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.

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)    

Books, Books, Books: What to Buy for Whom, Pt. I

This has been a banner year for books on beer and booze, folks, with more and better new releases than I’ve yet witnessed in 23 years of this beverage writing gig. In fact, there are simply too many to review each one, even with my oh-so-clever “Three Bottles and a Book” idea from back in the early summer, or my not-nearly-as-clever “A Big Batch of Beer Books” concept from October.

My newest idea, then? A two part – the second will arrive later on this week – post on which book you should get for different sorts of people on your holiday gift list, beginning with:

The Craft Beer Novice: Joshua Bernstein’s Complete Beer Course is subtitled ”Boot Camp for Beer Geeks,” and an accurate subtitle it is! The style is like sitting down with Josh for a beer or five and having him relate to you all his thoughts and dreams about beer, mixed in with numerous beer reviews, festival recommendations and the occasional interview. It’s nicely illustrated – although there are too many pictures of wheat beers with fruit in them for my taste – and will be appreciated by the aspiring beer aficionado. (Sterling Publishing; $24.95 US/$26.95 Canada) 

The Calagione Acolyte: If you know one of those people who chases ever-more adventurous, outrageous and extreme beers, Adem Tepedelen’s Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers is the one for them. In 208 pages, Tepedelen surveys a wide swath of the high-hops, high-alcohol and high-flavour beer landscape, interspersed with regular “Brewtal” brewery and musician profiles and suggested heavy metal music pairings. (Hey, it is presented by Decibel magazine.) (Lyons Press; $19.95 US/$21.95 Canada)

The Whisky Curious: No, this isn’t a beer book, but Davin De Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky: the Portable Expert is a wonderful stroll through the generally unsung and underappreciated world of its title subject. I became a Canadian whisky convert several years back, following many more years of boredom and frustration when it came to the category, and am pleased to note that De Kergommeaux has done a stand-out job of covering its evolution form “brown flavoured vodka” to something so much more. A terrific study of a now-fast changing subject. (McLelland & Stewart; $22.00 US/$24.99 Canada)

The World Traveller: This is self-serving and self-promotional, but I can’t list the new releases without including one of my own, The Pocket Beer GuidePocket Beer Book 2014 in the U.K. – which I co-authored with Tim Webb and a small army of some of the most talented and savvy beer people in the world. Simply put, this tightly written guide is an expertly curated listing and rating of most of the best beers in the world today. A must for the suitcase of any frequent flier, I would most immodestly suggest. (Sterling Publishing; $14.95 US/$15.95 Canada/£12.99 UK) 

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.

In Which the Stars Align and Mr. McL and I Go Head to Head…

In Which the Stars Allign and Mr. McL and I Go Head to Head…I mentioned earlier an upcoming Toronto event called The Brewer’s Plate. It is an excellent occasion and one I have enjoyed greatly in the past, even when I was wishing the assembled chefs had paid a little more attention to the beers with which their foods were being partnered.

Well, I hear now that not only will this year’s edition be held in the most comfortable confines of Roy Thompson Hall — where, by the by, I shall be again in May with the* Spirit of Toronto — but also that my frequent food and beer pairing foil, Mr. Alan McLeod, shall also be present. Yes, the Good Beer Blog curmudgeon and frequent beer and food sceptic, oft-referred to in these pages as Mr. McL, will be in attendance. At a food and beer pairing event. Will wonders never cease.

I have yet to determine with certainty whether I will be in Toronto or Dallas on April 18, but it’s looking much more like the former than the latter at this point. And if I am in Toronto, rest assured I shall also be at The Brewer’s Plate. And I shall dog Mr. McL’s every step, or alternately stay one step ahead of him, until I hear from his locavore lips an admission that at least one food and beer pairing was to his taste.

* Unfortunately cancelled.

Your Assignment This Weekend – Drink Something Different!

Last night, while chatting with a couple who run a beer and spirits importing business and a whisky sales rep, we found ourselves discussing the curious matter of prejudiced drinkers. No, I don’t mean drunken bigots, but rather that odd breed of individual who swears by one sort of alcoholic beverage to the exclusion of all others.

You know the type, I’m sure. You may even be the type, if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself. They are the people who scorn beer as a plebeian offering, espousing instead the greater glories of fermented grape juice, or complain bitterly about the taste of the big brewery lager they were “forced” to order because the bar had only a slender beer selection on offer.

(This sort of behaviour is rare among spirits aficionados, primarily, I believe, because it’s tough to stick to whisky or gin in all circumstances, although there are those who will dismiss most or even all other spirits in deference to their chosen tipple.)

The oddest part of this behaviour, to me, is the fact that these folk are usually the first to chastise their opposites to their attitudes. “Why can’t restaurants offer me a decent beer?” the self-professed beer lover bemoans, oblivious to the bottles of plonk their wine aficionado friends must endure at their favourite beer bar. Or: “What’s with the fancy beer?” from an oenophile with a cabinet full of $80 a stem wine glasses at home.

