Through the window you see rolling green hills interrupted by a winding country road. Shorthorn cows graze behind limestone walls. Gray skies watch over the hovering mist. You’re inside where it’s warm and a nearby laugh turns your attention back to the friends you are amongst. There’s a plate in front of you and a pint by its side.
England. Our time together was but one short week over ten years ago. I hardly even left London. But I was there long enough to know we still have unfinished business. There are casked ales to be tracked down, pubs to while away at, cheeses to be sampled, and of course that plate in front of you needs attention.
Take a bite. Taste the delicate spice and rich sweetness of the pudding. Notice how moist the cake is as you press it against the roof of your mouth. The caramelized sugar of the toffee has a hint of lemon which keeps it from cloying sweetness. It’s sticky toffee pudding. And it’s sitting next to a roasty creamy stout. The moment the pudding becomes too intense you rinse your palate and enjoy the molasses flavor you couldn’t distinguish in the beer without that bite of food. The rush of cool, carbonated liquid is welcome.
It’s perfect. For a rainy day in a tiny English hamlet. For an overcast day in Southern California where you can almost convince yourself you are sitting on that bar stool in a tiny English hamlet.
Calling all drinkers of beer!
I am conducting a super scientific (ha!) survey for a potential project and badly need some information. Please take 30 seconds to participate before your weekend begins. This is just for my sister and me and benefiting no one else.
If you do you will… earn free beer? wake up sexier? be more loved?… or have my genuine thanks– not nearly as good as the first three.
I’ve enjoyed the last two months’ devotions to particular topics: holiday beer tasting in December, garden cocktails in January. It’s working for me, hopefully it’s working for you, I’m going to stick with it. Let February be called “Oh, The Places You’ll Go Eat and Drink!”
For all intents and purposes February is a throw away month. Hovering between the close of the holiday season and the beginning of spring and new life, it’s kind of the sad bastard of months (any chance that’s why it is so short?) There is one thing that makes February great though– it’s free to become a month of mental retreat. Last year I hit the books and spent weekends with Edna Millay and Theodore Roosevelt as the snow inched in ascent. This year I’m surrounded by seed catalogs and travel possibilities.
My unoccupied moments are consumed by checking flight costs for September, plotting routes, compiling itineraries, and jotting down restaurants I can’t wait to visit. Right now my mind is consumed by the prospect of moules frites and a frothy Dubbel in Antwerp, and prosciutto and cheese in Parma. Tell me you don’t want to spend the rest of your day dreaming of drinking your way through the Trappist Brouwerijen, or dining your way through Emilia-Romagna? I can’t be there right now but I can make a drink that makes me think of both.
I call it the Traveling Americano. Continuing with last week’s beer cocktails I’ve merged a respectable beer with a classic cocktail to produce an entirely new beverage. A traditional Americano combines Campari and Sweet Vermouth and dilutes it with club soda. I diluted it with Chimay Rouge.
- 1 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth
- 4 ounces Chimay Rouge or fruity Belgian
- blood orange wedge
Combine Campari and Vermouth and pour over lots of ice in an old-fashioned tumbler. Top with beer and garnish with orange.
The original cocktail is great in the way it takes a bitter/ sweet alcohol and a sweet/ bitter alcohol and then mellows them out. While the initial blend remains the same in my recipe, the addition of fruity, yeasty Chimay Rouge attenuates the initial flavor profile– grapefruit, licorice, resinous herbs. The Chimay smooths and adds volume to the texture while introducing a malty component.
This drink fills me with daydreams of stonewall abbeys and sweeping, grassy hillsides. But I don’t want to dream it, I want to live it. For now I’ll close my eyes, take a sip of my cocktail and soak in the beer of Belgium and the bitters of Italy until this Americano is abroad.
ALSO! I’m writing for LA Weekly’s Squid Ink food blog now. Check it out…
Ashley Routson, aka the Beer Wench, just launched a new website at beermixology.com, devoted to the crafting of beer cocktails. The site is a collaborative effort intending to provide more resources and recipes to help demystify this unconventional refreshment. The Huffington Post provides an immediate response.
