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Father's Office SignIn the LA scene of clubs and cocktails, Father’s Office in Santa Monica is a welcome oasis for excellent beers and one great burger. Hiding behind a 1950’s facade of an “old man” bar, a bright modern interior of blonde wood is lined with gleaming silver taps from some of the finest craft breweries in the West: AleSmith, Anderson, Lagunitas, Rogue, Russian River and Stone are among the standouts collected here. For a visitor from the East Coast, this was a “pint of gold” at the west end of the rainbow.

We ordered a couple of burgers from the bar, along with an order of sweet potato fries. The fries arrive first in a miniture metal shopping cart just as we snag a coveted table. A slightly crisp exterior with just enough salt gives way to an almost custard-like middle of sweet potato goodness. Hands down, these are the most perfectly prepared fries of any kind I have ever found in a bar.

The burgers arrive shortly after. While the fries are marvels of simplicity, the burgers have layers of complexity one does not expect from “pub grub”. Topped with tiny tender fresh spinach leaves, carmelized onions, and crumbled blue cheese, the smokey bacon-infused patty of medium rare beef acheives both meldings and contrasts of flavor that make you taste something new in every bite. We swear there is something fruity in there (fig jam?) by the time we are halfway through. Whatever all the individual ingredients actually are, this is a burger to be savored.

Craftsman LogoAnd while the food may be reason enough to drop in, the beer is why you should plan to stay awhile. I enjoyed two incredible beers from the Pasadena-based Craftsman Brewing Company that evening at Father’s Office. My first was their Smoked Black Lager. I see this as the perfect alternative to a potentially heavy smoked porter (one of my absolutely favorite styles) for a backyard summer barbeque. While many beers that are black in color have charred or burnt flavors, and many smoked beers have the potential to be a bit harsh on the palate, there are no such distractions here. Rich roasted flavors with just the right touch of woody smokiness permeated what is actually a relatively light in body and easy to drink brew. Plus, this beer goes just perfect with the bacon and blue cheese of the burger.

My second beer from Craftsman was their totally original Triple White Sage. Think champagne meets Thanksgiving, but in the most delicious way. Yes, you can smell and taste the sage in this beer, but for as strange as it sounds, it matches perfectly with the both sweet and dry qualities of this Belgian-inspired ale. Without the sage, this brew reminds me of some of the best beers I’ve had the pleasure to taste… Tripel Karmilett, Saint Sylvester Trois Monts, and Brooklyn Local 1. But with the sage, it transforms an already potentially incredible beer into something completely unique and amazing.

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I recently had the opportunity to have a sneak-peek of Brooklyn Brewery’s new still-fill bottling line, along with a preview tasting of the first beer soon to be released from the new bottling line, “Local 1”, courtesy of brewmaster Garrett Oliver.  This excellent bottle-conditioned Belgian-style ale is due to be released at the end of February.

My account of this great event can be found in February  issue of the Malted Barley Appreciation Society newsletter.  Just click on the link below:

http://hbd.org/mbas/pdf/feb07.pdf

Cheers!

While Germany and the Czech Republic are wonderful historic centers of brewing, and brewing in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of the craft beer movement, ask any true beer connoisseur what the ideal destination is for beer, and the reply will most likely be Belgium. The relatively tiny country of Belgium (about the size of Maryland) is home to well over a hundred breweries, among them some of the most renowned, unique and eclectic in the world. Saison, lambic, gueze, dubbel, tripel, and witbier are among over a dozen styles initially created by Belgian brewers.

It’s no wonder that many American brewers have looked to Belgium for inspiration. Phil Markowski, Brewmaster at Southampton Publick House, has created his own take on a classic Belgian Wit (a.k.a. White) beer. Southampton Double White Ale is essentially a double-strength (7.2% ABV) rendition of the traditional Belgian wheat beer brewed with orange and coriander. It has a perfume-like floral and spice aroma, and a rich golden slightly hazy hue. A taste starts with clover-honey sweetness, followed by the distinctive citrus and spice flavor, with notes of white raisins. Tiny bubbles of carbonation lighten the slightly syrupy mouthfeel. Altogether, a complex, rich, yet refreshing brew. Typically released during summer, the relatively high alcohol means it will keep just fine through winter.

