Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Beer Yields Christmas Cheer

Back in early December I attended Joe Sixpack's "Ho Ho Holiday Beer's" class at Tria Fermentation School.

The All Things Considered episode came out yesterday. You can read a little blurb, and listen to it on their website here.

It's only 4 min 37 sec. I won't spoil it for you with my thoughts...but, I will say it left me wanting a much longer segment. I wanted a This American Life length act; 20 minutes or so would have been good. I imagined a whole craft beer story revolving around Philly Beer week in my head...

I will, however, post my own version of Top 10 Christmas Beers, and go head-to-head with Joe Sixpack. In no particular order...

1. De Dolle Stille Nacht
2. Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza
3. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
4. Gouden Carolus Noel
5. Brasserie Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux
6. De Struise Tsjeeses
7. AleSmith YuleSmith
8. Delerium Noel
9. St. Feullien Christmas
10. Samichlaus (Anything older than 2008)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beer Geek's Winter Dream

Tuesday night I was lucky enough to attend Tria Fermentation School's class with Matthias Neidhart of B. United International Importers. We all have Matthias to thank for importing some of our most favorite beers from De Dolle Brouwers, Hanssens, Brasserie La Rulles, Brouwerij De Regenboog, J.W. Lees, Hitachino, and many others.

The class was truly a beer geek's winter dream. Often all we beer geeks want when we go out is to sample one beer we've never had, just one. This class provided us with eight in one evening. (Going out on a limb here to say we've all had Schneider Weisse and Schneider Aventinus) The remaining eight beers are impossible to purchase in PA.

1. Piccolo Birrificio Chiostro (Liguria, Italy)

Brewed with pilsner malt, wheat malt, rye malt, Trappiste yeast, Hallertauer hops and absinthe leaves and flowers (added to the brewkettle), this beer is light, fruity and mild at 5% ABV. An herbal nose hints at the wormwood, but beyond that, it was unnoticeable.

Matthias is a big fan of the "beer renaissance" occurring in Italy and loves to bring these crazy brews over.

2. Wintercoat Vildmosesøl (Sabro, Denmark)

Made with peat-smoked malt, spicy bog myrtle and rowan berries, this beer is definitely smokey. Matthias noted that Wintercoat brewery has been criticized by beer geeks the world over for not being extreme enough; the brewery contends that they don't want to be extreme. To me, the smokey, juniper, vanilla and bitter roasted chocolate notes certainly make this beer far from ordinary.

3. Hanssens Artisanal Cassis (Dworp, Belgium)

I don't have a picture for this beer because it was an unlabeled bottle. However, the bright red wire cage gave it away for me. I have to confess, I love sour lambics and gueuzes; in a word, funk. Apparently, Matthias told Hanssens that he wanted a natural black currant lambic. And so, they produced 15 cases this past February. It is insanely delicious, very much on par with Hanssen's Kriek and Gueuze. Not too sour, but just right.

4. Almond '22 Torbata (Abruzzo, Italy)

From a brewery 50 miles due east of Rome, this barleywine is brewed with barley malt (5% peat smoked), chestnut honey, organic orange peel, organic can sugar, and Kent Golding hops. This isn't the American barleywine, or for that matter, the English barleywine, you're used to drinking. The smokiness wins out, hiding the 8.7% ABV, and giving this beer a Scotch whiskey flavor. After this class, I'll certainly be able to identify peat smoked malt.

5. Biffificio Del Ducato Krampus (Emilia-Romagna, Italy)

Brewed with star anise, this beer is reminiscent of many spicy winter beers. The idea behind this beer is perhaps more interesting than the beer itself. In the Alpine regions the Krampus is depicted as an incubus accompanying Saint Nicholas. On the evening of December 5th (Saint Nicholas eve), young men would dress up as the Krampus and roam the streets frightening small children with rusty chains and bells.

6. Bøgedal Bryghus No. 127 (Vejle, Denmark)

This brewery numbers each 50 case batch, making the odds of finding that particularly beer again nearly impossible. I often pass over this beer because of it's price point, running $30 a bottle retail. Called a dark ale brewed with Northern Brewer hops, orange and brown sugar, this beer is deep with notes of burnt coffee, espresso, orange zest and dark chocolate.