But the beer cocktail isn’t really a new concept, and over the past few years we’ve seen it come onto the scene, only to quickly vanish. Esquire featured it in 2010 (although those recipes mostly just sweetened average beer), and last spring the New York Times followed Borough bars to see who listed beer cocktails on their menu. I first came across a Michelada in Brooklyn, November of 2010, and couldn’t get through half of it (naturally I was devastated as beer and hot sauce, independently, are two of my favorite things).
Many of the drinks of Beer Cocktails Past have been mixes that essentially diluted or flavored the beer: the traditional Shandy combining ale and soda; or the previously mentioned Michelada made from lager, lime, tomato, and hot sauce. The new beer cocktail, hopefully the one with staying-power, uses quality hard alcohol that compliments whatever beer it joins. It is not meant to overshadow flavors or make drinkable that which is not. It is meant to harmonize and highlight features of each component to achieve a well-balanced, innovative drink. I’m keen to think of it like a proper food pairing– the flavors of one develop those of the other.
Opinions are heated as to whether this marriage is a bastardization of a finished product, or whether the combination provides an innovative vehicle for the consumption of well-made booze. There is also a question of respect to the brewers and distillers, who worked hard to produce something that is then manipulated by the consumer. Many beer enthusiasts rant against adding a citrus wedge to a wheat beer– imagine what they would say about sugar, vodka, and half a lime. While I wouldn’t dream of mucking about with a Kentucky Breakfast Stout or George T. Stagg, I am happy to experiment with more affordable, more available selections.
But the only way to form a tasteful opinion, literally, is to get to the kitchen and fix up a drink. From the beermixology website I selected the Shake Radler Roll for its masterly blend of citrus and ginger with witbier. It also allows me to highlight two elements of my backyard that I have yet to feature: lime and orange. You can check out the recipe on the website, but here are the ingredients I used:
- 2 ounces navel orange-infused vodka
- 1/2 ounce ginger simple syrup
- juice from half a lime
- 4 ounces Flying Dog’s Woody Creek (any witbier or golden ale)
Simply shake the first three ingredients with ice, pour over rocks, and top with beer. Garnish with citrus peel.
I selected Flying Dog Woody Creek for its mellow flavor profile and low alcohol content (adding two ounces of vodka to a 7% beer would have me pink in the face and giggling for days). Combined with a navel orange vodka infusion I had on hand, the resulting drink is the picture of a warm, sunny day, fit for January Santa Ana winds.
Citrus is the strongest flavor present, imparted by the orange peel and addition of lime juice, but there is a significant floral nose, and toward the end a warming sensation from the ginger syrup. I would characterize the cocktail as more bitter than sweet– perhaps due to my homemade infusion. The addition of the witbier in lieu of a soda or tonic is inspired. Soft sweetness from the malt tempers the vodka, the carbonation adds body and volume, and the beer is responsible for all the subtle aromatics.
NOTE: I haven’t had a cocktail shaker the last few weeks, I have three collecting dust in storage and can’t justify buying another, but improvised with my Kleen Kanteen. The metal body provides a hard surface for breaking up ice, without risking chips and cracks in your pint glasses.
Where do you stand on the debate? Is perfection better left untouched? Or is bliss found only by bringing together two good things?
Last January I cycled snowy Chicago streets from Edgewater to Logan Square to hear a friend’s band play at The Whistler. I had only just heard of the bar but looked forward to the cocktails by which everyone seemed so impressed. And impress they did. Now that I think of it, this was my initiation into the ‘craft cocktail’ world, as I had stubbornly stuck to my beers for so long. I recall my first visit vividly.
I started with an Orchard Old Fashioned while I waited for a friend. Arriving solo to a packed house allowed me to grab the only empty seat at the bar right in front of Paul McGee, the man behind the drinks. There I watched him shake and stir, muddle and measure, while I sipped from a drink built of rye and apple whiskey, Demerara sugar and Angostura bitters.
Now, you have to understand much of my finest mockery material has been based on subjects ostensibly belonging to the ‘hipster community’ (stemming from an insecurity that these people are simply cooler and more put-together than me). And this heavily bearded mixologist in a bow tie would be no exception. But there’s just one thing: the man makes the most exquisite drinks. It seems in poor taste to parody an expert of his craft in the same breath that you ask for another.
