On Beer and Its Value

Oh god, we’re back on this. Last month’s Session and a series of subsequent posts has raised yet again the spectre of beer price, exclusivity, scarcity, etc.

In short, the youthful cadre of beer hobbyists is once more feeling pangs of guilt and/or frustration and/or envy. And perhaps stupidly, here I go wading anew into the morass.

You’re quite right, Beer Nut, beer does not matter. Never has. Nor does wine, for that matter, or whisky or any of the countless other foods and drinks that some people make their hobby. Adequate water supplies matter. Social justice matters. Food and education matter. Beer? That’s just a blip, a fine way to expend some discretionary income, as you note.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this, since I earn a generous portion of my income advising others as to how best expend those discretionary amounts, but what the hell, it’s done now.)

Does this mean that no beer is worth lining up for? Perhaps not to you, Mr. Nut, or Alan, but for some hobbyists, the quest is part, sometimes a large part, of the thrill. Ever jumped in a car to drive long distances for some superfluous reason? If not, you’ve missed a stupidly fun experience.

That’s what Dark Lord Day and the like are for some people, harmless bits of fun. And if they help line the pockets of daring entrepreneurs who are crazy enough to start a small business on a whim and a prayer, and produce craft beers which, by all objective standards, should not find a substantial audience among the American public, well, so much the better.

Do I care about people “cultifying” certain beers? Hell, no! Admittedly, it gives me something to write about and thus helps out my own bottom line some – although not much; the mainstream press, who pay most of my wages, are little concerned about such things – but in the greater scheme of things it provides succour to a few and harms no one, save perhaps for the psychological scars inflicted upon the rabid cultists who miss out.

That’s scarcity. As for price, well, that is a many edged sword. Some high prices are certainly justified – Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share Grand Cru, in addition to being the finest drop of liquid ever released by the brewery, came as the result of a ridiculous number of man hours and reams of expense and thus certainly deserved its elevated cost – while others are not, perhaps in my opinion and not yours or yours and not mine. It’s a judgement call, not a conspiracy to line the pockets of hard-working, barely-getting-by craft brewers.

Personally, I’d rather spend $25 for a bottle of craft ale, knowing that the bulk of the money is going to support the brewery, than $8 or whatever it is for a glass of mainstream foam at a Toronto Blue Jays game, knowing that money is supporting nothing more than corporate greed.

Back to The Session

I’m not altogether sure what happened last month, but I missed the June edition of The Session entirely. What’s more, I probably would have missed this month’s, too, except for stumbling over the entry of the one person in North America who I know is a bigger beer traveller than am I. How do I know this? Simple, Stan Hieronymus
has the URL to prove it!

(Plus, Stan and his wife and daughter are in the middle of a lengthy excursion that has thus far taken them to 49 states, 9 Canadian provinces and 15 European countries. I’ve been to more of Canada and Europe than that, but not by much and over the course of a lifetime rather than a year and a bit.)

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Gail and Steve of Beer by BART have chosen beer touring as their subject for this month, and as an inveterate voyager, it’s one I just can’t resist.

Their call is pretty open-ended, with room for everything from travel tips to stories to remembrances of a specific brew enjoyed somewhere on the road. I’ve never been good at choosing, so I’m going to tackle all three.

1. Tips: Getting there is seldom half the fun, but always a necessity, so try to travel calm and cool and collected. Something will go wrong and it may be your fault or someone else’s, but chances are there will be little you can do about it immediately. No need to yell at the flight attendant or train porter or odious government official, since it will not get you any further ahead. Sit back, relax, make sure than everything possible is being done to resolve the situation and remember that, one fine day, the whole experience is going to be a hell of a story.

Relish the moment. If you’re travelling for beer, chances are that’s what your sights will be set on, whether that means tasting a specific brew or visiting a certain brewery or beer bar. But sometimes the moment is more important than the beer, and the crappy bar with one or two fine ales and good conversation far better than the fetid and sweaty, overcrowded beer bar with the outrageously good selection.

Remember that no trip is a once-in-a-lifetime affair. You can go back, although it may seem an impossibility at the time. Things change, and what once seemed a distant dream can wind up being a very real possibility.

2. Stories: I’ve more tales of travelling in Belgium than I can sometimes remember, but one of my very favourites revolves around my first visit to the Gouden Ecu restaurant in Antwerp, as I related it years ago in Hemispheres Magazine.

