A Thought on Pairing Beer and Cheese

A while back I was pitching a beer and cheese pairing class at a local cooking school. The person I was pitching to was clearly a wine connoisseur and somewhat protective of the wine/cheese relationship. She challenged my intentionally provocative assertion that beer is a better pairing with cheese than wine. She highly doubted that this could be the case. While that debate was carried on in fun, medicine it did get me thinking. Here’s my take on it.

What is cheese? It starts as grass. This grass is broken down into simple sugars by an enzymatic process. The resulting product (milk) is fermented with various naturally occurring microflora to create cheese. What is beer? It starts as barley (a grass) that is broken down into simple sugars through enzymatic processes. The resulting product (wort) is then fermented by various naturally occurring microflora to create beer.

Beer and cheese are kindred souls. Why wouldn’t they go well together?

Surly Darkness 2009

For those who don’t know, Darkness is the limited release Imperial Stout from Surly Brewing Company in the Twin Cities. It is one of those beers that has acquired cult status in the beer geek world, inspiring people to line up more than 800 deep at the brewery on the day of its release, an event known as Darkness Day, in the hopes of being one of the lucky ones who get to purchase a six-pack of 22 oz. bottles. It’s a beer world phenomenon that I have never understood, but whatever.

I have tried Darkness every year that it has been released and have never really been a fan, a heresy around these parts. Imperial stouts are not my favorite beer style to begin with, and Darkness has tended to be bigger and thicker than most, in other words more of what I don’t like about the style. But every year I get myself into a bar where this cult-ish elixir is on tap to give it a try. You really can’t be a beer connoisseur in Minnesota and not do so. This year I was pleasantly surprised. While in the past I have either not been overly fond or needed the entire pour for the beer to start grow on me, this year’s iteration was delightful from the first sip. Here’s my notes:

Surly Darkness 2009Darkness 2009
Surly Brewing Company, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: Draft

Aroma: Rich roasted malt and sweetness with assertive pine resin hops. Dried fruits underneath.

Appearance: Pitch black with a creamy and persistent tan head.

Flavor: Huge chocolaty roasted malt, but smooth, not a bit of the acrid, burnt, or bitter flavors that can come with this much roast. Nice dark fruits. The beer has ample sweetness but is well balanced by assertive bitterness and minty/piney hop flavors. A high level of attenuation dries the beer out, leaving it remarkably drinkable. Alcohol is apparent, but not excessive.

Mouthfeel: Thick, velvety, and creamy, but not heavy. Very drinkable. Save for the alcohol, one could drink a few of these. Carbonation medium-low. Nice warming alcohol.

Overall Impression: This was a lovely beer. Not as viscous and heavy as previous years. Rich malt is well balanced by the bitterness. Resinous and minty hop flavors are a nice complement to the chocolate. Well attenuated. I have had my annual taste of darkness. I may just need to have another one this year.

Autumnal Ales Recap

Continuing on the fall beer kick, medicine the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club met on Friday night to enjoy some of the best beers that autumn has to offer. Eleven of us gathered at the home of club member Loren to sit by the fireplace and sample nine great brews, check including a good number of local and regional selections.

Furthermore Fallen AppleThe night began with Fallen Apple, viagra the quintessential autumn offering from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Light and refreshing, but surprisingly high in alcohol, this tasty, tart, cider/beer blend was loved by all in attendance. One member reported that while she didn’t like cider, Fallen Apple tasted enough like beer to overcome that. It was one of her favorites for the night.

Next up was Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery, another regional brew from Wisconsin. Capital specializes in German style lager beers. Wisconsin Amber is a smooth, balanced Vienna style lager. The sweet, toasty malt is dominant, but is well balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp lager finish. A couple of the more beer-knowledgeable members commented that they had always passed this beer up with the thought, “Wisconsin Amber…how interesting could that be?” They won’t be passing it up any more. Wisconsin Amber was the second favorite beer of the night overall.

