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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Pairing Good Beer with Good Food: Cheese

Cheese and beer is well-trodden ground for a reason. It works. As a gateway food and beer pairing it’s perfect; grab an armful of different cheeses, throw a few beers in the fridge and an hour or two later you can sit down to your own little pairing experiment. With very little effort, expense or knowledge it’s possible to yield some fantastic results; whilst at the same time there’s sufficient variety and variation to keep the experienced pairer happy too.

It may be far from an original idea, but it’s something I find myself continually returning to.

Beer can compliment cheese by way of either contrast or harmony. Sharp, acidic, tangy cheese demands a beer that will stand up to it; contrasted with anything less than bracing bitterness and punchy hops, the cheese will become too dominant, wrestling the beer to the ground and stealing its lunch money. Equally, adjectives like nutty, sweet, creamy, velvety and buttery can all be used to describe both beer and cheese. Identify characteristics like these in each partner and then bring them together in a harmonious marriage for delicious results.

"Beer can do a lot better [than wine] - it can find such harmony with cheese that you won't know where the beer ends and the cheese begins. Traditional beer and cheese are absolutely perfect together." (Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster's table)

For some it will be easy to dismiss all this as the product of an overactive imagination. The hyperbolic ramblings of a beer lover gone too far; wrapped up in the romance of beer, its history and accessibility, the gross neglect it’s shown as a gastronomic delight. Easy only if that someone is yet to experience the true treat of a perfect beer and food pairing. As Oliver says, when you absolutely nail it, you lose the ability to distinguish between the two component parts; a new flavour is born where one bleeds seamlessly into the other.

Good pairings are easy to come by, apply a little knowledge, make some careful decisions, and you’re pretty likely to get there. You’ll probably wonder what all the fuss is about, but you’ll get there. It’s the great pairings that’re worth chasing though, the ones that take a bit of teasing out, a bit of perfecting over time and a fair slice of luck. These are the ones that don’t come about very often but make it all worth while when they do, revelatory pairings that instantly secure themselves a spot on the favourites list, these are the pairings that Oliver sings about.

Bell's Hopslam is a beer I’ve only ever had once. I had it with Comté, a hard French cheese made with milk only from the Montbeliard cow. The cheese has a wonderful sweetness which is amplified by the honey used to brew Hopslam; the fruity west coast American hops grab hold of the fruitiness in the cheese and a nutty, nutmeg like quality sits aside the grainy, malty, bitter finish to the beer. The words I write here will never do the combination justice, but hopefully they will inspire others to try the pairing.

Another favourite is to pair an English IPA, like White Shield, with traditional English cheddar like Montgomery's. I’ve written about this before; for me it’s an all time classic because it pairs two fantastic English products to achieve a result that’s simple delicious. Many a time I’ve enjoyed an evening meal of torn bread, slabs of strong cheddar and a glass of foamy White Shield. People say that sometimes less is more, and in this instance I definitely agree. A self contained plateful of delicious, comforting nourishment that wouldn’t benefit from any further addition, beautiful simplicity. The natural creamy sweetness of the cheese will compliment the sweet maltyness of the beer. A traditional truckle of aged cheddar will have an earthy, wild, mustard like quality to it; a perfect match for the spicy, peppery, dusty notes associated with English hop varieties like Goldings.

Applewood smoked cheddar is a bulky, boisterous, bruiser of a cheese. Its texture so densely thick and creamy that it leaves a film on the roof of your mouth and across the width of your tongue; that creaminess moves into woody smoke and then a finish that builds into a lingering tang. Like David to Goliath, Meantime Wheat is a beer of complete contrast. Its spritzy, highly carbonated, light-weight little feet come rushing in, they dance all over your mouth, lifting that heavy film, washing it all away. Choc full of fruity banana and clove esters; the beer will soothe the cheese and bring out its hidden sweetness.

In Beer Companion, Michael Jackson describes Orval as having “an earthy, leathery, oily aroma, in which some tasters detect sage, and an intensely dry acidic palate”. It’s the presence of brettanomyces in the bottle however that provides the point of harmony between Orval and a creamy goat’s cheese. The beer with its dirty, horsy, wild notes and the cheese with mousy, musty ripeness; the pair shake hands over funk whilst the acidic dry nature of Orval cuts the creamy, fattiness of the cheese.

So many fantastic combinations waiting to be enjoyed. The cakey, sticky dried fruits and toffee-sweetness of a barley wine will hold hands and walk off into the sunset with tangy, salty, blue-marbled Stilton. How about a berry-sweet and sharp Kriek with a super-creamy Brie or Camembert; or nutty aged Dry Monterey Jack with a luscious, velvety oatmeal stout; or beechwood smoked cheese from Bavaria with a Bamburg Rauchbier or …

For brewers and cheese makers alike, art lies in being able to create a uniquely delicious flavour experience. When pairing beer and cheese, we are given the chance to become the artist, and that flavour experience becomes ours to create. As Garrett Oliver says: “once you get started, you’ll find it difficult to stop. And why should you?”

