Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beer Pouring 101 - A Lesson (Featuring Internet Culture)

Pouring beer is hard.

And no I don't mean pouring a lukewarm can of some mass-brewed swill down your gullet. That's easy. And admittedly kind of depressing (not to say I haven't been there, ya know, a lot...).

What I mean is that pouring a nice bottle of beer properly is hard. Anyone can crank open a bottle, dump out its contents into any ol' vessel and guzzle it down (and for some session beers, that's actually ok, if you insist), but with all that effort you went through to procure that awesome little bottle of wonder, don't you think you want to do everything you can to make sure the little guy is at its finest? There are a few steps between bottle and sip that you ought to observe.

The way a beer "tastes" is an amalgamation of a lot of different factors - smell and mouth feel are just as important as the way it interacts with your sense of sweet, sour, bitter, etc. Paying close attention to these factors is a pivotal aspect of enjoying beer, and this topic alone could fill books (and certainly has). But for the sake of this particular post we'll limit discussion to how you can make sure these factors are "observable" as possible for your next beer pour.

Step One: Pick a Glass to Match the Occasion

Much to the shock of absolutely no one (I hope), the contraption you put your beer in has a lot to do with the way you experience it. Or, rather, it has the potential to - a lot of the run-of-the-mill pint glasses our beer culture has opted for actually aren't doing the beer within any favors (but more on that in a second). Special glasses exist for different varieties of beer, with many companies offering beers specifically for their own brews. Some take it to interesting extremes.

Sam Adam's MIT-developed monstrosity is actually a fine example of a great beer glass. 

While not every beer has its own specific beer glass - nor do they do they need one - some truly change the way a beer tastes. Some attributes, such as a tulip glass' smaller size, are pretty obvious (they're reserved for higher alcohol beers, where the serving is smaller), others may be less so. The rounded "bulb-like" contour of many glasses, including the one pictured above, act as a sort of reservoir for aromas, concentrating them in a section near the rim so that they are more fragrant. Wine glasses and whisky snifters are shaped the way they are for a similar reason, and in fact make fine glasses for beer, albeit a bit counter-intuitive (sort of like drinking cold stuff out of a coffee mug. Totally weird).

Another fun aspect some glasses have, including the Mega Glass from Sam Adams, is a small laser etching at the base that allows for a constant stream of tiny bubbles to emit from the beer, preserving its bubbly, clean mouth feel.

Other glasses that we've grown accustomed to, such as your run of the mill "shaker" glass, don't do much to capture any of those interesting aromas, and as such shouldn't be your go-to when you're planning on experiencing something truly special. Special glasses exist for stouts, hefeweizens, and other archetypal styles, but picking something with the attributes above should lend themselves well to any style. Libbey's Glass has a super solid collection of beer glass that's very affordable, so that's one option. Besides, it's even more important to...

Step Two: Make Sure It's Clean

Like, seriously clean. You'd think this is pretty self explanatory, but nothing ruins the flavor of balanced flavors of a good beer like grime, so it's generally a good idea to give a glass a good scrub before pouring. But then, make sure you rinse it thoroughly. Oils and detergents are beer head's worst enemy, and can diminish a nice frothy head (which is your goal- to be discussed next) in seconds. Ask your favorite frat bro the trick to diminishing foam before a game of beer pong - it's facial oil. And yes, that's disgusting.

But my glass is not. My glass is pretty. LOOK AT IT.

This is from the aforementioned Libbey's Beer Collection, their hefeweizen glass - note the height; it affords extra space for especially heady beers, as wheat beers tend to be. It's ready for beer and so, presumably, are you. So let's get to the pouring - the most important and trickiest part.

Step Three: Pour Your Heart Out 

It's a common misconception that it's a good idea to gently poor the beer down the side of a tilted glass to reduce the overall amount of that pesky head. After all, it just gets in the way of that tasty, tasty beer, right?

You're a bad person and you should feel bad.

I'm walking a fine line of decency here, but since I know you're all upstanding, mature human beings, I'll come out and say it: Head is nice. We all want head. Hooray for head.

Thank you for your maturity.

You see, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, that beautiful, frothy pillow on a beer offers the greatest concentration of aromas (a lot of the bitterness of the hops goes directly into the head, by the way, so wish as you might, it isn't going to taste like a delicious marshmallow), and is telling about how the rest of the beer will taste, so don't devoid your senses the experience by eliminating it.

The best way to achieve this is to simply pour your beer into the center of the glass until the foam promises to overflow, and hold back. Let the head subside, and repeat.You might make a few spills along the way, but it becomes second nature. It can take longer than you want it to, sure, but the flavors and aromas will be at their full potential this way.

A beer in two stages of pouring. The one in the forefront will settle and more will be poured in.
Ideally, you'll have around an inch of foam when it's time to serve.

Which reminds me:

Robert Johnson's Hellhound On My Ale 

Dogfish Head Brewery
Milton, DE

1 Pint 9.4 Fl Oz. Bottle, served in Hefeweizen Glass
10% ABV
Around $14.00

The featured beer

That lovely golden elixir up there is Dogfish Head's Hellhound, a liquid homage to the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, and its one of the tastiest, and most interesting, beers I've had recently. The label advertises that it is "brewed with lemons" a somewhat concerning label that beckons thoughts of lemon shandies and cloyingly sweet "summer beers," that you shove a lemon wedge onto, but fortunately that's not even remotely the case.

