Category Archives: Tasting Notes

Tasting Notes – Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Green’s (GF!)

In order to be a successful artist, one must [generally] study the Academy; it provides the foundation of history and technique from which one can draw inspiration, or then abandon in search of a new way.

Since we are living in the youth of a new wave of beer (the wave has not crested!), brewers are working in the shadow of the older “Renaissance” breweries: Anchor and Sierra Nevada. Countless brewers and beer lovers were converted in their teens from mass-market lagers by the Steam and Pale Ale, with totally different flavors and structures. Sierra Nevada was founded by Ken Grossman in 1980, and he is still the owner today. He has turned Sierra Nevada into a nearly zero-waste company that sends its beer all over the country. The brewery still adheres to its principle of using all whole leaf hops (as opposed to pellets, which most larger breweries use) and bottle conditioning its beer (as opposed to force carbonation in tanks prior to bottling, which most breweries do). It is an icon in the beer world.

Sometimes people forget (or don’t know) how solid Sierra Nevada’s beer is, or take it for granted (“I was raised on this stuff!”), but that should not be. The brewery continues to create new beers, and has even branched out into the Belgian styles with its Ovila line. Its latest is a seasonal called Flipside, a red IPA (“black, white, yellow, red / can I bring my friend to bed . . .” — The Beatles didn’t know they were naming all the colors of IPA!). Upon pouring, a waft of pine resin and bracing citrus peel escapes the glass, followed by a somewhat scratchy toast and cocoa note as it warms up.

Flipside is brewed with pale, wheat, caramel, and chocolate malts; bittered with Magnum, and finished with Citra, Simcoe, and Centennial hops. Citra and Centennial are fairly stable in their flavor profiles – Citra has a distinct tropical (mango, papaya) note, and Centennial is very lemony. Simcoe can (in my own homebrewing experience, and with commercial examples) undergo a fairly drastic change over time, from “catty” (yep) when fresh to a more resinous citrus note after it settles in– it’s often better in combination with other hop varieties. The hop character of Flipside is somewhat at odds with the maltiness, but I find that’s often my own experience with other hoppy red ales; there are a lot of flavors floating around there, and it finishes off with a clean, smooth bitterness (thanks Magnum!), lingering pithy hop, and light toasted cocoa flavor. One of the great things about Sierra Nevada is that they don’t lie about what’s in the bottle.
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Perhaps reviewing Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin is unnecessary. It’s an oatmeal stout to which most other oatmeal stouts should aspire (Samuel Smith’s and Anderson Valley being notable exceptions). I drank one yesterday and tried really hard to find a flaw. It is extremely smooth, and has a party of all the right malts goin’ on– lots of dark chocolate, some burnt toffee, a touch of caramel, and a tempered coal of roasted barley. I don’t know how much oat they use, but it gives the beer a silky texture without being sweet or slick. The hop factor is low to none, and the bitterness is thankfully low, letting the roasted barley bear that brunt.
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Until last week, I’d never had a commercially brewed “gluten free beer.” Travesty? I think not. Sorghum, the main GF grain used in these beverages, puts out a somewhat metallic bitterness that isn’t easily hidden by hops or yeast character; like many flavors in beer, it’s an acquired taste. I applaud the GF community that supports these beers (although I assume that many opt for cider, mead, wine, and liquor), and am impressed that the craft sector is catching on. Deschutes has long produced a highly-desired GF beer at its Bend pub, and now we have Harvester Brewing in Portland that puts out a stable of entirely GF beers brewed with sorghum, certified GF oats, and other ingredients.

