Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Get To Know Your Blogger, or, The Ambiguity of Style

I like most beer. Before I take in the aroma and taste a beer, I am looking for its virtuous qualities. I am not thinking about style- only flavor. There are a few beers out there which are not what they claim to be but still taste good. Does this erode the historic styles of beer? No, I think there is much room for expression in all of the myriad styles out there. What we know as style is a relatively recent thing: this prosperous era of science and good sanitation has given us tools for making a consistent beer. Therefore parameters were set up for what a certain beer should taste like so as to guide us in drinking and brewing.

I am the first to admit styles are abused and misused. Miller Lite, despite the company's insistence, is not a "true pilsner". I also admit that when tasting beers, I occasionally find myself saying "that's not a pilsner" or "that's not a porter". More oft than not, I say those things when the beer is awful, like in the case of Miller Lite or Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale, and I am angered that the beer is lying to those who actually drink the stuff.

I think we all have our own ideas as to what a porter is, or a pilsner, or a Belgian ale. We create our own style guidelines and judge all comers against our chosen representatives. Take Porters for example. You've got Sam Smith which is caramelly, chocolaty, just slightly carbonated and full bodied. Then you've got Meantime, another English Porter which emphasizes more of the roasty characteristics. Should a Porter be roasty? Some out there say no. Chocolate should be the main flavor we get from the darker malts. Let's throw in Founder's Porter. At 6.5% and 40 IBUs it pushes the limits of Porter. Or Anchor Porter, one of the hoppiest tasting porters I've tried. All call themselves just "Porter" to the consumer, yet are decidedly different. Is one right and the others wrong?

I have not even mentioned New Glarus' Old English Porter. Here is the description from the website:

"... the least understood of the old British beers. The subject (of the Porter Beer Style) is complicated and confused because porter’s heyday lasted from about 1700 to the pale ale revolution of the mid 1800’s. During that time it passed through many transformations. Porter was simply a mixture of two brown beers. The only characteristic that set the porter apart from any other beer of the day was that porter was deliberately soured by adding a percentage of sour beer to freshly brewed beer. The original porters were not, as is commonly supposed, jet-black in colour, but a translucent brown. They had a rich, smoky flavor derived from the use of brown malt and a winey aftertang produced by the deliberate souring, highly regarded by Londoners."

Our interpretation is a Brown Porter based on the style popular in 1870's London. It was brewed with mostly floor malted English malts including the famed pale ale malt, Maris Otter. A touch of smoked malt produced by Briess Malting Company of Chilton Wisconsin was also used. Half of the batch went through a souring fermentation, in the traditional way, to promote the characteristic wine-like acidity. Lastly the beer was aged on wood to extract sweetness from toasted oak.

Beers styles, like people, begin to change and grow as soon as they are born. As we read above, Porters were once blended beers. Then some guy figured out how to get the same flavor without making two separate beers, rather just one. And so blended porter became "old style". Consistent sanitation and modern technology has expelled the sourness and smokiness from beers like Porter that once had a varying degree of both back in the day. This does not mean we are not brewing to style if we don't include a degree of both in our beers. Rather, it means the beer has evolved to suit modern tastes and methods of production. It is actually much more time consuming and difficult to produce an old style porter like New Glarus did nowadays. Especially in a society which craves consistency in its beer (for the most part).

So how far back are we going as far as brewing traditions go when we taste a beer and say "That's not to style". Not very far. Porter 200 years ago was wildly different than today's. Are we merely going back to the emergence of national and multi-national breweries, like Guinness, who became so prolific that we had no choice but to accept their stout as standard of the style? Or perhaps we're going back even less, to the emergence of micro-breweries in the 70s and 80s?

Damned if I know.

Beer styles are unique to time and space. I say we create some new ones to be lost then found again.

With respect to style, let's evolve!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ode to Cantillon - My First Post - Drinking Philosophy

To introduce my new blog into the world of countless other blogs, I raise a glass of Cantillon 2007 Kriek. Hopefully you will find my blog different, if just slightly, from the other beer blogs you've read.

From the time I began to drink and consider beer seriously, I began to notice that beer could never truly be tasted objectively. The same beer will rarely taste the same twice. What you taste is dependent on so many variables, like what you had for lunch, your mood, and how thirsty you are. Yes, there are certain flavors in certain beers that will always land on the palate. Creme Brulee Stout is pretty much always going to taste like creme brulee. But the sensation of taste is one of the most exciting, visceral experiences in our lives- we owe it to ourselves, as well as to our food and drink, to lend our emotions and imagination to the experience of tasting. This is what I hope to achieve with this blog. To capture the variables of what makes tasting beer so subjective (those variables being, well, life) and record them here.

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It's summer and I'm looking for a more unconventional summer beer. For me, a summer beer should taste better when my palate is at its driest. Pilsners and other lagers of the golden color fit this category. However, I am craving something tart and with a little more tenacity than your average summer beer, so I reach for Cantillon Kriek. Kriek is a form of lambic- a wild fermented, long aged, and blended beer- with cherries added. Kriek is probably best known to many by the ultra-sweet version produced by Lindemans. Real, traditional kriek is not sweet at all; rather, it is dry, funky, sour, tart, and one hell of a beautiful beer. This 2007 vintage is suprisingly fruity. Sometimes the cherry flavor in a kriek is faint at best.
But with this vintage, the fruit explodes on the sides on my tongue- I want to just keep rolling it around in my mouth. You'll completely miss the fruit if you just let the beer pass from glass to throat. There's no doubt in my mind that having a thirsty, dry palate adds to this nice cherry explosion. My tastes buds are standing on end, reaching for more and more.
The funky elements from the wild yeast seem to have mellowed nicely. Very little of the classic barnyardy flavors are present.
The finish is dry and tart; long and beautiful. The cherry resonates long after the beer has left my mouth. The acidity leaves a nice tingle.
Savor this one.
"Cantillon ? That's the time machine. You'll leave the modern civilisation, goodbye to the noise, goodbye to the world," as the Cantillon website declares. Not far off from what you feel when enjoying this beer.
To this day I am still amazed that I can taste such an artful, unique beer from Belgium for such a small price. Granted, Cantillon beers run much more expensive than your average beer. But then I am reminded of the laborous process of producing and aging lambic; the process of importing and shipping the beer; the markup that the beer gets at the retail level. And I am amazed and happy all over again.
Cantillon Kriek achieves what good beer should do: impress the palate, lift the spirit, and leave you with musings and meditations.