On Saturday, Lift Bridge Brewing Company will celebrate the release of The Commander, an English-style barleywine aged in bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hill Distillery. It’s the brewery’s first barleywine, and also the first of what will hopefully be a long string of big-bottle, limited-batch releases.
The beer takes its name from the Commander grain elevator that towers over the city at the edge of the river just south of the lift bridge. The beer is as commanding at the building. At 12.5% ABV, it’s a bruiser of a beer. It’s as big in flavor as it is high in alcohol. Here’s my notes:
Lift Bridge Brewing Company, Stillwater, Minnesota
Style: English Barleywine
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle
Aroma: Poured into a small snifter, the aromas rise boldly from the glass. Bourbon and wood. Toasted oak and vanilla. Toffee. Lightly sweet with hints of golden raisins and alcohol.
Appearance: Clear. Jewel-like, dark-amber color with ruby highlights. The moderate off-white head dissipated fairly quickly into a fine film on the surface.
Flavor: Toffee, Toffee, Toffee! Brown sugar, vanilla, and bourbon work with the toffee to remind me of the Brach’s Chews I used to enjoy at my grandparents’ house, except that these are laced with alcohol. Wisps of orange citrus, oaky tannins, and still those golden raisins. Cardamom gives a unique fruitiness. Bitterness is moderate, just enough to keep it from being too sweet. It’s helped along by the abundant and boozy alcohol. As it warms it takes on tones of gooey caramel.
Mouthfeel: It makes my lips numb after just a couple of sips. Medium-full body, but well attenuated. Assertively warming.
Overall Impression: There is a lot going on in this beer. Toffee, cardamom fruitiness, bourbon, wood, and vanilla. It goes on and on and gets deeper as it warms. It’s delicious, but maybe a bit young. The flavors strike me as not quite melding. The main detractor is the prominent alcohol. It is quite boozy. My whole mouth was numb by the end of the first glass and the alcohol flavor was getting in the way. I think age will treat this one very, very well. The bottle says to drink it before 2020. That seems about right. Drink one now. Bury another one in the cellar and forget about it. It will be a great discovery years down the road.
The release party is happening at the Lift Bridge brewery in Stillwater on Saturday, November 19th from 3-8 pm. You’ll get to sample the beer, buy a bottle (limit 6), and participate in some fun and games while you’re at it. The website says this beer is so limited that it may not be made available in stores. If you want a bottle, best get your butt to the party. You can read more details about the event on the website.
Can I veer into beer and food? You wrote the book that I refer to almost every day, The Brewmaster’s Table. How did you get interested in beer/food pairing to begin with?
Doing it. From day-one when I started doing professional brewing in 1989, the beer dinner was always one of the main ways that you got your beer out in front of people. And as the whole Food Network thing developed and you had chefs being made into rock stars, it kind of occurred to me that at the time that people didn’t necessarily respect craft beer. They didn’t understand it. But people respected chefs and they respected food. So if you tied craft beer to food and people saw how well the beer worked with the food, the kind of glow of respect that the food got shined onto the beer. I think it’s kind of changing these days in that we don’t always need the food to reflect that glow upon us. The beer has its own thing.
Brewmaster’s Table was written from a point of view of not only information, but also pure utility. I’m having pork chops. I’m doing it with this and this. I’m going to have a soft drink, or I’m going to have wine, maybe some people drink cocktails with dinner, or sake or whatever else. But basically most people are going to have a soft drink of some sort, or wine, or beer. So assuming that your choice is beer, beer has a much broader range of pairing ability. Well, what should I do?
And I’d watch people shop for beer and they’d walk up and down the aisles. They clearly didn’t know what was in the bottles and what to do with it. I think the questions that people have are pretty straight-forward. You know, the number one question asked of sommeliers is not, “What is the loam content of the soil in the Loire valley?” They want to know red or white with chicken? What’s the best wine to have with thanksgiving dinner? People want to know basic things. What is it? What does it taste like? Who made it? Why is it interesting? What do I do with it? And then around that you can build something which is interesting and entertaining.
Over the years I’ve done about 700 or 800 beer dinners in over a dozen countries, everywhere from little neighborhood restaurants to some of the most expensive restaurants in the world. Beer belongs at all these places. And we want to demonstrate that beer is an everyday luxury. It’s something that almost everyone can afford. A decent beer will cost you often less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And so really, it sounds grandiose to say it, but every day can be made better than it would have been otherwise.
