Hungry? Three Beer Cookbooks for Your Kitchen

I had hoped to get this post up before I left for Belgium last week, but unfortunately ran out of time before I was able. Hopefully there are still some of you out there who have yet to complete your beer-associated shopping this year and can still use this info. (After you pick up last year’s World  Atlas of Beer and the new Pocket Beer Guide, of course!)

Following a bit of a lull, there has been a relative explosion in craft beer cookbooks this year, including the three that I found arriving upon my desk this fall. Each has something quite different to offer.

Begin with the Basics: David Ort’s Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook is the sort of book any aspiring cook will appreciate, although I could understand it being seen as a little too simple by those who already know their way around the kitchen quite well. Recipes are mostly pretty rudimentary – from soft pretzels and Welsh rabbit in the “Snacks” section to mains like sausages and lamb shank and desserts such as ice cream and brownies – but are also well organized, prettily photographed and come (mostly) with a suggested beer pairing, to boot. I might have liked to see a bit more about beer included – it is a large part of the title, after all – but in general this is a good pick for beer aficionados with an interest in cooking.

More Advanced: the south-of-the-border yang to Ort’s yin is John Holl’s American Craft Beer Cookbook, and it is a beauty. Here, the recipes all come from beer places, much as they did in my 1997 Stephen Beaumont’s Brewpub Cookbook – take that all you reviewers writing that Holl’s book is the first of its kind! – and there is plenty here to set your mouth to watering, like pan-roasted sweetbreads in a sherry-bacon vinaigrette, cocoa-crusted pork tenderloin and Asian-grilled salmon salad. In fact, leafing through the book for the umpteenth time since I received it, I still cannot find a dish I don’t feel like cooking, which is impressive considering that the thick paperback contains 155 recipes! Like its Canadian counterpart, some dishes contain beer while others don’t, but here only some have beer pairing recommendations, and frankly there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why that is the case or why those specific beers are suggested. But all that said and done, I still find this to be a most appetizing cookbook.

And for a Relaxing Read: Fred Bueltmann’s Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy is a cookbook, yes, but it is also so much more. The New Holland Brewing owner and advocate includes in his self-published work much of what I bemoan as absent in the two above books, including 15 pages on “The Art of Pairing,” multiple sections on beer styles and the seasonal suitablility thereof and even a couple of pages on building your own beer cellar. On the downside, the layout can seem a bit muddled and confused at times, the quality of the photos could have been improved and a tighter edit would have been to the book’s benefit. Still, it’s an entertaining read and Bueltmann’s passion for bringing beer to both the kitchen and the table shines through on every page.

Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection

No, I’m not going to waste your time or mine whinging about the lack of decent beer selection at fine dining restaurants. That situation is improving by the day, at least in major North American cities, and besides, it deserves noting that for every good wine place that lacks a decent beer list, there are probably two or three beer places serving crap wine.

No, my bitch today is about restaurants that decide to dip their proverbial toe into the good beer waters and do so in a way that would, if done in a similar fashion with wine, would earn the place naught but ridicule. Exhibit 1 being the new Seafood Fest menu at Toronto’s Nota Bene, a downtown resto with impeccable food credentials.

Seriously, this place has been awarded accolades like they’re going out of style, as anyone can clearly see on their website: Talk of the Town Award of Excellence; Best New Restaurant; Independent Restaurateurs of the Year; etc. Its wine list features 170 selections, and its back bar is certainly decent enough. And the beer selections for its August long seafood promotion?

  • Stella Artois
  • Hoegaarden
  • Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
  • Goose Island Sophie

If you noted a theme to these picks, you’re right: They all come from the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, by several degrees the largest brewing company in the world. So it’s a fair guess that some money was involved in the crafting of this promotion.

