Monday, March 29, 2010

Beer & Cheese: Two of My Favorite Things

There's an old saying in the wine business: "Taste with bread, sell with cheese." While bread has a very neutral flavor, the better to let the wine express itself, cheese is almost the exact opposite. The creamy, butterfat goodness of cheese is almost perfectly designed to cover the tannins of an immature red or smooth the sharp edges of a less than stellar white, which is what makes it the "weapon of choice" for desperate wine merchants.

While cheese may hide the defects in a wine, wine and cheese do not compliment each other nearly so well as beer and cheese.

Now remember, the cheese I am talking about here is not some homogenized, pasteurized, mass-produced, and thoroughly commodified cheese like Kraft American Singles, anymore than the beer we are talking about is a BudMillCoors macrobrew. No, I'm talking about real artisanal cheeses, made the traditional way. "Craft" cheese, if you will.

Sorry, couldn't resist the pun...

Let's face it, it's certainly no coincidence that some of the great monastic brewers left in this world (Chimay, Orval, & Westmalle) also produce outstanding artisanal cheeses. Or that a "farmhouse" brewery like Brasserie Dupont also makes excellent cheese. Hell, Fritz Maytag, the genius behind Anchor Brewing Company and the godfather of American Craft Beer comes from a cheese-making background. Maytag Blue, anyone?

As I said above, good, flavorful, artisanal cheese pairs much better with beer than it does with wine. Cheese and beer are produced by similar processes and have much in common. The process of making beer involves mashing, boiling, & fermenting; cheese making consists of production, reduction, and ripening. The higher in alcohol a beer is, the longer it can be kept; the harder a cheese is, the longer it will last.

Personally, I was a little late to the "good cheese game". I didn't discover how absolutely fantastic cheese could be until Elaine and I were living in London and stumbled on to a place called Neal's Yard Dairy. They specialize in wonderful artisanal cheese and other high quality produce from farms located around London. That was where I discovered the joy of Colston Bassett Stilton...

Colston Bassett is one of the smallest Stilton Dairies in the UK. They buy milk from 5 farms surrounding the dairy. Their Stilton is more traditional than any other. The curd is hand-ladled before draining which results in a luscious, creamy texture when the cheese is mature. The rinds are dimpled and aged, bearing the marks of long months in the caves, but the cheese is creamy and luxurious, with a silky texture and a long, fruity bite. Pair it with a nice, hoppy British Bitter, like a Young's Special Ale or a Fuller's ESB, or better yet a strong Old Ale like Thomas Hardy's and you have a match made in heaven.

It opened my eyes to just how good cheese could be, both alone and paired with a good beer.

So why my sudden current fixation on cheese? Well, this weekend I paid a visit to our local specialty cheese shop, The Gourmet Garden, located at the "Y" in Soldotna, next to River City Books. While it may not be Neal's, it's still a very nice little gourmet market. I went in to replenish my supply of Stilton (not Colston-Bassett, unfortunately). Whenever I am there, I always take a look to see what new treasures might have arrived in the cheese case since my last visit. Over the last five years, I've found some pretty interesting things.

This time around, a couple of new cheese caught my eye (and then my taste buds). There was a cheddar made with caramelized onions; amazingly delicious. Then there was a cheese called a Boxing Cheddar from Australia (it had a kangaroo with boxing gloves on the label). It was a very hard cheddar, having been aged for three years, and was quite salty. It had a fantastic meaty, rich, salty flavor that paired very well with a strong, rich imperial stout. In the end, I walked out with a pound of Stilton and a half pound of each of the other two.

So if you like good craft beer, I'd recommend you try pairing it with some good, artisanal cheese. Just remember, you want to pair subtle flavored beers with subtle cheeses, while saving the beers with big, bold flavors for cheeses with the same. Serve the beer cool, but not cold, and the cheese at room temperature.

Besides buying cheese last Saturday, I made it out to Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop. I snapped up a jug of their latest batch of Double Wood Imperial IPA. As I predicted last week, it's excellent. If you like 'em hoppy, get some before it's gone.

