Books, Books, Books: What to Buy for Whom, Pt. II (Coffee Table Eye-Candy Edition)

More books about beer and other stuff, and who to buy them for:

The Beer Ticker: In the spirit of his World’s Best Beers – to which, full disclosure, I contributed – Ben McFarland is back with Boutique Beers, a spirited romp around the world that highlights the beers beer nerds like to talk about. Having grouped over 500 such brews into nine convenient categories, McFarland goes on to describe each in considerable depth, adding pictures and mini-features and the occasional recipe or bar review along the way. Like most books from the English publisher Jacqui Small –it’s a Barron’s Educational book in North America – it is big, bold and well-designed, although I must admit that the frequent use of typewriter font gets to me a bit after a while. Other than that minor quibble, however, it is a lovely tome that will keep the diehard beer hunter occupied for many an hour. (Barron’s Educational Books; $29.99 US/$34.50 Canada)

The Drinker in Search of Something Different: Outside of my own new book, of course, my favourite new beverage book release this year is World’s Best Ciders by Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw. Another Jacqui Small book – Sterling Epicure in the U.S. – it is not only wonderfully attractive and informative, but also strikes a great balance between hard info, considered opinion and illuminating reviews of ciders from all around the world. Since even most drinks-savvy folk don’t fully appreciate the true scope of the world of fermented apple juice, this is a book that is sure to intrigue just about any beverage aficionado on your list. (Sterling Epicure; $30 US/$33 Canada)

For the Turophile: Cheese aficionados – that’s what “turophile” means, apparently – have been blessed with a veritable bounty of books over the last few years, including the wonderful Cheese by Patricia Michelson and this year’s Cheese & Beer by Janet Fletcher. Although perhaps priced a little on the high side for a 106 page book, and not a very densely packed one, at that, there is plenty of great beer and cheese porn contained within the pages of this, the first beer-oriented book from prolific author Fletcher, and a fair bit of useful info, to boot. In my view, it could have been balanced a bit more to the cheese side, but it is nevertheless a page-turner and appetite inspirer. (Andrews McMeel; $24.99 US/$26.99 Canada)

For the Wino: I generally dislike books with titles that insult my intelligence, but John Szabo’s knowledge and writing style is such that he is able to overcome the limitations of the “Dummies” series of books and make Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies soar as one of the best food and beverage pairing books I’ve yet come across, perhaps the best. As per the title, Szabo keeps it simple, but avoids the trap of falling into simplistic, so that mere pages into the book you’ll find yourself hungering for some roast squab and pinot noir or escargots and dry rosé. What’s more, he explains in a fairly easy-to-comprehend way pairing principles that you can carry over to other beverages, beer and cider included. Possibly the best value in my collection of 2013 drinks books, even at the overinflated Canadian price point. (Wiley; $22.99 US/$27.99 Canada)    

Beer is NOT the New Wine!

My late friend and colleague, Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser, once stated, “People ask me if I also drink wine, as if beer is a prison rather than a playground.”

With that statement, Michael deftly summarized the problem with headlines like this one, which imply that people might or even should drink one thing over another to the point of exclusivity. Like Michael, I am fond of a glass of wine or whisky, or a pint of dry cider or a well-made cocktail. And even though I’ve written or co-written eight books on beer, I would balk at ever suggesting that ale or lager is categorically better than wine or spirits.

The point being that a multitude of different flavours exists in all three broad categories of alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and spirits, plus cider and saké – and still more flavours might be obtained when any of the above are mixed together into a cocktail. Each of these deserve exploration by curious imbibers, and if one or another proves not to be to your taste, then so be it.

Just don’t suggest to me that because of the size of shape of the bottle, or the trendiness of the advertising and marketing, than any one beverage is the “new” version of another, entirely different beverage. Beer is beer, wine is wine, and spirits are spirits. Period.

Would the Aspen Food & Wine Classic Feature Yellow Tail in a Food & Wine Pairing?

I’ve never attended the celebrated foodie festival, but judging from a quick run-through of the wine seminar schedule – Showstopping Champagne, Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Bordeaux’s Extraordinary 2009 Vintage – I’m guessing the popular party wine might not be a featured pour.

So why are organizers of the Aspen Food & Wine Classic featuring Stella Artois, then?

When I received the press release, which you can read in its entirety here, I was stunned. Here is a well-respected, nationally recognized gastronomic festival featuring what is, by almost any standards, a profoundly ordinary lager in a showcase seminar, specifically “Stella Artois Presents: The Beauty of Pairing Belgian Beer and Food.”

