Tag Archives: Gueuze

Beer Flights: The Smart Way to Drink

5300-plus breweries in the United States and counting. Another 775 in Canada as of 2016 (and counting). A veritable explosion of new and innovative breweries in Europe’s strongholds of brewing tradition: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.

Judges at the 2016 edition of the Great American Beer Festival evaluated 96 general categories of beer covering 161 beer styles.

Never before has such a prodigious diversity of beers been available to those of us who like to drink them.

With all this variety, beer flights are more important now than ever before. I’m sure many would agree –– fortunately, flights are ubiquitous at North American craft-influenced establishments, and are on the rise in Europe. But occasionally I’m left scratching my head when hostility to flights bubbles to the surface.

Vinepair recently posted an article asking brewers to name a beer trend “that needs to die.” One response had to do with flights. Patrick Barnes of Islamorada Beer Company in Florida offered this response to the question of which beer trend he’d like to see go the way of the dodo bird:

“Beer flights. Beer is meant to be drunk by the pint, not by the shot. There are a lot of flavors and aromas that are lost in small tasting glasses, as well as switching back and forth between tasters wrecks your palate.”

Since the Vinepair article started making the rounds, more than a few friends, acquaintances, and members of Facebook beer groups have voiced support for doing away with beer flights. (Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that someone has expressed an antipathy toward flights. Back in early 2015, a barkeep in New York’s capitol region wrote an incredibly subtle think-piece entitled “Flights are dumb, and you’re dumb if you like them.”) Why this hostility to flights, perhaps one of the better ideas to come out of this phenomenon we call craft?

Before going any further, though I do have something against the typical shaker-type pint glass for reasons I’ve touched upon in my “Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker,” I have nothing against pint measures and have drunk my fair share. They have their time and place. Like in a beer garden, for example.

But to return to Barnes’s response: the assertion that beer is meant to be drunk by the pint is absurd. Why by the pint? Does every style of beer lend itself to being drunk by the pint? And why don’t we drink wine by the pint? After all, German late-harvest Rieslings have often have a lower alcohol percentage than many imperial stouts.

It’s similarly misguided to suggest that flavours and aromas are lost in small tasting glasses. A 4-ounce snifter that tapers toward the rim concentrates far more aromas than any 16-ounce pint glass of the shaker variety ever will. (I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the vessel to which Barnes refers when he speaks of pints is the common shaker glass.)

Granted, switching back and forth between tasters can wreck your palate, especially if you have a high-IBU double IPA, an intensely hopped NEIPA, or a wild/sour in the flight. But let’s step back from the bar for a moment. Before the flight even gets off the ground, as it were, it’s the brewer’s or taproom manager’s responsibility to make sure his or her staff are familiar with the best ways to construct a flight so as to avoid palate fatigue. This could take the form of in-house training or subsidized Cicerone courses, or what have you. (Yes, I know that many breweries and taprooms already engage in this best of practices, but since some folks keep trashing flights … .)

Even the oldest brewery in the world is getting into the game

Now, one could adduce more potent arguments against flights along the following lines: Assembling a flight ties up a member of the bar staff who has to pull a number of 3- or 4-oz pours instead of one nice, hefty 16-oz pint. The bar staff then has to make sure that the drinker knows what each beer is. Though I do empathize with harried taproom staff, flights eminently address that wonderful issue of variety I mentioned at the outset. After all, the way I see it, a significant part of being a “craft” brewery or taproom involves education about beer and its myriad styles. Flights are the way to go.

An enlightening side-by-side tasting of gueuze and kriek: Boon, Tilquin, Cantillon, Girardin, etc.

