Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tapped Out/Flat Beer Eats 2

I was recently approached by Victoria's free weekly newspaper Monday Magazine to write a short article about the range of craft beer available in Victoria pubs, liquor stores and restaurants. I asked Dave to help me, as his knowledge of Victoria's scene is deeper than mine. I wrote our findings up, and Monday published our article as part of their "Crafty Brewing" edition dedicated to all things beer (available on stands around Victoria for the rest of this week only!)

It's nice to do a bit of grown-up journalism. For free, admittedly. It's a shame that there isn't too much print media coverage of our beer scene, but as the Editor of Monday Magazine — John Threlfall — explained with sadness, the budget for freelance work has been brutally slashed as part of the struggles all print media producers are suffering.

Regarding the article, our brief was to be, well, brief. So we highlighted 3 pubs and 3 standout liquor stores. There are plenty of other good places we would have liked to have included, many I discovered writing the article. Flavius at Left4Beer kindly pointed me to a galaxy of places I'd overlooked. But our choices are very strong and I stand by them.
Update on that keg of flat Phoenix beer: I made two more dishes with it. First, a beer-boiled prawn curry. I fried garlic and tomatoes, added a good pint of beer, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and fennel, then boiled it down. Marinated the prawns in yogurt, cinnamon and lemon juice, then threw them into the reduction when it was sticky. I added cream, green onions and salt. The rice is boiled in beer too.

Then I worked on the bread recipe. This one is the same as the last, except I used only a 1/3 cup brown sugar this time, two handfuls of cheese, and some rosemary and thyme. This one came out even better than the last one. A bit denser, as expected, but the flavour is more balanced with less sugar. The Phoenix doesn't lend as much flavour as the Buck — so I'd ideally use a darker ale in future, but it still beats water. In the background are two glasses of the British classic Shandy (half-sprite-half-beer). The only way to drink a dead lager.

If anyone wants more precise recipes, ask in the comments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beer Bread Solves Everything

I woke up on the couch at 6 a.m. this morning and immediately had to deal with three sources of anxiety:
1. post-surprise-party hangover
2. England v. Slovenia world cup match
3. two warm, half-full kegs of beer

After a good 5 minutes of misery, I got up and decided to make beer bread for breakfast. Coffee brewed while I made the dough. Then I settled down to watch the match while the sweet smells of baking and coffee calmed my nerves.

I've only ever made beer bread twice before. I googled a few recipes, one of which suggested no raising agent is needed, but my first loaf was a sludgy slab of crap. Second time I used baking powder and a half bottle of stout and I was hooked.

If you haven't made beer bread, you should know that it is one of the best ways to cook with beer. It is simple to make and, unlike a lot of beer cookery, really does showcase the beer itself. Beer bread is usually pretty dense, richly sweet, and has the most powerful yeasty funk. I've never actually used yeast to make it, I'm not sure how that would turn out. Maybe next time. For now, here's the recipe I invented this morning:

3 cups white flour
5 tsp baking powder
12oz warm beer (I used Blue Buck)
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
handful shredded cheddar
pinch chili powder
2 tbsp melted butter

Throw all ingredients except butter into a big-enough bowl and mix roughly with a wooden spoon (it's too sticky for hands). Let sit for a bit while you coat a bread tin with butter. Bake at 375 for 50 mins then check it. Best check is to turn it out of the pan and knock on the bottom of the loaf with your hand. If it sounds hollow, you're good to go. If not, give it another 5-10 mins, but no longer. It doesn't rise like ordinary bread, so you might not get a hollow sound every time.

You can eat it on its own after 10-20 minutes of cooling on a rack. My wife smeared some with cream cheese, which is a good choice as the fresh tartness complements the hearty flavour of the bread very well. I find this recipe to be a touch on the sweet side, and I'd be tempted to use only a 1/3 cup of sugar, but the sugar is needed for the rising so don't skimp too much.

By 9 a.m. I was full, we'd won 1-0, and I had completely forgotten about the hangover. I went to work with a smile, knowing another slab of beer bread was waiting for me at lunchtime. What a comeback.


Note#1 I changed the blog theme because I read that light-on-dark can be difficult and even painful to read. I hope the new look is pleasing. Feel free to comment or suggest improvements.

Note#2 Thanks so much to amazing-wife and friends for coming to the party and bringing some exceptional beers too!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Grassley's Gulf Ale

A unique new beer will be pouring soon in New Orleans and Florida, if Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has his way. He has suggested that beer ingredients may be used to tackle the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, “I think that there’s alternatives to soaking up oil that have not been used yet...There’s a process for making beer — I don’t know if it’s the yeast or what it is in making beer. You can put those microscopic things on oil and they die, and all you’ve got is some methane gas left.”