From there we went for another essential autumn beer, pumpkin ale. We had two examples to sample and compare, Ichabod from Michigan’sDogfish Head Punkin Ale New Holland Brewing Company and Punkin’ from Dogfish Head in Delaware (thanks Stephanie). Ichabod is a session pumpkin beer, more beery than pumpkin, with rich caramel malt and nutty butterscotch flavors supporting subdued pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice. The offering from Dogfish Head is more intense. Higher alcohol, full-bodied caramel malt, and an explosion of pumpkin and spice make this a more interesting beer overall, but one that you may not want to drink more than one. Both were tasty. In the end it comes down to whether you want a nice session beer or a high-intensity pumpkin experience.

The KaiserFor Oktoberfest, we dispensed with the traditional and went for the tweaked. The first of these was Surlyfest from Surly Brewing. Surlyfest has the toasty, caramel heart of a traditional Oktoberfest cranked up with spicy rye malt and higher levels of hopping for a sharply bitter/spicy bite. This was another crowd favorite, which was a surprise to some who did not expect to enjoy a bitter Surly brew. The other Oktoberfest was The Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. This 9.3% ABV bruiser of a beer received a mixed reception. While some liked the intensely sweet malt, others found it offensively boozy and perhaps a bit overly sweet.

You can’t talk about fall beers without a wet-hop IPA. For this, I selected Harvest Ale from Founders Brewing. Unfortunately I selected and purchased this beer for the event before trying it. You can read my review below. While a couple members enjoyed it, most did not. The general consensus was that “this was not so much a hoppy beer as straight-up unsweetened grapefruit juice.” Even the usual hopheads among us had difficulty with this one. It was the only beer to remain untouched during the “free-for-all” following the formal tasting.

The remaining two beers were Autumnal Fire from Capital Brewery and Chestnut Hill from the local Lift Bridge Brewing. Capital calls Autumnal FireAutumnal Fire a “doppelbock based on an Oktoberfest personality.” I have no idea what they mean by this, but the beer makes a mighty fine doppelbock in my view. It’s a smooth and malty brew with a bit of alcohol warmth and loads of raisiny dark fruit flavors. Some felt the raisin was a bit too intense. Others liked it precisely because of the intense raisin flavors. Lift Bridge’s Chestnut Hill was the nearly unanimous favorite of the night. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five picks, Chestnut Hill is brown ale for those who think that brown ale is synonymous with boring. Packed with toasty, nutty, caramel malt, balancing spicy/herbal hop flavor and bitterness, and just a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon spice, this is one delicious brew. It’s only available on tap and the supply is running out. You will need to get it soon if you want to get it at all…unless the Lift Bridge guys can be convinced to make more.

If you want more information about the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club go here and request to become a member.

Founders Harvest Ale 2009

As a follow-up to my last two posts about autumn beers I offer these tasting notes for one of the beers mentioned in part one, Founders Harvest Ale. Let me preface this by saying that I have absolutely loved everything I have tried from Founders Brewing. I frequently pour their Centennial IPA and Porter for clients at Perfect Pint tasting events. (Sigh…) I knew they couldn’t be perfect. Here’s my notes:

Founders Harvest AleHarvest Ale 2009
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan
Style: Wet-hop IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Bright citrus hop character. Luscious, succulent fruit, orange, grapefruit, pineapple, and apricot. Massively fruity. Some grainy sweetness lurking around underneath. Bold aromas, but delicate at the same time. Clear, crisp, and bright.

Appearance: Dark golden and crystal clear. Fluffy white persistent head that Leaves some lace on the glass.

Flavor: If only it tasted like it smells. A hard hitting slap of bitterness up front, gives way to a mouth-puckering, astringent middle and a dry, throat-burning finish. Hop flavors are grassy and resemble grapefruit rind more than fruit. This grapefruit rind flavor lingers long after the swallow. Fresh hay mixed with grapefruit pith. The malt is thin and watery, not nearly enough to support this level of hopping. Some…any…residual sugar would be welcome. What malt is there is lightly sweet with just the faintest hint of toast.