What makes a great beer/food pairing? What is it about a particular combination that makes you say “wow?”
Well I think beer has a particularly superior ability to do harmony. Wine is largely contrast based. You have steak and you have a glass of cabernet. The flavor of the steak does not actually have anything to do with the flavor of the cabernet. When you’re putting the cabernet with the steak, what you’re essentially doing is putting almost like a fruit sauce on the steak. And that works in a kind of contrasting way. You have caramelization and salt, the flavors that are in the steak, and then you have this opposite flavor from the wine.
In the case of beer, you can do contrast and harmony at the same time. I can bring a roasted flavor or a caramelized flavor that harmonizes with the flavors in the steak, and some bitterness, some sweetness, and some fruitiness to do the contrast part. And that’s what makes what I call the flavor hook, that part of the beer’s flavor that grabs onto part of the food flavor. And so often with the best pairings, the beer is interacting with the food in two or three different ways. It’s doing contrast, and harmony, and various accentuations. You definitely are looking for 1 + 1 = 3. 1 + 1 = 2 is easy. It’s really about getting to that third thing where something is greater than the sum of the parts.
Good beer in general is becoming more and more accepted and popular. The concept of beer and food pairing is becoming accepted. Or to take it even further, beer and food pairing is now being thought about…
What’s happening is that it’s mainstreaming. It’s becoming mainstream. If you looked at 2011’s biggest trends in national restaurant news you will see beer and food pairing. And so something which sounded exotic 10 or 15 years ago is becoming routine. And that’s something that I have been saying. Craft beer is not a trend or a fad, it’s simply a return to normality. We’re like one-third or one-quarter of the way to getting back the level of variety that we used to have going back a hundred years and that we’ve largely forgotten about. We had thousands of breweries and we brewed every kind of beer in the world. And now we’re just kind of regaining all of that stuff. We used to have a fascinating food culture that brought in everybody’s immigrant roots. That kind of got paved over in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Everybody said, “Okay, I want to be an American. I’m going to eat meat and potatoes.” And now everything re-differentiates. You see that in what’s happening in the supermarket. You go to Whole Foods and there’s a whole wall of olive oils. There used to be one olive oil or two olive oils. It’s like everything. As things that used to seem exotic become normal it’s a good thing for everybody. There’s more choice. Now, more choice also means people get waylaid or confused. It’s that thing where you walk in and there are a thousand things to choose from. Well which one do you choose? A little bit of information gives somebody the ability to go in and say, “Okay, I’d like to have that.” Otherwise you’re just looking at a wall of stuff.
That’s what happens to me when I go into the beer store.
At least you’re coming at it from the point that you know almost too much. You look at it and you can see how each one of these might be fun. That’s the other hard thing.
What about pairing beer and cheese?
The tricky thing about beer and cheese tastings is that the cheese in a moving target. You say stilton or something like that, but there’s a pretty wide range of what that cheese might be like. So any kind of information you can get on what kind of condition the cheese is likely to be in that day is helpful. Or if you know that a particular place likes to push their cheeses all the way out to their ripest point or you know that they tend to serve their cheeses fairly young, you can work with that to figure out how your pairing is likely to go.
Also, the funkier they get the harder it can be. So that part is always tricky. I try to ask as many questions as I can and also get my samples as close to the actual date, like if I can get my samples two days before we’re going to do the actual tasting. And I ask if it’s coming from the same wheel and the same place etc. That’s your best shot, because there’s only so much that’s going to change in a couple of days. But if you taste it three weeks beforehand or a month beforehand, well…
And I have my go-to pairings that, when I don’t have information in advance, I know a lot of cheeses pretty well so I can say, “These are the five sets we’re going to start with.” And I try to mix the various types. I would like one goat, at least one sheep, one washed-rind, one blue, and one cooked, firm cheese – cheddar type or usually a gruyere. That’s six. That gives you an opportunity to talk about the differences in milks and how the beers are interacting. Say with a saison or a Belgian witbier, how the beer interacts with the tangy quality that goat cheeses have. So I have favorite pairings when it comes to that.