So I held my tongue and politely ordered the Rosemary Collins. A spin on the classic Tom Collins, this bright and herbaceous drink sucked me into a Proustian sense-memory vortex of such intensity I didn’t even notice the band playing. A huge sprig of rosemary greets the senses as you raise the tall glass for sampling. It is so piney and resinous that I was instantly transported to the dense Sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park where I’ve taken numerous backpacking trips. The light citrus and sweetness in the drink reminded me of the powdered sweeteners we add to filtered water to make them taste less of pond. But the Hendrick’s gin is so floral and fresh, from the rose petal and cucumber notes, you can’t help but picture a favorite rose garden– the Mission in Santa Barbara comes to my mind.
I walked, well biked, away from the evening with a new respect for the art of making a cocktail. It’s harder than it seems to concoct something that is neither too sweet nor too strong, that compliments the quality of the alcohol establishing the drink’s foundation. So distinctive and delicious, this drink has been on my mind for a year.
Go see the master mixologist before he moves to a new venue at the beginning of February. Or make your own Rosemary Collins by following the recipe here. Do you have a home bar? I can’t wait to make one for myself, and found this article helpful (or just taunting.)
Today’s cocktail is a Bolden original. My sister’s Meyer lemon-infused vodka joins a lavender simple syrup to create a bright, strongly floral afternoon drink. Both fruit and flower were grown on site.
The addition of lavender to food products has become increasingly popular in recent years. Mostly in dessert, we’ve seen it make appearances in honey, ice cream, and cookies. Though its novelty may seem trend-produced, lavender has long been a component of Herbs de Provence, and is used to add floral notes to many dry rubs. But for now, we’ll just add it to our hooch.
Begin the Sparkling Lavender Meyer a few weeks ahead of time by taking a mid-level vodka like Skyy or Ketel 1, or if you’re trying to impress the Gods of Five O’clock somewhere use Tito’s Handmade. Infusion can be as simple as introducing essential oils, in this case the peel of a few Meyer lemons, into a mild vodka, storing it in a sanitized vessel, and walking away.
Make a simple syrup by boiling equal parts sugar and water, and for a lavender addition I add about a tablespoon of the flower per cup. To build the drink add 1 ounce of lavender simple syrup to 2 ounces of infused vodka in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and pour into a high ball glass with ice. Top with club soda and garnish with lavender stalks.
The resulting beverage is intensely floral, much like a well-perfumed gin, with the slightly bitter citrus from the lemons. Meyer lemons are special in the way they harmonize the intensity of a lemon with the sweet juice of a mandarin, producing a truly complex piece of fruit. The herbaceous aromatics hum above the lemony bite, to the point where you can hear the hovering bees in the arid, warm climate of the lavender, from anywhere you sip this cocktail.
In other news, don’t bring nice Riedel glasses onto bricked patios. Especially if you come from my highly accident-prone bloodline. All stemware from here on will be limited to the Mason/ Ball family.
This week for my birthday I received 3 cards from my immediate family all which featured beer on the cover. It occurred to me that my exploration of drinks desperately needs broadening. For 2012 I’ve decided to think outside the beer box and throw myself into cocktails (if only that were literal) and wine. Because wine is the single beverage I understand the least, however much I love it, I’ll begin with cocktails.
Mixed drinks can be divided by alcohol, presentation, era of origin– any host of categories. As I’m making an effort to work more out of the garden I’ll present cocktails featuring an element that I personally grew.
Our first cocktail: the mint julep. Normally this smooth drink doesn’t debut until Derby Day, but I had some Bulleit Bourbon leftover from New Year’s, fresh mint growing in the garden, and an afternoon high today of 86 degrees.
Mint juleps consist of Kentucky Bourbon, fresh mint leaves, fine sugar, crushed ice, and usually club soda. There are competing methods for preparation but the most typical begins by muddling 6-10 mint leaves (depending on size) with a few teaspoons of fine sugar and a splash of club soda. Some say the mint leaves should be aggressively muddled but I don’t like bits of mint leaf clogging my straw so I just press the leaves enough to break up the plant cells which release oils. You then add 2-3 ounces of Kentucky Bourbon, and fill the glass with crushed ice– if the ice is broken up it dilutes the strength of the drink. It can be altered to taste but this standard method, where you enjoy from the glass or have a low straw to get a close up of the mint, introduces a refreshing and invigorating twist to a favorite bourbon. This guy seems to know what’s up.