And while beer may be the beverage of choice in Belgium, the national dish of Belgium is mussels. So what better pairing for a Belgian-style ale than mussels steamed in beer?

Mussels in White Ale
(Makes 2 main courses, or 4 appetizer portions)

3 strips of bacon, chopped
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3/4 cup chopped fennel bulb
1 can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, drained
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups of beer
(I used 1 cup Southampton Double White and 1 cup amber lager, but feel free to experiment with different Belgian-style ales)
2 lbs mussels, scrubbed with beards removed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sour cream

Cook bacon in heavy pot over medium-high heat until browned, then add butter. Heat the butter until foam subsides. Then add onion, fennel, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper to the pot, stirring occasionally until vegetables get soft, about 5 minutes.

Add beer and bring to a gentle boil. Add mussels to the pot, and cover, stirring occasionally. Once mussels open wide, in about 5 minutes, remove open mussels from pot and transfer to a bowl. Discard any unopened mussels. Remove pot of remaining broth from heat, and add mustard and sour cream, whisking until combined. Divide mussels between 2-4 bowls, and then pour the broth over the top.

Perfect with a glass of Double White, or whatever Belgian-style beer you used for the broth. This makes a hearty, warming, but not too heavy meal on a cold winter’s day, but is equally enjoyable any time of year.

Beer Quote

“The Good Lord has changed water into wine, so how can drinking beer be a sin.”
                                                                    – Sign near a Belgian Monastery

It’s a chilly winter day here in the Northeast… freezing, in fact, quite literally at 32-degrees.  Not exactly a good day for a backyard barbeque.

Ah, but wouldn’t those tangy, smoky flavors warm your insides on such a cold and dreary day?  How about a beer that can capture that in a bottle?  Stone Smoked Porter does just that.  It pours a dark rich opaque chocolate brown, and the roasted, smoky aroma gives a hint of the delicious taste to come.  The flavor is initially sweet and chocolatey followed by a flavorful but not too potent smokiness that reminds me of a cozy fireplace or campfire, and slight hints of alcohol warm the insides.  Some earthy notes of birch and sarsaparilla come through, while the finish is slightly charred, which perfectly complements and completes the smoked flavor.

For a simple meal, I paired this with some barbequed pulled pork from my local Whole Foods Market.  Pretty good in a pinch, though some real ribs or brisket from the smoker would be even better.  I also think this would be an excellent match for a char-grilled steak.

While readers in Tennessee, North Carolina and all across the South have plenty of great barbeque joints to choose from, those like me in Northern New Jersey have a harder time. Luckily, Front Street Smokehouse on the industrial Elizabeth waterfront serves up some excellent authentic Memphis-style barbeque.  We even had the chance to see the smoker in action.  While it’s initially heated with gas, a combination of charcoal and hardwood are used to smoke the ribs, pork and chicken slowly in the rotisserie.  The pulled pork is tender and moist, and the smoked chicken glazed with raspberry jalapeno sauce is probably the best chicken I’ve ever had in a BBQ joint.  Unfortunately, no smoked porter to be found here, and not many craft beers at the bar, but there’s excellent birch beer on tap, and the mouthwatering smoked meat and delicious sides (tasty collards, homemade stuffing and cornbread) are well worth the trip off the beaten path.

Definition: Smoked Porter

This unique hybrid style of beer was invented in 1988 by Alaskan Brewing Company when they approached a local producer of smoked salmon about smoking some malt over alder wood in their smokehouse. While the traditional smoked rauchbier has been brewed for centuries, it was an obscure and little-known style outside its native Germany. Today, thanks to Alaskan Brewing’s experiment, dozens of microbreweries around the U.S. have rediscovered the delicious unique flavor of smoked beers, producing their own renditions of smoked porter and other smoked ales and lagers.

