August 25, 2011

Special delivery beer pairing: Black Raspberries and golden apples

Full disclosure: Many bloggers receive free beer in the mail, then review it, but fail to mention they're reviewing complimentary samples. Not me. Sometimes I request samples for my stories; sometimes they're just sent. Lately, in addition to receiving emailed press releases about beers, I'm getting releases from various food publicists. These foodstuffs showing up on my doorstep is fun, but the publicist had nothing to show for it. I've never blogged reviews. Til now. Here's the second in my series of food sample + beer pairings*. (*IF the suggested beers are comped samples, I'll disclose that.)

My first and only visit to Cincinnati, like every trip, is forever associated with the food I ate. There are two classics that correlate to Cincy: Cincinnati chili (a la Skyline, Dixie, or Gold Star) and Graeter's Ice Cream. Everyone has a hands-down favorite among the former (after trying them all, I indeed have a favorite but ask me in private so as not to enrage particular friends there). As for Graeter's, I have a favorite flavor there, too, and it's oddly not my all-time flavorite (which is Mint-Chip): it's their Black Raspberry Chip. No surprise it's their top-seller.
This is premium stuff (and not just because the Mint Chi
p is not artificially colored). When my pregnant wife had a craving for coffee ice cream, the Mocha Chip hit the spot and her hormonal taste buds are prone to being disappointed rather than constantly enamored. I was equally fond.
When it comes to pairing ice cream and beer, the knee-jerk is rich creamy vanilla with equally rich yet chocolaty stout. Enjoyed side-by-side or increasingly popular as a float, I dabbled with both, selecting the unfortunately-named Dick's Cream Stout. Dick (Young)'s Brewery from near-ish Centralia, WA is ultra smooth and what I like about pairing with it is that since it's not particularly boozy (5% ABV), it keeps the float refreshing. Woe that we don't get Dick's Root Beer in Oregon, I selected the local Crater Lake Root Beer simply because it's local and natural. Fortuitously, the strong vanilla bean flavor drowned out the root beer's toothpastiness from it's trumped up wintergreen. If you think you're sensing a theme, you are.

Craft ice cream, just like craft beer, is best enjoyed provincially. When consulting with one of the founders of the forthcoming Cincinnati Beer Week, I recommended partnering with Graeter's to do a series of floats and pairings. (Let's see if they're game.) I hesitate to say ice cream needs to be fresh since, hello, it's frozen, but whereas eating Graeter's in Cincy or even anywhere in the vicinity of Ohio/Kentucky is a must, I'm not sure the benefits of distributing a flavor like Vanilla to the West Coast. Julie's and Alden's are excellent locally made vanilla ice creams and cost about the same a pint of Graeter's. (For a tragi-comedic story, click on BonAppetit's "Supermarket Standoff" where someone judged the winner because, in his or her words, "I like seeing the vanilla flecks."

The kicker here is that I heartily recommend rushing out and trying the Black Raspberry Chip. The berries are sourced from, where else, right here in Oregon! Why have I never seen a raspberry chip ice cream here before? If I'm going to eat a fruit flavored ice cream, it's gotta be something special. I love strawberries but can't stand most of this pink concoctions. Graeter's succeeds by making it almost taste like gelato. It's both true to the puree as well as immensely creamy, and really, what ice cream isn't ameliorated with chocolate chips, or in this case, shavings? To pair with it, rather than go with a difficult beer pairing that would play well with the fruit, the chocolate, and the cream, I went with an apple cider from Eaglemount. Several varieties showed up on the shelf at Belmont Station and I was relieved the simple yet sophisticated packaging (swingtop, too!) didn't belie the contents. The fact that the cider was decidedly fruity yet crisp and dry helped jar my palate without piling sweet upon sweet. Perhaps not as healthy as eating a fruit salad or apple-raspberry smoothie, but the pairing made for a light-feeling dessert and is anything but expected.