While I give fair dues to AB InBev for putting together a beer deal with such a respected restaurant, I can only shake my head at the lack of judgement at Nota Bene. You don’t have to be a beer expert to understand that, with the lone exception of Sophie, these are all astoundingly ordinary beers. (For non-Canadian readers, Keith’s is not an IPA by any reasonable definition of the term, tasting as it does more like a mainstream lager.) And in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, even Sophie isn’t quite what it used to be back when Goose Island was still independent.

Ten years ago, this might have worked at an upscale Toronto restaurant; people then weren’t terrifically beer-savvy and imported brands still carried a bit of cachet. But today? When the LCBO down the road from Nota Bene is selling Saison Dupont and Renaissance MPA and Founders Centennial IPA and locally-brewed King Vienna Lager? I think not.

To find a parallel, I try to imagine Nota Bene piecing together a month of wine and food pairings featuring Fat Bastard, Little Penguin, Yellow Tail and Fuzion, but somehow that seems rather unlikely. So why, I wonder, do they think they should get a free pass doing the equivalent sort of promo with beer?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps esteemed chef David Lee tasted his way through dozens of beers before deciding that the ideal match for mussels and frites is Stella and the perfect accompaniment for Maritime lobster is Keith’s, in which case I completely withdraw my criticisms and invite Chef Lee around for a beer tasting sometime, so that I might introduce him to some more diverse and interesting flavours. But if not, then Nota Bene has done itself a serious disservice.

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.

Great Toronto Beer Event Fast Approaching

This is an event I try to announce well in advance every year — although I missed the “well in advance” part last year — simply because it’s a first-class, extremely worthy show that not only highlights beer and food pairing, but does so for charity.

It is the Brewer’s Plate.

This year, the Plate is boasting a new benefiting charity, Green Thumbs Growing Kids, which is an award winning organization offering food growing and environmental education programs to inner-city schools and park sites, reaching over 3,000 children each year. The press release for the event boasts that “their school gardens are about kids and their grownups, plants and their people – from all over the world!”

But as much as I always feel warm and fuzzy when I support charitable efforts, the meat and potatoes of this event are the brewers and chefs, and this year the Brewer’s Plate would seem to have a good class on hand. Chefs for this year’s event include: Brad Long, Aaron Joseph Bear Robe, Karen Vas,  Lori Kirk, and my favourite from two years ago, Brook Kavanaugh from La Palette. Brewers include Beau’s, Black Oak, Granite, Steam Whistle, Grand River, Muskoka, Spearhead and numerous others.

The best news, however, is that the Brewer’s Plate has a new home in Roy Thompson Hall, a space I have experienced several times for the Spirit of Toronto. (And will again for that event on May 12!) It’s a great move for the Plate and should alleviate much of the crowding and over-heating that has occurred in years past.

This is not a cheap event, but in my estimation it is one well worth the cost. Visit the website for details and to purchase tickets.

Mistakes in an Authoritative Volume About Beer

No, I’m not talking about The Oxford Companion to Beer. Not this time. Rather, the appearance of this story (thanks to Mixellany Limited for the referral), reminded me of that seminal series of food and drink books from the 1960’s, Time-Life’s Foods of the World. Or more specifically, the Wines and Spirits edition.

Written by Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, and consulted on by Sam Aaron, Alexis Bespaloff and André Gros-Daillon, the book totalled 208 pages, including Glossary, Index and Credits, and featured all of two and one-quarter pages devoted to beer. Not much room in which to make howling mistakes, you might think, but then you would be wrong.

Consider the following, which admittedly echoed (or instigated?) what was thought of in my youth as common knowledge:

In the United States there is also a sweet potation called bock beer. It is made by using the sediment collected from fermenting vats when they are cleaned in the spring of each year. Bock beer is available only at this time, for about six weeks, and it was a good moment in New York in April, 1934 after the repeal of Prohibition to see the newly reopened bars placarded with the slogan “Bock is back.”

Adding commentary here would be gilding the lily, surely, save to note that, by comparison, the misrepresentation of the Imperial pint bottle as a “popular size” in Britain would seem a trifle.

