And One Final Beer Goal for 2010…

11. Get out there!: Drinking in situ is one of the most illuminating experiences a beer aficionado can have, whether it’s at a riverside brewpub in a town a few miles away or in a café on the other side of the world. It’s also (usually) a hell of a lot of fun.

That’s it for me in 2009. Enjoy your New Year’s Eve, everyone, and see you all next decade!

Beer Goals for the New Year

It is with some sadness that I learned of the departure of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The husband and wife team have been writing insightful and accessible columns on wine in that paper for a dozen years, and have long been one of the few reasons I would pick up the weekend edition. I still have a yellowed copy of their “How to Order Wine in a Restaurant, In 10 Steps,” which is one of the most common sense pieces of wine writing I have ever come across.

Much of Gaiter and Brecher’s work, I have found, is easily transferable to other realms, including beer. And so, in honour of their years of service to imbibophiles, I am going to riff (yet again) on one of their ideas, with my “10 Things to Do with Beer in 2010.”

  1. Learn to appreciate something different: You may not like, say, lambics or highly hopped ales, but that need not mean you shouldn’t try to understand what they’re all about.
  2. Blow apart your preconceptions with a blind tasting: Sampling a slate of beers without knowing what they are can be humbling and illuminating. For extra credit, try using glasses that hide the colour of the beers.
  3. Learn to love low alcohol: Subtlety is sometimes lost in beer tasting circles, so even if you enjoy your fill of session beers now and again, or again and again, much can be learned by taking some time to ponder the nuances of a 3.5% alcohol mild or 5% alcohol kölsch.
  4. Try a beer under different circumstances: Possibly the greatest thing I’ve learned in my twenty or so years writing about beer is the powerful effect of context on taste. Trying a familiar brew under utterly unfamiliar circumstances – early in the morning, say, or under physiologically stressful conditions – can lend keen insight as to its makeup.
  5. Plan a period during which you will not drink the same beer twice: Be it a week or a month, spending some time in beer drinking promiscuity can be both fun and challenging.
  6. Talk about beer without judgement: Be it with beer aficionado friends or the Bud drinker at the end of the bar, you can learn a lot about beer and beer drinking by simply listening to what others have to say.
  7. Drink both beer and wine with an oenophile: Sample some of your favourites and some of his or her favourites and learn from each other.
  8. Buy blindfolded: Not literally, of course, but randomly grabbing stuff off the shelf, or having someone do it for you, can lead to interesting discoveries, and also, it needs be admitted, huge disappointments.
  9. Splurge: Not on a high-priced beer – although feel free to do that, too – but on a totally unnecessary round for a group of friends and acquaintances. There’s no better way to remind yourself of why beer really is the most sociable of beverages.
  10. Spend time with a notepad: Nobody should feel they need to take notes on every beer they drink in order to assure their “beer cred,” but it can be an interesting exercise to from time to time sit down and record flavour and aroma observations. You may even be surprised at how it improves your taste perceptions.

Desperate Calorie Counting

I’m stepping out from under my self-imposed cloak of seasonal niceness to get cranky for a minute, but only a minute.

The source is this story in the Toronto Star, which heralds the alleged benefits of light beer.

Light beer love. Give me a break, and while you’re at it, save one for a man who understands that low alcohol need not mean low flavour, my good friend Mr. Lew “Session Beer Project” Bryson.

I’d get a quote from Lew, but frankly I’m too lazy. And besides, my minute is fast running out. So here are some words from people who should know better.

From Dick Snyder, my editor at City Bites magazine: “(Light beer is) cold, crisp beer without any heavy, overpowering flavours and it’s good for when calorie counting is important.”

Also good for calorie counting, Dick: actual counting! You want fewer calories, drink less good beer!

And from another friend, wine consultant Zoltan Szabo: “There is nothing more desirable than having a nice light beer after a long day of wine tasting. I always look for local craft beers when I can. Light beer is totally neutral compared to wine and it gives your palate a break.”

Also “totally neutral,” Zoltan: water!

And from a leading Toronto chef, Jason Bangerter: “I’m getting older and my metabolism is harder to control as work becomes more demanding and the days seem to get shorter with less time to spend in the gym. I go with a light beer because it’s not heavy and it’s easy to drink.”

Ya, like he’d go with Splenda in a cake at Auberge de Pommier because it would lighten the calorie load! Hmmm, “not heavy and easy to drink”? That would also be…oh yes, water!

All the more galling is the fact that in my home market – where this story also appears – there exist numerous lower alcohol/lower calorie alternatives with taste, as I emailed the author of the story when she first contacted me about it. But I guess the fact that the eminently sessionable Wellington Arkell Best Bitter, brewed locally and 4% alcohol, and Harviestoun’s Bitter & Twisted, imported from Scotland in bottle and keg and 4.2%, don’t actually say “light beer” on the label disqualifies them.