Mouthfeel: Light body and thin. Astringent. Medium to medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: I could have smelled and looked at this beer all night. Unfortunately it got in my mouth. If you are a real hophead this could be the beer for you, as there is little else there. Hop tea would be an apt description. I talk a lot about balance in beer. This brutal brew will have none of it. The grassy, astringent hops have beaten the feeble malt into submission.

Autumn Beers Part II

Although the temperature lingers in the twenties this morning, the sun is shining and the weather report says it should be more autumn-like by the weekend. With that assurance I continue my review of fall beers.

Furthermore Fallen AppleBefore moving away from specialty beers I should mention one other that exists in a place of its own. Fallen Apple from Furthermore Beer in Spring Green, Wisconsin is a limited batch fall beer brewed at the height of the apple harvest. For this beer brewer Aran Madden makes a specially formulated recipe reminiscent of a cream ale. This is combined in the fermenter with fresh pressed apple cider delivered to the brewery from an orchard nearby. The two are fermented together to create a beverage that I have compared to Apple Jolly Rancher™ infused champagne. Light and effervescent, Fallen Apple’s flavor begins as a lightly corny and moderately bitter ale. Somewhere mid-palate it explodes into a bright, tart cider/beer blend that is perfect for those warm, early fall days. It is so light and refreshing that you completely forget about the nearly 7% ABV until you feel the buzz from your first glass.

Although not a fall specialty, American Amber Ale is another beer style that is perfectly suited to autumn. American Amber is basically an Ruch River Unforgiven AmberAmerican pale ale with amped up caramel malt character. While still assertively bitter and with plenty of hop flavor and aroma, the increased maltiness makes for a richer, sweeter beer. West Coast versions, like Rocket Red from Bear Republic, can be intensely bitter while those from the Midwest and East are generally more subdued. There are a couple of very nice local and regional examples of Amber Ale available in the Twin Cities. Rush River Unforgiven Amber is a pub standby for me. Slightly cloudy from dry-hopping, Unforgiven Amber has a smooth, rich caramel malt profile balanced by abundant citrus and pine hops. Another good local choice is Mesabi Red from Duluth’s Lake Superior Brewing Company. Mesabi Red is a bit more intense than Unforgiven, with a bigger malt profile that includes biscuit notes with hints of roast, and bitterness that is correspondingly higher. A couple of great examples from further away are Bell’s Amber and Anderson Valley Boont Amber. You can find the Bell’s in Minnesota. For the Anderson Valley you will have to travel to Wisconsin. I believe you can also find the afore mentioned Bear Republic Rocket Red in Wisconsin.

Bell's Best Brown AleOne step further down the beer color wheel and no less brilliant for fall is Brown Ale. A darker and more toasty/roasty cousin of the American Amber, American Brown ales tend to balance toward the malt with rich caramel flavors and light notes of roast and chocolate. The slant toward malt does not, however, mean that hops aren’t prominent. Most American Browns still feature assertive bitterness and ample hop flavors, favoring earthy and resinous varieties over bright citrusy. These are smooth, easy-drinking beers with enough toastiness to take the edge off the chill air. The best local example is Chestnut Hill from Lift Bridge Brewery. One of my Autumn Brew Review top five, Chestnut Hill has a complex malt profile with nutty notes of toast, roast, and caramel. The malt is balanced by spicy hops, and a wisp of cinnamon in the background adds character. At 7% ABV it provides nice fall warmth but is still light enough to have a couple. Also in this category is Surly Bender. More assertive and bitter, it retains the smooth Brown Ale character with notes of toast, cocoa, coffee and caramel. The addition of oats gives it a rich, velvety mouthfeel. It is my favorite beer from Surly. A regional favorite of mine is Bell’s Best Brown. A slightly sweeter and less complex session brown, Best Brown still has plenty of roasty, toasty malt goodness for an autumn night around the fire pit. The English browns tend to be sweeter and subtler in character than their American cousins. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale is an example that should not be forgotten.