How does one get a free beer education? Well, you could simply drink a lot of beer, but you are paying for the beer itself so this method is not completely free, and who knows if you are really learning anything as you drink? You could also read my blog, and yes you may learn a little something, but I’m not providing beer for you to taste as you read. So you are now asking yourself, where I can I both learn about beer and actually taste some beer in the process? Here are three great ways:
Beer 101: Tour your local brewery

Touring your local brewery is a great way to learn about how beer is actually made. At a smaller brewery, your tour may be conducted by the brewer himself or herself, and they can provide amazing insights into how the raw ingredients (grain, hops, yeast and even the water itself) can shape the flavor of the beers they brew.

And once you know what goes into making the beer, you get to sample it! Samples (a couple of ounces, not full pints, mind you) are typically available for a few dollars or less, often even absolutely free.

To find your local craft brewery, visit

http://www.beertown.org/craftbrewing/locator/breweries.aspx

Beer 201: Bierkraft

OK, you have to be able to get to Brooklyn for this one, but each Tuesday night at 7 p.m., Bierkraft in Park Slope offers free tastings of some amazing beers. The tastings are often lead by a brewery rep, distributor or on rare occasions the brewer themselves. Typically five beers are sampled at each session, and each small sample of beer is carefully paired with an edible treat (cheese, meat or even chocolate). There’s much to learn between sipping samples, whether information on specific styles of beer or ideas on how to pair food and beer, and questions are always welcome.

Of course, at the end of the tasting, you’ll be quite tempted to actually purchase some of the beer and treats you have sampled. And with literally hundreds of beers on hand to choose from, you might want to pick up a few bottles to do some homework on your own.

If any readers know of any other beer stores that hold similar tastings in other parts of the country, please add a comment to this post, or e-mail me at pintsofknowledge@gmail.com so I can include this information in a future post.

Beer 301: Volunteer as a Beer Steward

There are dozens of homebrewing clubs around the U.S., and many sponsor competitions throughout the year. Larger competitions draw entries from throughout their region of the country, and as you can imagine, organizing the judging of hundreds of beers can be quite a feat. Often, the clubs ask for volunteers to serve as “stewards” on the day of the competition to assist the judges in their tasks that day.

I’ve personally done this twice, and have learned more about beer in a single day than any other beer-related activity I’ve been involved in. While distributing clean glasses, pouring water and collating scorecards isn’t the most exciting part of the day, sitting down with the judges as they taste, rate and compare beers is not only educational, but a whole lot of fun. Many of the judges at these events have completed the Beer Judge Certification Program, and are incredibly knowledgeable about beer. Most are also homebrewers themselves, so they know a lot not only about the final product but the process of brewing itself.

Both times I served as a steward the judges I worked with encouraged me to sample and even share my thoughts. Last year, I even had the chance to sample some of the Roggenbiers being judged, a hard-to-find style that I had never come across before. And while watching the judges study, swirl, sniff and sip each sample with great intensity may initially seem amusing to the casual beer drinker, it makes you realize that brewing is truly an art, and that great beer should be appreciated much like a fine wine or rare scotch.

To find out more about homebrewing competitions around the country, and to inquire about volunteering to be a steward, visit:

http://www.beertown.org/homebrewing/calendar/events.aspx

OR

http://www.bjcp.org/apps/comp_schedule/competition_schedule.php

Definition: Roggenbier

A Roggenbier is a German-style of beer that is brewed with a large about of rye which provides a distinctive somewhat spicy, slightly sour flavor, along with malted barley and wheat. Relatively dark in color and somewhat cloudy in appearance (this is an unfiltered brew), they are amazingly complex, but unfortunately hard to find outside of Germany (and even rare in Germany). If you are lucky across to see one in your local store or tavern, I’d highly suggest giving it a try.

Beer Quote:

“Give a man a beer, and he wastes an hour.
But teach a man how to brew, and he wastes a lifetime!”

– Unknown

Avery PorterIt’s always a nice surprise to find a great beer hidden on the back of your shelf. While moving around my beer bottles, I found an Avery New World Porter hiding in the back.

