Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beer, the stale truth

Perhaps the most interesting and informative seminar I attended at last week's Craft Brewers Conference was on draft-line management. The basic message came down to this: most of you are drinking beer that doesn't taste as it should. There are a variety of reasons for this, but you can be reasonably assured that the draft beer we're drinking at most bars and restaurants in the States is not being served the way the brewer intended. Whether the beer is too old, under-carbonated, or poured through bad lines, finding a place that will do its best to avoid the problems isn't easy.

Old beer comes in a few varieties. An old IPA will begin to lose its hops. Other beers begin to taste like cardboard or paper. This happens because most beers are made to be tasted fresh, as I've commented on in other posts. Most beers — even the yellow fizzy ones — are a fine-tuned balance of hops and malt. As they age, the balance changes. In most cases, this is not a desirable change, and it often happens because a distributor or retailer has simply held onto a keg or bottles for too long. You can also find the change in bottled beer. Over the past week, I heard more than a few tales of brewery owners who found beer that was past its prime in a store and bought it — just to keep the bottles from changing someone's opinion of the beer. More's the pity that an awful lot of distributors, bars and restaurants may not go to the same trouble.

Under-carbonated beer is an even more common phenomenon. Think of that sports bar where they pour a beer full to the rim of the pint glass. The beer is under-carbonated. I guarantee it. Beer should naturally have a head unless it's a low-carbonated barrel- or bottle-conditioned beer. The primary criminal in these cases is the gas used to pump the beer. Check the row of taps at the sports bar (or wherever you got that beer that had no head and lost what fizz it had) and you'll probably see a stout tap. Stouts are generally poured with a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, producing that low-carbonated, velvety texture you associate with the style. Unfortunately, a lot of bars and restaurants run the same gas through their entire run of taps rather than separating the nitro taps from the CO2 taps. Test a bottled beer against the same beer poured off these taps, and you'll see the difference.

You could perform a comparable test between a bottled beer and one poured off dirty lines. If a bar or restaurant does not clean its draft lines, the lines begin to build up a residue. The residue will begin to add off-flavors like butter, sour or green apple to a beer. Likewise, if the restaurant doesn't cover its taps between closing and opening, bacteria and wild yeasts can collect in the taps and create some pretty funky flavors. This can also cause the infamous foaming taps, the ones you see making bartenders work to pour full beers without a glass full of foam. I recently asked a local pub how often they cleaned their lines. Mind you, this is a place that should know better. The bartender shrugged and said it was maybe every few months. The answer explained every complaint I'd heard about their beer.

To people in the brewing business, this isn't earth-shattering breaking news. My guess is that it remains a dirty little secret that bars and restaurants foist on the rest of us, though. After all, why would they want you to know that their cost-saving measures mean the product you drink isn't what the brewer intended?

Random thoughts

After two years of living with cats, I have to say that the Monty Python boys were certainly onto something with this one:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Language of Beer

The other day, a few of us were sitting outdoors at one of the few sidewalk spots in Carytown. It was a gorgeous Friday afternoon — a little sultry for mid-March, but otherwise the sort of afternoon that brings everyone out to stroll. L and a friend had gotten a bottle of rosé and a cheese plate. I had an Avery DuganA. This particular restaurant is the sort of place where the taps rotate regularly, and the draft and bottle selection is a reliable mix of domestic and international craft beers. They also don’t carry any brands from the Big 3 — and very few of the more common imported beers.Walk in there, and you won’t be able to order a Bud or a Miller Lite. They like it this way, and so do the rest of us craft beer elitists. [Insert a tongue-in-cheek tone.]

Occasionally their decision (a decision shared by a few other places in town) causes a bit of a hiccup in business. I’ve heard people order a Bud or a Miller or what-have-you only to be told that the restaurant doesn’t carry those beers. I have also heard these same customers incredulously question the bartender. Why wouldn’t they? The response varies based on the personality of the bartender and how difficult the customer has been. In general, though, they’re very good about redirecting customers to beers they might like — a pilsner or a kölsch in place of a Bud, for instance.

On this stellar afternoon where I happened to be sitting outdoors rather than at the bar, I heard a waiter take a very different approach. When a customer ordered a Coors Light — a surprise order since he seemed to have been there before — the waiter patiently said they didn’t have Coors Light, but they had a nice light-bodied beer on draft, if he’d like that. The customer said sure, that’d be fine.

I watched as the waiter brought him a North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner. The man seemed pleased and after a little while ordered another. He also never asked what he was drinking.

My first instinct would have been to tell him what he was drinking. Perhaps he’d want to order it again. Or perhaps he just wanted a beer. A fizzy, yellow beer. And that’s where my instinct to educate him — to geek out about the beer — would have been wrong. Sometimes people just want an uncomplicated beer, uncomplicated by names and hop descriptions and grain bills, and the farther I go into the craft and artisanal beer movement, the more I think the simplicity of just having a beer gets forgotten.

This certainly isn’t the end of the discussion, but I have started to realize that we need a balance in the craft beer world. We need a balance for people who just want a beer — a desert island beer — and a way for them to know that there are more than dark and light varieties without losing them in the intricacies of barrel-aging or food pairing. In a manner, we need to create a broader language that brings even that man at the sidewalk restaurant and the waiter serving him into the fold, without losing the beauty of a cold beer on a hot day.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


After six or so months of brewing on the Brew-Magic, we have hit a good rhythm, and by and large, we have our process nailed down. It's exciting to see recipes coming together and hear the feedback. What is also exciting is taking the beer we first brewed in the current brewing space and playing with it.

This particular beer is a soured Belgian-style ale. The ABV clocks in just shy of 10%, and it was fermented with both Brett and Saccharomyces (non-brewers should stay tuned for a further explanation of these wild yeasts in another post). The recipe was loosely based on the Abbaye de Bon Saint-Chien BFM and another beer that shall remain un-named. The beer was brewed in September and has rested until now. Three weeks ago, we dosed half of the beer with toasted French oak that had been soaked in Chambourcin from a friend's winery in Loudoun County. The beer's sour character jived beautifully with the oak flavor and the light fruit flavors of the young Chambourcin. The result as we bottled the first couple cases last week was already moving to another level. I'm excited to see what this beer does as it continues to age and what happens when we run it again.

And that, my friends, is our first running of the Grand Cru.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Fun Salad Moment

Despite some rather temperate weather in Richmond, I've been sticking with flavors and textures that are comforting and winter-like — even salads. A recent addition to the repertoire has been a beet salad with toasted almonds and goat cheese. On their own, all the ingredients are terrific, but put together they sing like a chorus in the groove.

The real star of the show is the almonds, though. I start with a hot, dry pan and add the almonds mixed with some coarse salt, a touch of cumin, and chili. I let them toast for a few minutes over a medium flame and then add a touch of olive oil to coat them. The flame should go down, and the almonds toast until brown. The flavors will meld and provide the perfect complement to the beets, greens, goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic.

In the end, it will be one of the simplest and best salads you've ever had, almost a meal-like compliment to roast chicken or salumi and cheeses.