Monday, November 28, 2011

The Beer Experts Have Expressed Their Polite Silence on Habenero Chili Stout

You'd think after the last three batches of home brew that ranged from barely drinkable to down right awful, I should just give up brewing altogether.  But then, there have been times running where long term fatigue and multiple injuries lead to pain and frustration for weeks and months on end.   It happens to a lot of runners, and you need just keep working through the difficulties and find ways to correct the problems to eventually come through it a wiser runner than before.  So in that spirit, I just kept at it with home brewing.  Of course, it is also possible the culmulation of all those slight jolts to my head with each running footstrike over 30 years has resulted in a certain level of  brain damage which clouds my judgement.

So whether motivated by positive thinking or simple brain dysfunction, I decided to brew a Habenero Chile Stout feeling slightly confident I'd isolated the source of the contamination that soured my last brews.  You may reasonably ask "Why on earth would you brew something like that?".  I would like to answer the strong, roasty flavors of stout and stimulating Habenero chiles are part of my personality, vision, and creativity as a brewer.  But the more honest answer is that agressively roasted malts and hot chiles are great at masking any off-flavors lurking around in the brew. 

For the recipe, I used Randy Mosher's Black Ship Pirate Stout from his excellent book Radical Brewing.

5.5 lbs Amber Dry Extract
1.5 lbs Black Patent Malt
1.5 lbs Dark Molassess
1.0 lbs Dark Crystal Malt
5 gallons distalled water

1.0 once Willamette Hops (90 minutes)
2.0 onces Styrian Golding (30 minutes)

After mashing and sparging the grain, the resulting wort and powered extract was boiled for 90 minutes.  With five minutes left in the boil, I added this spice mix:

1/2 tablespoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 tablespoon commercial chili powder
1/8 teaspoons Habenero chile powder

English Ale Yeast was used to fermet the brew, which was racked to a secondary in three weeks, and then bottled two weeks later.

The idea was to replicate Mexican chocolate, with a little heat mingling with the roasty chocolate flavors.  I'd say this came close.  You can certainly detect the heat from the Habeneros.  Its strong, but I didn't find it overpowering, and it takes front stage to a complex roasted malt background.   I'll also add that the heat from the chiles mellowed after the bottles had aged after 3-4 weeks.   I thought it was and interesting and unique beer, but then since I brewed it, I'm bound to be biased. 

So I took a bottle to this month's Bay Area Beer Bloggers meet-up and bottle share to see what experienced beer drinkers in the Bay Area Craft Brewing community thought about at.  I've known Brian Stechshulte for nearly a year and being that I am a graduate of The Ohio State University, find him to be an inspiration as he's overcome his education from the University of Michigan to become a decent, productive member of society.   (We don't need to talk about last weekend's Ohio State-Michigan game.) I don't recall what he said about the Habernero Chile Stout or if he even tried it.  For some reason, he seemed more interested in sampling from bottles of 2009 and 2010 vintages of the always excellent Deschutes' Abyss sitting on the table, as well as all the other stouts available that night from highly renowned and hard to find breweries than something from a hack homebrewer who insults his alma mater on a regular basis.  Imagine that.

Next up was John Heylin who remarked "The chiles are noticeable, but not that hot.  It's smokey."  Colin James, who graciously hosted the bottle share at his apartment agreed "You can certainly taste the chile powder".  Both Chuck Lenatti and I noticed a metallic taste.  There are know-it-alls who claim "metallic" is an off flavor, but it actually provides a mysterious complexity to the brew.   Beyond that, the silence was a little telling.  Nobody came out and said "I don't like this" or even "this sucks" something people often think, yet rarely say, but nobody said "this is good" or "I like it" either.    Never the less, I'll take this polite awkward silence as a ringing endorsement from the Bay Area Beer Bloggers of my latest home brew.

Yeah right.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ledger's Liquors: The Bottle Shop Time Almost Forgot

Walking into Ledgers Liquors in Berkeley, CA feels like walking into some sort of time machine set to 1977.  The faded light brown wood paneling adorned with traditional beer signs and the old linoleum tile floor underneath your feet come from an earlier, simple time.  Which you would probably expect from a family business started in 1935, and is now in its third generation.  But take a close look at the beer on the shelves, and Ledgers becomes highly contemporary, if not cutting edge. 