Now, this is a seasonal brew from Colorado that is available January through March, so the one I found is about a year old now. While most mass-market beers (pilsner-style lagers like Bud, Miller or Coors) are around 5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and really only have a shelf life of 4 to 6 months, this one comes in at 6.7% ABV which is a borderline beer for aging (those over 8% are ideal for aging a year or more, while beers above 10% can be aged for many years).

Well, this time I was in for an incredible surprise! The beer pours a deep ruby-black with a full foamy, creamy tan head that is just beautiful to watch rising from the bottom of my Nonic pint glass. Truly one of the more delicious beers I’ve ever smelled, the aroma of cherries, raisins, red wine and chocolate emanate from the glass. This brew has a slick, oily mouthfeel… slightly thick with tiny bubbles of carbonation that make it somewhat creamy.

The initial taste of caramel and sweet brown sugar gives way to a milk-chocolatey middle with hints of raisin and cherries. It finishes with a lingering roasted bitterness that reminds me of coffee beans and unsweetened bakers chocolate with just a tinge of licorice.

Overall, a year of aging seems to have done this beer well. When first released, the bitter hop character of the beer is somewhat prominent, but the aging has made this brew more in balance to my palate. I highly suggest picking up a six-pack in the new year, drink one now, and stashing the remaining five bottles away in a cool, dark place (a cellar is ideal, but even the back of a closet or cabinet away from any heat source can work) until next Christmas. This is one Christmas gift well worth waiting a year for!

Definition: Nonic

Nonic A Nonic is a traditional English-style pint glass that holds a true Imperial Pint (a full 20-ounces of beer). The larger size allows for the full expression of a billowy creamy head, while the slight bulge in the side helps keeps the glass from slipping from your hand (think of it as a life-saver for your beer!) A suitable glass for a wide variety of English and American brews, and quite ideal for stouts and porters.

For more about beer glassware, check out my article “Beer Glasses… Not Beer Goggles”

Beer Quote

“I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

with your pockets full of money, and your cellar full of beer!”

– An English Toast

Trap Rock Restaurant & Brewery is not your typical brewpub. Their dinner menu lists gourmet delights such as Spicy Grilled Rare Tuna, Tempura Crusted Asparagus, and an Organic Pork Chop with Sour Cherry & Port Wine Glaze. No buffalo wings, nachos or even burgers to be found here*. There is even a rather extensive wine list. The decor is upscale Europe meets Aspen, with the feel of a refined ski-lodge. In fact, the only similarity one might find between this establishment and a typical brewpub are the huge stainless steel fermentation tanks on display in the front windows.

*Note: They do offer a Vermont Cheddar Burger on their lunch menu. But even most of their lunch fare could hardly be considered “pub grub”.

Beer aside, an evening here makes for a great dining experience. My parents treated my wife and I for my birthday, and it certainly is a very nice special occasion destination (between my wife treating me to dinner at Cafe D’Alsace and this dinner, I must admit I had quite a birthday this year!). The shrimp-stuffed lobster on special I ordered was excellent, and the vanilla-whipped parsnips that accompanied my wife’s tuna were an unusual but delicious twist. And by the way, the beer was quite good too.

I ordered a sampler: six beers served in mini-fluted pilsner glasses in a nifty wooden carousel. The Merlin’s IPA was full of assertive hop flavors of citrus and pine, a real treat for hop-heads. A distinctly red Hathor Red Lager was tangy and complex, with a slight sourness in the finish, a truly unusual brew. The Colonial Porter brewed with molasses may have been my favorite, sweet and chewy with a nice roasted finish.

But the real surprise here was their Ghost Pony Helles Lager. Keep in mind, I’m not a big pale lager fan, maybe because so many big American pale lagers are relatively bland and flavorless. Their Ghost Pony, however, was sweet and bready balanced with a drying finish and just the right touch of European noble hops in the end. It truly won me over, and will keep me open-minded to trying pale lagers again. And with so many delicious seafood dishes on the menu, the Ghost Pony was one of the only beers they offered that was subtle enough to not overpower them.