You can’t talk about the beers of fall without mentioning Oktoberfest/Märzen. Originally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Germany, these rich caramel lagers were stored cold in caves over the hot summer, to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Full flavored caramel malt dominates, but is balanced by spicy German hops and a crisp, dry lager finish. My favorite here is Ayinger Oktoberfest/Märzen, but there are several authentic German examples available. Closer to home try the examples from Bell’s or Schell’s. Surly‘s Surlyfest is an interesting and tasty Americanized fest beer. The Oktoberfest caramel base is recognizable, but the addition of spicy rye malt and ample American hops make it a thing all its own. It is definitely worth seeking out. Other contenders for fall lagers include the amber Vienna Lager style and the full bodied Doppelbock. To sample great Vienna Lagers look for Schell’s Firebrick or Capital Wisconsin Amber. For Doppelbock you can’t go wrong with Paulaner Salvator or Celebrator Doppelbock from Ayinger. For a regional fall Doppelbock pick up a sixpack of Capital Brewery’s Autumnal Fire. Full bodied and warming, this beer is chock full of luscious caramel malt and raisiny goodness.

Autumn Beers Part I

View from my office on October 12th.It seems strange to be writing about autumn beers when the temperature is in the twenties and there are two inches of wet, sales heavy snow on the ground. At this very moment the snow continues to fall. But autumn it is! It’s only mid October, buy cialis and while the trees on the west bank of the Mississippi River near my home have turned bright hues of orange and red, ailment most of the trees are still sporting green leaves. We haven’t yet set the clocks back for the fall, an act that dooms those of us in the North Country to early afternoon darkness until spring. “It’s autumn, damn it!” I keep repeating to myself. “I didn’t miss my window. It isn’t too late to enjoy the great beers of fall.”

Autumn is an in-between time. There is a chill in the air, but it hasn’t yet turned brutally cold.Fall Color on the Mississippi The days are getting shorter, but it is still light at 4:00 PM. The leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, but the trees are not yet the gray skeletons that they become in the winter. Most of the time fall is a beautiful season, the season of harvest. So what makes a beer appropriate for fall? Well, slightly higher alcohol for one thing, just enough to take the edge off the chill air. A little color would be welcome, amber, red, orange, and brown to match the colors of the season. A bit of spice is always nice and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fall harvest, be it of hops or pumpkins.

Fall is a great time for special seasonal releases including wet hop beers and pumpkin ales. Hops are harvested in the fall. The bulk of the hops harvested in the world are dried and pressed onto bales or processed even further into pellets that resemble rabbit food. The majority of beers produced in the world use these dried and processed hops. However, during the harvest season many craft brewers take advantage of the opportunity to brew with fresh, unprocessed hops. For these beers, huge quantities of “wet” hop cones are added to the beer often within hours or even minutes of picking. Now I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the wet hop beers. In most cases I don’t feel that the use of fresh hops adds any significantly different character to the already hoppy American pale ales. What it does sometimes add is vegetal or grassy notes that I don’t find altogether pleasant. That said, these beers are immensely popular at this time of year so you should try a few examples and make up your own mind.