  • Flights allow you to taste beers side by side. Depending on the flight that you or the bartender put together, you can taste a number of similar beers to see what makes a style tick, you can taste stouts next to porters to see what makes these styles subtly or not so subtly different, or you can run the gamut from a lager to a lambic. Say a brewery offers a range of IPAs –– something not entirely uncommon these days. Try them all next to each other in a flight. If you’re at a taproom, put together a flight of IPAs from different regions and taste them next to one another. Not only is this fun, it’s educational. Tasting beers side by side is much more of a revelation than drinking beers in succession.
  • For people just getting into craft beer –– or even for seasoned veterans –– flights provide an easy and enjoyable way for brewers or taproom staff to introduce drinkers to new styles, innovations, or experiments without the visitor needing to go “all-in” on a pint. (That smoked meat and maple syrup porter aged on juniper branches and blueberries sounded interesting in theory … )
  • Knocking back a few pints in a beer garden or in the pub on the way home from work is great if the beer clocks in at 4.8%-5% ABV. But when you’re talking American-style IPAs and numerous latter-day stouts, many of which clock in well north of 6.5% ABV, you’ll be feeling the hit sooner than later. Flights can make the next day that much more bearable.
  • Sure, anyone living in the vicinity of a particular brewery can head over from time to time to taste his or her way through the brewery’s offerings, pint by pint. But if I’m traveling through town and have only one shot at experiencing what a brewery has to offer, a flight means that I don’t have to get hammered in the process. I might eventually settle on a pint; offering a flight of beers gives me a chance to find that beer or beers.

So there you have it. Flights are smart, and you’re smart if you like them.

And sometimes only a pint will do. Cheers, everyone!

Related Tempest articles:

Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker in 2015

Epicurean Unbound: Five Ways to Expand Your Drinking Horizons

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?

For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.IMG_7820

Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.

So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.

Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape

Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.

Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s.IMG_7798 I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.

From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).IMG_7808

Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.

Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant

The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.

The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland.IMG_7856 As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.

***

After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.

A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years.IMG_7919 Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.

The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.

Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.IMG_7864

Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.

IMG_7872Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Biking for Beer in Lambic Land

Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.IMG_7825

We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.

After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic.IMG_7823 Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.

Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.IMG_7892

Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.IMG_7853

Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.

Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time.IMG_7862 Go there before time catches up to it.

Brussels Reprised

What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?

With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.

Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.

Tomorrow, Cantillon.

________________

Odds and Ends

I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.

Related Tempest Articles

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Craft Beer Gift Ideas for the Last-Minute Holiday Shopper

With the popularity of craft beer at an all-time high this holiday season, it’s no surprise that all manner of purveyors have stepped up to offer you an array of beer-related wares. Need yet another item to add to your wish list? Still wondering what to buy for the craft beer imbiber in your life? Tempest’s annual holiday wish list has you covered with more holiday gift ideas than you can shake a tankard at. No beer-scented soap, though. (Just the thing you need when you wake up with a holiday hangover: a shower with beer-scented soap.)Drinktanks-Beer-Growler-with-Keg-Cap-TealGrowler Keg!

In case you missed out on one of DrinkTank’s sleek stainless steel growlers last year, fear not! You’ll have a chance to drop an even bigger chunk of change this year on this tappable 64-oz. growler that combines durability with rugged good looks. Sixty-four ounces not enough? DrinkTank also makes the 128-oz Juggernaut –– the “world’s largest growler and personal keg.” That’s a whole gallon, folks. Great for road trips, and perfect for the homebrewer who wants to pull some beer off his or her kegging system to bring to friends in far-flung places.

Beer ’n Bikes at Beerloved

How about a leather growler carrier for that fixie-riding hipster friend in your life? For those of your cycling friends who don’t ride fixies but still want to look hip, have ’em try a Beers and Gears T-shirt on for size.Beerloved - LeatherGrowlerCarrier Advantage: none of the thousands of North American breweries will feel left out because you didn’t get your special someone a tee from their brewery.

Something a Little Different from Beer Is OK

If each craft beer is a snowflake, so, too, are Brian Welzbacher’s inimitable designs for barware and accessories. Get your hands on his ever-popular jagged steel bottle opener forged in the shape of Oklahoma (which just so happens to lend itself perfectly to bottle openers), or opt for something a little less intimidating like a set of laser-engraved maple wood earrings in the shape of hops. Brian’s wares range from fire-side enamel mugs to wall hangings made from reclaimed wood.BeerIsOK - HopEarRings Check out his Etsy site for gift possibilities that might tickle your fancy and support one of the growing number of folks working to promote craft beer in Oklahoma.

Useful Accessories in One Gift Box

Craft Beer Hound carries many of the usual suspects you’ll see on other beer-related sites, such as insulated growlers, totes, beer candles and soap, and the like. They also cater to those with a fetish for collecting, stocking everything from “cap collector boxes” to coasters. If coasters and bottle caps aren’t quite your thing, Craft Beer Hound assembles reasonably priced gift boxes that include everything from glassware and bottle openers, to fridge magnets (Good to the Last Hop) and totes, to T-shirts and the ubiquitous beer soap.