I had the opportunity to have the first taste of Green’s Dry-Hopped Lager in Eugene at our Merchant du Vin tasting a week ago. The beer is brewed with sorghum, millet, buckwheat, hops, and brown rice. I sniffed my sample warily, and was surprised to receive a blast of grapefruit from the dry hopping. A soft, lager-like grain character came through on top of the sorghum’s signature twang. The beer is very dry, not uncommon for GF beers, but not as bitter or strange as other examples I’ve tasted since. The smooth lager character definitely helps even things out, and the dose of hops would definitely quench an American drinker’s hop thirst. The GF beers I’ve tried have all benefited from a few minutes to warm up and release some carbonation, which allows the sweetness from the grains to come out.IMG_0497

Green’s is located in Stockport, England, just outside of Manchester (that’s in central England, toward the west side of the island. They make nine different GF beers, four of which we carry here at The Bier Stein. The other three are Belgian-style Dubbel, Amber, and Tripel, which will certainly offer more to think about than their gluten-freeness.

Anatomy of a Beer Dinner

beer pig

On September 10, The Bier Stein hosted its third beer pairing dinner with Oakshire Brewing, five courses and six beers. It was a great time, well organized, and overall quite tasty. I figured it was about time to talk about beer and food pairings, perhaps to de- and re-mythologize (or elitify, if you will) the process, execution, and enjoyment of this experience, both here and at home.

Pairing beer and food as a conscious ritual has not been around for very long. I have been drinking and brewing beer for nigh on a decade, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I heard about this method of gustatory enhancement; I attended two sessions of pairing at Oakshire, one with beer and chocolate, one with beer and charcuterie. (Overall, a wider variety of beers pair better with cured meats than with chocolate, in my experience.) I had first experienced this sort of synergetic joy with wine– a German Riesling worked wonders with the combination of spices, dried apricots, and splash of balsamic in an Ethiopian lentil stew.

Nowadays, many beer connoisseurs are on the hunt for the next thing; the rare, fleeting beers that get stowed away (perhaps forever) and shown to friends like a trophy, and shared if you’re really lucky. Trust me, this happens. New flavors are exciting (until they’re not). Probably the best way to create new flavors also happens to be the best way to interact with your friends and family: food! There are myriad blogs, charts, articles, and guides that suggest viable, tried and true pairings, either by beer style or food type. My favorite way is to pick one or the other, pick apart flavors and sensations, and figure out what I want out of its partner. This is a great way to get to know your palate and grow your knowledge. Sounds like a lot of pressure and work, eh?

grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA
grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA

The dish above is a great example of an easy pairing. “Heat and hops,” are a favorite pairing of Dave Stockhausen, the beer buyer here. It’s his go-to at home because it can be quick, easy, and cheap. In this case, from our beer dinner, “the citrus notes from the marinated shrimp went perfectly with the IPA.” Often times, IPAs can be overwhelming with bitterness and huge flavors; drinking it alongside a dish with equally intense flavors actually makes the IPA seem lighter and more refreshing, but no less flavorful. Another opportunity to make a great pair is dessert. Dark beer and chocolate is often the first pairing for most people; it’s like “Smoke on the Water” for beginner guitarists, something everybody has to go through to get to the next level.

If you’re an experimental home cook, you might want to incorporate beer into your food beyond “Beer Can Chicken.” Dessert is also a great place to start, and there are no shortage of stout cupcake recipes out there. Then you’re pretty much sure to have a great pairing with whatever beer you put into the food.

As we at The Bier Stein have started doing bi-monthly pairing dinners, we’ve encountered many challenges (remember collaboration and timing?), successes, and a couple falters. I asked several coworkers for some feedback on their experiences “behind-the-scenes.”

Our process starts with a meeting with chefs Richie and Andrew, Dave the buyer, owners Chip and Kristina, the brewer(s), and myself (as interloper and brainstormer). We discuss the brewer’s upcoming beer and ask them for some tasting notes; if we’re lucky, we get to taste beer on the spot. Since we’re starting with the beer, the challenge is to design food to match. We think about both complementary and contrasting flavors, depending on how we want to approach the pairing, and how it fits into the menu as a whole. I’m a fresh-and-local junkie and a gardener, so I try to think about what’s going to be in season and how it can be used. I also draw on my memories of specific ingredients or dishes. The brewers are great at this brainstorming process, and it can become a really long conversation that leaves mouths thirsty and watering at the same time.