If it were merely the sponsor beer being poured at the Welcome Reception and Publisher’s Party, which it is, I’d be able to give the event a pass. Sponsorships are a big deal for such festivals and I’m sure Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer and owner of the Stella brand, are paying for the privilege of being associated with Aspen Food & Wine. But to take it into the seminar level, featuring it in such credibility-defying partnerships as “Chocolate Panna Cotta, featuring endive foam, orange coulis and blue cheese” and an unnamed lamb dish is to undermine greatly the event’s claim as “the crème-de-la-crème of culinary festivals.”

Aspen Food & Wine, you disappoint me. Twenty or even ten years ago, it might have been okay to engage in such foolishness, but beer and food pairing has come a long way since then and people aren’t about to be fooled by such obvious pandering to a big money brand. In your actions you have done a great disservice to the multitude of Belgian beers that actually do pair well with complex dishes, not to mention the many domestic breweries who craft their own wonderfully food-friendly beers. (And by coincidence are featuring them this weekend at Savor in New York City.)

Most of all, however, you show your ignorance as to the state of craft beer around the world today. Maybe in the future you should just stick to food and wine.

Zraly Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Congratulations to Kevin Zraly, winner of this year’s James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes Zraly’s incredible achievements in wine education, including the authorship of his iconic and best-sellingWindows on the World Complete Wine Course.

The honour is well-deserved. Zraly and other Beard Award recipients will be feted May 9 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

Wine For Pork? Try Beer Instead!

One of the organs for which I regularly toil, Nation’s Restaurant News, yesterday delivered to my in-box a story on wine pairings for pork as chosen by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers were featured.

(You may need to register to see the story, but it’s here.)

Now, I have nothing but respect for Master Sommeliers, and know quite a few of them personally. They’re smart individuals who work very hard to attain what is a most impressive credential. And I thoroughly enjoy wines of many different styles, qualities and price points, from summertime vinho verdes to status Bordeaux and Californians. But really, pork? That’s definitely beer territory.

The dishes cited range from spice-rubbed spare ribs with bourbon barbecue sauce – surely a potential disaster for even the best-case wine scenario – to pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon. And as I read through the list of their suggested pairings, one word resonated in the back of my brain: Bavaria!

It has been said – by me, and often – that the Bavarian brewer whose beers don’t pair well with pork won’t stay in business for long, and it’s something I firmly believe. Pig is close to a gastronomic religion in Germany’s south, so it stands to reason that its beers would find harmonies with pork dishes of all sorts. More so, I’m afraid, than wine. Much more.

For ribs, which is a bit outside of the Bavarian zone if familiarity, I’d pick a beer that is likewise not quite indigenous, such as pilsner, preferably of the Bohemian sort, with a greater malt content than its northern German kin, while grilled or roasted loin is a great fit with märzen or dunkel weizen.

But really, when you’re talking pork, you can pretty much safely reach for any Bavarian beer style, and for considerably less than the per case prices quoted by my MS compatriots.

The Problem with Numbers

As a frequent reviewer of beers and spirits, I have often been asked why I don’t adopt the system, ever-so-popular in wine writing circles, of scoring brands on a one hundred points scale. Usually, I’ll explain that I don’t think taste is as cut-and-dried as one or two percentage point differences, or point out that most reviewers only use 40% or less of their full scale, opting to effectively confine their rankings to between 60 or 65 and 100. (And so why not just use a scale of 1 – 40 or 1 – 35? I have no idea.)

Every so often, however, something will come along that clearly illustrates the perils of a 100 points scoring system much more effectively than I ever could, like this pair of reviews:

Oliverhill Petite Sirah 2007 – McLaren Vale, Australia

93 Points — Wine Advocate

The opaque purple/black 2007 Petite Sirah, is aged for 17 months in 20% new American oak hogsheads. The nose gives up notes of earth, mineral, cedar, and assorted black fruits. Full-bodied on the palate, the wine is rich, layered, and contains a boatload of ripe tannin that will require 10-12 years of cellaring for the wine to blossom. When it does, it should be sublime in the manner of a well-aged Ridge Vineyards Petite Sirah.

Jay Miller, #181 (Feb 2009) Price: $46.95

Illuminati “Riparosso” Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2008 – Abruzzo, Italy

89 Points — Wine Advocate

The 2008 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo Riparosso is a plump, juicy offering endowed with generous dark fruit and an inviting personality. There is a lovely richness and raciness to the fruit that flows effortlessly to the round finish. Readers in search of a delicious, entry-level Montepulciano will find much to admire. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2013.