And there are cheeses that I know are likely to be available even though they are good artisanally-made cheeses. For example, you have Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog. You know you can find it in a good cheese shop. You know you can get it even at Costco sometimes. So a person that has a Whole Foods somewhere near them is going to be able to get it. Then if we need to get more esoteric we can. You can teach people about what is wash-rind cheese. Now, as you have the flourishing of beers with Brett character, you know wash-rind cheeses go great with Brett. So you get a chance to tell these tales together.
When I’m doing events I like to help people figure out what kind of beer they gravitate towards. I focus it around ingredients, malt, hops, yeast. How do you approach this?
I do it somewhat differently in that kind of tasting. Like the cheese, I tend to cover ranges of flavor. I want you to understand the two main kinds of wheat beer, because I think they have great utility. You can drink them with so many different things. I want you to understand pale ales and IPAs. Bitterness. I want you to understand caramelization, roast, yeast character, usually represented by some of the Belgian beers where you have a lot of yeast character. I like to serve something with some vintage character.
So a typical beginners tasting might start off with a Belgian wheat beer, then go to weissbier. Then do a real pilsner and start talking about lagers. An IPA. Some sort of Belgian Abbey ale. Maybe a stout or imperial stout. And then a barleywine. Hopefully in there, if we have room to do it, one lambic so that we can show that end of things. Other variants that you can throw in there are like a saison, etc.
I can say that the one thing I have learned over the years, which should not have been a surprise, but was a big surprise, is never talk down to anybody. I can’t tell you how many times I have served Black Chocolate Stout, a big 10.2% imperial stout, to the little old lady, she’s 82 years old, she’s got a blue rinse, and she’s tasting it and saying, “Well I like this one the most. I’ve been looking for a beer like this for a long time.” And I’m like, “Wait, you have been looking for a beer like this? A 55 IBU, black, blow-your-head-off imperial stout. This is what you’re really into?” She’s like, “I don’t usually drink beer very much. I don’t really like beer. But this stuff is awesome.”
I came to realize that just because somebody came in saying that they don’t even like beer or that they’re a Coors Light drinker, or whatever else, doesn’t mean that you can’t have them walking out of there loving Schlenkerla Rauchbier. You have no idea what they are going to like, and neither do they. Your job when you are doing a tasting is to show them. “Here it comes. This is what you are about to taste. Get ready. And now we’re going to talk about the culture and the flavor and whatever else. And if that one is not for you, great.” But I don’t make the mistake any more of not putting stuff in front of people because I think they can’t handle it. Basically what you find out is that almost everybody can handle almost everything as long as you tell them what they are about to taste. My goal is that I want to go all the way there in a couple of hours. And maybe the end of the tasting will be a J.W. Lees Harvest Ale from 2005. My goal for the tasting is that I want to completely blow your mind. I want you to walk out of the room dazed and confused if you have never really come to beer before, and to walk out saying correctly, “I’ve been missing something. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Here’s the way I like to put it. Every enthusiasm you have, at some point there was a single moment of introduction. It might have been that you love baseball and your uncle took you to your first baseball game. You love jazz because somebody played you your first Miles Davis record. In that one moment, a little door opens up. On the other side of that door is a better life. And that’s a real thing. It’s an absolutely real thing. You will meet those people ten years later and they will tell you what you did for them. “That one day, in two hours, you changed my life.” And that is absolutely real. And that is the thing that we are here to bring to people. My job is to be the guy that opens that door up. And you’ve got to walk through it. That’s a great thing to be able to do. It may not be rocket science or brain surgery. But you know what? It’s at least as important. You’re going to make peoples’ lives better every day. If they love jazz, they can listen to jazz every day for the rest of their live. But if nobody every plays them the record, guess what. You’re not going to hear it. And the rest of your life you don’t get any of that. You lose that. People think we’re just going out slinging beer, but no, it isn’t that. You see how happy it makes people to have enthusiasms for things. To enjoy dinner every day a little bit more, hell, what else do you want?
Garrett Oliver is the Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York. He was introduced to good beer while stage-managing rock bands in England in the 1980s. The unexpected flavors and aromas of British real-ale led this wanna-be filmmaker first to homebrewing and eventually to a flourishing career as a professional brewer. His professional career began in 1989 at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company. He left there in 1994 for his current position at Brooklyn Brewery.