Fresh HopsThere are several locally brewed examples of wet hop beers to choose from. Surly Wet is available on tap right now in several locations. I found this to be a one-dimensional beer with a muddy hop character and excessive bitterness. While you are greeted with a beautiful, bright, citrusy hop punch at the beginning, the bitterness just hangs on in a way that is oddly mouth-coating and throat-burning. The somewhat sticky malt in the background is not quite enough to balance. One of the things that I love about Surly beers is the articulation of flavors. Each flavor seems to stand apart while working together with the others to make a delightful whole. I missed this articulation of flavors in Wet. The boys at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater are releasing their Harvestör Ale at the Happy Gnome on October 25th. Harvestör is brewed with hops grown in Lift Bridge’s own hop garden. I haven’t tried this year’s batch, but my notes from last year indicate a big American IPA with somewhat sweet caramel malt, bright citrus hop flavor, and assertive bitterness. Brau Brothers Brewing from down in Lucan, MN also brews fresh-hop beers using their own hops, this year including a Fresh-hop Lager. Town Hall Brewpub in Minneapolis will be releasing their Fresh-hop 2009 tonight (October 12th).

If you want to try some non-local fresh hop beers there are many to choose from. Founders Brewing from Michigan recently released their Harvest Ale, available in four-packs at better liquor stores. Another regional example is the Heavy Handed IPA from Two Brothers Brewery outside of Chicago. Sierra Nevada releases a line of fresh hop beers every year including the Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale with hops from South America and this year’s Estate Ale, brewed with hops and barley grown on the brewery’s own land.

The other big fall seasonal beer is pumpkin ale. While I may not be a fan of the wet hop beers, I do love the pumpkin ales. Not some extreme invention of American craft brewers, pumpkin ale has been around at least since the early days of colonial America when thirsty colonists, lacking barley which is not native to the eastern US, needed an alternative source of sugar for making beer. Pumpkin beers are usually amber-colored ales with generous amounts of caramel malt, relatively low levels of hop bitterness and flavor, and aromatic pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. The best of them will display at least some character from the squash, although some are more pumpkin pie spice beers than actual pumpkin beers.

I have made it a mission to discover the essential pumpkin ale. My favorite is Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. This 9% Southern Tier PumkingABV desert-in-a-bottle is rich and smooth with notes of buttered rum and cloves. The pumpkin fruit comes through loud and clear, complemented by overtones of hazelnut. If you can find this one, snatch it up. But good luck, it arrived on store shelves in mid September and sold out within days. There may still be a few bottles lurking around out there if you make some calls. My two other favorites are both Midwestern offerings that are not available in Minnesota. O’Fallon Brewing located outside of St. Louis and the St. Louis Brewing Company, who’s beer sells under the brand name Schlafly both make outstanding pumpkin beers. The O’Fallon offering is a low alcohol pumpkin session beer with surprising levels of great pumpkin and spice character. The Schlafly beer is bigger and richer with more caramel sweetness and alcohol warmth. For a locally brewed example look for Mummy Train from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. While I found this beer to be a bit over spiced, it does have nice pumpkin flavor and caramel malt. Mummy Train is only available on draft or in growlers purchased from the brewery.

La Trappe Isid’or

The monks at the O.L.V. Koningshoeven Abbey have been brewing beer since 1884. It is one of seven Trappist breweries in the world. The deignation “Trappist” is trademark protected. To earn the designation the beer produced by a monastery must be produced on monastery grounds under the direct supervision of the monks, and a significant portion of the proceeds must be directed toward cheritable acts. The La Trappe brewery lost the “Trappist” designation in 1999 when production was contracted to Bavaria Brewery in Germany.While the beer was still brewed on monestary grounds, the International Trappist Association found the arrangement with Bavaria to be too commercial. In 2005 the monks assumed greater control over the day to day operation of the brewery and regained the right to use the Trappist designation.

Isid’or was brewed as a special beer to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the La Trappe brewery. It is named after Isidorus Laaber, the first brewmaster. The proceeds from the sale of the beer go to support monks in Uganda. The Koningshoeven website describes the beer as “a lightly sweet amber beer with a hint of caramel…[that] tastes softly bitter and has a fruity aftertaste.” It is hopped with Perle hops grown at the monastery. Here’s my notes:

La Trappe Isid'orIsid’or
Bierbrouwerij de Koningshoeven B.V., Tillburg, Netherlands
Style: Belgian Specialty Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Spicy hops dominate. Caramel, toffee, and sugary cotton candy. Traces of alcohol.