Literature on Tap

Daniel Okrent. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2011). Last Call is a page turner that touches upon an array of topics in American cultural and political history at the same time that it resists romanticizing the gangland violence of the era.Last Call (Amazon) In tracing the intricacies of how the demand for prohibition and the struggle for repeal brought together some unlikely constituencies, Okrent rescues one colourful figure after another from obscurity. With sustained force, he drives home the utter failure of Prohibition to stem the tide of alcohol flowing into and through the United States of the twenties and thirties. Ideal for any seasoned imbiber who wants to know more about what happened to his or her wine, beer, and spirits during the dark days of Prohibition.

Jeff Sparrow. Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast. Foreword by Peter Bouckaert (2005). Brett beers, wild-fermented beers, mixed fermentation: sour and funky beers are all the rage now, but if you’re a homebrewer, how do you brew these notoriously temperamental ales? Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium and Rodenbach fame sets the stage for a panoramic view of the lambics, gueuzes, faros, oud bruins, and Flanders reds of Belgium. Skip the chapter on history and book a ticket, instead, on Sparrow’s journey through the contemporary landscape of Belgian beer. After you’ve got your bearings, Sparrow explains which yeast and bacteria strains produce which kinds of acids and esters at each stage of fermentation. He then covers techniques such as the turbid mash favoured by lambic producers, and introduces topics such as barrel-aging and blending. Perfect for the homebrewers on your list who want to plunge into the deep end.Beerloved - 33BottlesBeer

Stocking Stuffers

The 33 Bottles of Beer Tasting Journal from Beerloved makes the perfect stocking stuffer for the budding beer judge, brewer, or beer sommelier in your life. It’s made with recycled materials and soy-based inks, so you get some environmental karma out of the act of gift-giving as well. The notebook even has a flavour wheel to help you key in on a beer’s profile. You can’t go wrong for a mere fiver.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

More Tempest Gift Ideas and Seasonal Posts

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Craft Beer Enthusiast

Gift Ideas for the Craft Beer-Drinking Bookworm

Accoutrements and Provisions for the Classy Imbiber

Spreading Good Cheer with a Tankard of Mulled Beer

The Fonduementals of Beer and Cider: Recipes to Warm Your Weekend

Dining Down the Holiday Stretch: Choucroute à la GueuzeDrinkTanks-Beer-Growler-128-Gloss-GreenImages

All images from the respective sites of merchants mentioned in this post.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

To age, or not to age?

This temporal variation of a timeless existential question is one that’s being asked with growing frequency in the craft beer world.IMG_2369But even if cellaring beer has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation of late, it’s still relative terra incognita for the craft beer community writ large.

Beer and Time. To age, or not to age? You’d be forgiven for considering the question absurd, for we’ve been conditioned to think that old beer is bad beer. And in most cases, beer doesn’t fight a winning battle with time.

IMG_4459That said, not all beers are brewed equally – and I don’t mean this in a normative sense. Many beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. But some beers are destined for the longue durée: in plain English, the cellar.

Before we descend too many steps into the cobwebbed darkness, let me state categorically that there’s no reason why a beer shouldn’t be consumed fresh, even if it’s a candidate for aging. A bottle of just-released Boulevard Saison-Brett is every bit as good as one that has battled with the spiders in your cellar for a year or more. And time will transform the perfectly drinkable Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wines destined to hit the shelves in the coming months into something all together different. Therein lies the fun of experimenting. But don’t take my word for it. Try for yourself!

***

What follows are tips and basic rules of thumb to get you started. Even if you don’t have the most ideal conditions, start by laying down a few age-worthy beers for six months to a year.

  1. Friends and foes.

Beer prefers cool, dark places. Light –– especially sunlight –– will skunk your beer in no time. Heat isn’t kind to beer either. Prolonged periods of storage north of 70F (21C) will accelerate oxidation, and leave your beer resembling cardboard. You might already be acquainted with the stale taste of those unfortunate yet otherwise stellar Central European beers that have arrived in North American bars and bottle shops in tatters.