It is wonderful to find a brewpub where beer-lovers like me can actually find fine dining as well. People who might turn their nose up at a typical brewpub would dine here. But hopefully they will look past the wine list and order a nice ale or lager which will possibly win them over to the world of well-crafted beer.

Definition: Helles Lager (or Munich Helles Lager)

The German answer to a Czech Pilsner, it’s a light-colored all-malt lager (as opposed to mass-market American lagers that use corn and/or rice as an adjunct to the malted barley) where one can taste the grainy, bready character of the pale malted barley. European noble hops are used with a more heavy-hand than American lagers (but not quite as hopped as a Czech Pilsner) for a disctinctive but not too assertive spicy finish. Pairs well with mild cheeses, seafood and lighter chicken and pork dishes.

Going down your Christmas list (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice list), and you’re having a tough time deciding what to give your beer-loving friend (or dad or uncle or boss or cousin Gertrude). Sure, there’s bottle openers, bottle cozies, beer coolers or even just a six-pack with a bow. But what about a gift that truly inspires the beer-lover in your life.

The Ultimate Beer Roadtrip

American Beer is a documentary about a group of friends who pile into a minivan with camera in hand to trek across the country with the goal of visiting 38 breweries in 40 days. While their adventures and hi-jinx are amusing, their interviews with some of the best brewers in America today will inspire the beer-lover in your life to taste some of the delicious brews described in this film, and possibly take some road-trips of their own to seek out great beer. Now available on DVD, it makes a great stocking-stuffer.

Beer Books

There seems to be more and more books about beer on the shelves every year, but there are a couple that truly stand out above the rest. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, now offers The Brewmaster’s Table in paperback. My among my Best of the Year for 2005, the book offers an excellent history on various styles of beer, and mouth-watering descriptions on pairing beer with food.

Michael Jackson (the British beer expert, not the wacky American pop singer) has published a number of books in his years. The Great Guide to Beer is one of his better selections, cataloging five-hundred beers from around the world with tasting notes and some interesting trivia. The beer-lover in your life will enjoy checking off which beers they have tried, and which are still on their wish-list.

Brew their Own!

Almost every true beer-lover has dreamed of making their own brew. So why not help them accomplish this goal? For between $80-$100, most homebrew shops can supply you with a basic starter kit that supplies just about all the equipment needed for making batches of homebrewed beer. Add $20-$35 for an ingredient kit that will make 5 gallons of beer (approximately 48 bottles). I’m sure your appreciative friend or loved-one will be more than happy to share their homebrewed beer, so consider this the ultimategift that keeps on giving“!

And while there’s a number of great on-line resources for purchasing homebrewing equipment & supplies, I highly encourage you to visit your local homebrew shopwhen starting off. They can provide advice and guidance on what and what not to buy, and plenty of tips to pass along to the recipient of your gift on making their very first batch. To find your nearest homebrew shop, visit: http://www.beertown.org/homebrewing/shops.asp

And if buying the whole homebrewing kit is a little out of your price range, inspiration can come in a smaller package at a smaller price. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewingis the original, worry-free, entertaining guide to brewing your own beer at home. While there have been dozens of books on homebrewing published since Charlie issued his first edition, his “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew”philosophy is a great way to start down the road to brewing beer at home.

A Very Special Beer

Fuller's Vintage AleFavorite beers are a very subjective matter of personal taste. But I can suggest a couple of truly unique beers that would make a great gift for many beer-lovers. First is Fuller’s Vintage Ale. This bottle-conditioned brew is released in limited quantities each year, and is well-suited for aging. Not only does the beautiful presentation remind one of a fine scotch, but the flavors that develop over the years will remind one of a scotch as well.

Samichlaus is a very special brew, brewed only once a year on December 6th. Although no longer the “strongest beer in the world”, at 14% ABV (alcohol by volume), it may be the strongest lager-style beer to be brewed. Another beer well-suited for aging, it is truly one-of-a-kind.

Cheers to Happy Holidays!