Last week I had lunch on Thursday at St. Elias Brewing Company. Their Vanilla Porter was on, so I had a pint to accompany a breadbowl of their excellent Soup of the Day, a Beer & Asiago Cheese Soup. (Beer and cheese, what a novel idea...) The porter was excellent, with a nice clean taste and a subtle vanilla flavor. Zach stopped by my table to chat and told me that his latest batch of Brass Monkey ESB would be on tap later in the day. He said that he had tweaked the hop profile slightly, so I'm looking forward to trying the new version. St. Elias also has some cool new liter swing-top jugs; they have built in handles. I think I'll have to pick one up on my next visit. And before you ask, I'm still waiting for my BDOTY check to arrive, so I had to pay my tab...

As for "new" beers, I drank an old favorite last night, then realized that I had never written a review of it. Midnight Sun Brewing's Monk's Mistress, a Belgian-style Special Dark Ale. It's brewed with Belgian yeast, hopped with East Kent Goldings and Fuggles to 13 IBUs, and brewed to an impressive 11.5% ABV. It pours a very dark brown, almost black, with a good-sized tan head that is slow to dissipate. The roasted malts used give it a wonderful aroma, full of hints of dark fruits, like plums, figs, and raisins. On the tongue, the first thing you notice is a big alcoholic character, very boisterous and very warming. Mouthfeel is viscous, but the carbonation gives a lift, making it smooth and crisp. It's a very complex brew, and a great sipping beer. I spent about three hours finishing mine last night.

If you like malty, strong dark Belgian ales, you'll love Monk's Mistress. Midnight Sun's tag line for this brew is:

Submit. Surrender. Succumb. For tomorrow, you will repent.

I'd say that about sums it up.

We'll, that's all for this week. Have you contacted you Representative about H.R. 4278 yet? See last week's blog to learn why it's important that you do so.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Seeking Sasquatch (and other good beers)

Once upon a time (the early 90s), when I was living in the beer wasteland which Hawaii once was, March was one of the best times of the year. Why? Because that's when Sierra Nevada Brewing Company released their Bigfoot Barleywine-style Ale each year.

In our current state of craft beer grace, it's easy to forget what a big deal having an American-style barleywine on the shelves was then. Today, finding a barleywine on the shelf, or even on tap at a local brewpub, isn't very tough. But 15 to 20 years ago, Bigfoot was often the only one available. So when it hit the shelves, word would spread around and all the serious beer geeks would load up. We all bought at least a case, often two or three, which would then have to last us through the entire year. Plus we always tried to cellar a bottle or two for a couple of years, just to see how it would change.

Fast forward to today. While Bigfoot might no longer be the only game in town, it's still an absolute classic American barleywine. The 2010 batch (or Expedition, as it's called) has been released and has made it to Alaska. In fact, it has made it all the way to Kenai, with six-packs available at Country Liquors. It may also be available at other stores, but I saw it there last week for sure.

As for what Bigfoot is like, I reviewed the 2009 Expedition back on 3/16/2009. The 2010 Expedition is also excellent. If you're a fan of big, hoppy American barleywines, you've got to pick up a six-pack or two.

While I was at Country Liquors, I also picked up a bottle of Kulmbacher's Eisbock to try. Eisbock is a style of beer rarely produced in the US, due to our arcane liquor laws. It's beer which has been partially frozen and then had the ice removed. Since water freezes before alcohol, this is in effect a form of freeze distillation. Under US law, any form of distillation falls under a different tax/licensing regime, so most US breweries don't attempt this. Fortunately there's no problem with importing such beers from Europe, so we can still experience the style, even if we can't easily make it ourselves.

Eisbocks are strong, malty beers, similar to doppelbocks, but with an even more pronounced alcohol presence. Kulmbacker's Eisbock is very true to the style, weighing in at 9.2% ABV. It is deep ruby in color, and pours with a small but nice-looking head. The aroma is of sweet malt, rich & dark. On the palate it has medium body, with some alcohol warmth and a long, slow, smooth, slightly sweet finish. Wonderfully clean, this would be an excellent beer as a nightcap after a good meal.

