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.
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?

Anatomy of a Beer Dinner, part 2

The next beer dinner at the Stein on Nov. 26 is going to be a little different, both in presentation and attitude. Owners Chip and Kristina came up with the idea of a “Civil War Beer Dinner,” in which two breweries — Hop Valley of Eugene and Flat Tail of Corvallis — plumb their stable of beers to bring the best pairing for a predetermined menu. This is the opposite of what we’ve done for the last three, and places the challenge to pair well on the brewers’ shoulders rather than our kitchen (not that they can’t rise to a challenge– preparing all the awesome food for these dinners during normal service is no small task!).

The brewers met up here a couple weeks ago, were presented with samples of the food for the dinner, and deliberated among themselves about what to bring. Watching their process (and participating in my head) was intriguing and pretty funny. Here are some quotes, which I can’t attribute because that might give away one of the pairings:

“I want something with solid bitterness to cut that heat and sweetness, but with malt backbone to make it flavorful.”

“Oh boy!”

“We may have to make a rocky mountain oyster stout for this one . . . wrap a firkin in bacon.”

“This screams Brett B.”

Here is the menu, which is tasty on its own (who doesn’t like fancified tailgate snacks?), but will undoubtedly experience added value when paired with beer:

1st Quarter: Stuffed Mushrooms with Parmesan,
Cream Cheese, Garlic, Walnuts

2nd Quarter: Salmon Cakes with Lemon Buttercream and Asparagus

3rd Quarter: Pork Ribs with house BBQ sauce, Pork & Beans

4th Quarter: Flank Steak Sliders on a Challah roll
with Fontina, Arugula, and Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes, Cracked Pepper & Lemon Aioli, Pepper & Red Cabbage Slaw

Overtime: White & Dark Chocolate Brownie
topped with Bacon Ice Cream

We’ll have tickets available early next week– check our Facebook page!

Got style?

craftbeer.com, the online wing of the Brewers Association, just published an article entitled: “Craft Beer Styles: Why They Matter & When They Don’t.” Part of the author’s argument for beer styles is a complaint that some menus read like fashion magazine ads with the made-up citation,  “Enjoy eating greatness? Then this super complex, one of a kind delicacy will indulge your deepest gustatory cravings.” This hyperbolic notion lasts for about half of the article before the author gets into the history and evolution of beer, which is the real reason there are beer styles (apart from the human obsession with categorization). Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about “what is craft beer?” and I would argue that saying “craft beer styles” is pretentious (Is lite American lager not a beer style because Coors Light is not craft beer?).

Beer styles, as we know them, evolved originally because of water, and brewers’ repeated attempts to create beer best suited to their water. Mineral content has a grand effect on the flavor of beer, and brewers have, over the centuries, adapted their brewing methods to the limits of their local water source. Entire books have been written on the subject. Styles have also developed through popular (and political) demand. If the Germans and Bohemians hadn’t enjoyed the paler lagers more than the variable-colored dark beers that existed before modern malting and yeast cultivation, Anheuser-Busch would be peddling a very different product with their Clydesdales.

Here we run into a (somewhat nonsensical) chicken-egg/Schroedinger’s Cat debate: Would there still be styles if Michael Jackson hadn’t gone about categorizing them in the 1970s? Would the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program have written their fairly strict definitions by which beers are to be judged, awarded medals and kudos? Style guidelines are basically a palate-training program with military instincts (disclosure: I’m a ranked BJCP judge, and enjoy judging beer and questioning authority.) . Beers that don’t fit neatly into a category may never receive the acclaim they deserve. One local example was brewed by Eugene’s Claim 52; Trevor’s War Steiner Weisse was a mishmash of styles and techniques: a high percentage wheat wort fermented with Kolsch yeast at Belgian temperatures (upwards of 75F, well over the yeast’s preferred range). Magically, the beer was excellent, with unusual fruit esters, smooth body, and a dually thirst quenching and inducing finish.

There’s a place you can go where the idea of style is turned on its head, where water (though obviously a factor) isn’t as important as yeast, and style isn’t as important as a brewery’s house flavor. That place is Belgium. Of course, there are classic styles like Dubbel and Tripel, and other brews from the monastic traditions that tend to conform to specific flavor profiles, but there are many, many more that do not. Even among the Trappist breweries there are beers that eschew moniker; Orval is a notable example, as are the Rochefort beers (6, 8, and 10 are available in the U.S.), which are much less estery than the average Belgian ale. A homebrewer friend who regularly makes Belgian-esque ales doesn’t often apply categories to his beers; he refers to them by brew number: “Oh, that’s #473, it’s pale, bottle conditioned with honey… try it!”

The whole idea of “style” kinda falls apart when beer is brewed with indigenous ingredients, spontaneously fermented, or otherwise given over to nature, so to speak. De Garde Brewing in Tillamook uses wild yeast and bacteria harvested from the air, much like Belgian Lambic breweries. Agrarian Ales uses river sage, a native artemesia, in some of its herbal beers. Propolis in Port Townsend, WA, uses wildcrafted herbs in all of its beers, which change month-to-month. Local flavors are slowly making  a comeback– after several centuries of legislated hop use, Old World brewing practices are making a small return to the collective brewing unconscious.

The canon of beer styles is an important learning tool and cultural artifact, and cannot be dismissed. At the same time, pigeonholing beer can be detrimental. Try to embrace the “?” beers, the Category 23 beers; those are often the hardest to create, the riskiest innovations, and the most challenging to the norm.