In truth, almost all of us are guilty of this attitude to a certain degree, whether it’s dismissing out-of-hand an entire category of drinks – all spirits, perhaps, or lambics or maybe beer cocktails – or swearing that we can’t stomach a certain drink due to an unfortunate teen-years experience. (I have proven several times that the latter is all in the mind, often starting with a cocktail for the individual and then leading them to different flavours in what is usually a spirit category, but always with their full knowledge.) In some cases, it’s simply due to lack of opportunity or access.

In the end, however, drinking is, or should be, all about taste experiences, and so I present you with your challenge for the weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pause at some point to try something new. Not a beer previously unknown to you if you’re a beer aficionado or a new single malt if you’re a whisky geek, but something from an entirely new category. Seek guidance, if you wish, through a specialty bar or a friend with knowledge in a field previously off-limits to you, but approach whatever you pick with an open mind and an unjaded palate, and take your time.

You might just find yourself opening up entirely new and decidedly flavourful horizons.

Well, That Kinda Sucks, Doesn’t It?

To “to woo wine and spirits consumers,” according the Shanken News Daily, Americans are to receive the national roll-out of Blue Moon Vintage Blonde Ale 2012, an 8.5% alcohol wheat beer brewed with chardonnay grape juice, packaged in a 750ml bottle. This comes from Tenth and Blake, the specialty arm of MillerCoors, which is the name under which MolsonCoors operates in the USA (in a joint venture with SABMiller).

Canadians? For the same purpose, we get Coors Light Iced T.

What I Learned from A-B InBev (in a Good Way!)

I spent much of last week in Las Vegas, sampling local beers, visiting beer destinations and other places on the Strip, wandering the aisles of the Nightclub and Bar Show, and finally speaking at the VIBE Conference.

But I didn’t just pontificate at VIBE, I also attended a very interesting seminar of draught beer technology presented by Cian Hickey of Anheuser-Busch InBev. My takeaway from that particular session had little to do with what comes out of the taps, though, and much more to do with how beer behaves in the bottle. Allow me to elaborate.

As a beer educator and aficionado, I am regularly encouraging people to drink from glassware rather than from the bottle or can, usually supporting my position by explaining the role of aroma and appearance in taste. Silly me! Hickey and his A-B InBev co-presenters did a much better job illustrating the superiority of a glass by engaging the audience in one simple little experiment.

Using the premise that it takes about six swallows to drain the beer from a 12 ounce bottle, the A-B crew gave us each a bottle of beer and two cups, inviting us to fill one of the cups with about six or so ounces of beer. We then sampled the beer in its freshest and most drinker-friendly state before replicating the effect of drinking from the bottle by passing the beer between the two cups six times. (The idea being that each time the bottle 0r can is hoisted to the drinker’s lips the beer is re-agitated, perhaps not quite as aggressively as if it were poured from one container to another, but surely a near approximation.) After the sixth transfer, we tasted the beer again, to find that it was now fairly flat and, frankly, kind of gross. Were we drinking from the bottle, that would have been our final impression of the beer’s flavour.

The beauty of this experiment, aside of course from how wonderfully it demonstrates the superiority of drinking from a glass over a bottle or can, is that it can be repeated with any sort of beer at any time. Try it, and I bet you’ll think twice before you drink straight from the bottle again.



Gift Idea #7: Cruising in High Style!

What kind of a self-promoter would I be if I did not include in my gift suggestions at least one item that involves me personally?!  This is for the high rollers out there, or for forwarding to loved ones with deep pockets.

It is the Whiskeys & Beers of the British Isles Cruise I will be hosting in May aboard the ultra-luxurious Silver Whisper.

This will be the finest trip I have ever been a part of, and while it is indeed a little on the pricy side, when you consider that everything is included, from airfare to all meals and all on-board drinks to butler service and 24 hour room service, it starts to resemble something more akin to a bargain. Add in all the tastings and touring and, well, it looks pretty darn tempting to me.

Detains on the cruise line are over here and specifics about the trip are here. Think of it as the best beer and whisky experience you’re ever likely to have, all based in a beautiful boutique hotel that you never have to worry about finding at night in a semi-drunken haze!

Perhaps the Most Interesting Beer I’ve Had a Chance to Sample This Year…

…And getting to taste it has been a fiasco of comic proportions. Allow me to explain.

Earlier this year, the heritage park destination in northern Toronto, Black Creek Pioneer Village, announced plans to brew a literal “one-mile beer,” which is to say an ale brewed entirely from ingredients grown within a mile of the brewing site. This was to be a true estate beer, with the barley grown, harvested and threshed on-site – although malted elsewhere – and the hops grown and kilned also on-site. Adding to the allure of the ale, the brewing methods used are ones which emulate those used in the 19th century.

And they did it, too! In late September, I received word that the oh-so-very-cool project was going ahead, and in early November, a press release arrive announcing that the beer would be soon available, although in very limited quantities of about 35 two-litre growlers.