I also snagged a bottle of Deschutes Brewery's Hop Henge Experimental IPA, part of their Bond Street Series. This beer has been a seasonal since 2006 and for a hophead like myself, it is an unadulterated pleasure. We're talking pounds and pounds of Cascades & Centennial hops, 8.75% ABV and 95 IBUs, which puts us deep into Double or Imperial IPA territory. Still, for all the hop bitterness, this beer is better balanced than many I've had with 20 or 30 less IBUs claimed on the label. They've used enough, crystal, pale and carastan malt to give the beer sufficient backbone not to collapse under the weight of that massive hop bitterness. If you've had this beer in the past, you should try it again, as the recipe has been tweaked slightly. If you've never had it, but you like hops, you should definitely pick up a bottle.

Over a month ago, I mentioned that I had picked up a bottle of Big Sky Brewing's Buckin' Monk Tripel at La Bodega in Anchorage.. This is a limited edition beer (I got bottle #2292 of 3000), finished in a nice 750 ml corked bottle. I had been itching to try it, but wanted to wait until I had a friend or two around to share it with. Finally, last weekend my friends Curt and Dave dropped by to help me with a couple of home repair projects. Once we were finished, I popped the cork and poured us each a glass. It poured a little hazy, but looked nice in the glass. Aroma was of sweet fruit, with some alcohol (10% ABV). Great mouthfeel, very heavy on the tongue, with the characteristic earthy, spicy notes from the Belgian yeast. Finish could be a little drier, but it's not bad. Very drinkable for such a strong beer, and about the best thing I've had from Big Sky. If you can score one of the other 2999 bottles of this out there and you like tripels, it's worth giving a try.

More good news for barleywines from Alaska: the results from the 2010 Hard Liver Barleywine Fest held at Brouwer's Cafe in Seattle, WA. First place went to Glacier Brewhouse's Old Woody '09 Barleywine. This brew also took first at the Great Alaska Beer & Barleywine Festival back in January. Once again, it's obvious that Alaskan brewers continue to "punch above their weight" in the arena of making good beers, especially barleywines.

Here on the Peninsula, Kassik's Kenai Brewstop released another batch of their excellent Double Wood Imperial IPA on Saturday, 3/20. Check out my review from 12/2/2009. This is a seriously amped up version of their Morning Wood, so if you like monster IPAs, be sure to grab some before it's gone.

St. Elias Brewing Company had quite the shindig last Wednesday for St. Patrick's Day. I slipped in about 4:30 to beat the crowds, but by the time I left at 7:30, the place was packed. I had a great pizza, drank about 3 pints of their Mother's Milk Irish Stout, and won a t-shirt in the trivia contest. I passed on the green-dyed beer, though. Zach should be putting the next batch of his Vanilla Porter on this week. He has tweaked the recipe slightly and gave me a preview sample, which I thought was even better than his last batch. St. Elias is turning into THE place to hang out in Soldotna; the only downside is that it's getting so that I have to leave work early to get a parking spot.

Wait a minute. "Have to leave work early?" That's no downside!

One final thing before I sign off. The Brewers Association has issued a Nationwide Support Your Local Brewery Action Alert regarding H.R. 4278, a bill in House of Representatives which would reduce the federal excise tax on small breweries (those producing less than 6 million barrels a year). Personally, I think this would be an excellent way to stimulate job growth, not to mention encouraging the production of good craft beer. If you would like to learn more, there is a resource page here. I have already contacted my Congressman, Don Young, and urged him to become a co-sponsor of the bill. If you care about craft beer in America, I suggest you contact your representative and make your opinion known.

Well, that's it for this week. Enjoy some good beer to celebrate the fact that spring is just around the corner.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Victory has a Sweet Taste. Kinda like a Good Scotch Ale...

Well, I did it. I'm sure some of you out there had your doubts; Lord knows, I did. But sometimes things just all fall into place.

My lovely wife Elaine and I made it to Denver by lunchtime on Thursday. That was after a full day at work, followed by a three-hour drive to Anchorage, then a 12:30 AM flight out, with a plane change in Portland. So by the time we made it to our hotel in Denver, we were both pretty well fried.