Pubs in the News

The British pub has been in the news a couple of times lately, once for what it’s not, or at least not anymore, and another time for apparently what it is but shouldn’t be.

On the first front, the word “gastropub” has evidently now been exorcised from the vocabulary of the British Good Food Guide. The Independent on Sunday has the details:

But Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide, believes that the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past. “Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to. A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style.

As usual, Martyn was on this story straight off, and his commentator Curmudgeon has, to my mind, hit the nail right on the head:

Perhaps it is more a case of “we are all gastropubs now” and so the term is no longer needed to distinguish some pubs from the general herd. I certainly don’t see any sign of a swing back towards a more drink-focused offer. If anything the pendulum is still very much swinging the other way.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, however you may feel about resto-wannabe pubs and places – real or imagined! – where drinkers are pushed to the side in favour of diners, the last two decades of the gastropub in the U.K. has resulted in an immeasurable rise in the quality of food offered at the average pub, and for those who might occasionally want a bite with their pint, that is an unqualified positive.

The second reference I’ve come across lately is in the usually reliable pages of Simon Difford’s Class Magazine. The latest issue features a “Hall of Shame” posting on pub cocktails:

While some have clearly upped their game in wines (including Geronimo), we still wouldn’t go near cocktails in most pubs. With the exception of a handful of venues, most pub staff we encounter wouldn’t know one end of a shaker from the other, let alone be able to differentiate a Martinez from a Martini. Apart from the attraction of higher cash margins and GP (our two highballs were £6 each), why they even bother is a mystery to us. The wider problem is they don’t exactly sell the whole cocktail concept to consumers making their first steps into mixology.

The commentary concludes thusly:

Pubs should stick to what they’re good at and leave cocktails to the experts.

Now, when I’m in a pub, I’m generally drinking ale, or occasionally a single malt. But I’m partial to a good cocktail now and again and I don’t for the life of me see why pubs should forego offering the option. You don’t have to be a cocktail “expert” to mix a decent martini or Manhattan or daiquiri, any more than you must be a beer expert to pull a decent pint.

What’s needed is not the abandonment of cocktails, but rather the training of bartenders so that they can mix their wares with precision. And so, in my estimation, rather than dissing the obviously lacking efforts of pubs like the Builder’s Arms, Difford and co. should be busy selling mixology training programs to the companies which own them. Then we can all be happy, cocktailian and beerophile together.

Toronto (and GTA) Event Notice

It’s been a bit crazy around World of Beer Central these last couple of months, so much so, in fact, that one of the premier beer events of the year slipped my mind not once, but twice!

Tomorrow will see food and beer converge in one glorious evening as The Brewers Plate takes flight once again, this time in a new location at the Artscape Wychwood barns. I have attended this event the past two years — although I won’t be able to make it tomorrow — and can assure you that it improves annually. Considering that it was pretty damn good in 2010, this year’s should be magnificent. And as a bonus, it’s not only a delectable event, featuring some of the city’s most celebrated chefs and the province’s finest breweries, it’s also for charity.

So if you’re at loose ends tomorrow, click over here and get yourself a ticket or two. You won’t regret it!

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.

When Trends Go Wrong

As I was reading Eddie Huang’s excellent treatise-cum-rant on food trends this morning, I was struck by certain parallels to the beer world. Specifically the craft beer world.

(Pause while you go read the article on Done? Okay, back to business.)

Where Huang writes “razor clams,” substitute ultra-hoppy ales. Where he writes “Mangalitsa pork,” read instead Brett-influenced beers or bourbon barrel-aged monsters.

Get the picture? Huang was not, and I am not, calling for a stop to such cooking/brewing, just a moderation in our seemingly unstoppable enthusiasm for everything that emerges from a brewery with stupefying strength, tongue-numbing bitterness or cheek-puckering tartness. There are brewers who do such things extremely well, the Mario-Batalis-with-razor-clams and April-Bloomfelds-with-Mangalitsa-pork of Huang’s treatise, but not every brewer out there can pull it off first time out the block. These people, in Huang’s words, “take the time to really understand what (they are) trying to do.”

