Posted by: Scott | March 29, 2010

Beer Basics | The Wit

What can I say about witbiers? Quite a bit, apparently. You might remember the style from my last review, but here’s something you probably don’t remember (because I didn’t mention it): The first beer to push my OMG-I-LOVE-THIS button was a witbier. Gather ’round, folks — it’s story time.

Several years ago, back when I’d only tried cheap, mass-produced lagers like a Corona Light — most of which merely convinced me that some freaky cult had hypnotized humanity into thinking “BEER IS AWESOME” when it was actually an odd, bland beverage and nobody really liked it but rather forced it down to make new friends — anyway, a few years back I sampled an ale named Blue Moon (which, to be fair, is also cheap and mass produced), and that taste changed my life. With one sip my inquisitive side went berserk, and questions poured out. What made this beer unique? How could one taste so different from another? And what in the flying hell was a “witbier” anyway?

Short answer: It’s a Belgian-style wheat ale. During the past decade or two, the style has exploded across North America. But, despite its recent popularity, the wit extends as far back into history as the 1400s, when monks in Belgium’s Brabant region first recorded a recipe for this delicious brew. At some point people started calling the style “wit,” which means “white” in Dutch, because of the pale, cloudy contrast it created among the popular dark beers of the era. Witbiers nearly went extinct after the wars and big-business lagering of the 1900s, but in 1966 a Belgian man named Pierre Celis revived it by starting a little brewery in his hometown east of Brussels. The name of that town? Hoegaarden. And now you know — the rest of the story.

So, Celis resurrected the fabled wit, and now it’s nearly conquered the world. A fortuitous turn of events if you ask me; the witbier boom has introduced thousands to the world of exotic foreign beers (yours truly included). I blame the style’s light, crisp body and unique flavor profile for its comeback. All witbiers have hints of sweet oranges and zesty herbs. But only the best witbiers offer a nuanced blend of citrus, vanilla, and spicy wheat; a golden hue, pale yet vibrant, and mysteriously cloudy; a creamy medium body with a pillowy head; and a dry, sometimes tart finish. When brewed with care and skill, a witbier can defeat even the crispest lager in a contest of refreshment.

OK, I’ve mentioned the word wheat a time or two, so if you’re familiar with wheat beers, you might be wondering about the difference between a wibier and a hefeweizen. Damn good question. Hefeweizen is the name for a German-style wheat beer. It means “wheat with yeast,” which can be a tad misleading, as wheat beers usually employ a ratio of 50:50 wheat to barley. But those familiar hefe flavors — banana, cloves, etc. – are a product of the yeast strain used during fermentation. Witbiers employ different strains but also derive their citric spiciness from adjuncts such as orange peel and coriander. So they both have wheat in ‘em, but aside from that, they’re pretty different. Same goes for the numerous other types of wheat beers. But I don’t have time to get into that.

Instead, I’ll offer my top three favorite witbiers as recommendations. If you encounter any of the following beers, purchase one or more immediately:

Allagash White

St. Bernardus Witbier (Pierre Celis helped develop the recipe for this one!)

Hitachino Nest White Ale

And here’s one to avoid as though it’s got swine flu of the SARS:

Sherwood Forest’s Friar’s Belgian-Style White Ale. Don’t let the B fool you; it tastes like cigarettes.

Before we stop, let’s take a moment to finish the tragic tale of old Pierre Celis, founder of Hoegaarden brewery. In 1985, the original Hoegaarden brewery burned down. The building was uninsured. Celis received a loan from Interbrew (now Anheuser-Busch InBev) to rebuild it, but, after they pressured him to change his recipe, he sold them the brewery and began planning a move to Texas. Although he never actually relocated, he did start Celis Brewery in Austin (his daughter ran it), and for a while they brewed Celis White without any brewing conglomerates offering “suggestions” about ways to “enhance” the beer.