We did need to eat so we stumbled down the 16th St. Mall and chose a place named the Appaloosa Grill. We liked the look of the menu and I could see some Great Divide and New Belgium tap handles in the bar. So we went in and enjoyed a nice lunch, accompanied by a Titan IPA from Great Divide (me) and a Blue Paddle Pilsner from New Belgium (Elaine). Both beers were absolutely excellent, very fresh and delicious. This was my first indication that, unlike my last visit in 1990, the Denver of today is a fantastic beer town.

Then went back to our hotel and crashed for a few hours sleep before meeting up with my wife's nephew, Clay, and his wife Hillary. They drove us to a great neighborhood Italian place for supper, also accompanied by some excellent beer. Elaine was very happy to see they had Stella Artois on tap and I was very happy with my Odell Brewing 5 Barrel Pale Ale. Just another data point that demonstrates what great place for beer Denver has become.

After sleeping in the next day, we finally hit the pavement late in the morning and strolled down 16th St, snapping photos and doing some shopping, on our way to the Lower Downtown neighborhood and the famous Falling Rock Taphouse. It's located all of half a block from the home plate at Coors Field and routinely appears in lists of the top ten beer bars in the US.

Having never been there, Falling Rock was at the top of my list of places to visit. Walking in, you're overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tap handles, both those on service and in racks along the walls. A constantly rotating selection of 75+ beers on tap and 130+ in the bottle makes this place a little slice of heaven for a serious beer geek like yours truly.

When we arrived on Friday, we were fairly early for lunch, perhaps 11:30, so the bar wasn't crowded at all, though it was beginning to fill up as we left about an hour later. We sat in a booth on the bar-side and perused the amazing beer menu. The absolutely huge selection included a selection of Russian River beers, seldom seen anywhere but around Santa Rosa, CA. I visited that brewery back in June, so I knew how fantastic they are and promptly ordered a Damnation Strong Golden Ale, while my wife had a Trumer Pils.They were even planning to tap two 4 gallon torpedoes of Pliny the Younger Triple IPA at 5 PM that day, but our server advised against showing up for that, since based on past experience, the beer would be gone in less than 15 minutes, leaving many disappointed customers.

The food was good, if a little greasy; I had a nice pastrami, with Swiss cheese and onions. Service was great; perhaps because it was slow, our waiter took plenty of time to chat with us. The beer was was absolutely spot on, and the decor and atmosphere were both exceptional. I see why this bar is where "everybody" goes after the Great American Beer Festival sessions breakup at the Colorado Convention Center.

After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon knocking around downtown, until it was time to head to the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the sponsor and host of the Beerdrinker of the Year competition. Each year, on the night before the competition, Wynkoop hosts an informal "meet-and-greet" dinner for the judges and the finalists, along with their respective spouses. It gives everyone a chance to get to know each other, before the formal competition the next day. After dinner, it's traditional for everyone to migrate the two blocks over to Falling Rock for some after-dinner beers.

I'd last been at Wynkoop in 1990, only two years after it had opened. In those days, it was about the only business open down in the somewhat dodgy LoDo neighborhood, full of old, empty warehouses and buildings dating from around 1900. Today, LoDo is full of great bars, restaurants, and theaters, and Wynkoop Brewing Company can take a lot of the credit for its redevelopment.

Since both of the other finalists had competed before, I was definitely the rookie in the field and was grateful for a chance to get to know both them and several of the judges in a low-key setting. Before dinner, I had an Auld Rabbit Ale ( created by last year's BDOTY, Cody Christman, brewed with Br'er Rabbit molasses, and served on cask). It was dark and rich, with the molasses imparting a touch of sweetness and smokiness. It's 6.4% ABV and a lovely, lovely drink. Elaine and I also got to meet Cody and spend a few minutes chatting with him before dinner; he's a great fellow and a real beer connoisseur.

In the course of supper (a great Venison Bourguignonne for me, and a fantastic Mac & Cheese for Elaine), I also got to meet both of my competitors (Phil Farrell & Logan Perkins) and their ladies, as well as a couple of the other judges. I enjoyed a pint of the Wynkoop's B3K Schwarzbier, a German-style black lager, coming in at 5.3% ABV and the winner of a Gold Medal at the 2008 GABF. I followed it up with a pint of their St. Charles ESB, cask-conditioned and dry-hopped; at 4.5% ABV, it's a classic British bitter, an eminently drinkable session beer.