Calm, measured progress, is all I’m saying. Nothing extreme about it…

Trying to Toast Rabbie in NOLA

In the end, it mattered not a single bit that I was unable to find a anywhere boasting haggis in New Orleans on Robbie Burns Day, as something I ate on Monday night left me barely able to complete the two tasks assigned me at the Cheers Beverage Conference, a 1 1/2 hour roundtable discussion on training bar and restaurant staff in the particularities of beer and a one hour tasting of a half-dozen brews that reflect trends in the current beer market. Food in general and haggis in particular were barely on my radar.

I offer thanks, however, to Rob Tod and the crew at Allagash Brewing in Maine for sending along a few extra bottles of new and experimental stuff for me to sample. They will go a long way towards compensating for the suffering I endured yesterday! (Watch this space for tasting notes in the next few days.)

Oh, to be in Toronto on Burns Day

I am very fond of haggis, that wonderful Scottish dish with the terrible reputation, and have eaten it in numerous forms, from the traditional service with neeps and tatties to hors d’oeuvres portions in little pastry cups to, believe it or not, haggis-on-a-stick. But I have not yet enjoyed it in sandwich form.

Which is why I’m a wee bit disappointed to be out of town on Robbie Burns Day next week and unable to don my kilt and stroll down the road for some Haggis Sliders. They’re being served up at the Library Bar of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto, from lunchtime until late night. For those unfamiliar with the beast called haggis, it’s a good way to be introduced without having to commit to an entire plateful. Although if you put all preconceptions and misgivings aside, I’m betting you’ll like it.

Incidentally, Burns Day is Tuesday, January 25. I’ll be searching for some haggis in New Orleans, and likely settling for a dram or two.

Dr. Bill: A Guy Who Gets It!

Bill Sysak, the man universally known in west coast US beer circles as Dr. Bill, has had a bit of a rough ride of late. First, there was that “I am a Craft Beer Drinker” video, which featured Doc rather prominently and was roundly criticized in some quarters for having too many industry-connect people involved. And more recently, there was the interview – conducted “in the middle of festival (with) no follow up for fact checking,” according to Doc – that resulted in this story in Esquire online, which again received criticism in some quarters.

But speaking as someone who has known Doc and shared in his passion for good beer for many years, I can tell you conclusively, definitively that this is a guy who really gets it!

While he may now work for the Stone World Bistro, Doc comes by his aficionado status honestly, having spent thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars over the years on the best beers he could find, only to share his bounty most freely with friends and acquaintances. (Doc’s tasting parties, at his southern California home and at the Falling Rock during GABF week, are nothing less than legendary.) What’s more, there is probably no one in the US outside of the rarefied realm occupied by people like the Homebrew Chef, Sean Paxton, who better understands beer and food pairing.

Doc will be the first one to tell you that partnering beer and food is not at all an imperative, but rather a point of pure hedonism. The idea is not to rationalize the existence of a harsh or otherwise overly assertive beer by pairing it with the mellowing influence of food, as is sometimes the case with wine, but instead to combine two things of delicious beauty to form something even more perfect. In short, it’s about increasing gastronomic pleasure simply for the indulgence of so doing.

Skeptics will assert that people like Doc are trying to “snobify” beer by insisting that it be paired with food, but again, that misses the point. I’ve shared many a beer with Doc when there has been no food anywhere in sight, and others when we’ve been playing around with beer-food flavour harmonies. Both experiences have been as enjoyable as they have been different, with their common currency being the enjoyment and appreciation of what is in our glasses at the time.

And for anyone who truly enjoys beer in all its myriad forms, that should be the bottom line no matter what the circumstances.