The Session #93: Beer Travel

This is my first foray into group blogging (kinky). The Session has been going on for many years; I have been reading them for just a couple; now I find the opportunity to contribute. Excellent. Here is the topic, presented by The Roaming Pint (and my scattered response):

Why is it important for us to visit the place the where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at its freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

It so happens that I recently returned from just such a mission. It dawned upon me while writing an entry for The Bier Stein’s newsletter that travelling great distances to try beer is like going to my neighborhood brewpub, but with more history, culture, and canals.

I had made a Google map of all the breweries I wanted to hit, and brought along CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, ever hopeful to meet my goals. Before leaving, I thought of the trip like a hajj, and was excited to step through so many old brewery doors, to feel the cobwebs brush my cheeks, and to proselytize to people about where I work in hopes of a deeper connection.

As it turned out, the act of getting to the beer was just as valuable as drinking the stuff. Our poetic limitations were transportation and communication: no car, no cell/smart phone– just an iPad with wifi. We relied on trains and trams, bicycles and our feet, paper maps and handwritten directions. The Guide was employed several times a day, and proved to be a sherpa worth its salt. Navigating the contoured streets and alleys of Belgian cities and towns broke us down; you have to get lost to find your way. Randomly spotting a good beer bar was satisfying; I felt like I did it myself.

“I made it!” I thought, and it showed on my face, as Liz would point out. In my head, walking through a door was like walking out of an Arctic blizzard; the hasp clicks and the screaming wind dies. Every pour was a new acquaintance, every acquaintance a new friend.

Tromping around the Belgian countryside, past fields of Brussels sprouts, cows, and hop trellises, you might imagine absorbing the local terroir and commiserating with your beer that way. Or breathing the air in Beersel, perhaps, would give you a preview of the flavors to come out of Drie Fonteinen’s barrels a few years down the road. It’s all in the mind, you know, so make the most of it.

Of course the beer is fresher; it is absolutely delicious, especially at a place like Het Waterhuis in Ghent, where they clearly take care of their draught system and glassware, or De Garre in Bruges where the owner is the bartender and pours beers like they were his kids. I got to admire a method of pouring that was not business-savvy, but made the beer better: from a height greater than 4 inches, plenty of foam that spills over; just before the foaming action peaks, it is scraped off the top with a flat knife so that the final bit billows and creates a lovely aromatic pillow for your upper lip. Dip the bottom of the glass in water to rinse, serve with a coaster and a nod.

Economically speaking, going to the source versus drinking at home is the same as going to the show versus buying the CD; the closer you are, the more your support counts. Personally, I feel more enriched having visited. I can attach memories of places to beers, which helps me in a number of ways:

-I sell beer as part of my job, and stories sell.
-I brew beer as a hobby, and now have a new challenge to brew a beer I feel is “legit” Belgian, to work the yeast the right way.
-Ray Daniels and the Cicerone website said it would boost my Ciccy cred to visit a famous beer brewing country. Oregon does not count as a beer brewing country yet.
-Time away from the drinking culture at home showed me just how ingrained beer is, and can be, in culture.
-I got to experience some flavors and textures I never had before. Nothing like a good old fashioned palate expansion.

[On the flip side, I’ve come back home with a renewed distaste for American IPA. I was slipping there for a bit (I actually enjoyed a can of Heady Topper from the mail!), but after that two week reset I’ve come to realize that the amount of hops being put into beer out here crosses the line from an entertainment dose to a medicinal dose (the subject of future rants, I’m sure). Somehow the general craft-swilling populace has adapted to the sedative quality of these beers, which are served by the entire pint rather than the moderate glass pours of the strong beers in Belgium. Or I’m just a sensitive little butterfly, I don’t know, I just don’t have the hop fetish that seems to grip the nation right now.]

Now I get to share stories with friends, to pass on the mystique. I get to open bottles and think “I was there!” How cool.

The Beer & Cheese Biz

How do you tell a story about pairing food? “Oh, you should have been there, in my mouth, as the Abbaye de St. Bon Chien broke holes like caul fat through the stinkiest cheese, so stinky you could smell it in your eyes, and it melted together like the Steadfast Tin Soldier and his parchment girlfriend…” Right.