7. Dansk Mjød Old Danish Braggot (Billund, Denmark)

This beer was by far the most interesting of the night. A beermead! Genius! It would make Sam Calagione proud. Based upon an 18th century recipe, it's a blend of Old Danish Beer and Gl Dansk Mead. Apparently, the Vikings drank a similar brew at festive occasions as a special treat for kings.

8. Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien Grand Cru (Saignel
égier, Switzerland)

Also an unmarked bottle, this beer was made at the request of Matthias. Saint Bon-Chien, named after the late brewery cat Bon-Chien, has a 10 or 11 barrel blending system. Matthias wanted a single cask brew; thus, they made a Pinot Noir version and a Bourbon barrel version. Brewed in May 2007 and bottled in September 2008, we sampled the Pinot Noir experiment. No surprise, this uncarbonated beer was mildly sour with fantastic red wine tannins.

The class also involved some surprise treats. Matthias brought his new Schneider and Aventinus Chutneys (not yet available to the public) to be paired with each beer, respectively. In helping to create the recipes, he decided that he wanted some of each beer in the chutneys.

Mid-class, Matthias reached into his briefcase for some German criollo Chocolate to be paired with the Bøgedal Bryghus No. 127. We learned that criollo is the rarest and most expensive cocoa on the market. After searching for it online (since he said we can't find it), I eventually found the website for Heinemann Chocolatier, and guess what? There IS an English page, with Flash of course. And, if you're as obsessed with chocolate as I am, they ship to the US.

While I wouldn't mind becoming a brewer, or owning a beer bar, after this class, I'm convinced that being an importer is the way to go. All I have to do is learn French, German, Italian, Spanish...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Brunch with Paul Goerg

This past Sunday I enjoyed an impromptu brunch at a lovely French café near not so lovely Conshohocken. The chance to catch brunch at Spring Mill Cafe seemed like a good enough reason to open a bottle champagne. This quaint 30 year-old BYO café, serving mainly French Provincial cuisine, has a charm that is hard to match in the Philadelphia area. The knickknacks, pastels and Tiffany lamps make it an absolute escapist dining experience.

Purchased at Total Wine in Delaware this past summer, I had been looking forward to this bottle of Champagne for quite some time. This Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs NV is 100% Chardonnay sourced from Premier Cru vineyards in the Cotes Des Blancs.

At $34.99 a bottle, I've been told that it is the cheapest Champagne, from Champagne, available in PA right now. Back in July, I was determined to buy some real Champagne and not pay too much. I wanted toasted brioche, and I didn't quite get it. It had honey sweetness up front and through the mid-palate. The finish, however, was dry and refreshing with notes of stone-fruit, apricot, peach and a touch of pear.

Now, onto the food. My lovely dining companion and I always make a point of sampling as many items as possible. We chose Pumpkin Curry soup (I've have an obsession with making and tasting curry in the past two months), the Salmon Plate (sometimes I just really want smoked salmon, okay?), French Toast à la Michéle, Quiche de Chef (bacon and onion), and B'stilla Marocaine. Ten minutes later, we told that they were not serving B'stilla Marocaine, and that we were lucky, "The smoked salmon had just walked in the door."

I'm incredibly torn as to how to comment on service, or whether or not to comment at all. As a server/bartender myself, I am particular beyond belief when it comes to service. My standards when going out are rather high, but in general, I will be okay if you don't entirely detract from my experience. I don't need you to add anything, if you do, that's a bonus; if you don't, that's fine too, you'll still get 20%. Honestly, unless I see you spit in my food, I will still tip 20%. They are making a living just like me. Maybe they should do something else...but, anyway...

It may turn out that I comment about service gaffes only. For example, telling me that "the salmon just walked in the door" at eleven am on a Sunday suggests that you bought it at the closest supermarket, as most food distributors aren't delivering on Sunday. When you tell me you're not serving an item ten minutes after I order it, I think you're just not paying attention AT ALL.

[End service rant.]

The food itself, was nothing spectacular. I enjoyed my pumpkin curry soup with fennel oil. The smoked salmon was exactly what I had been craving (so what if it probably came from the grocery store?), the addition of crème fraîche and caviar was delightful. The quiche, with real home-made crust, was perfectly eggy, bacony and flaky. The french toast, however, was inedible. Reminiscent of a raspberry and cream filled doughnut from Dunkin Donuts, covered in more raspberry sauce and more cream, I wasn't very interested in eating overly sugary fancy french toast.