But all things must end: Miller Brewing bought Celis Brewery, ruined it with faulty business practices, and then shut it down and stripped it for scrap. Fortunately, no recipes were harmed; Michigan Brewing Company bought them up in 2002 and now produces Celis beers. Celis himself, 81, is living in Hoegaarden and planning his return to brewing. But, according to Beer-Pages.com, “This time there will be no pacts or deals with big brewers. ‘They’re bankers, not brewers,’ Pierre insists. ‘They buy you out and then they kill you.’” Something to consider next time you reach for a can of Coors.

Thursday: A review of one of the greatest beers on Earth.

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Posted by: Scott | March 26, 2010

Hoegaarden Review

When discussing Belgian-style witbiers with non-beer-nerds, I often bring up Blue Moon as a point of reference. Most recognize it instantly and exhibit a clear negative or positive response. This helps me anticipate how they might feel about something else in the style, such as Belgian’s classic witbier, Hoegaarden, which a bartender within earshot once described as, “What Blue Moon aspires to be.” Just to be clear, neither falls into craft beer territory. Blue Moon is a Coors product, while Anheuser-Busch InBev owns Hoegaarden.

Stats:
Brewery: Hoegaarden Brewery
Style: Witbier
ABV: 4.9%
IBU: 20 or so (not a huge issue here)
Glassware: Pint Glass, Mug
Serving Temp: 40°F
Price Range: $1-$2 per 12 oz. bottle

REVIEW:

Hoegaarden looks a bit flat and dull — as pale and hazy as liquid straw. The foam deflates after a minute or two, but a fizzy film persists at the top. It smells better than it looks. Expect aromas of cloves, coriander, sweet oranges, and spicy Belgian yeast. You’ll want to drink the beer behind that smell.

During the first sip, you’ll find each flavor described above, plus hints of pepper and tart, zesty lemons, but each is slightly blander than its odor implies. Every scent is there in the taste, but they all seem subdued, as if the brewers finished making the first batch (many, many years ago) and said, “this beer’s too damn tasty, throw some water in!” But the resulting light body, medium carbonation, and dry finish make this a refreshing and drinkable brew – not a strain on the palate in the slightest.

I’ll close by impugning the first paragraph’s Blue Moon comparison, as I think these two are almost equal – almost. To be honest, if I’m drinkin’ Belgian white, I prefer a St. Bernardus Witbier or Hitachino Nest White Ale. But those beers cost more. Despite my whining, Hoegaarden is one of the best witbiers you can get for the money. It’s refreshing; it has all the classic flavors, albeit quieter versions of them; and I think it’s a better introduction to the style than Blue Moon. But “good introduction” is the best endorsement I can give it.

Food Pairing:

Hoegaarden is a light-bodied wheat beer, so you’ll want cuisine that doesn’t overpower it. I think it would pair well with a pre-meal salad, so long as the dressing isn’t ranch. After that, I’d go with seafood; for instance, some baked tilapia or any variety of shellfish. Poultry might overpower it, but you could also give that a shot.

Monday: Some basics about the Witbier.

Posted by: Scott | March 22, 2010

Filling up on Beer Terms

If you’ve browsed my Beer Terms page lately (i.e., before I posted this article), you might have noticed that it was starting to fill out nicely but that a few letters were remaining mysteriously empty. I’ve designed this article to fix that – and to make me seem smart, of course, which is why I chose words that sound all historical or sciency.

Filling the page with arbitrarily selected terms might seem pointless, as I had intended to add words when they popped up as relevant parts of articles. But, as it turns out, words like “xylose” and “reinheitsgebot” only pop up once every few centuries when our solar system aligns or when a beer nerd wants to impress someone. Please file this article under category number two.

I decided to put this glorious GIF between the paragraphs instead of next to them to avoid seizure lawsuits.

Let’s start with J. Finding an appropriate word for J was surprisingly difficult. I managed to hunt one down, but it still feels like I’m stretching a bit.

Jeroboam: A curvaceous type of wine bottle that sometimes houses beers as well. Jeroboams are larger than your average beer bottle, ranging in size from 3 to 5 liters. (See? Totally stretching.)