It's not good form to extract humour from the biggest environmental disaster North America has ever faced. But people like Grassley are hardly making it easy for us. His idea is completely ridiculous. Has noone told him that oils in suspension will completely ruin the head?

However, there is a kernel of brewing science logic in the suggestion. Micro-organisms such as yeast can break down oils in certain conditions, releasing gases such as carbon-dioxide. Oil is mainly hydrocarbon, which is an alternative arrangement of the same elements that form the fermentable sugars in wort.

Of course, putting brewers yeast into the Gulf of Mexico is unlikely to work, but I recommend pouring the entire US reserves of Coors Light, Miller Hi-Life, and Bud Light Lime into the ocean anyway. You know, just in case.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fallacy of "Craft" Status

One of the thousands of questions that Hoptopia tweets every day caught my attention recently. He asked whether Sam Adams should limit production to less than 2m barrels a year to keep their "craft" status. My answer was an off-the-cuff swipe at the label "craft", but I've had time to decide why I really think craft-credentials leave a sour taste.

Other bloggers have made the point that defining "craft" by volume of beer produced is meaningless. That's a dead horse I have no desire to interfere with.

The Brewers Association of America defines craft beer in a little more detail. It must be: a. small (<2m barrels/year), b. independent (at least 75%-owned by brewers themselves), and c. traditional (mostly malt and limited adjuncts). It's a decent set of criteria, made all the more critical because "craft" brewers get tax cuts as well as cache.

"Small" beers are big business in America (worth $7bn in 2009!), so defining the "craft" credential is heavily political. Result: a word that is supposed to distinguish caring producers of beer for whom profit is a secondary consideration, from bottom-line-obsessed factory-brewers, is now ironically a fiscal concept. A brief consideration of how the orange juice industry mangled the terms "pure" and "fresh" tells us that this ends badly.

So why the hell do we need these credentials in the first place?

As with any credential, "craft" is a proxy for trust in the absence of full disclosure. What that crap sentence means is that most of the beers we drink are brewed by people we don't know, who live far away, and for all we know might be evil, evil bastards. How do we know they are using fresh ingredients and sending us their "good stuff"? How do we know we're liking the right drinks?! How can we trust them to play fair?

These questions would keep us up all night if we hadn't come up with the ingenious plan of appointing referees and trusting them to set standards so we don't have to take the effort to do our own research.

Of course, none of this mattered back when beer was made either in your kitchen, by a neighbour, or worst-case scenario in the next village along. Nowadays, we're almost all guilty of an insatiable appetite for new experiences, and of hyping up hard-to-find and exotic beers to the point that locally-available fare can seem, well, a bit tame.

The best and only truly reliable way to know if you're drinking craft beer is to make it yourself, or buy it from a local brewer whose methods you can observe firsthand. Craft describes not only the production process, but also the relationship of the maker to the drinker. As with most relationships, it's a difficult one to maintain faithfully over long-distances...

Of course, your next best option is get in touch with a beer blogger who lives where the beer you want to drink is made. Beer bloggers are intelligent, honest, and absolutely never evil. Now all we need is a Beer Blogger's Association to certify that....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review: Driftwood Belle Royale

Now and again a beer comes along that sticks in your mind. I'm not talking about the great or the godawful: these are simple to file away. It's the weird ones that haunt you.

Startling new flavours, remarkable brews from crappy beermakers, or dreadful stuff from great ones: these beers can nag at you like an itch, as your once–coherent universe of expectations expands and distorts.

Driftwood's Belle Royale has had that effect on me, prompting me to write a rare review.

I admit Driftwood's new(-ish) Belgian cherry ale was always going to make an impression on me. I'm a bit of a Driftwood cheerleader and I was there as they prepared it for release. But six bottles of this impossibly-red nectar later and I still find myself going "damn" every time I drink (and smell) one.

The beer is a triple golden ale brewed with spicy belgian yeast and masses of sour cherries. As you'd expect, it has a pronounced (though not at all wild) sour tang that waters the mouth. The body is reminiscent of dry sherry or retsina, peppered with raunchy yeast and not as sweet as you'd think. The cherries are mostly about zing, but they also lend an underlying cloying richness, and pleasingly "off" blue notes that make the Belle a mysterious pleasure.