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tasting Notes

I've been thinking a bit about tasting notes lately. When I first started writing this blog I tried to stay away from them; I find they can be dry, repetitive and not really much fun to read. A few of the round up posts I wrote came pretty close, but I tried to keep it observation and opinion based rather than full on tasting note.

Increasingly I find myself searching out tasting notes for the beers I’m drinking. It’s useful to be able to calibrate your palate against other people. Things you might otherwise have missed can be pointed out, flavours you can’t quite define can be defined and technical reasons behind a specific character in the beer can be made obvious. For me it’s a vital part of growing as a beer drinker, it’s a great way to learn more about the beer you’re drinking and it allows you to better appreciate the subsequent beers you drink. Whilst there may be no substitute for sitting around and sharing a beer with fellow beer lovers; tasting notes on the web do provide a good alternative.

The tasting notes I’ve encountered online are a mixed bunch. An element of variation from one to the next is to be expected, taste is subjective after all, but it’s more a question of accuracy and quality that’s the downfall of some. Tasting something in a beer that nobody else has is one thing, a single line on ratebeer.com that describes a beer as being “sweet, sour, dry and bitter” is something else altogether. (What does that even mean?)

Some of the better resources are referenced at the bottom of this blog entry(1). Quality of content is something they all have in common, but the differences in the way that content is delivered are wide and numerous. Zak Avery accompanies all of his tasting notes with a youtube video, allowing him to be more conversational and emotive with his message. Rob at Hopzine.com has great consistency between beers by providing a structured breakdown of appearance, aroma, taste and overall experience. And Mark Dredge brings a sense of real-time to his tasting notes by blogging them in an As-Live format.

That point around consistency is key for me. I’d like to see a standardised platform on which beers can be rated and reviewed, allowing for the standout differences between one review and the next to be solely about the differences in the beer, not about the review style. A platform that provokes the reviewer into thinking about each part of the beer and allows them to be assessed in turn, limiting the opportunity for short, non-descriptive, inaccurate tasting notes.

Mark Dredge writes (here) about the tasting chart that Badger use on the reverse of all their bottles. Breaking down the beer into bitter, sweet, hoppy, malty and fruity; they introduce the concepts of malt and hops as beer ingredients and rate the intensity of each to give the drinker an idea what to expect. Hand in hand with the taste chart is Cyclops; an independent methodology that aims to demystify beer and make it accessible to the average drinker. Cyclops provides single word tasting notes for appearance, aroma and taste and then rates sweetness and bitterness out of five.

Taking inspiration from these I’ve started to put together a tasting note template for myself. Something to use whenever I review a beer, something that will guide me through the tasting of a beer in a structured and consistent way, allowing me to capture my thoughts for future reference and for anyone that happens to read the review.

My approach breaks a beer down into ten categories. Four of these are key ingredients that make beer: yeast, hops, malt and special grains. The remaining six are generic flavours which apply to most beers. Collectively these ten descriptors will allow an overall profile of almost any beer style to be defined. Each category will be given a rating out of 5 with the results being plotted over a radar chart. The categories will then be used as a guide to write more detailed tasting notes, with justification for the score given also being included.

I hope that this will allow me to write succinct, consistent and comparable tasting notes over a long period of time. They will be accessible to the new beer drinker, interesting to the beer geek and useful as reference point all at the same time.

I plan to develop this over time, so it would be interesting to hear thoughts and opinions. I also want to make it ‘open source’ and available to anyone that wants to use it, so I’ve uploaded the template here and included instructions. Feel free to have a look.

(1) beerreviews.co.uk, pencilandspoon, hopzine, realalereviews, zak avery

Friday, 17 September 2010

Ale of Thanet - Autumn

My latest article for Ale of Thanet is now available here (beginning on page 5).

Ale of Thanet is a free publication produced by the Thanet branch of CAMRA. It's released quarterly around the Thanet area and covers beer and pub news, opinion, local events etc. In this issue I continue the series on seasonal food and beer pairing, this time looking at the best of autumnal food and the beer to drink with it.

What are your favourite autumnal food and beer pairings?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I Hardcore You & Mince Pies

Christmas seems to get earlier every year. My girlfriend has started buying presents and making lists already, people at work are booking time off and my Mum is asking how many to expect for the big dinner. I was in the supermarket at the weekend and they had mince pies for sale, mince pies for sale in September! Madness you’ll agree, but it did trigger a thought in the back of my mind …

I Hardcore You is a collaborative effort between Scottish brewers Brewdog and Danish cuckoo(1) Mikkeller. It’s a blend of two beers (Hardcore IPA and I Beat yoU) that’s been dry hopped once more for luck and bottled as a one off limited edition. Put simply, it’s a whole that’s better than the sum of its parts, and those parts are pretty damn good to start with.

At 9.5 percent it’s a big beer. Incredible sweetness, incredible bitterness, incredible balance. The sweetness greets you with juicy citrus fruits and bucket loads of pine before a bitterness sweeps in and smothers your whole palate. The two work in stunning harmony; duelling it out to achieve dominance but never quite getting there. Despite a slight warming sensation on the way down, I refuse to believe this beer is 9.5 percent ABV, there must’ve been a mistake when it was bottled. Effortlessly quaffable, it drinks almost as well as an American Pale Ale.