Garrett has been an outspoken advocate for the American craft-brewing industry through his many public talks and media appearances. He has garnered myriad awards for brewing including the 1998 Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation and Excellence in Brewing, pilule granted by the Institute for Brewing Studies and the 2003 Semper Ardens Award for Beer Culture (Denmark). In 2007, thumb Forbes named him one of the top ten tastemakers in the country for wine, beer and spirits. His 2003 book The Brewmaster’s Table has become a classic in the canon of beer literature and a must-read for anyone interested in beer and food pairing.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Garrett for an interview during a recent visit to the Twin Cities to promote the book. I’m publishing the interview in two parts. The first part deals with the Oxford Companion to Beer. The second part, to be published tomorrow, deals with the subject of beer and food pairing.
Part 1: The Oxford Companion to Beer
I have to admit that I don’t yet have my copy of the book.
There are 166 contributors and a lot of them don’t have the book either. The book sold out so fast that they had to pull back all of the contributors’ copies and send them out to paying customers. A couple of days ago was its official publication date and it’s already looking at a fourth printing. I think it kind of goes to show that craft beer in particular has arrived. Even though the book isn’t about craft beer, it’s about all beer, but certainly it is the craft beer enthusiast that is the first to grab onto it.
What was the inspiration for the book?
The originating editor was a craft-beer fan and saw what was going on. He saw the hole, the vacuum for something of this sort. The Oxford Companion to Wine has been out there for many years. And in the United States the craft beer market is bigger than the better wine market. When I say better I mean not a bag-in-box and a finger loop. Something with a cork or at least a screw cap. And even though people seem to be more interested in beer than they are in wine, every newspaper has a wine column. But this book was missing. So that was a strange disparity. We have the works obviously of Michael Jackson. We have a number of other books out there, some of which are quite good, but nothing vaguely like this.
So he came to me and said, “I’d like you to be the editor in chief.” Of course I had the Oxford Companion to Wine. I knew how big it was. My first reaction was, “I am not insane, and I’m not going to take this on.” Turns out of course that I apparently am insane, and I did take it on.
What changed your mind?
I think it’s one of those things where friends and family said, “You have a choice between accepting a certain amount of pain now, or accepting pain later when you realize you should have done it and that it was an honor to be asked. Later on, it will be much later, but later on you’ll regret that you didn’t do this.” I think that they were right, but in the meantime, I had a lot of pretty tough days, as did others, putting this together. It does represent not only an effort by me, but an effort of 166 people in 24 countries to really put together something definitive.
How did you gather the contributors?
There were several ways. The first thing you do is assemble a subject list. There are now 1120 some-odd subjects. There were originally, on my first list, about 600 subjects. I put out a call on the Brewers Association forum asking anybody who would like to see the list and add in some others that they think we should consider, to please do it. And we had dozens of people in the craft brewing community, not just here but in other countries, who would take the list and then fill in some other terms that they thought we should cover. Here and there something would come up that I didn’t even know what it is. I mean a stuykmanden; I didn’t know what a stuykmanden was. So I was like, “Okay. Sounds fascinating. This guy knows what a stuykmanden is and it’s a real thing. So sure, let’s carry it.” Eventually over time we refined a list that appeared to make sense.
Inevitably when you have something of this scope, something is going to be missing. There will definitely be things that are controversial. I got a thing this morning from the UK about some blogger. Apparently he’d just gotten the book and he went directly to the entry for sparkler, which is a term for the widget that you put on the end of a cask faucet, and he was taking issue with my having said that there was still a regional difference about whether people used it or not. He called that a myth. I’m like, I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the south and I’ve seen a lot of them in the north. But what’s fun is that people are so geeked-out that they’re going to go and dig into every corner of this book and be looking at, thinking about, and talking about what we’ve brought about here. And although some things will certainly be controversial, I think what you have here is a lot of what I call earned authority, things that have been dug up through actual research, not just Google it and copy what come up on Wikipedia or something.
There’s a lot in this book. Some of it is really fun to read like the history of ale houses and some of it is, let’s call it super-über-geeky.
I think we had to be not afraid to go there. And you know this as well as I do, a lot of craft beer enthusiasts, in particular and homebrewers, they know their organic chemistry as well as we do. I’ve met three or four people since I got here saying, “I’m loving how much organic chemistry there is in this book.” I’d never even heard the term “O-Chem” before. People are like, “I’m an O-Chem guy.” I’m like, “I’m so sorry.” I drew the line at actual pictures of molecules, but if you want to know how a particular compound ends up in beer, we’re going to tell you.