I led my first beer & cheese pairing a couple weeks ago, so I’ve had a lot to process about the… process. As my own worst critic, I lose points for not filling all the seats (next time it will be pre-paid rather than COD), and for not being entirely prepared with a spiel about the nuances of eating and drinking simultaneously. (I’m not used to public speaking; when everybody’s quiet and starting at me, I wonder if they’re bored; and when they’re all talking I figure I may as well shut up.)

I tried to incite a sense of game– a solitaire or personal challenge– by using a scoring method I gleaned from pairings at Oakshire a few years ago. A grid was laid out with rows of beer and columns of cheese; each beer had a chance to be paired with each cheese, and a score of -2 to +2 filled in the corresponding boxes. Three elements of learning at work: deep thought about each pairing to develop a score; the best individual pairings would be readily apparent; and the total scores from each cheese and each beer would illuminate the most adaptable beer and cheese.

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My success at getting the point across was in the B- range; the audience was 90% younger than I (20s), and largely inexperienced with pairing (obviously no fault of theirs; heck, I’m happy to have exposed them to the concept). I felt my job was to explain the intricacies of perception; how to taste food & beer at the same time, and how to look for resonance, contrast, and intensity levels in each item. Due to a spotty arrival rate, a 15 minute delay seemed to have made everybody hungry, so by the time I got started talking I felt rushed to get food in mouths. It was loud and hard to hear myself, so I moved it along, skimmed and stumbled over my bullet points, and didn’t get any real story in.

But everybody talked, about this and that; most utilized their grids– some even made artwork of them– and seemed generally satisfied at the end. The most well-received cheeses were , naturally, the most expensive. Ancient Heritage’s Valentine was a personal favorite, with rich creaminess and subtle funk; it brought some cream to the coffee of Pelican’s Tsunami Stout. The Full Circle Raw Sharp Cheddar was perhaps best at backing up the beers– I only chose one (Oakshire Amber) without a particularly strong flavor or set of flavors; perhaps a predilection to assume that other folks don’t enjoy subtlety as much as I.

In the meantime, I have discovered that Biere de Garde (at least my homebrewed version, which matches fairly well the flavors I recall from Tres Mont’s and Sans Culottes) goes well with a variety of cheeses, and so that style will make an appearance on a pairing list soon.

Of course, “If at first you have nominal success, do better next time!” as my inner old man says. Next time I’ll tell you a true story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ritual Without Sacrifice

There is a brewer who stops by, uses us as an oasis on his trip back home to Oakland from Portland, where he drops off his beer. Sometimes we talk shop, occasionally the conversation meanders into beer ephemera.

To use the phrase “the joy of drinking” may sound strange, but our discussion turned to just that. Somehow we got into a small argument about how glass shape affects beer aroma. He very staunchly explained that it’s a myth, and cited an actual experiment in which somebody is blindfolded and different glasses of the same beer are wafted under his nose and he can’t tell the shaker glass from the tulip from that newfangled, hard-to-wash Sierra Nevada glass. OK, I guess I concede (and would like to try this myself). But it leads into further examination of how those glasses DO work. Because they do; it’s just not about the physics.

It’s all in the mind, you know and the mind loves a good ritual. I first heard about “ritualling” from my uncle, who seems to have invented a term called “qualiadelia,” which represents the practice of conscious ritualling as a way to learn about yourself and enjoy life. So of course I’d apply this to beer.

Hopefully you have a beer at hand. Think of how you opened the bottle, or pulled the tap; which hand do you use to lift the glass, and what is the first thing you do when it reaches your face? How do you hold different drinking vessels? Now, do you grip or sip differently in different contexts? Do you take more time to analyze your beer when you’re alone, at the bar, or at a party?

Whenever I see a picture of myself with a pint, my pinky is wedged across the bottom of the glass; they get slippery, and I’ve been distracted and accidentally let go before, so the pinky is security. As soon as there’s enough room, I start swirling to drive off carbonation (most beers are just a tad too bubbly for me) and send the aroma skyward. These rituals would probably happen whether or not I was aware; the fact that I am helps me enjoy the experience that much more.