If you’re planning on getting serious about long-term cellaring, temperature control is key. It can mean the difference between a stellar imperial stout five years down the road, or a long, melancholy walk to the sink to pour it all down the drain.IMG_1893 Not only does beer like darkness and coolness, it’s also a bit like Goldilocks –– not too hot, not too cold, and happiest at a constant temperature between about 50F (10C) and 60F (15C). If your conditions are too warm, bacteria that are less active at lower temperatures come out to play. What’s more, the yeast that contribute to that slow, magical transformation in bottle-conditioned beers won’t live to tell about their journey at high temperatures. Too cold, and all these gradual changes are slowed down to a snail’s pace, or arrested altogether. (Better too cold than too warm, though.)

Actual cellars or basements are best, should you have access to a cellar or basement. Your fridge will work in a pinch. And if you have a wine fridge, you’re set. That’s where I hide away all my gueuzes, Belgian quads, barley wines, imperial stouts barrel-aged or otherwise, and any other beers boasting a best-before date years from now.

  1. Tried-and-True.

Cellaring beer involves a certain amount of experimentation, but you can start off on the right track with styles like barley wines, imperial stouts, Baltic porters, Scotch ales, Belgian quads, barrel-aged beers, and Doppelbocks like Samichlaus. You may have noticed a pattern here. These beers usually clock in well above 7% ABV, with the high amount of alcohol acting as a preservative. These styles also typically contain plenty of malt, leaving enough residual sugar for the yeast to slowly convert into caramel, chocolate, or dark fruit flavours –– flavours that meld well with oxidative notes such as nuts and sherry.

The malt plus high ABV equation isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Highly acidic beers and/or those fermented with wild yeast strains also tend to develop in pleasantly surprising ways over the long haul.IMG_3458 Lambics, gueuzes, Flemish reds (the vintage-dated Rodenbach is stellar), and many American sours and Brett beers are worth the wait. Saisons are finicky, but I’ve had great luck with higher-ABV offerings such as those from Funkwerks in Fort Collins, and have found that both batches of high-ABV saison I brewed had mellowed and evolved more complex tropical fruit notes by the time they had hit one year.

  1. Good Housekeeping.

Get a sense of which beers do well within certain windows of time. Some beers you can deep-six and forget about; others may improve with some age, but decline rapidly after a certain point. Keep track, because as your cellar grows, you will lose track. I note down the following:

  • Name of beer and brewery.
  • Vintage date, if any.
  • Date purchased.
  • Place purchased. (At the brewery? At a bottle shop? This may affect your decision about how long you’d like to age a beer. Unless you know the folks at your bottle shop well, you may not have the best sense of how the bottles have been handled before arriving on a particular shelf.)
  • Number of bottles purchased.
  • Style. (Some styles hold up better than others.)
  • Ballpark estimate of the “best before” date, unless indicated on the label. (Low-ball this one: better to drink too early than too late).
  • Tasting notes –– the fun part! (In addition to the usual tasting notes, I add details such as date consumed, how well the beer held up, speculations on whether the beer could have aged longer, and the like.)
  1. Go Vertical.

Arranging a vertical tasting is an excellent way to see how beers evolve. A vertical tasting is comprised of a selection of the same beer or wine but from different vintages –– say, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Not all beers are released with vintage dates, but an increasing number are. If you’re lucky, your bottle shop might offer verticals of the same beer for a reasonable price. If not, simply seek out some cellar-worthy beer. Widely available and relatively inexpensive beers like North Coast’s Old Stock Ale or Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot make excellent building blocks for your future vertical tastings. Lay down about three bottles of the same beer per year and then invite some regular drinking compadres over for a treat a few years hence. Open up three or four different vintages, starting with the most recent vintage and working your way back. Doing this only once in your life will drive home how much of a difference time can make.

  1. You Never Step in the Same River Twice.

IMG_4476Even if the vast majority of the biochemical reactions have long since taken place before the beer ends up in the bottle, beer components like oxygen, proteins, tannins, and esters continue their pas-de-deux well into the wee hours of the ensuing months and years.

*Bitterness mellows, and the jagged edges of alcoholic heat become more rounded.

*Oxidized characteristics start to emerge. Some of these enhance the beer, while others indicate that the beer may be becoming more fit for malt vinegar. A few descriptors for your tasting notes: straw, leather, sherry, nuts, port-like, earthy, woody. In some Belgian sours, you might even notice beguiling notes of high-end balsamic vinegar.

*Hop character fades, while malt notes intensify, especially in melanoidin-rich beers like Scotch ales or barleywines.