Normally a review starts with the smell, but I've saved it for last. The excoriating sour cherry whiff is spot-on, but beneath it comes a powerful corporeal aroma: to my nose carrion-esque and woody, like the open oak door of a crypt. It took me five bottles to identify this — and it's not a delightful comparison — but the precise odour it reminds me of is the meat-processing plant that hits you as your car emerges on the Liverpool side of the Mersey tunnel in England.

This sounds fatally bad, but I should say it in no way prevents me from loving the beer. There's something entirely appropriate about it (and if it's any consolation, others find it to be more akin to altogether-more-pleasant smoked-salmon). It's a massive beer and you should try one while you still can.

In fact, the vampiric pleasure it gives me ensures I'll be hoovering the Victoria stores for the last remaining Belles lurking darkly on the shelf, beckoning to me...

Oh, and as if it couldn't get more creepy, Belle Royale is also completely headless.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I take a lot of photos of Beer. Part of my motivation for blogging was to write some reviews, so I've been careful to document almost every brew with a pic. However, because Dave and Left4Beer already provide such great coverage of BC beers and others beside, I have settled into a different blog-niche:  mainly whingeing and hassling local beer-industry folk for a few word-bites.

Therefore, if digital photos could gather dust, my photo album would resemble the Gobi Desert. 

Taking photographs of beer is a lot harder than it seems. With a bit of practice, anyone can squeeze bottle and glass into the shot, keep things in focus, and whatnot. But there lies half the problem. If your aim is to document the beer (this site is the finest example of this that I know of), you need only master one shot. Getting the photo to look fresh or interesting after hundreds of mug-shots (heh) is much more challenging.

I'm no master. Here are a few of my luckiest beer photographs of recent months. I hope you enjoy them. They are, in order: Brooklyn IPA, Russell's IP'Eh, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Driftwood Belle Royale, Central City Winter Warmer, Phillips Hop Circle, and Phillips Amnesiac Double IPA.

Reader request:

If you live/drink in Victoria, and you would like to recommend a pub or liquor store that you feel has an as-good-as-or-better-selection of local and international beers than the following, please comment. It is for an upcoming article, and your help would be gratefully appreciated.
Pubs: Christie's Carriage House, Spinnaker's Brewpub, The Beagle
Liquor Stores: Hillside Liquor Store, Spinnakers James Bay store, Cook Street Village Liquor Store.
Thanks again kind readers.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Beer and Butter Tarts/Chicken

Smallbeer safely returned from Suds-bury to deliver these important messages.

Thanks to Dave for putting me onto the Beer and Butter Tarts Canadian food and drink blog aggregator. This is a site that lets people find Canadian beer blogs without being a. another beer blogger, or b. members of my own family. Sadly, that's pretty much the extent of most beer-blogs' readership. Or at least crap ones like mine.

However, in return for this plug, Beer and Butter Tarts will aggregate me an audience of millions. I will then sell out, and drink free for the rest of my life thanks to google-ads.

To keep this post vaguely on-topic, I recently prepared a Beer and Butter Chicken pairing. I'm a die-hard curry fan, but not this artsy fare you find in Vancouver restaurants, or the timid, soupy type you seem to get in Victoria. I mean the REAL stuff. You know, like what they make in England...

To satisfy my urge for arterial and facial trauma, I tend to make my own curries. Lots of cream, garlic, handfuls of cilantro, half-the-spice-cupboard, and enough heat to bring an old man to tears.

My wife loves the mythical Chicken Tikka Masala. Pictured here is my version: basically a souped-up butter chicken with heightened spice and fresh tomatoes.

In England, I'd typically pair a Lamb Madras or Prawn Pathia with whatever lager they had at hand. Sheffield curry houses often have Kingfisher on tap, which does the job. But I'd heard that IPAs are a natural curry partner so I put my last Pike's India Pale Ale to use.

The Pike is a modest IPA, liable to get lumped into the "English"* category because it is not as powerful as many of its West Coast counterparts. That said, it has a resinous tang that cuts through the thick curry well. The body is not too full. It has a somewhat clotted-cream-like sweetness. Something more forthright might have stood up to the curry better, but the Pike was still an excellent partner.

SO. Do Canadian beer bloggers and yourselves a favour, and poke around Beer and Butter Tarts when you get the chance — particularly the BC section.

*Can someone suggest a reasonable definition for the "English" style IPA? I find the current tendency to categorize North American IPAs as either English-style (weak hops) and US-style (strong hops), to be a bit throwaway. I'm sure some critics mean something very specific when they say "English-style", but most, I suspect, are just riding the terminological bandwagon. There must be more nuanced distinctions. We should respect them.