On New Year’s Eve this year I was in the company of a few people who had begun infusing their own liquors and who were making remarkably inventive drinks. Have you noticed the “artisan cocktail” trend outside of bars and restaurants? HAS IT INFILTRATED A HOME NEAR YOU? Are you even a fan of drinking hard liquor?
Meet Ron Bolden. He’s not your average parent. Of course he provided fatherly instruction on the typical childhood rites-of-passage like riding a bike, wilderness survival, and the basics of barbecuing. From him I inherited a love of gardening, books, and astronomy. On his insistence I learned the importance of standing up for your values– in the same year he protested the Vietnam War he picketed NBC for pulling Star Trek off the air. Lesson learned: get off your butt and get in the game. Also, the object of your passion isn’t as important as remaining passionate.
Finally, my Dad taught me about beer. He started brewing at home when Carter legalized it in 1979. When my sister and I were born he repurposed the equipment for root beer making and showed us the ropes. I always had positive associations with lawn mowing because he would let me sit under the trees and “supervise” his Negro Modelo. If you haven’t deduced by now, Vanessa is my wiser, leggier older sister.
The beers featured tonight were the only untested holiday ales left in town. They’re of equal availability in California. NOTE: I had a sampling of Anchor Brewing’s Christmas and Happy New Year Special Ale 2011 a few weeks ago and found it steeply in decline from the 2010 batch. Granted, it was from a Magnum bottle so maybe things were off but the beer was one note, and that note was nutmeg. Humbug.
V: Lots of apple at first approach. Nice, dense color. Oh it’s surprisingly delicious! I don’t know much from Grand Teton but this is a quality introduction. It’s dryer than most Belgians, still bready and yeasty. It’s sort of like a heady glass of Martinelli’s. Crisp and light, actually kind of the more mature cousin of a Pale Ale who went to Brussels on a student exchange program and never came back.
R: Mmm. Smells like ripe fruit. The color is light but completely opaque. It’s strange how light it tastes for so much alcohol, well-hidden. Sure ain’t Miller Life! Er, Miller Lite. High Life? Whatever. Is that a Volkswagon on the label? Looks like the one I used to drive cross country in the ’70s. Oh no, guess it’s a Studebaker. Too bad. Should have been a VW bus.
E: It smells like a damp, dewy orchard. Can something smell like water? I realize that makes next to no sense. Well this does. Very clean. I love the fogginess. Ness is right, it’s a lot like unfiltered cider. Surprisingly bitter at the end but beyond that almost no aftertaste. The bomber was $6.99, I’d say for the abv and it being a seasonal beer this is a slammin’ good deal.
(Not to be confused with Mikkeller’s seasonal)
V: Smells like tobacco or cigar. Tastes heavy of molasses, tar, and boozy cherry. I assumed it would be sweeter like most Imperials but this is very smokey. As far as stouts go I’m used to the very dry Irish, like the ones we’ve brewed on a couple occasions– Christmas 2009 Bolden Brew day was a dry stout, I think. This is so much smoother than those. Wait, what’s this garlic smell? Is that?… oh phew, just my hands from making dinner. I just love the beer. I don’t care about anything else.
R: Is that a reindeer, an elf, and a bear on the label? (Vanessa: geez Dad, it’s Santa. In silhouette. Can’t you see? Ron: Nah. Looks like a bear to me.) Hmm. Smells like roofing tar. Not too strong. Tastes a bit like it too. I guess, carbon. Can an element be a tasting note? YES? Then bring it on! It has some unexpected fruit flavors. This is strange but, I’m getting like, burnt chicken feathers. My mom used to ring the necks of the chickens that we raised in the 40s. I don’t know if it’s the color or the smokey taste but it keeps giving me visions of the coal we used to burn in the basement in Pennsylvania until we switched to oil in the 50s. There was an entire room under the patio that was a devoted coal cellar. My dad had a building supply store with a coal delivery that he ran with my Uncle. They used to bring it by. Maybe it was after he died that we switched to oil. The beer is better warmer. Very sippable.