Thinking hard about this one...
Thinking hard about this one…

Most beer lovers have a cupboard full of glasses, and can probably recount the acquisition of each (with varying degrees of detail). The act of drinking beer from a new or different glass changes the way we think about its contents. This is why the standard shaker glass has become a one-trick vessel; it’s so ubiquitous it’s no longer special, though you might drink saison from one in Belgium.

Of course, the shape of the glass affects the way a beer acts; long, tall glasses show off a beer’s head and rising bubbles, while wide chalices and goblets allow for more swirling to release aromas; all that adds to the ritual of drinking beer.

My brewer friend followed up his point with the fact that most beer judging is done out of small, thin plastic cups. Now I wonder whether or not beer would be scored better (and if judges would be happier) if it was all served in glass tulips.

 

To Be Young Again…

I’ve heard that certain captive fish will continue to grow until they take up their entire tank. Much like up-potting a houseplant, the Stein moved from its little fish bowl on E. 11th Avenue into the full-on aquarium tank of the Midtown building, and has grown into the space with astonishing speed. (Please forgive the mixed metaphors…)

My first glimpse of the “new Stein” was that of a dusty old mansion; white fabric ghosting furniture, piles of electronic detritus from the previous occupant. No real form or structure for ambiance, just an amorphous mass of restaurant innards. Just weeks later, the mounds had been sifted and sorted. The bar, kitchen wall, and walk-in cooler gave dimension to the shadows. A pool table was delivered and received its inaugural racking in the late-afternoon March sunlight. The space was calm on the surface, but jittered with potential. All of the decisions to be made, policies to be considered, employees to hire. How do you grow into a giant box?

Quickly, as it turns out. Opening day was an ambush, and left us boggled; happy, but boggled. The line out the door, the tiny letters on the TV-screen taplist, the kitchen working way overtime to keep up with prep and orders. The one advantage, and the one advantage that pervades our oeuvre: good beer makes people happy.
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Most days, two things happen:
1) A customer comes in to the “new Stein” for the first time since the move. The reaction is nearly always the same: “Wow. Good job, what a selection!”
2) A customer comes in, looks around as if revisiting a childhood home. “This used to be the L&L Market. There was a deli counter and meat lockers.”

The latter comment is a historical footnote in Eugene. Long’s Meats used to occupy this space; the picture below was taken from inside the front door, looking to the left where our beer cooler is now. Year is unknown, looks like the 60s.

longs meat market
“Wow, good job! What a selection!” (photo courtesy of a customer)

The shift from the [too] cozy “old Stein” (beer bar, gastropub, sandwich & bottleshop) into the high-ceilinged, 180-seat Beer Hall (let’s face it, it is a Beer Hall, Munich-style; evening lines to the door will probably be the norm) hasn’t been without its hiccups, but has also created an atmosphere you rarely find anymore. Not only can you meet up with ten of your friends, you can spread your arms without knocking over a beer. The “wall o’ beer” cooler is a monument, albeit harder to photograph than most. The servers are keen and always learning more about beer; some are getting into homebrewing, helping out at local breweries, generally dipping their feet in the wort. Food offerings have expanded to include a monthly beer style pairing menu. And most importantly, folks who were dissuaded by a lack of space (or claustrophobes for that matter) need not worry about finding a place to sit with some wiggle room.

There are a few invisible structures at play in the Stein, not the least of which is a challenge: maintain a huge number of beers without sacrificing quality. The beer selection is a point of pride, and takes as much work as maintaining bonsai– daily, attentive repetitions to ensure maximum freshness, and no-holds-barred infrastructure to make sure the beer is kept and served as it would be in a brewery. The food is no different; feeding a family of several hundred consistently good food is no easy task; as you can see on those [rather horrifying] reality TV shows where a celebrity chef “whips things into order,” communication and organization and strong team players are key.

Since the beginning, owners Chip and Kristina fostered a sense of family.  Of the 16 employees who worked on 11th Avenue in 2013, only one has left for greener pastures (a brewery). Many have worked for the Stein for more than three years; some are rounding their seventh. Those of us working more than 35 hours a week were offered health insurance (most accepted) that just kicked in.

The “one year!” mark is only significant because we say it is; we mark it as a passage of time and take stock of ourselves based on the events in that time. We use it to celebrate, to toast and reflect and think positively and marvel at the change that occurred. So that’s it. Here’s to good friends and good beer.