Okay, that’s it. My minute is up. Time to crank up the James Brown on the stereo and go back to being nice again.

The Penguin That Everyone is Talking About

Evidently, the minds behind Scotland’s BrewDog have rattled more than a few cages with their new beer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin. (I still love that name.) Roger has taken them to task, then tried to address his critics; Alan has added his two cents, mostly addressing Roger’s response; Jay and I chatted about it all at length over the phone, and then he waded into the morass; and a fellow named Dave made the keen observation that Linux may just get a new and very boozy mascot out of the whole deal.

I seldom write about beers I have not tasted, and never write twice about such a brew, but rules are made for breaking and the Penguin craves ink, even if it is only the virtual stuff. Besides, it raises more questions than it does answers, to wit:

  • Given that the concentration of alcohol through freezing is a form of distillation, is this even a beer?
  • Given that eisbock is a recognized style of beer, does taking that freezing process to the nth degree disqualify the Penguin from such a style?
  • Does anyone care, as Roger seems to, whether the beer is fermented with a beer yeast or a wine yeast or both? (BTW, the BrewDog website suggests that the original, pre-freezing Imperial stout was but 10% alcohol, the attainment of which would certainly not require a non-brewers yeast.)
  • Should we even worry about such distinctions between beer and spirits, or even wine, for that matter? I have, after all, an open bottle of Sam Adams Utopias on my desk that has to my palate been steadily improving since I uncapped it a few months ago, which is most definitely not a beer-ish trait.
  • Since in nothing I’ve seen posted thus far has anyone said anything about what the Penguin tastes like, has anyone actually sampled the damn thing?

That’s it. I have no answers, only questions. Mr. Watt, if you’re reading, please do get in touch!

Heineken and Drunkards

You may have heard of the new website devised by Heineken to discourage public drunkenness this holiday season, knowthesigns.com. It’s a fancy video production that categorizes various types of drunks and makes a game of spotting them, and I admit it’s vaguely amusing the first time out.

Best commentary on the effort, however, comes courtesy of Simon Houpt in The Globe and Mail:

After clicking on each – the guys range from The Groper to The Fighter, while the women include The Crier and The Flirt – we watch an embarrassing episode unfold, and are then shown how everything could have gone differently if the drinker had switched to water earlier in the evening. It’s an entertaining and effective cautionary tool, and we fully expect it will become an integral part of a sloppy drinking game at our office holiday party next month. Hey, thanks, Heineken!

Palin Porter? Palinator Doppelbock?

I see that former political liability Sarah “Whack Job” Palin has released a new book today, entitled Going Rogue. Besides marvelling at why in the world anybody with sense would want to shell out their hard-earned cash to read the woman’s (surely ghost-written) ramblings, I’m left to wonder what might be the response of the real Rogues, those who live and brew in Oregon?

Will John Maier release a new beer “dedicated to the failed vice-presidential candidate in all of us”? Is a Palin Imperial(ly Ignorant) Pilsner in the planning stages? How about a special edition India Pal(in) Ale?

Surely the great minds at one of the west coast’s earliest and most rebellious craft breweries aren’t going to take this blatant co-opting of their name laying down? Well, are they?

How I Spent Halloween

There were no costumes and loot bags for this boy last Saturday night. No, instead there were cocktail shakers and cork screws and plates and pans as my wife and I hosted four friends for the first dinner party in our new abode. I was in charge of the menu, and chose an Italian theme.

We started with bowls of smoked almonds and cashews, while sipping on negronis and Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, the former a classic cocktail combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari and the latter a most serviceable white.

Once seated, I started everyone off with an antipasti of salami, prosciutto, roasted peppers, Parmigiano Reggiano and roasted artichoke hearts, while keeping glasses filled with  the pinot grigio and an equally serviceable Chianti, Rocca delle Macìe Vernaiolo. Most everybody switched to the Chianti for both the primi of fettuccine puttanesca and the secondi of porchetta with a side of wilted spinach and arugula cooked with walnuts and garlic, and I trotted out a selection ranging from Okanagan Spirits Poire William to Stock ’84 Brandy for the dolci of pear yogurt – it was going to be a sorbet, except that I couldn’t find any no matter how hard I looked, and I wasn’t up to making my own – drizzled with the poire William and accompanied by amaretti cookies.

That’s right, not a drop of beer was poured! (Actually, one guest who is not a big wine aficionado, and was driving, had a couple of bottles of Black Oak Pale Ale during the dinner, but that wasn’t part of the plan.) And not because I didn’t think my guests would appreciate it or that I couldn’t find a suitable style or brand for each course, but simply because it wasn’t what I wanted to serve on that particular night to accompany that particular menu.