The nice thing about this kind of format is that if you decide you don’t want to read about pentanedione, you just skip that one and go on to the next entry. But if you do want that, it’s here. So it really is kind of one-stop shopping for all information. Inevitably you are going to cover in a few thousand words something that you could write an entire book about, so like an encyclopedia you have to distill things down. But I think it’s important not to talk down to people. Give them a lot of information, but also not have it be dead on the page. And Oxford itself has a kind of voice. I wanted to make sure that even though I didn’t squish people’s individual voices, that it had the tone of an Oxford book.
Who is the intended audience for this book?
That’s a good question. I think that’s what makes this type of writing interesting and challenging is that you really are writing for everybody; the professional brewer, the beer geek, the amateur brewer, the person working in a restaurant who needs to know the beers well enough to talk to customers, and casual enthusiasts. You know, aunt Jane buys her nephew Bob the book for Christmas because she knows that he has brewed beer a few times and he seems to like beer a lot. In that way it needs to be accessible in its overall style, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of information there.
I think there’s a certain level we were looking to fly at. When it came time to dive into the chemistry or whatever else, we would go there. Basically, what I wanted was, if a professional brewer’s eyes would glaze over it probably wasn’t something that we needed to really get into. But that allows for a lot.
So we’re looking to cover the entire world of beer, and that goes from sours at one end, with Vinnie Cilurzo writing about the cutting edge of what’s going on in sour-beer making, all the way to American mass-market light beer, a piece written by somebody who works for one of the big breweries and knows exactly how these beers are made, basically giving it to you straight. It’s not a polemic. I’m not saying that the book is without points of view, but when you ask, “What is light beer?” the answer is not, “Well you shouldn’t like light beer, why are you asking?” You ask the question, we’re going to answer the question in great detail. And so it’s really different that way.
You obviously know a lot about beer and beer-making. As you were putting this together were there things that you learned?
Oh yeah. I learned tons of stuff. And that was actually one of the motivations for doing it. I kind of said to myself, “Not only is it an honor to do it, but by the time I finish with this process I’ll either be really smart or I’ll be dead.” I came close to the latter. We hope for the former, although we’ll see.
I have no fancy introductory comments to this one. It’s strong. It’s rich. It’s hoppy. It’s doubly bastardish. Here’s my notes: Double Bastard
Stone Brewing Co., San Diego, California
Style: American Strong Ale
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle.
Aroma: Brown sugar and spice. Caramel. Cooling. Grapefruit rind and citrus melding with pine resin.
Appearance: Low, off-white to ivory head that dropped quickly, sustaining only a foamy ring around the edge. Dark amber and clear.
Flavor: Sweet brown-sugar and caramel. Bitterness is high, but so is the malt sweetness. The two nearly balance, with bitterness having only the slightest upper-hand. Citrusy grapefruit and orange peel hops with a faint background of pine tree. Very subtle raisiny, dark-fruit and chocolate flavors. Alcohol is verging on boozy, but stops just short of it.
Mouthfeel: Full body. Moderately-low carbonation. Slightly astringent.
Overall Impression: Certainly a tasty beer, but a one-glass beer for me. On the second glass it started to seem a bit one-note and overbearing. It’s a nice after-dinner beer for a cold Minnesota fall (or winter) night. It’s good to drink now, but the slight booziness and forward bitterness will fade with some age, meaning it should be great to drink next fall or the one after that.
It’s fresh-hop season. Lot’s of these beers out there right now. Hop Trip from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon is one of them. It’s lighter than many, being a pale ale as opposed to the more common IPA. Here’s my notes: Hop Trip
Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon
Style: Wet hop pale ale
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle
Aroma: Peaches, peaches, peaches. Fresh peaches. Caramel and brown sugar underneath. Peach cobbler anyone?
Appearance: Deep copper color and slightly hazy. Good-sized, white head that persists as a thin film on the surface.
Flavor: Those fresh peaches carry over from the aroma and are joined by dreamsicle orange citrus that transforms into grapefruit at it warms. It has a summery feel. Bitterness is moderate, maybe even restrained. There are hints of the vegetal/garlic thing that I often find in fresh hop beers. The malt has a slightly biscuit bent and balances the bitterness. The finish is quick with light, lingering orange and biscuit.
Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation.
Overall Impression: Love the peach flavors that I got from this beer. Generally though, the beer fell a little flat. It was tasty enough, but I wouldn’t necessarily seek it out.