returned to the original mash), but five years ago Spaten abandoned the traditional method and now uses a single infusion mash. Spaten also uses a lager yeast when bottle conditioning its beers. Schneider uses yeast taken from billowing open fermentation and krausens with speise (unfermented wort) to add the zesty carbonation for which Bavarian weiss beers are known.

Spaten, of course, is much larger, brewing 2.3 million hectoliters (1.2 million of that wheat) a year, compared to 300,000 at Schneider.

Open fermentation

“It is a very traditional system, and we are a little bit proud of it,” brewery director Hans-Peter Drexler (pictured beside an open fermenter) said last December while showing off the fermentation room. “We are the only one of this size (meaning as large) still doing these things. It is not easy to keep consistency. Each bottle is its own system.”

Dr. Jörg Lehmann of Spaten explained the decision to use a single infusion mash (which is less time consuming and labor intensive) was made because “the malt quality has improved very much.”

Schneider continues to buy much of its barley from farmers in the region of the brewery and often starts with less modified malt. (You don’t want more brewing science, right? The point here is that barley becomes malt, that less modified malt and decoction often go hand in hand, and that the process is less modern.)

“To me the raw ingredients are very important. I like to go talk to the farmers,” Drexler said. “They are doing the hard work, giving us good materials. The soil is poor and outside in the hills the weather can be hard. Maybe that is good for our malt.”

And, in turn, for the beer.

Firestone Walker’s ’10’

Will the project Firestone Walker Brewing has going now earn the Paso Robles, Calif., brewery more respect at the beer ratings sites?

The brewery won Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company (encompassing all breweries producing between 15,000 and 2 million barrels) in both the 2004 and 2006 World Beer Cup – but few of its beers reach the 90th percentile at Rate Beer and Beer Advocate.

The brewery plans to release a beer called “10” in October to help mark its 10th anniversary. The beer will come from a blend of 10 individual ales made over the preceding 10 months. Firestone Walker uses its own unique Firestone Union system (somewhat like Burton Union at Marstons) for fermentation. The 10 beers that will make up “10” are then aged in oak bourbon barrels.

Components in the final beer will include an imperial oatmeal stout and barley wine. Brewer Matt Brynildson sent samples of both to the National Homebrew Conference last month for a presentation Todd Ashman gave about the use of wood in brewing. Both beers are intense, already delightfully complex – showing differing effects from time in wood – and would surely get high marks at the beer rating sites.

The individual components of “10” are also periodically available for sampling at Firestone Walker’s taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton on the Central Coast.

“The beer is being brewed in pieces, which will be put together like a puzzle to make the final blend,” Brynildson said. “It is similar to a winemaker’s job of blending different lots of wine. In the end, the beer will resemble a Port wine in complexity, alcohol and sipping pleasure.”

The brewery is in the heart of one of America’s hottest wine regions and winemakers often drop in at the tasting room. Brynildson plans to invite some of them to help determine the final blend.

We already know it will be a “10.”

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.

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