Ring in the New Year with Beer

“Here’s to the bright New Year
And a fond farewell to the old;
Here’s to the things that are yet to come
And to the memories that we hold.”

New Year’s Eve is a night for toasts. It’s a night to share with friends and raise a glass of something special to commemorate the old and usher in the new. Traditionally, this glass would be filled with champagne. There is nothing wrong with that. Sparkling, spritzy, crisp, and fruity, champagne is certainly an appropriately festive beverage. But there are several celebratory beers that share those festive attributes with champagne, making them the perfect partner to your New Year’s toast. So why not ring in the New Year with beer?

When talking toasts, two beers come immediately to mind, Deus Brut des Flanders and Eisenbahn Lust. Both of these sparkling beers are brewed and bottled using the méthode Champanoise. After initial fermentation is complete, the beers are re-fermented in the bottle through the addition of yeast and sugar. During this secondary fermentation the bottles are gradually tilted until they are in the upside-down position, a process known as riddling or remuage. This allows the yeast sediment to settle into the neck of the bottle. The next step of the process, dégorgement, involves freezing the bottle neck and then removing the frozen yeast plug. Finally the bottles are topped off with finished beer and corked. This complex and costly process results in beers that are champagne-like in presentation, but all beer in flavor with a crisp, dry finish. Eisenbahn Lust is from Brazilian brewery Cervejaria Sudbrack. Deus Brut des Flanders is from the Belgian Brouwerij Bosteels. Serve these beers a bit colder than you would other craft beers. They are best appreciated from a champagne flute at 36° to 39° F.

Orval, a Trappist beer from the monks at the Abbey Notre-Dame d’Orval in Belgium is another beer that has the festive fizz and dry finish that makes for a great toasting beer. Truly one of the world’s great beers, Orval pours a light orange with a thick, mousse-like white head. Its flavor is a complex blend of fruit, peppery spice, and assertive bitterness. A shot of wild yeast at bottling gives this beer a light leathery barnyard character that really sets it off. Check the date on the bottle. This beer continues to develop with age and older bottles will have more of the funky notes than younger. It’s a matter of taste which one you prefer. I would opt for an older bottle if you can find one.

Beers from the Lambic family of Belgian sour ales can also make delightfully sparkling toasting beers. Lambics are wheat-based, spontaneously fermented brews that feature fruity, cider-like flavors with layers of barnyard funkiness and bright, tart acidity. Fruited versions, usually raspberry or cherry, add additional depth. For great toasting lambics look for Boon Mariage Parfait Gueuze, a deliciously sour blended lambic from Brouwerij Boon. Two lambics worth seeking out from Brasserie Cantillon are Iris, a spritzy, light-amber version made with 100% pale-ale malt and a blend of fresh and aged hops and St. Lamvinus that blends two and three year old lambics with merlot and cabernet-franc grapes. If the funkiness of a traditional lambic is too much for you, the sweetened fruit lambics from Lindemans would make terrific and colorful beers for bringing in the New Year.

My final recommendation for solemnizing the moment of the year’s change is Saison. One characteristic of this Belgian farmhouse style ale is effervescent carbonation and a huge fluffy, white head. It will look great in a champagne flute. My favorite saison is Fantôm Black Label from Brasserie Fantôm. This is a wonderfully complex, fruity beer with a bone-dry finish. Touches of wild yeast funk give it a bit of a festive edge. Another great one that just recently came available is Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7 Saison. Fuller bodied and more fruity than Fantôm, this is a fantastic beer for raising in a toast.

Happy New Year!

Stone in Europe?

San Diego based Stone Brewing Company, known for big, bold American style ales and an edgy marketing strategy that says “you are not worthy” announced today that they are seriously considering the possibility of maybe opening  brewery in Europe. Stone will be sending out requests for proposals to various municipalities in Europe to explore the idea.

Stone to open a Brewery in Europe? from stonebrew on Vimeo.

Solstice d’hiver (Winter Solstice)

Having just called all beer reviews into question, I thought it was time to post another beer review.