Beer roulette

I hate Las Vegas. I used to find myself going every year at least once, usually for Punk Rock Bowling, but ever since the organizers moved the weekend and I moved farther away, I've seldom been back. I hate the cigarette smoke, I hate the fact that you get what you pay for when you get the $2.99 b-fast, and I hate that I was clearly addicted to gambling. Case in point: I hit rock bottom when a friend duped me into driving out to Lost Wages a few presidential elections past ostensibly to canvas, but it just so happened to be Halloween and he dragged me to a bunch of clubs. Let's just say he had a good time and I couldn't wait to get back home. So when I missed catching the Greyhound to leave a day early, I consoled myself at Binion's and tested my "fool-proof" way to win at roulette. Here, I'll share it with you. Figure out how much money you want to win and bet it on red. Or black. Or whichever one ISN'T the one that the ball just landed on 3 spins in a row. If you lose, just bet double that amount the next time. If you lose again, bet quadruple that amount (since you lost it once the first spin and twice the second spin). The only way this plan can fail is, if, say, hypothetically, you wisely don't bring a lot of cash with you but you foolishly forget to leave your ATM card at home and then impulsively withdraw the maximum amount and that, too, doesn't land on the color you're riding.

I guess the reason this is on my mind is that I'm excited to go to Vegas soon. My wife's new job has her going there for a store opening and I've never been to a brewery in Nevada so I'm tagging along. Back in the day, there was no craft beer scene to speak of, but now there is. And the hotel is paid for. As is the food so no $2.99 b-fasts all day. As far as vices go, I'm glad that I've become a beer aficionado that I enjoy responsibly and moderately. I'm better at doing beer reviews than casino reviews.

Oh, as for that ill-fated trip. My friend who dragged me and allowed himself to be subsumed by every single vice in his playbook ended up officiating at my wedding. He got married, too, and his wife is grateful that I turned her onto Dieu du Ciel's Peche Mortel Espresso Stout. A far cry better than what we drank that weekend in Vegas.

August 4, 2011

A limp reception to IPA Day. Hoppy beers make you flaccid

Rise up gruit drinkers, oh ye fans of unhopped ales. Lay down your swords IPA guzzlers, ye of the limpdicks. For you see, IPA producers, unlike The Church, don't want you to know about a medical condition known as "brewers droop."In my post today for All About Beer's Beer Soup blog, I examine this rarely discussed phenomenon that is particularly relevant as we celebrate IPA Day. It's one that Stephen Harrod Buhner saw fit to discuss quite often. Since I'm only alloted a limited word count for Beer Soup, I wanted to offer up some extra background from our friend Buhner not just on WHY hoppy beers produce brewers droop, but where such beers came from and why the Church actually had good reason--besides their own financial gain which is always the case behind any large entity's action--to oppose the implementation of hops. Excerpted from the full article found here.

To understand the radical change that is involved in the shift from gruit to the hopped beer we now drink, it is important keep in mind the properties of gruit ale: it is highly intoxicating - narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic when consumed in sufficient quantity. The hopped ale that took its place is quite different. Its effects are sedating and anaphrodesiacal. In other words it puts the drinker to sleep and dulls sexual desire. Hops is extremely high in estrogenic and soporific compounds. The phytoestrogens make it great for women in menopause but never good for men. (In fact there is a well-known condition among inn keepers and brewers in England called "brewer's droop.")

When Hops began to be suggested for use as a primary additive in ale, the opposition was tremendous. Those who held a monopoly on gruit production in Germany (the Catholic Church) and on pure ale in England fought hop introduction through the legislatures, proclamations of the royalty, writings of the day's medical practitioners, and through church edict. Hops, until this time, was merely one of the plants used all along in the production of beer - the earliest mention of its use probably being in Hildegard of Bingen's (1098-1179) Physica, though she insisted that other than its preservative qualities "It is not much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy."

Perhaps the organizers ought to promote craft beer next year with another style of ale the macros don't produce: the historical gruit.
(And thanks to where I "lifted" the artwork from their Demotivational poster.)