As we walked through the front door, the chef looked up from his stove and glared. His stare was quickly echoed by the dozen or so patrons still nibbling sweets or sipping coffees at the end of their meals. All we wanted was dinner, but it was evident that we had committed a rather gross transgression of the rules.

Which, in truth, I knew before even setting foot in the restaurant. In complete disregard of the advice given me by my Belgian friend, I had led my friends to De Gouden Ecu without first calling for a reservation. Even worse, we had evidentially arrived at the end of dinner service. Now we were on the spot.

Slowly, as if physically burdened by the travail of once again having to deal with tourists, chef-owner Bert Debruyne lumbered towards us. When he finally reached the doorway, we explained that we were in search of a late dinner. He shrugged.

“Impossible,” he grumbled, “You didn’t call. I have no food.”

Hungry and reluctant to take no for an answer, we persisted. His restaurant came highly recommended, we enthused. We were sorry for not calling, but we had just arrived in Antwerp and we were starved for good food.

Our hopes rose when Bert instructed us to wait as he returned to his kitchen to check supplies. A few moments later, he lumbered back. “I have two rabbits and a guinea hen,” the grizzled chef announced, “You sit here.” Minutes later, Bert returned yet again with a large bottle of the beer he had determined would best accompany our dinner.

It goes on, but this is a blog post and I’m not Jay Brooks, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

3. The Specific Brew: Hugh’s Room is a bar and club in Toronto that regularly features blues and folk music. I had been there before and knew the beer selection was pretty sad, so I wasn’t expecting much when I arrived for a gig by my friend, Rick Fines.

Happily, however, things had changed at Hugh’s since my last visit and St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout had been added to the draught selection. I quickly ordered one, as if fearing that the mirage might vanish if I left it too long, and was rewarded with a stunning pint of ebony elixir. Maybe it was the joy of knowing that I wouldn’t be left beerless all night, or perhaps they had just that afternoon cleaned their lines and attached them to a fresh keg, but never before or since have I enjoyed that particular beer is such outstanding condition.

I’m not certain what that story says about travel and beer, since I only travelled across the city to drink the St. Ambroise, but somehow I think it might just reinforce numbers 1 and 2.


The Session: Beer Cocktails

(For today’s edition of the beer bloggers Session, Joe and Jasmine at Beer at Joe’s have chosen the topic of beer cocktails. This is a long-time favourite of mine, but since I’m presently overwhelmed with pending story deadlines, I’m going to reprint a piece I originally wrote for the June, 2004, edition of World of Beer, rather than come up with something original. My apologies for the repetition.)

I forget the exact name of the Parisian beer bar I was sitting in when I first noticed the new beer from the Brasserie Duyck, the northern French brewery best known for their Jenlain bière de garde, but the ale itself certainly caught my attention. Packaged in a slick, silver and green aluminum bottle emblazoned with a catchy logo, it advertised itself as a blonde ale flavoured with absinthe. I decided to give it a try.

Despite its obvious positioning as a competitor in the alcopop/club kid market, J Absinthe is a worthy brew, one which beer snobs ignore to their own detriment. True, it’s not built on a backbone of the most characterful blonde ale around, but I felt the addition of the absinthe gave it a very pleasing aniseed flavour which blended well with the sweet maltiness of the base brew. All in all, I’d have to declare it a fairly successful packaging of a beer cocktail.

Of course, perhaps I’m also suffering from a bit of bias in this regard, since beer cocktails have been very much on my mind of late. Because one of the jobs I’ve assigned myself at beerbistro, the downtown Toronto beer cuisine restaurant and bar in which I’m a partner, is the creation of the beer cocktail list, which made its debut with the second printing of the beer menu and is being elaborated upon in the current third edition.

The first time out, we featured a mix of basic beer blends like the ‘Coffee and a Smoke,’ which was a mix of two porters, one flavoured with coffee beans and the other brewed with a portion of peat-smoked malt, and beer and spirits combos, like the Drill Sergeant, which topped up a 300 ml glass of hoppy Sergeant Major IPA with an ounce of Cuban amber rum. The most ambitious cocktail, and one of the most popular, was the Bourbon Black & Tan, a 300 ml blend of oatmeal stout and brown ale fortified with a shot of Maker’s Mark Bourbon.

For the summer, we have gone alternately lighter and more intense. For the patio, we have pitchers of ‘Beer Sangria,’ which is made with a full bottle of Unibroue’s spiced cherry ale, Quelque Chose, and a shot each of two secret spirits, topped with fresh fruit and soda*, while for late night we’re offering the profound flavours of the ‘Any Port in a Storm,’ which blends a full bottle of Victory Brewing’s Storm King Imperial Stout with two ounces of late bottle vintage port. (And thanks to the denizens of the Burgundian Babble Belt for the inspiration to create the latter drink.)