Solstice d'hiverSolstice d’hiver (Winter Solstice)
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel!,  St-Jérôme, Quebec, Canada
Style: Barleywine
11 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Aromatics are unexpectedly light. Bready with light toast. A bit yeasty. Faint dark fruits; fig. Light alcohol. Perhaps some hints of chocolate.

Appearance: Dark red amber. A bit murky with floaties (an old bottle?). Very small, off-white head dissipated almost immediately.

Flavor: The light aroma was deceiving. There is a lot going on with the flavor. Burnt sugar and bittersweet chocolate. Fresh dark fruits; dark cherries, plums, wet raisins, and some orange citrus on the tip of my tongue. The bitterness is high, but it balances sweetness of the malt.  Lingering finish of burnt caramel and earthy hops. Loads of fruit and chocolate come through even more clearly as it warms. Slight tartness. Not sour, but fruity tart.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high body. Carbonation is medium-high despite having almost no head. Prickly and bitter.

Overall Impression: A delicious and highly fruity barleywine. The bitterness does a nice job of balancing the malt without going over the top. I wish there had been more to the aroma. Nice complex malt. I like the bittersweet chocolate notes. Not something one finds in barleywines all that often. Although not my favorite of the style, it is a nice beer for sipping on a cold winter’s evening.

The Reliability of Reviews

I write beer reviews. I am not alone in this. The web brimming with beer bloggers writing beer reviews. Some video blogs even invite you to watch the blogger as he/she reviews a beer. The core mission of at least two websites, Ratebeer and Beer Advocate, is to provide space for beer fans of every experience level to write beer reviews. New magazines devoted to beer, on-line and print, are springing up at a rate of a couple every year. These magazines all include beer reviews. Beer reviews are everywhere and anyone and everyone can find a space to state their view. And it’s not just beer. There are at least as many outlets for wine reviews, as well as cheese, restaurant fare, spirits, and just about any other comestible one can imagine. Hundreds of thousands of words are written daily, but how much can you really rely on any of it?

As a disclaimer, let me state that I seldom read other reviewers. For one thing I am so busy generating my own piles of opinions that I have precious little time to peruse the prose of others. I never visit the above mentioned beer rating sites as those visits often become needle-in-the-haystack experiences searching for reviewers with enough beer knowledge to actually know what it is they’re tasting. I’ve read too many reviews in which a beer is slammed for the very qualities that a beer of its style should possess.

And this leads me to my first question about the reliability of reviews. How do you judge the competence of the reviewer? What knowledge does the reviewer have of beer styles? Can they identify common off-flavors in beer? Do they have a sufficient understanding of brewing process and ingredients to accurately assess what they taste, smell, or feel? This is not to say that people shouldn’t say what they think. Indeed, a central focus of my beer tasting events is helping people identify and articulate what they like or don’t like in a particular beer. But if someone is publishing a review, I for one want to know that they know what they are talking about.

One way to judge this is to look for Cicerone™ or BJCP certification. While not a guarantee, accreditation by one of these independent organizations means that the reviewer has demonstrated at least some level of competence through rigorous testing. You could also look for experience working in the beer industry. Is the person the beer buyer at a quality bottle shop, a rep for a beer distributor, or even a brewer? These things are all indicators of competence. But again, they are not guarantees. I have listened to many a distributor rep who clearly knew little about the beers they were pouring. And I know plenty of people with no industry experience who are very qualified to write reviews.

The intention of the reviewer can also call their reliability into question. I know of reviewers on the beer rating sites who systematically praise the product of one brewery while trashing others. Their stated opinions have less to do with the quality of the beers than their own personal agenda. And of course distributor reps want to encourage you to buy their brands, which can make their views something less than objective.

