Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Was Looking for Some Action...

...but all I found were cigarettes and alcohol.

And for many years, this was the only beer pairing I would entertain. Marlboro Lights and Stella, Guinness and rollies. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

But last night was my first conscious attempt to pair a beer with some food. In order to write this blog with some illusion of beer knowledge, I have been reading Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer. It's a great introduction to beer: well-written and broad in scope, opening lots of possibilities for further reading. Mosher is big on food and beer pairings. Having hit that chapter, and seeing as my wife was making seriously delicious Greek lamb steaks, I decided to select a beer so perfectly partnered to it that it would make our own marriage seem trivial.

However, I didn't have time to go to the beer store. In our fridge was a 12 pack sampler of Central City Brewing's great canned beers and a bottle of Phillip's new Dr. Funk Dunkel. Surely I could find something in that lot.

Mosher is actually somewhat vague on pairings. "Match strength with strength" he says, and offers a taste spectrum diagram that suggests beers that will temper or enhance certain food flavours (e.g. malty beers tame curries while hoppy beers make them more aggressive).

The lamb made me scratch my head. Mosher files it under strong flavoured, but ours was seasoned with lemon and oregano and served with a zesty salad. I could see the Central City Red Racer IPA or Winter Warmer murdering that, yet their white beer would just muddle the zest with its own. I began to wish we'd made peanuts and pork scratchings for dinner.

We went for the Dunkel in the end. Not a bad choice. It's a lager so the body is fairly thin, but it lent a chocolate warmth to the meal. Given the choice I'd have picked something sweeter and fuller, perhaps a dubbel or a brown ale. Dr. Funk had a sour side that jarred a tiny bit, but it would have gone beautifully with a Lucky Strike...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: Howe Sound Bailout Bitter

Along with my first review must come a caveat: I generally hate beer reviews. Not that a beer review cannot be as lively and mouth-watering as the beer it references. I'm tainted by the BeerAdvocate experience. BA is an excellent source of opinion and discussion which I refer to daily (I only feel comfortable criticizing a small aspect of BA because it is overall my favourite beer web-resource). And I respect the (superior) experience of most BA members — and their forums show what a wealth of knowledge and passion they have.

But the review system prompts you to choose a score of 1-5 for multiple characteristisc: appearance, smell, taste, mouthfeel, drinkability (ASTMD) — each of which are weighted to give a total mark out of 5 which translates to a final letter grade. Reviewers must also offer a written report of the beer. Multiple choice? Written report? Letter grades? IT'S BEER SCHOOL!

The ASTMD system tends to encourage people to stick to these criteria when describing the beer. This results in mostly boring reviews that go like this:

A: quite lovely, a shimmering orange blossom yellow with amber highlights
S: quite heavenly, a blooming blossom of shimmering suds
T: quite stunning, a caressing highlight of shimmering tastefulness
M: quite sensuous, a blossoming shimmer of caring backrubs
D: not bad

The result is you get a fairly helpful overall grade, which at least helps you to sort promising brews from likely stinkers — unless you are cynical enough to believe that the weight of prior "A"s and "A+"s in any way affects subsequent reviewers' grades ("Oh god I didn't like this beer but Beernut9000 and Hoppywaggle_USA both gave it "A"s, there must be something wrong with my mouth!"). But you have to trawl through crappy report cards until you find a gem of writing that draws on experiences outside the ASTMD spectrum to evaluate the drink.

I have my favourite beer reviewers (some of whom even stick to the ASTMD format — but whose opinions are so astute they mirror my own...), but the reviews that really affect me and get me excited about a beer come from friends, or BAs whose writing and charm convince me to try a beer far more than an esoteric list of "flavour notes" wrung from the cultured tongue of a would-be aficionado. I wish they all had blogs instead...

Shit why would I build up expectations like this then post my own beer review? I have much to learn about blog strategy...

(image from Ruth and Dave's photostream. I have no idea if they ripped it off from someone else, but it's a nice picture)

Now and again a beer comes along that you feel you could settle down with for good. Fill a liter-sized sippy cup with Howe Sound's Bailout Bitter and wheel me off to the retirement home, please.

Gimmicky the label is, but it made me chuckle and buy a bottle out of curiosity's sake. And truth be told I've always been attracted to beers that come in vessels bigger than my head. Though Bailout comes with a Grolsch-esque reusable stopper, I've yet to actually use it - and neither will you.

It pours light for a bitter, but my idea of bitter is forever tainted by the murky-brown pints of John Smith's and Webster's ubiquitous to British pubs in the 90s. Bailout is a frosted, honeyed gold, with a lively effervescence as it slides into the pint glass (hehe - I couldn't resist).

The aroma hits with a fresh blast of yeast and hops, zesty and uncomplicated. Upon raising the glass hints of hefeweizen-style citrus burst under your nose.

The beer is immediately refreshing. It is tartly bitter yet clean, with perfectly judged hops for its modest strength. The body is round enough to be pleasing, yet never bold or committal. Its biggest charm is its ability to enliven at every sip and never grow tiresome.

While not a great beer in the sense of having unmistakable character, this is comfort-brewing at its best. For me, cracking one open is like putting Goodfellas into the DVD player, or opening a worn Bukowski novel. A reliably satisfying experience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Red and Silver Evidence Bomb

That's how Hunter S Thompson describes a warm, open can of Budweiser clutched in Raoul Duke's hand as a cop car pulls him over in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In Zappa's "Titties 'n' Beer" he sings "Just drink a little beer, I said, gimme summa that what yer suckin on..." And of course, there's the best of them all:

rivers and seas of beer
the radio singing love songs
as the phone remains silent
and the walls stand
straight up and down
and beer is all there is.

The point, I suppose, is that there's a beauty about beer. Or at least in people's bittersweet relationship with it.

I've always been a fairly dedicated drinker. In Britain it is deemed sociable, but I move to Canada and it turns out it's a disease. I've worked in several supermarkets and liquor stores (UK: "Off-Licenses"). This has given me the chance to read a lot of labels and fall for the idea that beer is more than just a way to fill moments between conversations in a pub. Great, I thought, I can pass this dependence off as a hobby.

This year, working in a good beer shop in Victoria, BC, I had a chance to meet one or two brewers, drink some unusual and gorgeous beers, and ended up getting into "craft" beer. I found out what a great beer scene we have in the pacific northwest, and began trying some incredible American and European stuff.

Since then I've met people who write with such enthusiasm about this liquid that it stirred my writing pretensions from a lazy hibernation. I've been writing reviews and forum-blathering on BeerAdvocate for months now, but I decided a blog might suit me better.

Of course, all the best poetry about beer has already been written. And I might lose interest in two weeks, and this blog will fester on some server. Until then, these are just my thoughts. And it is just a drink, let's not forget. Not much. Small beer.