If all of this sounds completely foreign to you, then chances are that you haven’t been in beer bar in France for some time. For the French, such cocktails are second nature, although admittedly they don’t tend to get quite so elaborate in their preparations. Still, walk into any bar or brasserie with a decent beer list and chances are very good that you’ll find a separate listing of beer cocktails.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that I’m a big believer in the art of the beer cocktail, but only so long as the integrity of the component beer or beers is kept in mind when the blend is created. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the brewer’s art and would never dream of belittling the flavour and character of a great beer. But if a wonderful cheese can be equally enjoyed on its own or as a component of a marvellous gastronomic creation, then I can see no reason why the same should not be true of a spiced ale or IPA, whether in the kitchen or at the bar. What I’m after is not a drink that betters the beer, but is parallel in quality and a little bit – sometimes a lot – different.

If you’re still skeptical, then I suggest you find yourself a rich, roasty Imperial stout and blend it with a couple of ounces of good port to make your own ‘Any Port in a Storm.’ Trust me when I say that it’s the kind of cocktail that will make a believer out of almost anyone.

* Since this was originally published, I’ve made public my Beer Sangria recipe, but you’ll have to buy the new beerbistro Cookbook to get it!


Session #26: Smoked Beers

session-logo-r-smThe subtitle of Lew’s topic for today’s beer blogging Friday is “Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.” Which poses a problem, ’cause I ain’t got ’em. I’ve looked through the depths of the beer fridge, in the lower reaches of the wine fridge, in the cellar and even the back of my condo storage locker and haven’t been able to find a single smoked malt beer. Not even a peated malt beer. Nothing.

So instead of drinking and writing, I’m going to reminisce about one of the most remarkable smoked beers I’ve ever tasted, except that is wasn’t smoked. Allow me to explain.

The scene was a beer writer-filled bus on the last day of a press trip through Bavaria. We had visited numerous breweries over several days, as you might imagine, and scribbled copious notes on hefeweizens, dunkels, steinbiers and plain ol’ pale lagers. And now, for the final three or so hour run from Kulmbach to Munich, it was time to kick back, put on some music and relax with many of the beers we’d accumulated over the preceding days, and believe me, we had cases of the stuff.

Since most of us had known each other even before the trip, the atmosphere was casual and conversational, much as you’d find in a pub. Bottles were popped and split, observations sometimes discussed but never recorded, and a good time was had by all. Until, that is, someone opened a Schlenkerla Helles.

The beer stopped each person tasting it dead in their tracks. It was, not to put too fine a spin on it, sublime, with a very subtle smokiness, softly quenching maltiness and dry, crisp finish. But wait, “subtle smokiness”? We all paused. Hadn’t Matthias Trum, who mans operations at Schlenkerla, told us there was no smoked malt in this beer? He had, we were sure – and later confirmed – which meant that this beer had a…contact smokiness? It was true, it was remarkable, and it was delicious.

Eventually we all went back to drinking and chatting, but that one beer had really commanded our attention for a good, long time. The non-smoked smoked beer, and a pale lager, at that. Proof that no matter how much beer you taste, there’s always something surprising waiting around the next corner.

Let Us Rejoice

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick and tired of all the economic doom and gloom that surrounds us. Sure, it’s a definite reality and one which affects all too many innocent souls, but day in and day out depression does no one any good. So here are some reasons to rejoice today:

1) Cask Ale Week begins next week in the U.K., shining a spotlight on the fact that, as Pete Brown reminds us, cask-conditioned ale is the single best performing sector of the beer market in ol’ Blighty.

2) Bud Light is no longer the world’s best selling beer, a fact that is apparently causing conniptions within the ranks of the world’s largest brewing company.

3) In North America, craft brewed beer continues to sell well, despite and regardless of the economic uncertainties of today. Say that again with me, “Craft brewed beer continues to sell well.”

4) Spring is just around the corner, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.

5) Today marks the start of the Cask Ale Crawl in Toronto, proving that cask-conditioned ale is doing pretty well on this side of the pond, too.

6) It’s time for Session #26 and our host, the inestimable Lew Bryson, has us actually talking about beer for a change, instead of musing all New Age-y like about what a particular aspect of beer means to us. I’ll be writing up my first ever World of Beer Session post later on today, so check back with me here and with Lew there.