Antonio Galloni, #189 (June 2010) Price: $12.95

So, on the basis of the numbers provided, I might deduce that for slightly more than one-quarter of the price of the high-rated bottle, I can enjoy a wine that is a mere 4% less worthy.

Is this an accurate interpretation of these two reviews? Likely not, but I can almost guarantee that won’t stop a lot of people from drawing the same conclusion, especially in these price sensitive times. Forget the differing characters of the wines, forget the growing conditions in the vineyards, forget supply and demand, forget every little element that goes into the production and pricing of a wine; 4% difference in quality is next to nothing , so why not buy the cheaper red?

And that’s why I don’t score by the numbers.

Out of the Mouths of Winos…

Decanter magazine is offering up a batch of multi-discipline jewels this month, beginning with a reminder I posted over here about how much guidance the average consumer needs to sort through the miasma of the drinks world these days. (Don’t start with me! If you are about to comment that “the average consumer is fully able to choose a wine or beer or spirit for themselves,” well, you’re not an average consumer. Trust me on this.)

Then up comes this gem from another prominent wine guy, Jacques Lardière, head winemaker for the French winery, Louis Jadot. In discussing what I might be temnpted to call the pinot grigio-ification of modern wine, Lardière says:

”I’m not after technical perfection. I don’t have much time for the Australian approach, where the ideal wine is the most neutral.’

‘It’s easy to clean up a wine, but by removing faults, unless they’re truly detrimental, you also remove its life.’

‘I refuse to go along with it,’ he adds.

You could, and should, say the same thing about beer.

Announcing My New Blog: Beaumont Drinks!

For the past four years, I’ve been responsible for the Beaumont’s Beer Blog over at After some recent discussion, however, the powers-that-be at TTS and I have decided to fold the Beer Blog and replace it with a new blog focused on all things beverage, whether beer, spirits, cocktails or wine. We call it…

Beaumont Drinks!

We took it live just this week and I’ve two posts up already. The first deals with the question of value in beer, wine, spirits and cocktails, while the second takes to task the drinks columnist in the new issue of Sharp Magazine.

Check them out, and if you like what you read, leave a comment and/or subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking the icon in the address field of your browser. (We’re still sorting the page out and a proper subscription link is forthcoming.) I look forward to seeing you there!

About That No. 5 Yesterday

Which would be Beer Is Not the New Wine: But wine might just be the new beer!

This has been going on for a while now, so my listing it in the first “What I Learned…” instalment is a bit disingenuous, but it really does make sense. With precious few exceptions, everyone I know who is involved in the wine business is trying to demystify it, so that wine might some day enjoy the same sort of casual acceptance that beer does now. And – here’s why I listed it as something I learned last year – they’re starting to succeed!

Wine in a screw cap is no longer de facto bad. Neither is wine in a box, for that matter. (Although the latter is still far more likely to be plonk than the former.) Good beer in a can?! Of course it’s here, and good wine in a can might not be that far behind!!

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.

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!

I’m Back!

My week’s worth of “radio silence” was the result of a relocation of home and office last Thursday, a disruption now thankfully ended. Or at least, more or less so, my office and a few other aspects of our condo being still very much works in progress, albeit manageable ones.

I mention the above purely as an excuse for not having posted for a while and not because I think that you, dear reader, should care one iota where I live or how messy my office is. Still, what the move did bring about was cause for celebration, and you may well wonder with which beverages I did celebrate?

And the answer to that query is threefold. To mark the end of the moving day and the assembly of bed and desk, I trotted out a bottle of Avery duganA IPA, about which I can’t tell you much because I have said beer only to fulfill my duties as part of All About Beer’s “Beer Talk” panel, and it would be unseemly to spill the beans before the issue of the magazine containing the review hits the newsstands. It was certainly the hop blast I was craving, though, and very much appreciated.

The organization of our living room my wife and I toasted with glasses of Vineland Estates 2007 Brut Reserve, a sparkling wine from Ontario’s Niagara region that even the Champagne-o-phile lady in my life can appreciate. And finally, when the main organizational work of the day was done, I kicked back with a martini made of my latest gin obsession, Sipsmith London Dry Gin from London, England. Wonderfully spicy and aromatic, and a prefect blend with a 5:1 ratio of vermouth, this is a bottle I will dearly miss when it empties, as at present it is only available in the U.K.