Appearance: Deep amber and a bit hazy. The large, creamy, white head persists and leaves lace.

Flavor: From the start to the lingering finish caramel is king. Caramel and toffee flavor, but not overly sweet. The sweetness is cut by medium-high bitterness and a balancing spicy hop flavor. Belgian yeast provides banana and cotton candy notes along with loads of fruit, citrus, cherries, and raisins. A lovely caramel lingers long after the swallow. Light alcohol in the finish but pleasant, not hot or solvent.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Rich and smooth. Medium-high carbonation that lightens it up.

Overall Impression: Isid’or has all the richness of flavor of a big Belgian ale in a highly drinkable, lower alcohol beer. One could drink a couple of these. I love the finish. The caramel flavors linger and linger.

Goose Island Sofie

Saison is a beer style without bounds. While all styles will show some variability from beer to beer and brewer to brewer, there is so much variation among saisons that the determination of a style can become almost meaningless. The colors range from pale yellow to dark orange. Some display intense, yeast-derived fruitiness, while others veer toward a spicy, phenolic yeast character. Some have a wild yeast funk while others do not. This one finishes bone dry, but that one is sweet and sugary. It is truly a style that is hard to pin down.

Sofie from Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. is one of the more delicate saisons I have tasted. A blend of 80% fresh beer and 20% wine barrel aged beer fermented with wild yeast, it is a complex but subtle dance of velvety malt, dainty fruits, and tart acidity. Here’s my notes:

Goose Island SofieSophie
Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, Illinois
Style: Saison
Serving Style: 650 ml Bottle

Aroma: Delicate and subdued. Light wine-like fruit and leathery funk. Bready malt with the signature Belgian saison yeast character.

Appearance: Pale yellow and clear. Fluffy white head with average retention. It maintained film on surface and left lace on the glass.

Flavor: Flavors are as delicate as the aroma. Pineapple, apple, and lemon citrus fruitiness. A light acidic tartness that comes through especially in the finish. Acidity and fruit reminds me of Lemondrops. Very subtle white wine character. The velvety, bready malt is balanced by black pepper hops and moderate bitterness. Belgian saison yeast phenolics. It finishes dry with lingering acidity.

Mouthfeel: Velvety and smooth. Light body, but with rich malt character. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: A delicate, subtle beer. Nicely done. The light, bright fruitiness is amplified by lingering tart acidity. Wild yeast may come through more strongly with some age, but right now the refreshing tartness is the only sign. And that’s okay. Would go well with brie cheese or a lighter white fish.

Autumnal Ales

The October Meeting of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club.

Atumnal AlesWhen: Friday, mind October 23, 2009
Cost: $25
You must be a member of the club to attend. Go to the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club to join and RSVP.

Fall is finally here. The crispness in the wind signals change. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are turning, and there is a chill in the air. It’s time for the beers we’re drinking to change as well. It’s time to leave the refreshing summer beers behind. Enough of the lightweight wheat ales. Cancel the kölsch. Forget about the fluffy, fruity beers.

But fall is an in-between time. The air is chill, yes, but the bitter cold of winter has not yet set in. Daylight hours are decreasing, but it is still light at 4:00 pm. The same holds true for autumnal ales. It isn’t yet time for sipping barleywine by the fire. Imperial stout may still be too heavy and the spiced holiday beers haven’t yet been released. Fall is a time for in-between beers, beers with some color to match the trees and just enough alcohol warming to tame the wind’s bite.

For this meetup we’ll delve into the beers of autumn. We’ll taste toasty browns, aromatic ambers, and authentic (and maybe not so authentic) Oktoberfests. We might even sample a spicy seasonal specialty. Pumpkin anyone?