Being brutally busy at the time, I asked if there might be some way to try the beer without having to make the trek north, and was informed that they would generously set aside one of the growlers for me. Thereafter began the comedy.

First, there was some miscommunication regarding whether or not I would be able to pick up the beer, which I was not. Then, right after the brewery’s p.r. people offered to drop it off at my office, I left the country for first Amsterdam, then San Diego and New Orleans. When finally I had it delivered, I was in the midst of a rather brutal cold that was debilitating my taste buds. More delays.

So now, after much ado, I finally get to sample this fascinating ale today. While I’m concerned about the lengthy time it has spent in a growler, I take heart in the fact that it has been held in near-constant refrigerated conditions.

First, the basics. The beer is fashioned as a simple brown ale, according to brewer Ed Koren (pictured above), the kind of ale that “pioneers would have drank to quench their thirst.” The alcohol content is 3.5% by volume.

There is little sound when I open the growler and almost no apparent carbonation, which does give me some cause for concern. Checking the brewer’s tasting notes, however, I see that it never did have much in the way of carbonation, so perhaps all is well.

It’s a muddy brown colour with a strong yeastiness on the nose, sort of like a light rye bread or mild-mannered pumpernickel. Red apple notes are also present, along with hints of over-cooked toffee.

The body is as light as its strength would have one expect, which is to say mild but not at all watery. Without carbonation to fill the mouth, the maltiness of the beer comes to the fore with more breadiness, some light toasted walnut notes, a slight fruitiness – which interestingly fades as the beer grows warmer – and roasted and burnt grain flavours. The hops show themselves only in the second half and finish, primarily as drying rather than bittering entities, although with a slightly piney-grassy bitterness on the finish, along with a lingering yeasty tang.

Is this a great beer? No, I’m afraid it is not. Is it a great and laudable project? Absolutely, and one which yielded an altogether quaffable ale, to boot. Congratulations to both Ed Koren and those with the foresight to back him in this endeavor! I look forward to your next one-miler.

Will Work for Beer in Wisconsin?

This is, admittedly, a rather cheesy way to get together a free workforce, but in southern Ontario people voluntarily get out of bed in the wee hours to harvest frozen grapes destined for  icewine — all for the experience and a bottle of the nectar-like liquid — so why not bribe hop-pickers with beer, says I?

Simple Earth Hops in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, is hosting a hop harvest party on Saturday, August 20, from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Included in your hop picking adventure is hop education, hopyard tours and a sampling of local beers, followed by a community potluck at the end of it all.

Details and registration info is available over here. It might be a hot and sweaty way to spend a Saturday, but it will almost certainly also be a unique experience.

Housekeeping & the Great Disconnect

First, the housekeeping. I haven’t been posting much during March and I don’t expect that situation to change much in April. Or May, for that matter. This has to do with a bunch of projects that all converge over the next sixty days or so, including the new book I’m co-writing with Tim Webb, a consulting job to develop a new bar-restaurant on the Toronto waterfront and a number of events I’ll be hosting, like the whisky tasting I have coming up April 7 at the Monk’s Table — call (416) 920-7037 for info and tickets — and the Great South Beer Cup in Buenos Aires.

So while I will do my best to keep things interesting in this space, I can promise nothing. Sorry.

Now, the Great Disconnect. Like many other beer scribes, I recently attended the remarkably large — almost 4,000 attendees strong! — Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco last week. And like most if not all of my peers, I was amazed at the energy and enthusiasm on display there. This craft beer thing, in case you haven’t noticed, is red hot.

One of the things I felt to be of particular note, however, is the gap that is developing between the committed beerophile and the average, ordinary beer drinker. Take sour beers, for instance. At what must have been one of the most popular seminars of the event, a standing room only crowd crammed a large ballroom to hear Vinnie Cilurzo, Jean Van Roy and Yvan De Baets talk about what have become known as “sour beers,” or in other words, beers affected by certain yeasts and bacteria, notably Brettanomyces, which contribute a tart and often fruity flavour. Sour beers, in case you haven’t noticed, are the latest craze in US craft beer circles.

Thing is, while sour sells in craft beer land, most restaurateurs, bar managers and patrons will look at you askance, to say the least, when you start talking about sour beers. To them, sour means bad, and bad ain’t good. (I know this because I do a lot of work with the hospitality industry in the United States.) Hell, for the most part, they’re still trying to get their heads around hoppy!

Now, I’m not saying this is a bad situation or something the craft brewing industry needs to rein in. Craft beer has always been led by styles and flavours the general public doesn’t understand, from the cascade hop to fruit beers, and whether it’s sour beer trends or the barrel aging of beer, I see no reason to stop now. But as we craft beer consumers continue to get all hot and bothered over the latest sour this or tart that, and more brewers join the stampede to acidified fermentation, it’s probably wise to bear in mind that the public, that great morass of drinkers trailing our leading edge, are still largely wondering what in hell we’re talking about.