Next, it was time for us all to stroll over to Falling Rock. We fetched up on the couches on the other side of the booths from the bar, and along with more great conversation, I enjoyed an amazing glass of Russian River Supplication. It's a sour brown ale, aged in French oak Pinot Noir casks inoculated with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, & Pediococcus, not to mention sour cherries. At 7% ABV and 27 IBUs, it's wonderfully tart and refreshing. Just the thing for a nightcap, before the walk back to the hotel.

The next day we went to a late breakfast with Clay and Hillary, then I basically spent the next three hours being nervous, with my stomach knotting up, waiting for the competition to start. Once things got going, I actually felt better; the waiting that was the hard part for me. The questions went on for over two hours, and by the time it was over I was wrung out. Some were philosophical ("What three spices would you NEVER use in brewing a beer?") to factual ("Name seven hop varieties that start with the letter C.") to humorous ("Can you see Russia from your local brewpub?"). There was a blind beer tasting and a tasting of a beer I brought with me. We had to pour a hefeweizen for a grade. When the judges came back out and announced my name, I was totally surprised. My friends in the audience told me later that I had been doing real well, but it certainly didn't feel that way when I was up there.

So I want to thank each and every one of you for your support and encouragement. I especially want to thank my lovely wife Elaine, for her love and understanding through the whole thing. I couldn't have done it without you, honey!

After the event was over, all the photos had been snapped, autographs signed, and interviews given, Elaine and I slipped away to a quiet dinner with Clay and Hillary to unwind, then head back to our room for a little sleep before our 4 o'clock wake-up call and 8 AM flight back to Anchorage, via Seattle this time.

So, now that I'm the 2010 Beer Drinker of the Year, what am I going to do with it? Well, I'm going to do my best to use it to keep doing what I've been trying to do for the last several years: promote craft beer on both the Peninsula and in Alaska, and do everything I can to educate folks about craft beer and encourage folks who aren't currently craft beer drinkers to give it a try. This award should make things even more interesting...

So enough about me and my news. What other beer news is there out there?

A new brewery is getting ready to open in Sitka. Baranof Island Brewing Company is being established by Rick and Susan Armstrong, the brewery plans to use pristine water from the nearby rain and glacier fed Blue Lake to brew a variety of beers for both local consumption and eventual distribution. The brewery plans to bottle in 22 ounce bombers, so there’s a chance we’ll see the beer here on the Kenai, or at least in Anchorage. Word is that the brewery is just waiting for the State of Alaska Division of Environmental Health approval before going into production. Thanks to my good buddy Jim Roberts, the redoubtable Dr. Fermento and El Presidente of the Brewers Guild of Alaska, for this info. Jim was just down here to guest lecture in my beer appreciation class on Tuesday night, much to the pleasure of my students.

Since the good doctor was down this way, we met up at St. Elias Brewing yesterday at lunch. Jim was in a hurry to catch his flight, so rather than wasting time eating, we went straight to the beer. In addition to the Moose Juice Barley Wine and the new Winter Wheat, Zach Henry is about to put his Eclipse Specialty Ale on tap. You might have tasted this at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, but it hasn't been available since. It's actually a blend of Zach's Baltic Porter and his barley wine, which has been allowed to marry for over six months in a whiskey cask. The end result is 9% ABV, 65 IBUs, and has a wonderful rich flavor. I actually like it even more than his straight Moose Juice. Not sure exactly when it will be on tap, but if you stop by St. Elias anytime soon, be sure to ask about it.

St. Elias will also be doing a big St. Patrick's Day event (on March 17, of course), with a bar trivia contest from 6 to 7 PM, and a special on their Mother's Milk Irish Stout for the entire week. $3 pints and $6 growlers; you can't beat that.

OK, that's it for now. Elaine and I will be on the road again next week, this time to meet my daughter Liana in Vegas to celebrate her 30th birthday. So don't expect a blog for a couple of weeks, but when I get back I will hopefully have had some good brews down there to write about.

After all, if it's news about beer, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas...

Until Next Time, Cheers!