Another reason for my skepticism about the reliability of reviews is that beer tasting, indeed tasting in general, is highly subjective. It is influenced by the physiology of the taster and the context in which the beer is tasted. The human tongue has receptors for five flavors; salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. Every individual tongue is different, with more or fewer receptors for any particular flavor. This creates real, physiological, unalterable differences in an individual’s ability to perceive certain flavors. For instance, I know from testing that I have a very high threshold for the chemical diacetyl. Diacetyl is the source of buttery or butterscotch flavors in beer, seen as a flaw in most styles. For some people, minute traces of diacetyl cause intense negative reactions. But I can’t detect it except in concentrations that one would be unlikely to find in any but the most serious cases of bacterial infection. It is not a failure or lack of experience on my part. It is an actual physiological inability to detect this one particular flavor. We all have such blind spots or special sensitivities. If our ability to perceive flavors differs how can we trust reviews?

The reviewer’s mood further complicates this subjectivity. Was the reviewer in a bad mood when tasting a particular beer? Their impression of that beer is likely to be less favorable than it would be if they were in a celebratory mood. Or perhaps the reviewer was yearning for a hoppy double IPA but drank a malty-sweet Scotch ale instead. I recently ordered a LaTrappe Isid’or in a bar. I gave this beer a glowing review in this blog and still think it an outstanding beer. That night though, it wasn’t the beer I was in the mood for. My review would have read very differently had I written it based on that experience. Unless explicitly stated, you can never know the mood of the writer when the tasting was conducted and the review composed.

The context of the tasting also matters. Was the reviewer with other drinkers whose views may have colored his or her perception? Did the tasting occur in a neutral setting or was the reviewer in a dark, smoky bar surrounded by the smells of stale cigarettes, grilling meat, and fryer grease? That would certainly influence the sensory experience of a beer. For the past couple of years I have judged beers at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. The beers are judged in an open sided tent next to a food court. It’s amazing how many of the beers entered in that competition smell and taste of turkey leg. A recent study showed that lighting has a profound effect on drinkers’ perception of wine flavor, with wines being rated higher in blue or red ambient lighting as opposed to green or white. It is commonly known that food pairings can change the flavor of beer. Was the reviewer eating? Even a previous beer can alter perception of the next. I once followed a glass of Ommegang Rouge, a fruity, sour Flemish ale, with Wet, the fresh-hop beer from Surly Brewing. The tartness of the Rouge diminished the bitterness of the Wet and made its malt base seem like syrup. I later tried Wet with a fresh palate. It was a very different beer. If you aren’t privy to the context of the tasting, how can you judge the reliability of the review?

So what’s the take-away from all of this? Should one stop reading reviews altogether? Goodness no! I intend to keep writing them. I hope that you will keep reading them. I only mean to suggest that given the subjective nature of our sensory perception and our inability to assess the experience of the reviewer or the context in which the review was conducted, one should read reviews as just one person’s perception at a given place and time. Perhaps they are best viewed as guides to point you in the direction of what might be a great beer. What is really important in the end is for you to pay attention to your own perceptions and to articulate what you like or don’t like when tasting beer.

Blogger’s Note: For the information of my readers, I post two types of beer notes. Reviews, found only on the proper Perfect Pint website, are conducted in the most formal way possible with attention to glassware, a neutral setting, and with my full attention given to the beer. Tasting notes, found on the blog, are less formal. I may be drinking beer at a bar with friends. I might be doing a formal tasting. I could even be in my kitchen making dinner.

Another Testament to Pairing Beer and Food

Flying Dog Doggy Style Classic Pale AleIn an earlier post I related a story about the power of good beer and food pairing. When well paired the two really do raise each other up, creating a combination that is better than the sum of its parts. At a beer dinner that I facilitated last night for a corporate Christmas party I witnessed yet another example of this. For the second course we were pouring Flying Dog’s Doggy Style Pale Ale, a classic American Pale Ale with a lightly cracker malt character and explosive citrus/pine flavors and aroma from loads of Cascade hops. It was paired with a warm escarole salad with mustard-sherry vinaigrette, brioche croutons, and crumbled blue cheese expertly created by Chef Philip Dorwart of Create Catering.  As I moved from table to table working the room and discussing beer and food with guests, one particularly outspoken diner had this to say about the pairing. “I hate hoppy beers. But with this salad, this is fucking awesome.”

There you have it. Another straightforward testimony to the power of pairing beer and food.