*Sweetness can also become more pronounced –– due, in no small part, to the decrease in hop intensity. Expect more dark honey and toffee.

*Stale, vinegar, cardboard. Damn. If any of these characteristics predominate, your gamble didn’t pay off, or you left the beer in the cellar for too long.

The Faustian Bargain.

Cellaring is a gamble. You’ll have some sublime tasting experiences, but be prepared for the occasional disappointment of diabolical proportions. This is not an exact science, and most of us are still learning which styles benefit from some age, and which don’t. But that’s the fun of it.

***

As an idea, aging beer has barely hit adolescence. As a body of knowledge, it’s still very much a collaborative project. I’ve shared some pointers above, and have listed Tempest articles below that touch upon aging beer. Do you have experiences with cellaring beer as well? Share them in the comments!

Further Reading

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

Andy Sparhawk, “Cellaring Craft Beer,” Craft Beer (August 2015).

Alistair Bland, “Vintage Beer?The Salt, NPR (January 2015).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, Or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer Down the Hatch?

Addendum (24 August 2014):

When I read the theme for September’s edition of The Session, it seemed an ideal occasion to share something I had written earlier this summer. September’s Session topic, My First Belgian,Session Friday - Logo 1 comes to us courtesy of Breandán and Elisa of Belgian Smaak, a blog dedicated to Belgian beer and chocolate.

While the piece below isn’t, technically, about the first Belgian beer I ever had––that honour goes to the several Tripels I mistook for Pilseners on my first night in Bruges in the early 1990s (hey, I was young)––it is, tangentially, about my first sour beer. Hopefully the piece will serve as encouragement for those who are still sitting on the fence about these intriguing beers.

* * *

To age a sour beer, or not to age it? How long will a sour beer keep?

Say you’re at your local bottle shop and standing in front of a shelf and spy a few Belgian sours that have been marked down. Should you buy them?

Recently I received a note from one of my readers asking questions along those lines. After re-reading my response, I thought that some of it might be useful for other readers. What follows is a slightly altered and expanded version of the response I sent XYZ, posted with his permission.

*Note: I employ the term “sour” in the broadest sense, without making distinctions between Flanders Red, Oud Bruin, Gueuze, Lambic, Gose, Berliner Weisse, or any sour that would fall vaguely under the rubric of “farmhouse ale” or North American wild ale. Though united by their sourness or tartness, the different processes associated with each style produce beers that are entirely unique. Not all of these beers are suitable for aging.

____________________

dear tempest,

my local bottle shop has a deal on bacchus sour ale, $3.99/bottle, which they say is very low (they say it’s usually $8 a pop, the internet says it’s usually $6 a pop). these are probably at discount b/c they were bottled late fall 2011. tried a bottle, seemed tasty, but maybe i was in a good mood. how well does sour ale keep, is this a good deal or should i pass on buying more and go straight for the duchess or the petrus pale ale at $1-2 more a bottle? or should we destitute graduate students give up on the pretensions of one fine beer a week, and go for six shitty buds instead? which produces a better dissertation? which produces a faster dissertation? does that distinction matter?

yours, XYZPetrus Oud Bruin (brouwerijdebrabandere.be)

Dear XYZ,

As soon as I saw the word “dissertation,” I put two and two together – which, as I’m sure you know, equals five. Notes from Underneath the Weight of a Dissertation. I’ve been there.

Anyway, Bacchus: I haven’t actually had the Bacchus sour yet. As far as the price goes, it compares favourably with beers such as Duchesse de Bourgogne and Petrus. In terms of bottle age, I’d be inclined to take the chance––certain sour beers can be reliable candidates for cellaring. I don’t have much experience in this field myself, but I have laid down a few Gueuzes for the long term, and once managed to save up three different vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie for a vertical tasting. (Tasting notes here.) Incidentally, a few weeks back I had the pleasure of tasting two vintages of Choc’s Gose from their Signature series: a 2012 and a 2013. I hadn’t thought of Gose as a style that age would flatter, but the 2012 had developed fuller, more complex flavours and a more intense but nuanced sourness. How – or whether – these flavours will develop over the long term, though, is anybody’s guess.