 

 

Thanksgiving Beer Pairing Time!

You can smell it, walking down the streets of Eugene: fermentation. The aroma of leaves and apples on your neighbors’ lawns is the byproduct of the work of a whole civilization of bacteria, yeast, little bugs, and fungus breaking down the summer’s bounty into next year’s tilth. Those aromas, the ebbing daylight, the imminent rains: signals to bundle up and share warmth with our friends. This is epic meal time.

To paraphrase a superhero movie: With great flavor comes great pairing opportunity. Yes, that was a terrible paraphrasing, but let’s keep moving. The impending feast and its traditional accouterments lay out a gauntlet of flavors, all at once, that can be hard to navigate. Additionally, the imagery of a stuffed Thanksgiving table presents a limited view of acceptable beverages– carafes of wine in straw diapers astride cranberries, corn, and sweet potatoes tilt the tables away from a more versatile and traditional drink (I think we all know where I’m going with this).

I’ve been thinking about what beers I want to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. The hosts are vegetarian; I probably won’t  be bringing a smoked porter. But when I think of turkey, I feel it’s fairly forgiving, and pretty much absorbs whatever you put on it. It can (but hopefully doesn’t) turn out somewhat dry, which I’d want to counter with a fuller-bodied beer. IPA would be fine, if you must; Sam Smith’s IPA has plenty of body, and enough hop presence to liven up a bite of turkey or salad.

The real challenge is to find a couple beers that will pair well with most anything on the Turkeyday table, and IPA is a little too specific. My first inclination is to save the rich and sugary beers for dessert, and lagers for pre-game; we’re looking for richness and earthy flavors. If you’ll be doing traditional dishes like candied yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes & gravy, I would pick a strong Belgian ale; they are rich in flavors, but are drier than most other strong beers. Because you’ll be filling your plate multiple times with everything in sight, don’t worry– just start light and go dark. If you are among the few capable of restraint in the plating department, you will likely enjoy the progression of flavors more. A Belgian-style pale or saison with salad and veggies; a dubbel or brown (like Nostradamus), with richer earthy-spice flavors and a sweeter aroma will be complemented by buttery mashed potatoes and your bird. If you want to break some pinot fans out of their box, pop a bottle of Flanders Red, like Rodenbach Grand Cru; its rich oak, dark fruit, and hint of cocoa pair well, and won’t be subdued by the butter on your corn.

At this point, no doubt you’ve lost count of your trips to the buffet table, and all the food is absorbing the alcohol faster than it can get to your head. I recommend a short break for a sip of peppermint tea. Peppermint is a digestive aid vis-a-vis slightly irritating your stomach lining, causing it to work a bit harder. Licorice helps too– anything with that flavor, like fennel, is helpful after a big meal. You’ve probably had (or noticed) the little candy-covered bits at Indian restaurants. Those are fennel seeds, and help freshen your breath and soothe a stuffed stomach at the same time.

And now it’s time for dessert. Pumpkin, apple, blueberry pie… gingerbread and ice cream…

One of the best beer desserts I ever had was Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale (a 13% doozy) with a well-prepared glass of absinthe alongside. If your guests are sticking around / have a designated driver, I’d recommend a hearty conversation along with those two (not for the faint-of-heart!). But you might want something a little more… normal. Barrel aged beers make excellent dessert pairings (or just desserts), as do Belgian quadrupels, barleywines, imperial stouts, and Scotch strong ales– really anything with a good dose of sweetness will keep the pleasurable feeling of a rich, sweet, creamy dessert rolling right along. Breaking into the stash of old, strong beer is a great way to thank your friends and loved ones. Come on in and ask us for some recommendations, we’ve got plenty!

A bit of history: the early European settlers definitely brewed beer in their first years here; some of it may have been made from maple or birch sap and flavored with herbs until they began importing malt from England; the Native Americans definitely made birch and maple beers. No doubt these were primitive by our standards, but there are extensive records that brewers knew the effects of the various wild-harvested herbs they used; most have medicinal value, some enhance the effects of alcohol (yarrow, for example, is a famous “intoxicant”), increase mirth (St. John’s Wort), or prevent scurvy (nettle, spruce). This brings back a whole new meaning to “seasonal beer!”

Isn’t beer fun?