Sure, the bottles are arranged rather haphazardly, seemingly where ever they can fit on loosely defined "domestic" and "import" shelves.   But search through this chaos carefully, and you'll find beers you rarely see anywhere else.  From this unassuming liquor store, I've found rare beers such as Dogfish Head's Hellhound on My Ale and Stone Brewing's Cherry Chocolate Stout, and there's always a wide menagerie of Russian River selections.   You do not earn the privilege of stocking beers like these on your shelves unless you've built the reputation of being one of the best bottle shops in the country.   Unlike other bottle shops which often host release parties announcing new beers with great fanfare, great beers at Ledger tend to show up quietly unannounced.  And lest you think this store is only for beer geeks, beers like Budweiser, Coors Light, and Keystone are prominently on display.   There's something for everyone here.

So all I can say is that if your looking for some of the most skillfully brewed beers in the world, or just need a 40 ouncer of Old English Malt Liquor to make it through your day, do the world a favor and buy something here to help support this great American institution.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beer of the Month: Fireside Chat by 21st Amendment

Why has it taken so long for something from 21st Amendment to earn this blogs "Beer of the Month"?  I've long been a fan of this brewery, so one of life's minor mysteries has been rectified as 21st Amendment's Fireside Chat takes this month's honors.

What can I say about this beer?  First, you got to love the can art which depicts FDR sitting by the fireplace chatting jovially with a holiday elf.  The beer itself has this great ruby brown color and sturdy, sticky head to it, hitting most of the visually aesthetic points if you're in to that sort of thing.  But my favorite attribute about this beer is that it tastes "wintery" in an obvious, yet undefinable way.
At least what I taste is a strong, slightly nutty ale with cinnamon, some nutmeg, and some other spices.  21st Amendment uses cocoa nibbs which I didn't pick up at first taste, but I believe provides the earthy, nutty note to the brew.  Magnum and Goldings hops give it 45 ibu's, but it just doesn't seem that bitter, with the hefty amount of malt seeming keeping it in check.   At 7.9% abv, it's more drinkable than of lot of winter warmers, almost quasi-sessional in a "have a couple in an evening and still be standing upright" sort of way.

Which I think is the best thing about Fireside Chat.  Do we need another monster Holiday Ale, checking in at 12% abv, brewed with Frankincense, Candy Cane Sugar, and Reindeer Must?  I think not.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Brooklyn Brew Shop's Beer Making Book: Homebrewing for the Rest of Us

Last time I brewed a five gallon batch of stout in my small cramped apartment kitchen, lugging around all the hot liquids in heavy containers created all sorts of spills, drips, and splatters that by the time I was done, it looked like someone with stout colored blood had been murdered in my kitchen.   I don't home brew as often as I'd like since my small apartment kitchen didn't seem like good place to do it.  But my kitchen is an ideal place to brew using standard equipment found in most kitchens to make smaller 1 gallon all-grain receipes, as I found out reading the The Brooklyn Brew Shop's Beer Making Book, writen by Stephen Valand and Erica Shea, owners of the The Brooklyn Brew Shop.

"We wanted to create something where people familiar with a cook book could just start making beer," explains co-author Stephen Valand.  "We didn't want to say, first thing to do is go to a hardware store."  The book describes how to brew beer in small, scaled down 1 gallon batches, a far more manageable size than standard five gallon recipes found most in home brewing books and magazines.  At these small batch sizes, little specialized equipment is necessary to brew beer, such that "..if you've ever made a pot of pasta, you're in good shape".

Erica and Stephen founded their business in 2009 the way a lot of business are created: Through serendipity, followed by looking around, asking questions, and recognizing a unmet demand.  In their case, it started when Erica discovered an old glass carboy in her father's basement from his brief home brewing excersion fifteen years ago.  After making ice cream and pasta from scratch, Stephen and Eric decided their next food project would be to brew beer, so they went about reading up on home brewing.

"A lot of the books seemed to be written for someone with a Ph.D. in Chemistry," recalls Stephen.  "and there were really no place to get home brewing equipment in New York City."  This was largely due to the fact that homebrewing emerged as a hobby in the 80's where 5 gallon and larger batches of beer were typically brewed in backyards, basements, and garages to accomodate equipment like large propane heating torches.   Few New York City homes had the space and facilities to accomodate this, something plenty of people in San Francisco Bay Area can relate to.

After adapting standard home brewing techniques to one gallon batches, they developed their own one gallon recipes.  Realizing that food conscious New Yorkers were ill-equipped to join the craft and home brewing revolution, they started selling home brewing kits at the Brooklyn Flea, a local food and crafts fair, in 2009.    Making brewing accessible to the masses turned out to be good business, and they expanded into a 6,000 square foot warehouse a year later to keep up with demand.   Today you can purchase their kits and recipes in Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma and other retail locations all over the country, as this handy dandy store locator on their website will show you.