Before I go any further, here’s a caveat and an anecdote. First off, the caveat: sour beers tend to be lower in ABV (alcohol percentage); typically, beers lower in alcohol won’t stand up to cellaring as well as, say, barley wines or imperial stouts. But even at their lightest – a Lambic or Gueuze, for example – sour beers are the product of an interesting cocktail of “domesticated” and “wild” yeast (most predominant being Brettanomyces), usually acting in concert with bacteria (such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) that would contribute otherwise undesirable aromas and flavours to other beer styles––acetic acid, or a lactic or citrusy tartness, for example. What’s interesting, though, is that different strains of Bettanomyces yeast and different kinds of bacteria will express themselves at varying stages of the aging process, adding nuances along the way. Introduce a bit of barrel aging, and you have a whole new layer of complexity. If you want a baseline for comparison with a “similar-but-different” variety of farmhouse beer, here’s an interesting article from Draft Magazine on aging Saisons.

And now for the anecdote. It was early spring and, like you, my dissertation held me firmly in its clutches. In need of a much-needed break, I went to the bottle shop with a close friend who was also in the process of expanding his appreciation of beer.HarvestStrawBalesSchleswig-Holstein (commons-wikimedia-org) Both of us had plenty of experience with wine and spirits, but we weren’t quite prepared for what awaited us in that small bottle of Gueuze on which we had just dropped northwards of twelve bucks. BrockhausEfronEncyclopedicDictionary_b35_043-0 (Wiki-Commons)Man, it smelled rankly pungent. Bandaid! Old hay! Horse blanket! Barnyard! It even smelled vaguely like washed-rind cheese. And it tasted, well, sour. And somehow not quite right. At any rate, we didn’t taste much of the beer, for by the time we had smelled it, we were already plenty convinced that this bottle of beer had given up the ghost. Back we went to the bottle shop.

Why am I relating this anecdote? Well, the Gueuze in question was vintage-dated, and had a few years of age on it. The only thing I knew about these kinds of beers at the time is that they were supposed to develop with age. But bandaid and barnyard? I protested loudly, and demanded a refund. The folks at the counter suggested – very diplomatically, given the circumstances – that perhaps this was a style of beer that would take some getting used to. To no avail.

Eventually, though, I learned that Gueuzes and Lambics (and the various other sour beers I’ve tasted since) have their own distinct charm. But it took some time for me to appreciate these beers and their potential for aging.

So buy those Bacchus sours. Taste one now, and lay one down. If you have the extra cash, get the Duchesse and a Petrus and do a tasting with all three. If you had to pick one over the others – and I suppose the issue of choice is a component of your question – I’d go with the Duchesse, but only because it’s one of my favourite beers. If you’ve had the Duchesse already, the different beers that Petrus offers are, for the most part, excellent too.Rodenbach-Grand-Cru (belgianbeercafe-net-nz) You can’t go wrong with Rodenbach’s Grand Cru either – even as a destitute grad student. Even better: splurge on a Rodenbach Vintage if your bottle shop carries it and crack it when you’re done your dissertation. And while you’re spending your hard-earned graduate stipend, don’t forget about some of the excellent producers of sour beers and farmhouse ales that have sprung up on this side of the pond, such as Crooked Stave, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Jester King, Prairie Artisan Ales, and Jolly Pumpkin, just to name a few.

Which brings us to your final set of questions: the relationship between drinking fine beverages and finishing that dissertation. I don’t know what you’re writing about, but I’d be willing to wager that one Rodenbach Grand Cru in the fridge is worth far more than any number of Buds in your gullet. The Rodenbach might cost more than a flat of macro brew, but hey, that’s what being a pretentious grad student’s all about – assuming, of course, that you uphold certain pretenses. So drink the better beer when you can afford it. Doing so might not produce a better dissertation in the end, but chances are you’ll feel happier basking in the glow of an imperial stout buzz when your writing stalls than you’d feel after downing a 6er of Bud and trying to fill that blank page with sage thoughts.

Better versus faster: the only good dissertation is a done dissertation. I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

Cheers,

Tempest

_________

Related Tempest Articles:

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

__________

Images:

Petrus: brouwerijdebrabandere.be

Harvest Straw Bales in Schleswig-Holstein: Wiki Commons

Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary: Wiki Commons

Rodenbach: belgianbeercafe.net.nz

© Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Dining Down the Holiday Homestretch: Choucroute à la Gueuze

Sauerkraut is one of those dishes that can assume multiple incarnations, some on the light side, and some with enough goose fat to sink the Bismarck. After three solid days of eating rich foods over the course of that American holiday of sublime overindulgence, I’m feeling very much inclined to look to the lighter end of the spectrum and to the west of the Rhine.

