Beer


Sometimes that’s just the way it works out. Some foods and dishes reject wine as a companion — or certain wines — no matter how good the wine is in favor of beer. I’m thinking particularly of Indian and Southeastern Asian cuisines, which with their combination of spicy heat and intensity and often exotic flavors defy a pairing with wine, unless it’s a moderately sweet riesling, pinot gris or gewurztraminer whose keen acidity cuts through the richness of the dish and whose delicate sweetness balances the spice. Such a match is a cliche of the wine-and-food-pairing cohort, but as is the case with many cliches there’s a great deal of truth to the assumption. Unfortunately, the night that I prepared the assertive Chicken Khao Soi, a recipe derived from north Thailand sources — it’s the cover recipe for the March 2013 issue of Bon Appetit — I didn’t have an appropriate riesling on hand, so I tried beer and a sauvignon blanc from California. It’s not the wine’s fault that it couldn’t stand up to the intensity of the Chicken Khao Soi — I did ask a lot of it — but beer just did a better job here.

The beer was Pistil, a unique seasonal product brewed with dandelion petals (as well as hops, malts and oats) by Magic Hat Brewing Company in South Burlington, Vermont; Pistil is available from January 15 to March 31. Magic Hat was founded in 1994; in 2010, it was acquired by North American Breweries of Rochester, N.Y. — my home town! — which in turn was acquired in 2012 by Florida Ice & Farm Co., of Costa Rica. Globalization moves on apace, and while it’s not entirely relevant to this post, I’ll mention that the Brewers Association, a nonprofit advocate for craft brewing in this country, offers as one of its definitions of a craft brewery a restriction of 25 percent ownership or control by “an alcoholic beverage industry member not itself a craft brewer.” In other words, a craft brewer that is wholly owned by a large company or conglomerate has lost its hallowed independence and is, by definition, no longer a craft brewer, even if production remains at or below six million barrels. Anyway

Delightful isn’t a word one finds often in reviews and commentary on beer, but I thought that Pistil was delightful in its light, slightly brassy gold color; its mildly creamy but not prominent head with a good formation of what beer tasters call “lace”; and its aromas of orange peel, lemongrass, slightly sour wheat and an earthy element that really develops in the mouth, along with some bitterness and a fairly leafy, spiced tea-like flavor. 4.5 percent alcohol (by volume). Neither too heavy nor too light, this was excellent with the complex flavors of the Chicken Khao Soi. Magic Hat Pistil is about $1.79 for a 12-ounce bottle.

So, what about the wine that bravely held its head up like a good soldier? The Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, is always one of my favorite sauvignon blanc wines, and for 2012 — that’s right, the wine isn’t even six months old — it shows itself in fine fashion. The color is a very pale straw hue; snappy yet stylish aromas of grapefruit, lime peel and limestone, fig and tarragon, thyme, sage and bay tantalize the nose; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of fresh-mown grass and gooseberry. The whole enterprise is lively and vibrant, energized by crisp, finely-etched acidity and scintillating, crystalline elements of flint and steel. The 98 percent sauvignon blanc portion, fermented in stainless steel, is supplemented by two-percent barrel-fermented semillon that contributes just a touch of spice and a bit of suppleness to the lovely, slightly powdery texture. As you can see, a great deal of the success of this wine lies in its precise balance between the energy of the acidity and mineral elements and the ripeness and moderate lushness of its texture and fruit. After a few more moments, the Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2012 unfolds hints of tangerine and jasmine, pear and caramelized fennel, all of these qualities expressed with delicacy and finesse. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through Summer 2014. Excellent. About $22, representing Great Value.

The wine was a sample for review; the beer was a purchase.

I’ve been tasting a roster of Belgian beers for an article I’m writing on the subject for my former newspaper. Last night I opened the Westmalle Tripel Trappist Ale and decided after a few sips that it’s perhaps the best beer I have encountered in my life; it’s certainly right up there, anyway, or at least LL and I loved it. There are only seven Trappist monasteries authorized as breweries, six in Belgium and one in Holland. The monastery at Westmalle was founded in 1794. The monks first produced beer for consumption in 1836. Their tripel style beer was introduced in 1934. In Belgium, “tripel” — the origin of the term is obscure — indicates a strong pale ale, in the case of the Westmalle Tripel meaning 9.5 percent alcohol. This example undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, so it’s quite effervescent.