The head pours thick and the body is ever so slightly cloudy, meaning that a touch of wheat is at play here. It's remarkably creamy and swirls in nice layers as you drink. The lemony goodness comes from both lemon zest and centennial hops, a notably citrusy hop and star of the show, as it's the only variety of hop in there. Even better, the lemon here is hardly a gimmick; it is instead a wonderful accent - and while its role is certainly pivotal, it's content to remain in the background of the act, waiting quietly behind the careful balance of mighty malt and hop heft (of which there are a significant amount - the bottle informs you that it hits over 100 IBU in the brewery).

 But it is remarkably drinkable given its girth, and the levels of sweetness and bitterness (both kept well in check), complete with the sparkling lemon finish, give the beer and almost tea-like quality. Find this one, for now, or for your summer meals. It's worth a bit of searching. And, of course, pour carefully.

Yeah, that's the stuff.
Dogfish's Hellhound gets an: 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ben Likes Bourbon (Aged Beer)

Believe it or not, I drink other things. This should not be shocking - I do not subsist entirely on beer from morning to night, though I might wish I could (blah blah, social norms). If I did, I would almost assuredly exist in a buzzed, 300 lb stupor, and believe it or not even the creative industry requires some mental clarity. I'm sober right now, actually. Thanks for the applause.

But I'm not actually talking about tea, or orange juice, or bottled water (Ben Likes Bottled Water coming soon), I mean I drink other alcoholic things, especially when you can learn about beer by doing so. A lot of the distilling and flavoring processes have quite a bit in common  So, with that in mind, let's learn a bit about bourbon, shall we?

Bourbon is, for the sake of grand simplification, American Whisky. It's gotta be made in America to garner the term bourbon, and it was even declared America's "Native Spirit" by Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. But there's a bit more than shoving a MADE IN THE USA sticker on a bottle of whisky and calling it a day; there are standards. 

Corn, for example. The little golden nugget that has ingrained (heh...ingrained...plant puns) itself in nearly everything we eat is actually an integral part of bourbon. To be a bourbon, corn must represent at least 51% of the grain mixture, though in many cases it makes it up upward toward 70% or more, with the rest being wheat, rye or barley. And that's not just because of availability; corn tends to be the sweetest grain, which is an important distinction of bourbon.

The grain is then ground, added to water (the mix is called a mash), and exposed to yeast and allowed to ferment. Sound familiar?

The result is a clear liquid of no more than 160 proof which is then put into barrels where that bourbony goodness - the color and flavor - comes from. But this is where the major distinction comes from- to be bourbon, the barrels have to be new charred American White Oak. Other varieties - Scotch, Canadian Whisky, etc - can reuse previously utilized barrels. Bourbon can't.

Bourbon barrels. Makes me wanna play Donkey Kong. 
And this is where the crossover comes into play. All of those great bourbon flavors afforded by those barrels lend themselves really, really well to beer. Two cases in point:

Brrrbon '12 
Widmer Brothers
Portland, Oregon
Alchemy Project Seasonal Ale
9.4% ABV

22 oz. Bottle, Tulip Glass 

Following the initial brewing process, Widmer Bro's Brrrbon spends a four month stint in those special barrels we talked about. The result is a coppery, transparent brew with a thick off-white head. And exceptionally, remarkably smooth. I can't emphasize that enough; Brrbon is ridiculously smooth. As in, it could go down like ice tea if you let it. I'm really not sure how they did it, actually.

Image from Widmer Brothers 

And that's what's unusual about it, actually. It has the woody nose of bourbon, but not quite the bite you'd expect, or want. It's oddly friendly. There are hints of the bourbon flavor to be certain, with the burnt wood winning out, but the malty sweetness is more prevalent, with the tinge of hops bringing up the tail. There are certainly wintery qualities to it (hence the name), most notably the toasty flavors.

The beer is a solid introduction to Bourbon Beers, given it's "gentle" nature, but I think it could have afforded a few more months in the barrels to really instill it with those powerful flavors. As it stands, the flavors are pretty subtle and it doesn't quite pack the punch you want it to.

The Abyss 2012 Reserve 
Deschutes Brewery
Bend, Oregon
Imperial Stout
11.1% ABV

22 oz. Bottle, Pint Glass 

While Brrrbon might have been a friendly introduction to the world of Bourbon-aged beers, Abyss is a brutal, affronting cataclysm of a beer (the website touts the headline "Ten beers that will make you a man...if they don't kill you first"), and I pretty much love it.

Abyss is a limited-edition annual beer from Deschutes that takes the barrel aging to another level: portions are sent to age in both wine and bourbon barrels, lending qualities of both to the final creation. It's an extremely dark, nearly black and perfectly opaque concoction with a head that looks like chocolate milk. And there's no wonder - it takes its flavorings from every "dark" ingredient imaginable; licorice, molasses, oak and chocolate and vanilla all take their turn on your pallet, with the chocolate malts appearing most prominently.

But more important, really, is that the "oomph" of a bourbon is here and accounted for. The oaky qualities, the potent warmth. There are complex layers at play here, with sweetness from the molasses and a nice touch of bitter, and they manage to be distinct while still playing remarkably well together. It's a genuinely interesting brew that only becomes more interesting when paired with food (I sampled it with pretzels, and the salt multiplied the flavors considerably).

Even more interesting, the beer includes an "Enjoy After" date, well into 2013. That doesn't mean you have to wait until then, but it does transform the beer into an entirely different experience (this is called cellaring a beer, just like wine - but we'll go over that in another post). Me, personally, though, I couldn't hold off. The beer is that great. Find it. It's worth the price tag.