Chef Andrew makes clean slices of cheesecake with a clean, cold knife
Chef Andrew makes clean slices of pumpkin cheesecake with a clean, cold knife.

“My favorite part is the challenge,” says chef Andrew, who has executed the desserts (among other dishes) for all three dinners. He had never heard of “Beeramisu” before the Pelican Brewery rep suggested it, but his final product bordered on the divine. For Richie, the kitchen manager, the challenge is complex. “Our customers are knowledgeable, so it’s different than just cooking dinner; they’re looking at all aspects, so I have to think  a couple steps ahead.” At the same time, he gets some relief from the fact that “people are happy with the beer to begin with.”

During the dinners, we are lucky to have brewers on hand to explain their beer and illustrate the way in which it interacts with its paired dish. This is added value, as you get an insider’s look to the way a brewer approaches his/her ingredients and brewing process, and how a specific hop, for example, tastes in a beer and with food.

Putting together the beer dinners is a team effort. As leader of the team, Chip, one of the owners, is always on, even when sitting to eat. He makes sure the kitchen is ready with tested recipes, and heads up meetings both before and after the dinners to discuss any issues and to affirm successes. He pays close attention to timing; dinner guests should never be kept waiting, nor should courses be served too soon.

Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.
Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.

Beer pairings come in many forms, and some can be quite surprising; imagine Firestone Walker’s Pale 31 and some dark chocolate with ginger. The smooth, cereal malt character and light orange and spice hop notes are accented by the ginger, while the chocolate fills out the light body and turns malty Total into Coco Puffs. Crazy.

You should consider the “mouthfeel” when looking to pair. Often, contrast works best, especially with cheese. You probably wouldn’t want to pair a thick, sweet ale with Brie, as the fatty cheese and high residual sugar could fill your mouth and be overwhelming. Rather, try a drier, more tart beer that will cut through some of the fat, but keep the luscious buttery flavor of the cheese– Biere de Garde (like La Choulette Ambree) comes to mind because it is dry and somewhat fruity, but has enough malt character that you might not even need a cracker under your cheese.

Stay tuned for more of this discussion– clearly (as I’ve gone far too long here) there’s a lot to talk about.

The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.
The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.

Tasting Notes – 8.2.13 – Dupont, Halve Maan, Upright

The best beer pairing is friends (not to eat, of course), and I relish* the opportunity to go all beer-geeky with another willing participant (as opposed to this scenario, which hits close to home). My friend Matt is a homebrewer, soon to be head brewer at a new local brewery, and our past beer explorations have proved delightful.

This time, we went Belgian, and consumed three tasty morsels that have been staring at me from the shelf for a couple weeks now. First up was Brasserie Dupont’s Cuvee Dry-Hopping 2013, which is their regular Saison with a hefty dose of Trasker hops (bred from French Strisselspalt). It poured a cloudy straw gold with a tousle of big champagney bubbles, and smelled of mint and sage. In comparison to it’s mother beer, the herbal factor is tweaked from the dank, spicy-fruity side to the traditional French herb garden of thyme, sage, oregano, etc. More peachy character emerges as it warms up, and the carbonation keeps your palate practically itching for more.

dupont, halve maan, upright
Happy flavor bombs!

Next up, we popped a Straffe Hendrik Quad from Halve Maan (Half Moon), a “home brewery” in the center of Bruges, Belgium. As soon as the cap came off, a spring of tan foam burbled forth, and I quickly moved my glass under the stream (if only beer came out of a mountainside…). My first thought was “oh dear, a gusher,” as I’ve judged enough homebrew competitions to know that this is generally not a good sign. But leave it to a small Belgian brewery to prove me happily wrong! Though highly carbonated, that was perhaps the most notable feature of this beer. The flavor and aroma was dominated at first by dark things: prunes, leather, even a hint of smoke (in the good way). If not for the cola-like effervescence, that beer would have clung to the inside of our cheeks; instead, it sliced through the sweetness (which was not cloying, just lots of big flavors), leaving a wake of light clove phenol. So complicated, so carbonated– so good (and thanks to Rob for the recommentation!)

