Thursday, June 9, 2011

Notes from a Beer Tasting (Beer 101)

Oasis in a Gastronomic Wasteland

Chapter Two: Notes from a Beer Tasting

(Warning: this blog is not for the masses)

Hopefully today’s entry will be slightly less pretentious than its predecessor...but I can’t promise anything.  Unfortunately, I am an overbearing, pretentious snob, who I’m sure some of my “good” friends would describe as a jack-ass.  And equally regrettable, is that this personality trait often finds its way into my writing...But I digress.

In labeling this edition, it suddenly occurred to me that I might have been overly hasty with my chapter designations.  Granted at the moment I feel a little like Winston Smith writing in his journal for the first time...Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?

And I digress again...Perhaps today wasn’t the best day to start writing this entry?

Here it is the real meat and potatoes.

For anyone who has only tasted beer from the American mega-brewers, you have not lived.  Good beer is like the Grand Canyon, it will never disappoint and it’s something that you have to experience in person!  Conversely, the carbonated horse piss flowing from such bastions of consumerism as Anheuser Busch and Miller/Coors is not entirely unlike filling the Grand Canyon with cement, and then building a Wal-Mart on top of it. 

The beer produced by these giants, is flavorless, odorless, and characterless; not unlike carbon monoxide, and you wouldn’t want that in your home.  Since completing my  transformation into a self-proclaimed beer snob, I have never understood how so many Americans can swear by such an un-American style of beer.  We are a loud, brassy people, full of ingenuity, invention, and gumption.  Shouldn’t our beer be the same?  Shouldn’t our beer scream “look at me!”  Shouldn’t it be able to compete head to head with those “silly” Belgian beers?  Shouldn’t it be able to beat up other beers as it walks down the street?

While the flavorless American-pilsner style reigns supreme at A-B and Miller/ Coors, a few craft breweries are reintroducing the American palate to what author and brewmaster Garrett Oliver calls “real beer.”  These real beers are full of life and dexterity.  They are brewed with care and skill.  They are in short, 12 oz. works of art and pint-sized masterpieces.  And this is what we tasted.

There are few things in life that go together better than sharing a good beer with a few friends on a hot summer evening in Alabama.  Except maybe pork rinds and chocolate pudding when you’re stoned out of your mind...on second thought it might be the best combination known to man. 

Everyone brought a different beer.  Some people brought summer ales (appropriately), some delivered India Pale Ales, there were one or two lagers, and even an enjoyable nut brown ale joined the fracas.  For a few short hours, my stereotypical two-bedroom apartment in modern suburbia was transformed into beer snob’s paradise. 

Like all wine and food tastings, beer tastings should be arranged so the most subtly flavored beers are consumed first, leaving those with a more pronounced essence and fuller body for last.  However, unlike the ubiquitous stuck-up winos, beer tasters actually get to swallow their beer!  This final act of "blasphemy," allows the full flavor of the beer’s bitterness to bloom across the palate.  Yes, bitterness can have a flavor...Try it sometime with a good selection of IPAs.  Does the bitterness taste like grapefruit or pine needles?  Does it have a peppery bite to it?  You’d be surprised what bitterness can taste like.

First up on our agenda, was the perennial classic Saison Dupont, which is a traditional Belgian farmhouse ale.  While this beer does have a certain peppery bite to it, I wanted the tasters to be able to experience the pure pleasure of a slightly funky, but well balanced beer.  This beer has certain vegetal flavors and a slightly tart character, which balances well with that oh-so-familiar Belgian sweetness.  A truly delicious beer that pairs well with almost any seafood.
Next we moved on to our selection of summer ales, including one of my favorites: Oberon by Bells.  Oberon is one of those special beers because its presence on grocery store shelves always means that summer is right around the corner.  There is nothing incredibly special about the’s a Belgian style wheat beer flavored with citrus and a blend of spices.  Where it differs from the mass marketed “Blue Moon” (an A-B beer) is it’s balance and its body.  Oberon is incredibly balanced, and has a full body.  Making it the perfect beer to enjoy with a succulent grilled bratwurst.

Our second summer ale the Yazoo Summer Ale, actually turned out to be "the underdog, come from behind favorite of the evening."  While I have never really been a fan of this brewery’s products, this beer has forced me to reassess my position.  Perhaps it helped that this beer was semi-local, but for whatever reason it was an enjoyable change from the typical uninspired creations flowing from their kegs.  The beer was light and fresh, with a pronounced citrusy component.  Its bitterness was well balanced, though I personally would have preferred it to be slightly more “hoppy.”  A beer worth revisiting.

Next up was the only dud of the night, Summer Whacko from Magic Hat.  While Magic Hat’s Number 9 is right up there on my list of good craft beers...something was missing from the genetic make-up of this beer.  It was slightly astringent, not unlike a red wine that has decanted for too long and is starting to produce vinegar.  It was dry and unpleasant on the palate.  This beer is a define retard. 

After a quick break, we decided it was time to start the real drinking...and drink we did, with the surprising lager Wild Blue from Blue Dog brewery.  This beer was surprising not only for its flavor, but also for its alcohol content coming in at more than 8% abv.  Most blueberry/ fruit flavored beers can be disappointingly “fruity” with little balance...almost like a fizzy, alcoholic sweet tart (which by any other name would be pronounced ‘for-low-ko’).  Fortunately for this beer its fruitiness is matched by the strong presence of alcohol, making the final experience of this beer almost akin to that of a barley wine, with a crispness that can rarely be experienced in ales.

Since it’s now lunch time and I still have five more beers to review, I think I’ll stop boring the readers.  Also tested were the Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan, the Ommegang Abbey Dubbel, the Sweet Water Road Trip, the Straight to Ale Monkeynaut, and the Rogue Shakespeare Stout.  And since some of these are my personal favorites I promise to pay they the appropriate respect in another posting.

Don’t forget this Saturday at the Nook Tavern we have our weekly beer menu.  This week we are featuring the following:

“Buzzed Beef Stew” (an homage to Ms. Julia Child)
-“Carbonnades a la Flamande” (Belgian-style beef stew made with beer and onions)
-Parsley Potatoes
-Garlic Toast

Recommended beers include:
Brother Joseph’s Abbey Dubbel (Straight to Ale)
Yellowhammer Altbier (Yellowhammer)
Hazelnut Brown Ale (Rouge)
Irish Stout (Murphy’s)

I’ll let everyone know how it turns out!

Drink good spirits, eat good food, and above all stay classy.