Kräusening: This one’s German, of course. I doubt I could’ve found a more German-sounding word. Look, it even has an umlaut!

Before bottling a beer, brewers will sometimes discover that it’s gone flat. The yeast became inactive (a brewing term that means either “dead as crap” or “in a micro-coma”), and when that happened, they stopped excreting all those delicious byproducts. Kräusening fixes this problem. When a brewer adds kräusen, he or she pours new wort – with active yeast – into a beer that’s ready to bottle, which stimulates continued (or second) fermentation. This will give the beer a more lively, carbonated character and can reduce flavors of diacetyl and acetaldehyde. Lagers require kräusening more often than ales because their colder fermentation temperatures make yeast work slower, which extends the lagering process and gives yeast more time to fall asleep.

Note: Kräusen can also describe foaming during early fermentation.

Nitro: Sometimes a bar will employ phrases like “nitro conditioned” or “on nitro” to sell a beer, particularly a draught stout. Upon seeing this, you might think, “Someone’s ad campaign has gone horribly awry, because that sounds like something that will explode in my mouth.” Don’t worry. Nitro refers to a combo of CO2 and nitrogen that propels the beer from barrel to tap. Nitrogen produces tiny bubbles and gives the beer a smooth, creamy texture. This is why Guinness on draught usually tastes like a burnt creamsicle (and because most American bars serve it way too cold).

Reinheitsgebot: Another German word! You’d think they like beer or something. This Bavarian Purity Law of 1514 states that beer may contain only 4 ingredients: malted grains, hops, yeast, and water. It’s the oldest food purity law on the books, and most German brewers still adhere to it. (It was, however, struck down in 1987 after being labeled an enemy of free trade.)

Underback: Finding a term that starts with U took me into the depths of the human soul, and the best I found was underback. It’s a big tub into which wort is drained from the mash before being moved into another vessel for boiling. You may now disregard this knowledge because I doubt I’ll ever mention it again.

Vintage: The year of a beer’s production. Many beers can age like wine, so some craft breweries have started printing the vintage on the label.

Xylose: A sugar that exists in wort in very small quantities but doesn’t usually affect anything about the beer. I needed an X, all right?

Zymurgy: The chemistry term for the study of fermentation. Also known as zymology. If you brew, you’re a zymurgist! Or a zymologist. I think the latter sounds better.

Thursday: A new review!

Posted by: Scott | March 18, 2010

Fuller’s ESB Review

His hiding spots will get better. I promise.

My first experience with Fuller’s ESB was when a beer buddy, Ryan — who helped with this review – and I sneaked it into a movie and drank it straight from the bottle like a pair of snobby back-row theater-hobos. Not ideal conditions, but a fun memory.

To be honest, Fuller’s ESB intimidates me. It hails from a brewery that’s existed in one form or another for 350 years, and it’s been winning awards since before I was born. What gives me the right to grade it? Well, I displayed a bit of hubris in “renaming” myself Beer Einstein. Might as well run with it.

Stats:
Brewery: Fuller’s
Style: Extra Special Bitter (ESB)
ABV: 5.9%
IBU: 35
Glassware: Pint Glass
Serving Temp: 50°F
Price Range: $2-$3 per 12 oz. bottle

REVIEW:

This time I use a glass. Fuller’s ESB escapes its bottle like a bronze cloud, a haze of rubies with an off-white head. After you pour, you’ll probably feel the urge to mutter, “That’s a gorgeous beer!” (or something less generic, like “Consider me flabbergasted by this pulchritudinous libation!” … or perhaps generic is OK sometimes.)

The smell complements the color. A hard malt edge of cherries, honey, and caramel assaults your sniffer. Its aromas make you yearn to drink it, so I pick the easy road and take a sip. British brewers must love irony, because their “bitters,” even the extra special ones, rarely live up to their name (at least, not by American hop-maniac standards). When making a bitter, brewers usually strive for balance.