A picnic table came available outside, and so we moved into the sun for our last number: Upright Flora, the soured, barrel-aged version of Flora Rustica, a “botanical saison” with calendula and chamomile flowers. The original, as I recall, is quite floral. This reincarnation is different. Sometimes a brewery will barrel up a batch and it will be a Jesus story; it goes in a beer, comes out a deity. In the case of Flora, it went in a nymph and came out a satyr. Aging in “multiple use” barrels produced a beer that smells like (and I am not kidding) dill pickles. But really good fermented dill pickles! (*now you know why I asterisked “relish.”) It kinda tastes like pickles, but without the salt, and with a hint of the flowers, a hint of woody tannin, and a soft lactic sourness rather than bracing tartness. It took a good bit of snuffling, snorting, re-sniffing, swishing, sloshing, and swirling to come up with dill pickles as a descriptor, but everybody agreed. Don’t let that dissuade you from trying the beer. In fact, I can see all sorts of great pairing opportunities: Italian sausages, prosciutto, other pickles, and Emmentaler and Edam cheeses would be the perfect small plates to share with a big bottle of Flora.

New Bottles of note 6.22.13

If you get  your hands on one IPA this summer, make it Deschutes Fresh Squeezed. Its bold, clear amber color is aptly followed by silky malt flavors and succulent hop chewiness. This is a beer you can judge by the label. Unlike many citrusy IPAs that scorch your tastebuds with cohumulone and alcohol, Fresh Squeezed gooses you good, then puts its arm around your shoulder. It is hopped with Nugget, Citra, and Mosaic– what a great combination! Citra is, obviously, a citrusy, tropical hop. They could have just used Citra and kept the name, but it would have been one-dimensional and harsher. Instead, Nugget adds a softer fruit and herb note, and Mosaic (the “daughter of Simcoe,” and all the rage right now) lends some  melon flavor, rounding out the tropical/citrus bouquet with grace. Some of the solo-Mosaic beers have a musky sensation similar to the “cat-pee”  (sorry) aroma often accompanying super fresh Simcoe beers; it is not the case here.

squeeze me!
squeeze me!

Anchorage Brewing’s homepage proudly declares that it is “WHERE BREWING IS AN ART & BRETTANOMYCES IS KING!” If only that were the case more often…

This Belgian-inspired brewery in southern Alaska (because of course there is) puts at least a little Brett into everything, and sometimes more. More is definitely the case with the latest bottles, Anadromous and AK Alive! (a collaboration with the crazy guys at Mikkeller). Anadromous probably has more cold-side additions than in the mash and boil kettle– it’s a black ale fermented with Belgian yeast, then aged in Pinot Barrels with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus (does that mean it’s quintuple fermented?). The skeptic in me says “too much!” but I can see how this could go right. At the very least, drink this after a round of antibiotics to get your gut flora replenished…

Pediococcus doesn’t sound like something we should put in food, but it is actually a vital microorganism in our cultural library. It is partly responsible for fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut, for example. Ironically, Anadromous comes up as the seventh entry in a Google search for Pediococcus. Pedio is one of the fermenters of Lambic beers, often producing the bulk of lactic acid, and can generate some really funky esters (think anywhere from feet to butterscotch)– don’t fret, it generally (hopefully) plays second fiddle to more appealing flavors, while lending a particular creamy mouthfeel. Yeah!

I’ve never seen a “cover beer” before, but Anchorage seems to have done it. AK Alive! is their version of It’s Alive! And, apparently, that too is a cover beer. Converse to Anadromous, the recipe is simple, straightforward: brew a pale, hoppy Belgian ale, then bottle condition with a lively Brett strain.