As for their new book, it explains the equipment needed to brew one gallon batches, with a brief introduction to brewing malts, hops, and beer styles in simple direct manner.  What follows are 52 different brewing recipes, with a few standard beer styles like IPA's, Porters, and Pale Ales, but plenty of beers that are kind of out there, such as Lady Lavender Blonde Ale, Eggnog Milk Stout, and Lobster Saison which is brewed using an empty lobster shell.

Of course, it took some experimentation to come up with all those different beers.  "There are a few beers we made that have been hidden away, and we don't talk about," concedes Stephen.  "We experimented with a lot of different woods for our Bourbon Dubbel.  We tried cedar wood, which someone told us was poisonous.  It tasted like drinking the closet."

And if you ask me, experimentation and sharing beer you made with family and friends is the best thing about home brewing, an element sometimes lost in the home brewing community, where there can be a lot of emphasis on reproducing and miniaturizing an actual brewing operation.  Given the fact any professional brewing operation, even your local craft brewery, is mostly concerned with sanitizing large metal objects and meticulously pouring over brewing data to brew batch after batch of identical tasting beer, it is not surprising that a lot of mainstream home brewing really doesn't resonate with the general public.

And this book brings up one of the parallels I've descovered about beer and running.  One of the best things about running is you don't need any special equipment or belong to any elite club.  All you need to do is lace up a pair of running shoes, go outside, and you're a runner.  One of the best things about beer is that if you take grains, hops, water and yeast and combine them the right way, you're a brewer.  Thanks to this book, more of us can be brewers.

(An advance copy of this book was provided by Randon House Publishing for the purposes of this review.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Session #57: Fizzy Blueberries

For this month's Session Steve Lamond of Beers I've Known pinch hits for Peter Brown while Peter recovers from the theft of his PC, and asks us to share our "beer confessions and guilty pleasures."  

There have been many moments in my life where beer was involved that I look back and think "Why on earth did I do that?".  It would not be wise to share most of those moments on the internet for all to see, but will confess to a guilty beer pleasure I discovered the time I took my family on vacation to San Diego last year.

We starting the trip driving down from our home on the San Francisco peninsula, and after a morning of driving, rolled into Paso Robles a little before noon on a Monday to stop for lunch at Downtown Brewing, located in the main square in the center of town.  For some odd reason, I ordered the one "chick beer" they had on the menu, their Blueberry Ale.   You know what beer I'm talking about, the one on their tap list for those who would otherwise get something like Coors Light or Corona if it were available.

Maybe because I was thirsty and at that early hour, just wasn't ready for an IPA, Stout, or some of the other styles they had on tap.  The waitress brings it out and there's a bunch of blueberries in the light golden brew swirling around at the bottom half of the pint glass.  It looked like one of those Asian inspired tapioca pearl drinks you see junior high school girls slurping down at the local mall.  Thank goodness the place was pretty empty and only my wife and kids were there to see me drink this totally unmanly foo-foo girlie beer.   My nine and seven year old kids laughed and pointed to the blueberries, and I forced myself to laugh with them, but the whole time I'm thinking "Why did I just order this?".
I braced myself for something sickening sweet, but the blueberry flavor was really restrained, with only the barest of sweetness and provided a great accent to the light ale.  Subtlety and balance in a light refreshing ale is an underrated thing of brewing beauty, and if you asked me, Main Street nailed it.  Sometimes beer works in mysterious ways and this odd looking concoction was exactly the beer I needed to regenerate before continuing our journey south.

So if someday you find me hiding in a dark closet clutching an empty beer glass with dark blue stains on my hands and face, you'll know why.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mike Royko and the Beginnings of the Craft Brewing Revolution

Little did I know Mike Royko, one of my all time favorite writers, helped launch the craft brewing revolution in the 70's.  Royko's daily newspaper columns were full of blunt, crusty sarcasm that somehow held an underlying warmth that completely resonated with the city of Chicago.  He gave Governor Jerry Brown the name "Governor Moonbeam".  I remember opening the newspaper each morning to page 2 to read what Royko had to say about Chicago politics, sports, food or culture. 

Joe Sixpack's later column chronicles how Rokyo's bitter snarky criticism of beer in the 70's and his championing of smaller regional brewers helped start create the current American beer landscape.  You can read about it here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What's the point in writing about the Stone Brewing Brewmaster's Dinner at California Cafe?

That's the question.   Why should I even bother writing about this?  I mean, Stone brews great beer, and the California Cafe in Palo Alto puts on great beer dinners featuring a California brewery about once a month.  Is there any point of even writing about it, other than to say, "Well, it was great"? 