So you see, wine and beer (and cocktails and spirits) can peacefully co-exist!

In the “Well, Duh!” Department

This from an Associated Press story about the new wave of low calorie and, it might well be added, low taste beers flooding the market these days. Speaking about brews like MGD 64 and Select 55, which respectively have just 64 and 55 calories and 2.8 and 2.4 percent alcohol, Mindy Rotellini from St. Louis is quoted as saying, “I just have to drink more, and then it’s going to equal the amount of calories in a regular beer, so why not just drink a regular beer?”

Why indeed?

Further on in the story, referencing the difficulties the major breweries are facing trying to produce ultra-light beers that have actual taste, the story quotes Thomas Shellhammer, professor of fermentation science at Oregon State University, thusly:

“You start producing something that could taste very, very thin. That would be the challenge for the brewer, to produce something that still tastes like beer.”

Presumably Professor Shellhammer has little experience with British milds, like the positively delicious Black Cat from the Moorehouse Brewery in England, which was proclaimed Champion Beer of Britain in 2000 with an alcohol content of just 3.4 percent.

And finally, adding a note of sanity to the story, beer aficionado John LeMasney offers,  “I’d rather spend 200 calories and get something I really enjoy.”

Amen.

The Good, the Bad and the Stupid

The Good: The travel section of my morning paper informs me that, after having been closed for long enough that I thought it would be consigned to the annals of history, La Fleur en Papier Doré has reopened in Brussels. While hardly a great beer destination, at least in its former life, this endearing artist café has long been a favourite of mine, and of Magritte, Scutenaire and many others before me.

The Bad: Molson Coors Canada has come out with a new beer called Canadian 67, with 3% alcohol, 67 calories and about as much flavour as a bowl of unsweetened tapioca. It seems the company has forgotten the lesson of the spectacular flame-out of Molson Select back in the 1990’s, which had 3.3% alcohol and, to my recollection, more taste than the new beer. Or maybe that’s the point.

The Stupid: The beer blogs are awash with the news that Scottish & Newcastle, soon to be Heineken UK, is moving production of Newcastle Brown Ale to Tadcaster in Yorkshire. It’s Pete Brown who has hit the nail on the head, though, observing that far beyond the usual flap and fury of a revered brand being moved or an old brewery shut down, this move simply doesn’t make any sense from a business or marketing perspective. I mean, there’s a picture of the city of Newcastle on the label, for crying out loud!

God Bless the Aussies!

This morning, an article from Digital City informs me that the notorious boozers at the three day Australian motor race known as the Bathurst 1000 are have curbs put on their drinking. Apparently fed up with fights and drunkenness, officials are placing a limit on how much alcohol is permissible.

The limit? 24 cans of beer and four liters of wine. Per person per day.

Forget driving a thousand kilometers through the outback. 72 cans of lager — it has to be lager, right? — and 12 liters of wine in three days is the real test of endurance.

Demonization 101

Up until recently, I didn’t even know that texting while driving was a problem on North American roads. It seemed so obviously, blatantly dangerous to focus on writing upon a small screen while guiding a couple of tons of metal at high speeds that I thought it incomprehensible.

I was wrong, apparently. Very wrong.

According to an op-ed column in my morning paper, texting while driving has become a significant danger on Canadian and U.S. roadways, to the point that studies have been conducted and the seemingly clear dangers quantified. (The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truckers who were texting had 24 times the likelihood of getting into an accident as compared to non-texting truckers. Duh!) And yet, while we continue to face calls for lower BAC levels for drivers and mandatory interlocks, little to nothing is being done to call attention to the dangers of texting drivers.

That is just plain stupid. And yes, I’m talking to you, MADD, and all others like you. If drunk drivers are a danger who should be removed from the roadways, and I’m the first to say that impaired drivers should be taken off the roads and prevented from returning to them, then texting drivers are at least as real and imminent a threat. Perhaps more so.

So why doesn’t MADD start a MATD (Mothers Against Texting Drivers) division? For the same reason that there’s not a MASD (Mothers Against Sleepy Drivers) and MADiD (Mothers Against Distracted Drivers), namely that blood alcohol level is measurable, whereas sleepiness and texting and distraction are not.

I am not suggesting for a second that drinking to impairment and driving is anything but a deep and still-present danger, and I applaud all that society has accomplished during my lifetime to demonize the practice. But, I question why we persist in demonizing drivers with even trace amounts of alcohol in their bloodstreams when: a) There is little clear evidence that they pose a danger on the roads; and b) There are much more significant threats to our health and welfare out there, like morons who think that peering at a small screen while screaming along at 100 kilometres an hour is anything but a colossally idiotic thing to do.