August 1, 2011

Homebrew CSA: 2-3 pros, 20-30 cons

Brew Lab SF is a CSA-style homebrew club. Community Supported Agriculture is an awesome idea that even the USDA supports, but notice it doesn’t support CSHB (community supported home brewing.) I found out about it through the SFoodie/SF Weekly food blog written by my friend Jason Henry who took over my beer blogging duties there when I retired moved out of San Francisco. It was also covered in Urbandaddy

Not to be confused with Pacific Brewing Laboratories in San Francisco, an entity that gets miscategorized as a nanobrewery but is really 2 homebrewers, Patrick and Bryan, who also share their beer with the public for free and accept donations. I don’t know if I “fully” support their set-up, but I do stand behind it because they are talented, creative homebrewers who aspire to go pro through the proper, legal chanels and their events are community-based and offer the conviviality that gathering and drinking beer produces unlike sticking a 6 pack in one’s fridge (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

To be clear, nanobreweries are legal breweries licensed by the TTB. Only legal breweries can legally sell beer. They also must pay excise taxes. So, while I’m sure that founders Sam Gilbert and Emily Ford are well-intentioned and enterprising individuals who started this for great beer-promoting reasons involving proselytizing the merits of homebrewing, I can only think of 2-3 good reasons for this club and 20-30 bad ones.

1. Free beer. Who wouldn’t like that?

2. Feedback. Each homebrewer gets feedback on his or her brew and even gets some of the costs associated with the hobby reimbursed.

3. Waste not, want not. Even when I make 5-gallon batches it’s sometimes hard to get through it all.

Where to begin?

1: Selling homebrew is illegal. I know the argument here is that it’s not “selling homebrew” but c’mon. In their own words: We can only cover the costs of brewing and running the organization with the help of membership donation, and so each batch we ask our members to consider donating to the cause. Good luck getting the free beer without paying the donation, which they do not specify the suggested amount.

2: Don’t be nervous. You put the donation on the dresser. Donations by and large are given to nonprofit or other charitable organizations, or to political campaigns, or to…prostitutes. Just like it’s illegal to sell homebrew, it’s illegal to sell sex*. (Though I think that vices like prostitution and marijuana should be legalized and taxed to high heaven. The Dutch seem happy.) I’m well aware of the huge difference between homebrewing and human trafficking, but just calling payment a “donation” doesn’t make it charitable. Ask Rick Santorum.

3: Hurts homebrewing hobby. Any club like this makes it look like we homebrewers are in it for the moolah. Or it gives us the very false impression that our beer is worth buying. Much of it is. That’s why I’m writing a book about it! But much of it is not, despite once having someone insist on giving me $2 for bottles I brought to a dinner. Yes, I broke the law by accepting that money, but I only did it because even after I explained I couldn’t accept it, the guy insisted, and I liked the ego stroke.

4: Hurts professional brewers. Every 6 pack of BrewlabSF you buy, that’s one 6-pk of craft you didn’t. I once heard a craft brewer call this “share of mouth.” Some craft brewer’s kid is going hungry if you participate in this club.

5. Like homebrewers need help getting feedback. What homebrewer doesn’t already have friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc. already willing to offer that, especially in exchange for “free” beer.

6. Quality of/qualified feedback. From whom exactly? These club goers aren’t necessarily BJCP certified. IF, if, if they give feedback at all, it’s in the form of 1-4 star ratings and then maybe a quick line. And they can (and do) post some anonymously. Club co-founder Emily Ford reviewed one of the beers called Royale with Cheese—a Simcoe and Amarillo hopped pale ale fermented with a Belgian yeast strain—as “Fantastic!” That was the entire review. I’m sure she’s right and I’d love to try that beer. But that’s not constructive feedback.

7. Slave drivers? OK, probably not, but this reeks of BrewLabSF folks profiting from the hard work of others. How much DO they pocket off this little venture? And how much goes to the actual brewers (who, see #1, aren’t legally allowed to make anything off it anyway)?

8. TTB/ABC. Commercial brewers went through tons of trouble and jumped through tons of hoops to be allowed to sell their wares. Now homebrewers get to skirt those orgs and laws? I love loopholes as much as the next guy. Figure out a way I don’t have to pay taxes or get to run red lights and I’m there. But…

9. TTB/ABC pt 2. It’s not like we’re talking selling homemade jam or bread here, two hobbies related to homebrewing. This stuff has alcohol. That’s why it’s so highly regulated. Can you imagine a moonshine CSA? If there’s one out there, they’re smarter than putting it on the world wide web.