E: Vapors! I’m getting sticky, gooey molasses and alcohol. While it’s thick it doesn’t have the cloying, syrupy sweetness common in these big stouts. And yes, it’s quite smokey, like someone forgot to open the flue for a few minutes and the living room has gone into complete disaray. Oh! It IS a silhouette of Santa on the bottle. I thought it was a Sasquatch.
* * *
I hope you’ve gathered at this point that we never take ourselves too seriously at these tastings, even if we do take beer seriously. There has been a moment at some point during each of the previous gatherings where someone has closed their eyes, put the glass to their nose and a finger to their ear and professed that “there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese.” Moments of pretension require notation in my family.
This time last year was Adoration, a different Santa’s Little Helper, and Gruyere tart. The week before was one of my absolute favorite meals of 2010– Rugbrod and Currywurst.
This week your Weblog host and his domestic partner, The Girlfriend, join me and Vanessa via world wide web for a beer tasting. We limited options to breweries distributed to both regions. There were a few contenders but we decided on the easily found Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale, and the more precious Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi. Disclaimer: we were obviously drinking from different bottles which were handled differently, but tasting conclusions were comparable so I’d say the beers received equal treatment.
BEER ONE– Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale
BEER TWO: Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi
Can a brewery be self-deprecating? Lagunitas would favor that yes, they can. The brewery annually releases an exceptionally popular Christmas Ale called Brown Shugga’, so named for its signature ingredient. Originally, Brown Shugga’ was a botched Gnarlywine that they salvaged by sweetening. Fans wait in giddy anticipation for it, but this year there is none to be found. The brewery claims cost of ingredients and limited tank space meant temporary hiatus for the beloved ale. They anticipated the hateful fan backlash and bad press by releasing a one-time Imperial IPA in lieu of Brown Shugga’, and dubbed the beer Lagunitas Sucks Brown Shugga’ Substitute. Reminds me of when Firefox drops a signal and openly admits “well this is embarrassing…”
So this week we have Lagunitas Brown Shugga’ Substitute featured as our harder to find (limited release) holiday beer choice, and Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve Ale for the ubiquitous beer. Vanessa returns from last week to contribute tasting ideas accompanied by a new beer taster. Hillary is not a beer snob but she’s a snob about beer. Her palate is far more choosy than mine, and her taste intuitive, sharp, and ruthless.
BEER ONE– Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve.
H: Oaky, like licking the side of an oak barrel. A bitter aftertaste. Insufficient carbonation and the flavor is what… like that nasty bitter coating you get from a pill when you don’t swallow it quickly enough. Pass. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.
V: Stinky cheese! Wow, very farmy and musky. There is an astringent bitterness to it. Malty sweetness typical of every Rogue beer on the shelves. Santa can go suck his private reserve. And what’s this description on the side of the bottle? “Free range coastal water” is on the ingredient list? What does that even mean? The water is allowed access to land? Is that the most pretentious thing you’ve ever seen or are they trying to have a sense of humor and failing?
E: BLECH. Maybe a touch of Munich malts in the aroma, but first impression is a rind of brie. It’s very ripe. Like a moist barnyard. There is some decent roast happening but it’s all gone when you drink and the brie rind returns. I love stinky cheese in cheese form and maybe even in the nose. But imagine funky cheese as liquid. I’m drinking the next beer.
BEER TWO– Lagunitas Brown Shugga’ Substitute. 7.85% abv
H: A bit of cinnamon spice at first. Piney and slightly bitter but with a bright citrus aftertaste. I don’t have any objections. This is delightfully drinkable even though I’m usually averse to big hops.
V: Smells wonderful, like pineapple and tropical fruit. Freshly poured it reminds me of a can of peaches, syrupy sweet but intensely fruity. It’s sweet but not malty and perfectly balances the citrus hops. It has a crisp, dry finish and gorgeous champagne bubbles. Seriously the carbonation is so gentle and consistent it’s like a reversed snow globe.
E: Strong hops and booze are impeccably matched by subtle sweetness. IT TASTES LIKE TWO HEARTED! Color is deeply amber and it smells of candy sugar. This is irresistible. The head is thick and creamy and I’m still watching the damned bubbles. I am reminded of every beer I love the most. So pleased it comes in a sixer.
Tune in next week for two very special tasting contributors! And check out last year’s holiday beer pairing of Old Jubilation and vegan chili.