For this variation on Alsatian-style sauerkraut, Choucroute à la Gueuze (or just plain sour beer sauerkraut, if you prefer), I use gueuze in place of white wine for a zesty crispness that’ll cut through all that turkey and mashed potatoes. I also bundle up a slightly different spice blend than I do when making my soporific duck fat German-style sauerkraut, spices that come together in a flavourful ensemble with the citric tartness of the gueuze. The amounts are approximate – spice as conservatively or intensely as you like.

One of my many sauerkraut variations - this one made with Boulevard's Harvest Wheat Wine

One of my sauerkraut variations – this one made with Boulevard’s Harvest Wheat Wine

Versatility is the hallmark of this dish. You can serve it up with sausages and ham, or you can opt instead for a seafood variation using scallops and halibut. Prepare these simply: salt, pepper, and a quick sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter before garnishing the platter. You can also add mussels near the end of cooking to echo that other great beer accompaniment, moules-frites. Boiled young potatoes add just enough heft, and sliced, parboiled fennel bulb rounds out the dish.

Vegetarians need not feel left out in the cold either. For depth of flavour, substitute one pound of mushrooms for the bacon and skip the butter if you’re vegan. Crimini mushrooms work well, but chanterelles or oyster mushrooms add a finer touch. Caramelize the mushrooms in a separate skillet, and then combine with the rest of the ingredients when adding the sauerkraut.

The humble cabbage is, of course, the star attraction. You can use canned sauerkraut in an absolute pinch, but a bag or jar of fresh sauerkraut will flatter the dish all the more. Better yet, make your own. All you need is some advanced planning, a little time, and a sharp knife. (Details follow the recipe).

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs. fresh sauerkraut, rinsed
  • ¼ lb. slab of bacon, diced
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 green apples (peeled, cored, and diced)
  • 1 cup gueuze or lambic (a light-coloured beer like Lindemans Cuvée René works well)
  • 1 tbsp. juniper berries
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. fennel seeds
  • ½ tsp. cumin seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp. tarragon, chopped (keep a few sprigs aside for garnish)
  • sea salt or kosher salt to taste
  • cheesecloth and cooking twine
  • sausages, meats, seafood, potatoes, and vegetables of your choice

Directions

Preheat oven to 325º F. Rinse the sauerkraut and prep the onion and apples. Tie the juniper, cloves, coriander, fennel, cumin, and bay leaves in cheesecloth to make a spice bag.

In the meantime, render the bacon fat in a heavy casserole set over just shy of medium heat. Swirl in the butter, raise heat to medium-high, and sauté the onions until they turn translucent. Add garlic and apple and sauté another minute or two.

Raise heat slightly, deglaze the casserole with the gueuze, and add the sauerkraut and spice bag, letting everything come to a gentle boil. Check salt and add if necessary, then cover the casserole and place it in the oven.

You could easily let this dish cook for up to three hours for a very tender, nearly melting sauerkraut, but since we’re going for a light touch, an hour will yield sauerkraut with some crunch. You could also braise the sauerkraut on the stove top over low heat, but cooking it in the oven frees up the stove top so you can prep the other fine foods that will garnish your dish.

Remove from the oven and stir in the tarragon. Cover and let sit for another minute or two before garnishing the casserole or turning the contents out onto a platter.

Serve with gueuze, lambic, Flanders red ale, or Oud Bruin. White wines like Rieslings or Gewürztraminers are perfect accompaniments as well.

Turning Cabbage into Sauerkraut

Find a dense cabbage (go for purple cabbage if you’d like some added colour), remove the outer leaves, core it, and then slice it thinly. You could use a food processor, but the result comes out like watery coleslaw. For every five pounds of cabbage you’ll need about 3.5 tablespoons of salt (roughly 2-3% of the weight of the cabbage).

If you own a crock, great. If not, this fermenting fabrication works just as well: two food-grade containers of equal size.

IMG_9497Simple, eh? Just fill the bottom container with alternating layers of cabbage and salt, then fill the top one with water to weigh it down. Top it off with a clean pillow case, draw some whiskers on it, and you’ll keep the ambient critters at bay. Store the container in a cool, dry place and wait about three weeks.

© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.