The color is a glowing light golden-amber; the head is deep, pale cream verging on white, persistent and lacy. Aromas of dried citrus fruit and pears, cloves and orange rind are twined with a clean, fragrant yeasty scent that lends a touch of wildness to the bouquet. This is a wonderfully smooth, mellow and supple beer, yet its true character resides in the ineffable balance among its liveliness, its fruity/fruitcake nature — citron, peach, coriander, a hint of almond brittle — and a sense of burgeoning bitterness that grows from mid-palate back through the finish. None of these elements is obtrusive or overstated; all is harmony and integration, though there’s something zesty and racy about the beer too. This rates Exceptional. About $6 for an 11.2-ounce bottle.

Imported by Merchant du Vin, Tukwila, Wa. A sample for review from the local distributor. Image from pubsub.com.

By “My First Gnocchi,” I mean my first time to make gnocchi; I mean, I’ve eaten gnocchi many times, mainly in its manifestation as heavy, doughy little indigestible depth-charges. I’ve always avoided making gnocchi because it — really they, right? — felt more trouble than the effort could be worth, and truly the process is a kitchen-wrecker par excellence. Still, I decided to prepare Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter, from the October issue of Bon App├ętit, for Halloween night because it seemed like an appropriate autumnal sort of dish. The recipe is from an article about New York Italian restaurant lynch-pin Lidia Bastianich and a typical Friulian meal.

As I said, this was a trek into virgin culinary territory for me, and I was certain as the prepping and mixing and cooking and rolling out and cooking and more cooking went on that I was doing everything wrong. Lo and behold, however, the things actually turned out pretty damned light and airy, just as gnocchi ought to be. LL allowed as how they were as good at the ones she had eaten at Cent’Anni in New York, eons ago. I’ll admit that they were — aw shucks, darnit! — delicious.

I thought that a good way to start — btw, we were watching the excellent Swedish vampire pre-teen love story “Let the Right One In” — would be with a bottle of Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, a seasonal brew, from the well-known independent (and eccentric) brewery in Milton, Delaware, described as “a full-bodied brown ale brewed with real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon & nutmeg.” When I first read these words on Punkin Ale’s label, I shuddered; how, I pondered, could this be anything but too sweet? But no, the spicy “Thanksgiving-like” aspects are very subtle. There’s a sense of sweetness, but it’s encompassed by the ale’s nut-brown richness and balance and the thwacking touch of bitterness on the finish. It was wonderful with the gnocchi. Dogfish Punkin Ale is released early in September and is usually sold out by late November. I paid $3 for a 12-ounce bottle at a retail liquor store that sells “big” beer. I noticed that it’s available by the six-pack at the local Whole Foods. I think I’ll buy one.

From the Punkin Ale, we turned to a completely different but just as satisfying experience. Lydia Bastianich and her son Joe, also a very successful restaurateur (with partner Mario Batali), own a winery in the Friuli region of northeast Italy. The estate turns out well-crafted red and white wines, but recently, as in October, Bastianich released a new line of affordable wines called Adriatico. The wines in the line-up are a Friulano from Italy’s Friuli Venenzia Giulia region, a ribolla gialla from the Brda region of Slovenia, and a malvasia Istriana from Croatia, all of these areas linked geographically by their access to the most inland tip of the Adriatic Sea, as well as by history and culture.

I opened the Bastianich Adriatico Friulana 2009, Colli Orientali del Friuli, and was mighty glad that I did. Yes, it drank very nicely with Lydia Bastianich’s Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter — and only Bastianish wines are recommended with the recipes in the magazine — but even more, it displays gratifying quality and character for the price; in fact, let’s call it compelling. First impression is generally spicy and floral and minerally, while the latter element rapidly rises to the top in a tide of scintillating limestone that bears roasted lemon and lemon balm and a hint of almond and almond blossom. The wine is very fresh, crisp and lively, very dry, yet juicy (stopping short of luscious) and flavorful in a way that’s both fruity and savory; I swear, it felt as if the spareness of cucumber and dried thyme were balanced by ripe pear, lychee and bacon fat, the wine is that macerated and meaty. Yet — another “yet” — there’s nothing obvious, flamboyant or overwhelming here; all is serenity, poise and equilibrium. Drink now through 2011 or into 2012. Alcohol is $13. Excellent. About $15, a Phenomenal Bargain.