So how’s it taste? In one word, smooth. Fuller’s ESB presents a complex, satisfying array of flavors – fruit, caramel, and earthy, roasted malt – but each sits politely next to its brothers, refusing to outshine them or overwhelm the drinker. Don’t misunderstand me; flavors are buried in there, waiting to be excavated. Dark fruit hits right away, and then melts into liquid sugar. Finally it slides into a bitter, earthy finish. It’s a bit like biting into a ripe plum – you can almost feel the rich, juicy flavors rolling down your chin (especially if you’re a sloppy drinker).

I feel as though I should be complaining that no flavors jump out at you, that the beer isn’t bold or complex enough, but this beer’s subtlety is what makes it so damn tasty. It’s a great session ale, perfect for days when you’re in the mood to down an entire six pack. The flavors tempt you to drink all you have as quickly as possible, but the low ABV will preserve your sobriety; the medium body will leave room in your stomach, and the crisp carbonation will maintain the palate.

Enjoyable, accessible, drinkable — these are this ESB’s main draws. A fantastic brew for drinkers of all experience levels. And now, the score (with newly added .25 intervals)!

Food Pairing:

Ah, another something new! To accompany Fuller’s ESB at your dinner table, I would suggest some barbecued pork or chicken, or perhaps a hearty steak with potatoes. The rich yet subtle maltiness of the beer will enhance the meat’s flavors and cleanse the palate.

Thursday: Wait, uh …

Monday: I had planned to provide a brief history of St. Patty’s Day along with an explanation about how the holiday became so entwined with beer. But, as you may have noticed, my posting schedule fell into disarray this week, and come Monday St. Patrick will no longer be relevant. Instead, I’ll be writing about beer terminology!



Posted by: Scott | March 11, 2010

Reader Input Follow-Up

I’m sure you remember my recent Reader Input Day. Or I hope you do, because I just posted it last week, and if you don’t, you might want to take some vitamin B6 or something. Anyway, I gathered some great feedback from the small but sassy group that commented and clicked on the poll. It seems my readers want more depth in my reviews, more information about the science and history of beer, more awe-inspiring photographs, and more, um … Godzilla.

Here you go, you buncha smarty-pantses.

If that photographic wizardry didn’t scratch your Godzilla itch, wait till you read this: The reptilian fiend himself told me that he plans to hide Where’s-Waldo style in all (or at least most) of my future photos/posts. I guarantee he’ll be easier to find than that barber-poll-clad bastard. Not enough? OK, my first successful homebrew recipe will bear the Godzilla moniker. A Japanese-style beer might seem appropriate, but I’m thinkin’ strong ale – something big enough to topple cities, like an imperial stout. I guess we’ll just cross that bridge (and then destroy it in an inexplicable fit of lizard-fury) when we come to it.

On Monday, I’ll unleash phase two in my beer(ein)stein revamp: a more detailed review system, complete with restructured flow and bonus scoring intervals. Which beer am I reviewing? Fuller’s ESB, a British classic.

Monday: I just told you. Back off. (OK, Monday didn’t really work out. It should be up soon.)

Posted by: Scott | March 8, 2010

Fighting Flagships

A flagship is a fleet’s best or most important vessel, so titled because its size, speed, weaponry, or armor surpasses all others in the armada. In the same way, a brewery chooses its flagship beer (or beers) because, for one reason or another, they believe it best represents their brand. You might assume that most flagships are flavorful, but that’s not always true; mild session lagers or accessible amber ales often steal the title.

Fighting Flagships, a new series, will pit three flagship beers against one another. If one sinks, I’ll suggest a superior beverage from that brewery. Let’s start with the most renowned brew of the three.

Fat Tire | New Belgium

New Belgium is one of America’s most popular craft breweries, and Fat Tire is why. Legions adore this amber ale. Beers in this style often feature smooth, mild flavors, which make them a popular choice for flagships.