In the end, I still love Spring Mill Café. It's relaxing, quiet, adorable and a complete escape from your daily life.

TJ's 5 Year Anniversary

Saturday night I stopped by TJ's 5 year anniversary party. It was the usual beer event crowd: beer geeks and the girlfriends they bring along. (Okay, yes, some of them are there for the beer too.) I frequent TJ's fairly often; one can't always go to Teresa's Next Door, right? I enjoy TJ's because I can still get something to eat late, and find a decent beer to go with it.

TJ's had been building their "as advertised" draft list for the anniversary throughout the week. I may or may not have had something to do with Allagash Curieux and Allagash Musette kicking before the party started...

Regardless, the list was impressive. I enjoyed a Sly Fox TJ's 5 year anniversary British Pale Ale on the hand pump. Very delicious, mild, and well-balanced, with a nice amount of hops: a great session beer. I attempted to order a De Struise Tsjeesus, but it kicked on my pour.

In lieu of Tsjeesus, I had a De Struise Black Albert. At one point in time, rather recently, Black Albert was very nearly the holy grail of beers for beer geeks. This 13% ABV Russian Imperial Stout was brewed exclusively for Ebeneezer's Pub in Lovell, ME. To get just a 2 oz taste of it at Ebeneezer's you almost need a secret password.

Following the advice of Beer Advocate, I was lucky enough to get a sample of this unlisted beer in July. It was a murky, brackish and chunky pour, from what I considered a rather old keg.

The bottle product, however, was delicious, and very similar, minus the stale factor. It pours silky black with a taupe head. It's medium-full bodied with flavors of roasted espresso and bittersweet chocolate and just a touch of that classic De Struise funk.

All in all, this beer made bearing the anniversary crowd worth it.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ho Ho Holiday Beers

Tuesday night the locally, and nationally, famous beer writer Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack) taught a class on holiday beers at Tria's Fermentation School.

As he led us through 8 holiday beers, he touched upon various topics in his new book Wishing You A Very Merry Christmas Beer. I haven't quite finished browsing this book, but so far it seems to be a good reference for Christmas, I mean, the more marketable term holiday beers.

The highlights of the class are likely to show up in a segment on NPR's All Things Considered. They followed him to the happy hour at Tria before the class, and taped the entire class. If you hear a really nice pour soundbite, that was me. It'll be interesting to see how they piece it together; NPR wasn't giving up their angle. I'm especially curious to see how it turns out, as the interviewer seemed to have only recently learned a bit about beer. I talked to her after the class when she was tasting all of the beers she had just heard about for an hour and a half.

Speaking of's the line-up:
  1. Anchor Brewing Company Christmas Ale 2008 (San Francisco, CA)
  2. Brasserie Dupont Avec Les Bon Voeux (Tourpes-Leuze, Belgium)
  3. Mikkeller Santa's Little Helper 2008 (Lochristi-Hijfte, Belgium)
  4. Sly Fox Christmas Ale 2008 (Royersford, PA)
  5. Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale 2008 (Tadcaster, England)
  6. Tröeg's Mad Elf (Harrisburg, PA)
  7. De Struise Tsjeeses (Woesten-Vleteren, Belgium)
  8. Castle Brewery Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier 2008 (Eggenberg, Austria)
Highlights were Mikkeller Santa's Little Helper and De Struise Tsjeeses. I also have a growing appreciation for Dupont's Avec Les Bon Voeux. I certainly overlooked it last year in favor of other Belgian holiday beers like Gouden Carolus Noël and Corsendonk Christmas.

Sly Fox Christmas wins the award for beer I'd most like to have some holiday food with; rife with notes of clove, allspice, nutmeg, pumpkin and cinnamon, it would be awesome with a delicious seasonal dessert.

Perhaps the factoid of the night: St. Nicholas is the patron saint of brewers, lawyers and prostitutes. Funny how that makes sense.

Next Tuesday:
Importer Matthias Neidhart of B.United International will lead a class at Tria on rare winter beers.