Dark Star Imports, New York. A sample for review.


When Benito comes over to taste wine, he habitually brings a gift, and today was no different from other occasions. Traipsing through the door, he handed me a black and silver can and said, “Try the beer that drinks like a port.”

The beer that drinks like a port? Nay, brethren, like a porterhouse steak!

This was the Ten Fidy Imperial Stout from the Oskar Blues Brewery of Lyons, Colorado, population 1,400. Oskar Blues fomented a suds revolution in 2002 by “bottling” its stupendous, hand-crafted, weirdly named brews in specially lined aluminum cans.

Ten Fidy refers to its alcoholic strength — 10.5 percent — though the can of which I partook stated that it was 9.5 percent. No matter. Ten Fidy is in every sense the hand-held equivalent of a Dodge Ram 1500.

Imagine, if you will, a snifter-style goblet that holds a beer the rich shiny mahogany color of coffee dregs, such as Beowulf might quaff in Jutland’s endless night (had coffee and its dregs been available to that legendary hero; of such comparisons are resonant metaphors made). Imagine, then, that this primordial liquifaction smells like the world’s strongest coffee whose beans have been roasted to the point of being caramelized with a handful of roasted barley and the darkest of dark, bitter chocolate. (The word “roasted” shows up a lot here.) Flavor-wise, you take a jolt of thermonuclear-strength espresso, jazz it with a dollop of bitter Italian amaro and black-strap molasses, dark brown sugar, sassafras and prune juice, with, to top it off, another handful of deeply roasted barley.

This is not, as you can ascertain, the sort of beer that you snatch from the ice-chest, chug-a-lug like a demon and then do a belly-flop in the pool. No, this is a contemplative brew, and, as Benito implied, requires solitude and slow, thoughtful sipping at room temperature with a plate of Stilton cheese, some walnuts and an apple. Or, I’m thinking, a hot, open-face roast beef sandwich.


In our rather desultory efforts to try different brews, we have been enjoying the products of Samuel Smith’s Brewery in Yorkshire, founded in 1758 and the only independent brewery remaining in that northern county in England. I wrote about Samuel Smith’s Lager and Winter Welcome Ale at the end of November, but today I want to mention the company’s Oatmeal Stout, made not only from the traditional malted barley but from oats, which Dr. Johnson wittily and disparagingly defined in his dictionary as a “grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” What, did the Great Lexicographer never indulge in a comforting bowl of hot oatmeal with brown sugar and milk? (Or, as LL consumes it, with milk and salt and butter?)

Anyway, we were quite taken with Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. I popped the lid on an 18.7-ounce “Victorian pint” bottle, perfect for two to share at lunch, when I was rewarming (a few days later) a pot of the blackeyed peas, smoked hog jowl and turnip greens prepared on New Year’s. The stout is the blackest of black ambers, as opaque as motor oil, though the generous head is a lovely pale ivory color. Flavors of smoky toffee, rye bread, spiced walnuts and soy-glazed roast beef finish with resounding rooty bitterness, like some medicinal tea concocted by hooded monks in 1143 or thereabouts. The earthiness of the stout, its fleshiness and hint of sweetness worked beautifully with the immensely savory blackeyed peas.

Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout runs $4.59 to $4.99 at specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Market.
Imported by Merchant du Vin, Tukmila, Wash.


One night last week, LL said, “Do we have a beer that’s not dark?” I understood her question. Sometimes one wants a beer that doesn’t partake of the full-bodied, lushly expressive, brusquely bitter character of a dark ale but something lighter, more immediately engaging; one want a lager.

I had purchased a couple of beers at Whole Foods from the Samuel Smith’s line, including the Organic Lager. Samuel Smith’s, founded in 1758 in the ancient market town of Tadcaster, is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire. Based on our experience with these examples of their craft, we’ll try more of Sam’s products.