10. Hooch. I have no clue what the authorities would do if they busted sellers and/or brewers. Probably assess a fine. Prisons are overcrowded. But before I started writing about beer, I wrote about music. (And I write about these things because I’m a better writer than I am musician/brewer.) One of the indie/punk rags I wrote for had a recipe on prison hooch. Crush a bunch of oranges in a trash bag, add a ton of sugar, fill with water, then wait and “burp” it as needed. Just to be on the safe side, let’s keep these homebrewers making quality beer.

11. 21+. How do we know the club members are of age? Yeah, there’s an “I am 21+ years old” button that they have to click saying they are, but are IDs checked before the sixer is dropped off or picked up?

12. Free beer is a bad idea. I know brewers hear all the time how amazing, borderline unfair it is that they get paid to make beer. But brewing is hard work with long hours. They DESERVE to get paid. Beer is WORTH paying for. This makes it seem like beer should ever be free. But of course, it’s not really free. Would they actually allow a member to NOT make a donation? C’mon!

13. For the geeks. I’m not saying only homebrewers should drink homebrew. Far from it. But is this really turning people on to brewing? I hear membership is so popular, they can’t allow everyone in. And most people who love and support homebrewing know where/who to get some from.

14. It’s a hobby. Why do any homebrewers believe their beer is worth buying? Of course, again, a good amount of it is. But they shouldn’t do this for that reason. That’s why it’s a hobby! Mountain bikers don’t get paid to mountain bike. Girls who go to Stitch’n’Bitch knitting sessions probably don’t sell their scarves that often. We ALL have hobbies, and just because you’ve been doing it for a few years doesn’t mean you’ve reached the major leagues. Hell, I started home masturbating decades ago. I got really great at it. Wanna make a donation? Want a 6-pk of what I’ve made?

15. Hobby Pt 2. Lots of great homebrewers aspire to go pro. But other than the fact that you’ll almost never see a rich brewer, another reason not to make the leap is it turns brewing from an avocation to a vocation. If the member brewers start thinking of it as work, it could take the fun out of it.

16. 40 bottles!? A 5-gallon batch yields roughly 2 cases. Sure, it’s supposed to yield 53 12-oz bottles, but c’mon, who’s gonna bottle the gook at the bottom of your carboy? So, the homebrewers go through all the trouble involved in a brewday just to get to enjoy a sixer or two of their own beer while the rest goes to strangers?

17. Those strangers. This may sound like #5 a lot, but if I’m going to share my homebrew, I want it going to people I know with palates I trust. It doesn’t have to go to people with the most sophisticated palate, but someone whose evaluation I value. Sorry club members, but maybe you really know how to enjoy and critique beer—and maybe you don’t.

18. Fresh’n’clean. You’d think that since the beer doesn’t go through any of the 2nd-tier channels, ie: a distributorship, that the club organizers are delivering the freshest beer possible. And it very well might be! But maybe the contributing brewers are using this as a bottle-dump to rid the closet of old or questionable bottles. Lord knows I’ve done that at parties. And while every good homebrewer knows the 3 essentials are sanitation, sanitation, and sanitation, there’s no guarantee the contributors follow all 3 steps the way commercial ones have to do if they want repeat customers. (Trust me, when word gets out about spoilage in a commercial brew, it hits them in the bottom line.) Lastly, look at the last batch of sixers that went out on their blog (scroll down). Green bottles?!

19. No CRV. OK, I don’t really think that Calif. Redemption Value is an argument here, just trying to stretch to get to an even 20.

20. As the story on Chow put it, BrewLabSF is a labor of love. I don’t know if they’re operating in the black at this point with their newfound popularity, but I doubt they’d continue to run it if they’re losing money on it. Still, it can’t be making them rich. However, the blog post ends: “it's only a matter of time before this idea is picked up by other home-brewers around the country.” And where others go with this idea and what they’re motivated by, I’m afraid to consider.

So, there ya have it. What do you think? CSAs like BrewLabSF a honky-dory idea or well-intentioned but ought not to exist? Do you have an additional 17 reasons to make the pros outweigh the cons? Or perhaps 10 more negatives to flesh out the “20-30” I thought I’d come up with. I expect this post to be updated frequently.