Christmas wouldn’t be right without a mince pie. Those in the picture above might be a stock supermarket offering, but just think of them as a preseason friendly, a precursor to the luscious, deep-filled, indulgent little treats that will be on offer nearer the big day. The sticky dried fruit, pith and peel find a perfect partner in the jammy-citrus hops. The sweet, buttery pastry is amplified by the sweetness of the beer until the brutal bitter bite stomps on in and washes everything away. A whole that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Happy New Year?

I Hardcore You can be difficult to find now, I'm sure this pairing would work equally well with a different Double IPA.

(1)A cuckoo brewer is one that uses free space at other breweries rather than brewing from their own dedicated brewery. Sometimes referred to as nomadic brewing.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Crouch Vale Amarillo - As Live Tasting

I'm sitting at home trying to put off the mess of a flat I need to tidy up. I've been writing something for Ale of Thanet over the last few days, so haven't had a chance to blog. This is a unique situation for me, time on my hands, at home, nobody else around. How about having a go at a Dredgian as-live tasting I think to myself ...

12:39 Beer meets glass. It's on the copper side of golden. Head is white, small and loose. Is this too early to be drinking? I've just polished off a bacon roll for breakfast and I don't feel ready for beer.

12:40 I've decided the beer is a bit cold, so I'll let it warm up for a bit.

12:44 Does anyone else check for sediment by putting their eye to the bottle mouth and holding it up to the light like a telescope? Makes me feel like a pirate. Avast me hearties, this bottle be sediment free!

12:48 A little about the beer and brewer. Crouch Vale are based in Essex and have been around since the early 80's. This beer is 5 percent and is described as a "golden premium ale", it uses a load of West Coast American amarillo hops late in the boil to showcase their flavour and aroma.

12:53 Enough waiting. The aroma is predominately malt, some biscuit and cereal perhaps. Behind that lurks some juicy fruits, but they really lurk well. I feel a bit let down. I get some citrus hop coming through but it's way off what I was expecting.

12:56 First impression is that it's quite thin in the mouth. Carbonation is moderate. A very light sweetness moves into a woody, spicy hop character. This develops into citrus fruit and then a bitterness comes in as you swallow. There's a slight dryness in the finish and a tartness that plays off against the citrus hops quite nicely.

13:01 I still can't find the camera! Another quick snap with the iPhone it is.

13:03 There's definitely a grainy quality to this beer too, it comes through towards the end as a biscuity flavour. The hops seem more floral and perfumed now; I'd never guess this was amarillo hops.

13:06 Just checked the loaf of bread I've got proving in the kitchen. Bloody thing is still the same size as when it started! That sour dough starter really knows how to take its time.

13:09 That tartness is becoming a bit too much now. There's a strange meaty, Marmite harshness in the background too. I wonder how long this was on the shelf before I bought it? Unfortunately the bottle doesn't have a bottling date on it.

13:13 I'm not enjoying this anymore. I was expecting a bright, hop forward, pale beer. This is reserved, malty and a little a dull. There, I said it!

13:15 I'll leave this sitting in the glass I think. Maybe it will have improved if I come back to it in a bit.

Judging by other views, either the cask version is far superior or I've just got an old (or bad) bottle. I had high hopes, but the beer didn't really deliver. What are your views on Crouch Vale Amarillo?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Consider cheap macro lager

Inspired by Oliver Thring.

You could argue that people take beer for granted. Saturday afternoons in front of the football, summer BBQ’s or a day at the beach; all occasions on which beer is routinely bought, all too often with little thought, care or consideration. The latest supermarket deal is snapped up, guzzled down and discarded with yesterday’s newspaper. The more I think about macro lager, the harder it becomes to accept it as harmless and innocent.

A hundred shades of yellow, somehow all different but all the same. Fierce, aggressive carbonation, guilt ridden bubbles of gas fighting to escape the liquid and hide their shame. A vacant void where the aroma should be. A flavour noticeable by its absence, instantly recognisable but bereft of any character, depth or distinction. Filtered, pasteurised, killed. A lifeless liquid, the ghost of something once great, it’s haunting of shelf and fridge like a desperate last attempt to be remembered.

How did beer end up like this? How has something, so important to so many, been allowed to degenerate into a shadow of its former self? We’re a nation of beer drinkers and of beer brewers! We’ve a proud history of making some of the best beer in the entire world, but we’re losing sight of that. And for what? To save a few quid at Tesco?

Beer crafted with skill, artistry and consideration is an unbeatable thing. Be it a roasty porter, pithy IPA or zingy summer ale, good beer can deliver a spectrum of flavour as diverse as the wildest imagination. Capable, with ease, of slaking the thirst and hitting the spot that you buy that macro lager for; real beer is a living product that continues to mature, change and develop with time.

Beer is the most important drink in Britain. Whilst it might feel comforting to pick up that familiar brand over and over again, what a shame it would be if nothing else existed. A beer renaissance is happening under our noses, there's never been a better time for you to make that change. Next time time you pick up that slab, think about what you're doing, you're worth more than this.