When you pour Fat Tire, you’ll see an ordinary-looking ale. Clear. Amber. Unremarkable. But a sniff reveals some bold aromas: biscuit, heaps of it, so much that it steamrolls the faint scents of flowers and green vegetation. The taste, despite its mildness, finds an odd balance between a bitter, grainy undercurrent; sweet malt overtones; and that bready onslaught implied by the nose. Some ambers lack distinctive characters, but Fat Tire ain’t one of those; not all of its flavors work for me, but it wears them without repentance, which I admire.

I can understand the nationwide affection for Fat Tire. Its uniqueness and drinkability make it an easy transition into expansive galaxies of craft beer. For me, however, it’s slightly superior to average; something I’d drink (and enjoy) if nothing better were available, but one that I rarely search for. I prefer the brewery’s Abbey Ale or 1554, or perhaps something from their Lips of Faith series.

Racer 5 | Bear Republic

I remember this beer from my second or third date with the India pale ale. After Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA convinced me that the style could actually taste good, Racer 5 launched me deeper into the style.

The bottle fills my glass with bubbly orange liquid. Foam sits in a film on top, releasing aromas of pineapple and grapefruit. On first taste, oily Cascade hops assault the tongue with bittersweet citrus – mostly grapefruit – and then the sweet and bitter separate as Columbus hops break through, letting us glide between the two flavor profiles like skiers in a hop slalom.

Racer 5’s hops don’t destroy for destruction’s sake like some west coast IPAs: Subtle earthy malt enhances and tames the citrus, sharpening each flavor before tapering into a spicy finish. Hops stride back in for a bitter after-bite.

This beer embodies hop-heavy west coast IPAs. Not the best gateway beer — the hops can be a bit overwhelming for newbies — but if you’re looking for a big, boisterous beer to enjoy alongside some oven-roasted salmon or orange chicken, Racer 5 won’t disappoint.

Amber Ale | Bell’s Brewery

Like Fat Tire, this ale looks docile. One smell alters that conception: Someone’s sugar-coated the beer’s smell, dousing it in caramel and mild hoppy sweetness. Intense, but still less brazen than New Belgium’s Husky Wheel.

Textures and flavors wobble between vague malty sweetness, a buttery mouthfeel, and medium carbonation. Hints of liquefied sugar transform into toasted bread and then into tart and grassy hops. Despite these blooming adjectives, Bell’s Amber is low-key and nicely balanced — in fact, it’s too nice.  The flavors crawl instead of leap. You can track them down, or you can kick back and enjoy them all at once.

Is this a flaw? Not if you don’t critique beers all day. I seek beers with intense tastes and smells, but lovers of laid-back brews will probably enjoy this. It’s a solid, average craft beer. I love Bell’s, so I guess I just expected more from them. If you share my weakness for extraordinary flavors, try Hopslam (their double IPA) or one of their many stouts instead.

Thursday: A follow up to Reader Input Day!

Posted by: Scott | March 4, 2010

Reader Input Day!

I’ve often heard that writers should write for themselves and no one else. This is true to an extent — writing from the heart lends authenticity to your work, and if you always write about the subjects you love, it shows in your writing. Without that personal enjoyment, writing becomes work, and let’s face it, work makes us miserable, lonely people, which usually leads to dangling participles, comma splices, and other bogeymen of the English language.

But (and that’s a Sir-Mix-a-Lot-sized but) most writers don’t sneak out in the night with manuscripts tucked under their suede-patched elbows, reading their words in caves by candlelight, laughing merrily and drinking mead, then waiting till morning to stow it away again, somewhere safe, somewhere it can wait patiently to be read again, but only by its owner. No, most writers want to tell a story, and that’s hardly fun if your sole reader is you. Either way, we do care what other people think; otherwise we probably wouldn’t bother with this bloated hydra known as the Internet.

My point in this bizarre tirade is that I want to know what you think. You, my readers, who put up with me whenever you view this blog, can provide better insight than I, because I’ve been putting up with myself for years, and as a result my own input about myself has become somewhat … unstable.

The comments section is now open. Please sound off about what you think could make beer(ein)stein better. To aid you in aiding me, here’s a nifty, easy-to-use poll:

Monday: We’ll see how several flagship craft beers stack up against each other.

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