Two Brothers Brewing Co Profile

Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, Illinois is growing rapidly. Started in 1996 with two donated bulk dairy tanks and a first-year production of 163 barrels, the brewery has expanded into a major regional player with around 20,000 barrels of capacity and current annual production of 12,000 barrels. Owners Jim and Jason Ebel have big things in store, with plans to expand on their already excellent line-up that includes Domaine DuPage, Ebel’s Weiss, Hop Juice, Moaten, and one of my favorite beers Cane & Ebel among many other great beers. A large number of newly purchased oak foudres will be used to develop a new line of sour beers.

Read all about Two Brothers Brewing Co. in the Brewery Profile posted today on the Perfect Pint Website.

Goose Island Christmas Ale 2009

Continuing with the Christmas/Holiday beer theme, I tried the 2009 edition of Christmas Ale from Goose Island Brewing Co. in Chicago. The base style for this beer is an American brown ale. The folks at Goose Island change the recipe slightly each year to make it interesting. Starting this year Goose Island is donating a portion of the profits from this beer to charity. Nice touch for the holiday season. Here’s my notes:

2009 Goose Island Christmas Ale2009 Christmas Ale
Goose Island Brewing Co., Chicago, Illinois
Style: American Brown Ale
Serving Style: 22 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Nutty toffee malt with bright minty and apricot/tangerine hops. Hints of raisin. Smells of English yeast. Light alcohol.

Appearance: Chestnut brown and brilliantly clear. Full, off-white and persistent creamy head.

Flavor: Caramel, toffee, and brown sugar lead off, with toasted bread, nuts, and hints of chocolate rounding out the malt. The bitterness is moderately high, but balanced. Minty/herbal hop flavors. Nice tangerine citrus fruit. Whiffs of ginger spice and of cinnamon. Long lingering finish of bread and fruit.

Mouthfeel: Very drinkable. Medium body and medium carbonation. Slight alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Wow! I really like this beer. Light and tasty, yet warming on a cold and snowy winter’s evening. Nice interplay of malt, hops and fruit. Balanced. Minty hops are cooling like a peppermint stick. Tangerines make this a festive Christmas candy. My burps tasted of tangerine. Nice

Bell’s Christmas Ale

Bell’s Christmas Ale made its debut last season. According to the bottle label it is a Scotch ale brewed with 100% Michigan barley and a blend of Pacific Northwest and Michigan hops. It is one of those “Christmas ales” that is so by virtue of the fact that the brewery calls it one. A pretty straightforward example of the style, there is nothing about it that specifically screams “Christmas.” It’s a fairly tasty beer nonetheless. Here’s my notes:

Bell's Christmas AleChristmas Ale
Bell’s Brewery Inc., Comstock, MI
Style: Scotch Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Caramel malt leads into loads of fruit, cherries, raisins, and figs. A faint whiff of roast. Cola-like. Perhaps a bit copper metallic.

Appearance: Amber/orange with a full, rocky, off-white head that collapsed quickly into a thin film on the surface of the beer. Crystal clear.

Flavor: The flavor very much follows the aroma. Nutty caramel malt dominates with a good deal of cherry and raisin fruitiness. The roast flavor, though still distant, is fuller than in the aroma coming on especially in the finish. The bitterness is higher than expected and there is a nice earthy/spicy hop flavor, though it remains a malt forward beer. It gets better as the initial carbonation settles and the malt character is allowed to come through more fully. Nice herbal and vanilla notes begin to come through as well. Finishes fairly dry with distant roast. The metallic notes from the aroma are there in the flavor as well, but faint.

Mouthfeel: The high level of carbonation gives this beer a carbonic bite that detracts from the rich malty flavors. Better after it has de-gassed a bit. Medium body.

Overall Impression: This beer grew on me as I drank it. It definitely benefited from being allowed to de-gas a bit. Nice caramel malt and fruit character. Even some hints of spice, although the label does not indicate that any were used in the brewing. It’s a nice beer but I think there are better examples of the style to be had. Would go well with warm shepherd’s pie on a cold wintery day like today.