Besides, I'm not a exactly a culinary expert such that I can really deconstruct the subtleties and nuances of the combined brewing vision of Stone's Greg Koch combined with California Cafe's Mark Pettyjohn's magic in the kitchen.   But I can sort of fake it.  And aren't blogs all about writing about stuff you have no business writing about for the sole purpose of looking more important than you really are?  So in this proud tradition, I will provide my take on the Stone Brewing Brewmaster's dinner in an attempt at entertainment, or your possible amusement at my expense. 

First Course
Food: Grilled Portobello Mushroom, chic pea fries, foie gras croutons, goat cheese
Beer: Arrogant Bastard

The first course was a significant food milestone for me since I've never had foie gras before starting off the beer dinner with this.  It's hard not be be curious about foie gras, as the food seems so highly polarizing.   On one side, you have those who claim eating it is the most heavenly orgasmic surreal experience in the world. On the other side, you have PETA-inspired backlash claiming it embodies everything wrong with civilization.  Having now tried it, I have to say I'm a little bewildered this fatty stuff with a light livery taste to it has generated so much commotion. 

I mean, it tasted all right, but if I had to face down a bunch of angry animal rights activists just to eat it again, I'd go for something else.  Sitting to my left for the evening was Peter Estaniel of BetterBeerBlog of fame, who really enjoyed his and he's a big foie gras fan, so Chef Pettyjohn must have executed it well. 

Peter also probably forgot more about beer and food pairing last week than I'll never know.  After the first course, I turned to him and said "You know, the Arrogant Bastard seemed to over powered the Grilled Mushroom a little," and he immediately responds with a complex explanation about the roasted malts and the hop varieties contrasting with the grilled mushroom and other elements on the plate.  I struggled to follow what he was saying.   I think he agreed with me.

My favorite thing about the first course was not the grilled mushroom or the foie gras croutons, but the well seasoned chick pea fries.  PETA 1 Foie Gras 0.
The Second Course in all its porkosity
Second Course
Food: House cured pork belly, crispy pancetta, smoked bacon butter
Beer: Ruination IPA

The smoked bacon butter and house cured pork belly melded together to form a bunch of creamy pork stuff, contrasting with the crispy pancetta, a bunch of crunchy pork stuff.  Ruination IPA, with plenty of strong pineapple and grapefruit hop flavors and no malt backbone to speak of, cut right through all that pork goodness. 

I turn to Peter again after the second course to pick his brain on the second course.  Instead of a detailed, insightful deconstruction of the interplay between the different pork elements and the hops, he simply says "Mmmmmmm, that was good."  I can work with that.

Surprise Course
Food:  Duck medallions with cherry compote on top
Beer:  Cherry Chocolate Stout

Surpise!  After the second course, they bring out the Stone Cherry Chocolate Stout, a limited release that is otherwise sold out and unavailable. It's got plenty of bitter chocolate flavors and cherry, think of a decadent liquid chocolate covered cherry.  And the duck medallions with the cherry compote basically echoed that, even though Chef Pettyjohn conceded they were under salted to my wife and I at the end of the dinner.  Chef, if you hadn't told us that, we wouldn't have noticed.

Third Course
Food: Braised beef short ribs, parsnip puree, crispy onion strings
Beer: Imperial Russian Stout, Vintage ’08

What to say here, once again, the food and beer basically echoed each other.  And once again, my favorite element on the plate was a lovely, creamy parsnip puree under the braised beef ribs, rather than the savory ribs themselves.  Strike another blow for PETA!

Fourth Course
It's a big party of all things carrot
Food: Carrot cake, tipsy raisins, carrot gel
Beer: Old Guardian barley wine, Vintage ’09

My favorite dish of the night.  Way too often, beer dinners end with a desert of Imperial Stout with something like a chocolate tort, or some other Stout and chocolate combination.  Sure, the combination works, often quite well, but it's an obvious pairing and not particularly imaginative to the point of becoming a cliche'.  Instead, for the desert course we get a whimsical plate of all things carrot with this odd, carrot egg roll that comes out of left field.  Some people, like me, loved it, others were a bit underwhelmed by it, but everyone was talking about it, and by that measure, it was a hit.  And the aged Old Guardian with its smooth, sweetness, and slight astringency jumped right into the big party.

There's a nasty rumor that this might be the last of the Brewmaster's Dinners for the year with the holidays fast approaching.  I sure hope that isn't true, as the best part of the series is a certain suspense in seeing what Chef Pettyjohn and the California Cafe crew do next.