Cafe D'AlsaceWhen it comes to fine dining, many establishments have a sommelier to help you navigate the often complex and confusing world of wine. Cafe D’Alsace on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is more than likely the first restaurant in America, perhaps the world, to have a dedicated Beer Sommelier. With 120 beers on hand, and styles ranging from French Bière de Gardes to Belgian Tripels to German Doppelbocks, the choices can be overwhelming. And when it comes to matching the wonderful Alsacian cuisine with just the right brew, Avi (a.k.a. Aviram Turgeman) is just the man for the job.

For our meal, he started me out with a snappy Tripel Karmeliet, a Belgian Abbey-style ale whose distinct character comes from the three grains used for brewing this beverage… wheat, barley and oats. It was served in a huge bulbous glass from the brewery itself that showed off its tremendous head and allowed me to get my nose right into the glass to appreciate the spicy, citrus hop aroma. A very nice appertif for cleansing the palate, that also went quite well with the appetizer of warm potato salad.

To find a beer that would compliment both my dinner of Choucroute Garnie (sausages, back bacon and pork loin) and my wife’s Trout in Riesling sauce could be a difficult task. But Avi’s recommendation of Trois Monts, a complex champagne-like Bière de Garde, was an excellent pairing for both dishes.

Of course, one true test of a beer sommelier would be finding the perfect beer for with dessert. As a chocolate-lover, I couldn’t resist the Trio of Chocolate (chocolate creme, chocolate tart, and an intensely-chocolately dark chocolate gelato.) My first choice would have been Lindeman’s Frambois, a delicious raspberry beer to complement the chocolate. But Avi said he had just the beer for my chocolate dessert, and delivered a bottle of Sinebrychoff Porter on the house, an excellent deep-roasted Finnish Baltic-style Porter that paired with dark chocolate better than I could ever imagine.

Definition: Baltic Porter (updated 12/29/06)

A Porter is a dark, richly roasted ale that originated in England and is the grandfather of what we know today as Stout.  English porters brewed for export were stronger and with more hops in order to survive the sea voyage from England across the North Sea to the Baltics, Scandinavia and Russia.  So when the Baltic states started brewing their own porters, their renditions reflected the English exports.

These Baltic Porters are a more robust, higher alcohol (7% or more) take on the porter style.   Scandinavian Baltic Porters are typically brewed as ales (with top fermenting yeast), while Slavic and Baltic breweries typically use lager yeast for their porters (bottom fermenting yeast, brewed at cooler temperatures).

For more information on porters, read my article found here.

12 BeersHere’s a variety pack with lots of variety: 12 bottles of 12 different beers. Saranac is brewed by FX Matt in Utica, NY, which is the same brewery that contract brews all of Brooklyn Brewery’s bottled offerings and some of their kegs. Now, Saranac beers aren’t always as interesting, rich or flavorful as what they brew for Brooklyn. But for $10.99 for a 12-pack, there are some real winners in this box.

I haven’t even made it through all 12 yet, but so far the Bock is a well-hopped, full-bodied rendition of the traditional German style. It pairs amazingly well with Buffalo wings… the hops stand up quite well to the kick of the hot sauce. If only they would sell it outside of the variety pack!

Other nice selections are a tasty Mocha Stout (a little thin in body, but rich in flavor), a Chocolate Lager (think of this as a “light” stout), and their delicious Black Forest (dark, malty, and full of caramel flavors). Only the Rauchbier was a disappointment… this take on a traditional German ‘smoke’ beer just wasn’t smokey enough for my taste.

Of course, if there’s a beer you don’t like, there’s only one in the box, so you won’t get stuck with a bunch of bottles you don’t want. At the same time, if there’s a beer you really like, the problem is there’s only one in the box!

Definition: Bock

Bock literally means “goat” in German. So, why call your beer a goat? Maybe because of the ‘kick’ this relatively high-alcohol lager will give you! A traditional Bock is typically a strong, dark, malty brew with hardly any noticable hop flavor. While overall a somewhat sweet brew, a slight bitterness in the finish is not from the hops but from the roasted grains.