I don’t remember what we drank the Samuel Smith’s Organic Lager with, but the beer was delicious. The color was a radiant light gold-amber, and it smelled cleanly and mildly of toasted oats (or barley, I suppose) and faintly of mint and roasted apples. This lager was beautifully fresh and clean in the mouth, a little earthy, and of course it finished with a bite of bracing, invigorating bitterness. It came in an 18.7-ounce bottle, which was perfect for two to share.

On Thanksgiving day, while we were cooking and cleaning, I said, “Let’s take a little lunch break.” I laid out a board with good British cheddar cheese, brown bread and some slices of salami and opened one of those big bottles of Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale, 2009-2010. Ah, what a reminder of simple pleasures and their ability to bring satisfaction to our lives, and with an ale that I would happily consume year-round. The color is medium-burnished amber, and after pouring, the head leaves a nice filigree around the rim of the glass. Properly robust and full-bodied, this ale partakes of a yeasty earthy wheaty/barley effect, with a touch of nutty spice cake and orange rind halfway through the mouth. The bitterness is deep and smooth and inviting. Yes, we liked this one, but as a brew neophyte, am I being too lenient? Myriad bloggers and posters to blogs are not so impressed.

LL made an interesting point, which she usually does in these matters.

When we think of the earthly effect and extent of wine, metaphorically speaking, we tend to visualize the depth of the vineyard, the soil, the subsoil, the reaching of roots underground toward rock-strewn strata. With beer and ale (and also with scotch) one thinks of surface extent, of vast fields, of wind and rain. Perhaps one could say that wine is a product of geology, while beer and ale are products of geography. Anyway, it all feels like that. As the late Levi-Strauss would say, “It tastes good to think that way.”

Samuel Smith’s products are imported by Merchant du Vin, Tukmila, Wash.

LL and I don’t drink a lot of beer, and when we do, it usually fits a pattern: Negro Modelo in Mexican restaurants, Sierra Nevada at our favorite burger joint, Tsingtao for Chinese and Southeast Asian.

I know. That’s pretty boring.

I like to read about beer, though, and always learn something when wine-writers like Eric Asimov or Benito, who are knowledgeable about the sudsy realm, digress into that topic. The passionate responses to their posts indicate that there are whole tribes of fanatic beer-drinkers out there for whom a term like I.P.A. is equivalent to drawing a line in the sand. And of course there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blogs devoted to hand-crafted brews.

Recently we cooked a Mark Bittman recipe — Panfried Trout with Bacon and Red Onions — (come on, Mark, where else would you fry a trout except in a pan? Oh, right, an engine manifold) that called for “a strong ale” as part of the sauce; it’s an incredibly easy and delicious dish. Anyway, I went to a retail wine and liquor store, where so-called “big beers” are sold in our city, and bought nine bottles of various ales and such, including five examples from Dogfish Head, about which many writers, including Benito, wax eloquently and rapturously.

Most of a bottle of Hennepin Saison Farmhouse Ale went into the skillet, but we each sipped a small glass and found it very crisp, vibrant and refreshing, with a lovely ruddy copper-amber color and a distinct bouquet of apples and wheat. This is made by Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y. Looking more closely at the label, I see that the brewery is “Part of the Duvel Family of Fine Ales.” Is that like saying, Crane Lake is “Part of the Bronco Family of Fine Wines”? I dunno.

With beer in the dish, I thought that we should have beer in the glass, so I popped the cap on a bottle of Coopers Vintage Ale 2008, from South Australia. This was tasty stuff, full-bodied yet light on its feet, smooth, a little “malty” (is that the right word? “hoppy” sounds trite), with a touch of caramel and orange rind. Very nice with the trout. I was surprised at the amount of sediment in the glass, though the back label mentions the sediment as a natural by-product of top fermentation and bottle conditioning. Who knew?

Well, that’s not much of an excursion into the arcane world of specialty, artisanal ale, but I have a feeling that the Dogfish Head products will be revelations of craftsmanship and individualism, and I’m all in favor of those qualities, in ale and in wine. I’ll post about those examples soon.