Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beer Sommeliers and Groupthink and Getting A Decent Recommendation

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Slate, the online magazine, (you all know what Slate is? I don't really have to qualify that do I?) recently wrote an article about craft beer. More precisely, Slate wrote about Beer Sommeliers

One kind of beer sommelier is called a Cicerone, and we've written about them before here at MBR (here and here). The Cicerone Program has multiple levels of certification, much like the Wine Sommelier program. 

Ah! But sommeliers are so damned snooty! Snooty! I tell you. The petite bourgeoisie, you, have no knowledge of the complexity of wine. The dozens of varietals, the years on French oak (years!), the complexity imparted by aging sur lees.

The great thing about beer? It's made for the petite bourgeoisie. (Can you tell I like using the phrase "petite bourgeoisie"?). It's complex. The processes, ingredients, aging, and souring mechanisms, let alone philosophies that go into producing a fine beer are certainly on par with that weird "biodynamic" shit the wine hippies want to lure you into. But without the damned wine hippies. At the end of the day it's beer.

On the other hand, a good recommendation from someone who knows their stuff can make the difference between a good meal with beer, and a phenomenal food experience. I can tell you that I regularly ask around for beer recommendations. Some places are great (Brian and the folks at The Mason Lounge, for example), some are not so great (if you see me, ask me and I'll be happy to rail against some not-so-great local establishments - and one's with "good" beer lists, too). I've had a lot beer that I would have never tried without a recommendation and a lot of places that I'll never go again because of a bad beer recommendation.

One of the problems, as I see it, with the beer universe (and I point my fingers at the most well-traveled of beer recommendation engines BeerAdvocate and RateBeer) is that the results are so damned boring. And, the result is always Russian Imperial Stout, Imperial IPA, or La Folie. The groupthink that creates those reviews and recommendations would never recommend the perfect crisp Helles Lager, a subtle Belgian Blonde, or a rough and tumble Porter, let alone the Zwickelbier that the Slate journalist experienced. Many bars hire fans of beer, those that read and participate on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer and get drawn into the groupthink there; but few bars and restaurants hire bartenders that can actually demonstrate any real knowledge of the stuff that sits in the tap.

While I'm happy to see the taplists are getting better (many of the new restaurants popping up have at least serviceable, and in some cases great, beer lists), the knowledge needs to come along with it or the opportunity is wasted. I'm constantly frustrated by good restaurants that pride themselves on good drinks and great wine lists that offer nothing better than Amstel Light for quality beer to pair with quality food. But, then I think, that even if they offered great beer, the offer would be meaningless anyway, because they don't have anyone who knows what the hell they're talking about.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Five Gallons At A Time: More on Dextrins

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I love you, Jean De Clerck:

"Beers rich in dextrin are generally considered to have a more mellow palate and this is usually attributed to the greater viscosity of such beers compared with beers of higher alcohol content. This view, however, is quite erroneous (emphasis mine).The author has made a series of mashes so as to obtain worts of differing dextrin content (12-15% difference in attenuation limit) and found that the beers brewed from these high dextrin worts lacked palate fulness. This result is probably due to the fact that raising the mashing temperature suddenly from 50C to 70C to suppress partially sugar formation, at the same time leads to a failure to form intermediate protein degradation products, as will be seen in the next paragraph."

"These intermediate protein degradation products undoubtedly make a major contribution to palate fulness, nor must it be forgotten that the higher the dextrin content, the lower will be the concentration of alcohol, which is also a contributory factor to mellowness and palate."

-A Textbook of Brewing, Volume One

Friday, December 9, 2011

It's Miller Time

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Confession time! It annoys me when people slander the quality of beers produced by the megabrewers. It's almost impossible to not make fun of their marketing, and I often do. Plus, considering all the "we can pay to play" political obstacles they throw at craft breweries, some of their corporate higher-ups are downright evil. However, the quality of their beer - i.e. the fact that they can nail their product specifications despite numerous brewery locales and variabilities in ingredients, equipment and water supplies - is mind-bogglingly impressive. I can understand not enjoying their beers, but it's simply wrong to accuse them of being poorly made.

I imagine that being a brewer or a scientist at a company like Miller must resemble living in a country where the characteristics of your nutcase leaders are projected onto you by the rest of the world because most people don't know anything about you. Having met a few of the Miller folks, I can vouch for them not being a bunch of ignorant cookie cuttings. They even drink craft beer! At the end of the day, though, people need jobs and Miller pays well. In addition, the company is on the forefront of brewing science and technology. Hell, I applied for a brewing job there a couple of years ago. I wasn't qualified because I don't have a degree in chemistry or chemical engineering, but imagine how much I could have learned! I like to think that I could have taught them a few things as well, but that's probably a common fantasy among craft brewers. The bottom line for industrial breweries trying to enter the craft market is that until they build dedicated facilities which trade efficiency for flexibility, or buy existing craft breweries and leave their core processes alone (the verdict is still out on you, GooseBev), they'll never be able to pull it off. Which is a shame, because some of the most flavorful beers I've ever tasted have come from a Miller pilot brewery. I don't know if they actually do this, but I find it funny that an experimental Chocolate Bock could account for 0.1% of the volume of any given batch of High Life.

Anyway... whether they brew Imperial Nut Oregano Braggots in souped-up 1/2-barrel kegs or brew MGD on the 1,000-barrel pinnacle of German brewhouse engineering, I enjoy the company of other brewers and I appreciate their work. My war is with the corporate executives and their lobbyists.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Madison Coffee Review?

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The boss of MBR is an irresponsible slacker who believes that living without computers for three weeks is a better use of time than meeting his publication deadlines. The nerve! I'll try to pick up some of the slack, but I'm lucky if I can churn out nerdy homebrewing articles on a monthly basis and, as a professional brewer, I'd like to avoid masquerading as a beer critic. While I wake up the ol' brain and ponder which politicians to randomly accuse of torpedoing Wisconsin's beer industry, I'll talk about something that's vaguely related to brewing beer: brewing coffee!

The best and worst coffee in my household are both made via French press. In fact, they both exist in a given mug at the same time. The top 3/4 of the mug is beautifully robust, with thin wisps of brown foam on top and an aroma that can stain walls and make you optimistic about the existence of heaven. The bottom 1/4 of the mug is a sludgy, gritty ooze that needs to be chewed before swallowing. My French press is a cheap piece of junk, pain and simple. I have a small drip machine as well, but its default coffee defines mediocrity.

Thinking of coffee in beer-making terms, I realized that using a French press is like batch sparging and using a drip machine is like continuous sparging. Could I batch sparge the coffee grounds in my drip machine? Hell yes! For coffee to flow out of my coffeemaker, the pot needs to be on its warming plate. By just brewing the coffee without the pot, I can let the beans steep in the brewing water for as long as I like. Once the grounds are steeped, I quickly slide the pot onto the warming plate and wait for it to fill. Because the filter housing needs to hold all of the water in addition to the beans, batch sparging cuts my brewing capacity in half. Luckily, I rarely drink more than one mug a day.

After some trial and error, I found that grinding the beans coarsely and letting them steep for four minutes (starting when all of the water is in the filter housing) works really well. The coffee is much better than what my drip machine would normally produce, but it's not quite as good as the first 3/4 of a mug that comes out of my French press. At some point, I'll throw some money at the problem and make it go away. In the meantime, knowing how to make beer is improving my coffee.