Beer tasting still a game of hit and miss

Trying different beers can sometimes be a game of hit and miss. It can be easy to spot an off-flavoured beer and you’re within your rights to send it back. But what do you do when you get a beer that’s just plain bad? If the beer’s on draught, you might try before you buy. Sadly, this is not the case with packaged beer. Some staff might try to dissuade you from ordering it in the first place or occasional some might offer to replace it, taking the sales hit in the process.

Beer enthusiasts might check ratebeer.com or untappd for reviews but that’s too much work. Often you just trust the establishment that the beers on offer are good, all the more so when their beer menu is limited and the rest of the drinks menu is carefully selected. This opens the possibility of one being misled as a fair few places show less interest in their beers as they do with wines, whiskeys and other handpicked small batch spirits. This happened to me a few weeks ago in an award-wining restaurant in New York City.

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When you’re away, you want to try as much local beers as possible. I had been drinking my own fair share of Brooklyn Brewery beers and I even eschewed aged-Orval (accidentally, due to the delay in shipping it stateside) on the menu. Instead, I opted for Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout by Andean Brewing Company. The brewery is located a few wiles west of the city on the far side of the Hudson River. It may be pretty local but the Kuka range of beers pride themselves in using Andean ingredients, with maca root (an aphrodisiac, apparently) found in all of their beers.

Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout (6% abv) pours black with a garnet tinge. It has a fairly limp, tan head – not a great advertisement for the powers of the maca root. The beer contains Brazilian coffee and lactose so it comes as no surprise that the nose is of coffee and a dusting of powdered sugar. The sweetness is there at the start. Unfortunately the body is too thin and fails to mellow the roast coffee.

The beer’s far too astringent and quickly overpowers the carbonation and the lactose. The sugars remain on the lips but this beer finishes harshly. I didn’t finish this beer. That says something. In fact, I quickly moved on to the wine. It goes to show that beer tasting is hit and miss. While thankfully it’s more hit than miss, there’s still a few disappointing beers out there. I still can’t get over why fine dining establishments and upscale bars don’t show more respect to the beers they stock.

World Press Freedom Day in Brooklyn and elsewhere

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a United Nations backed initiative to mark freedom of press and calls on all governments to respect free speech and expressionism. Sadly in 2015, attacks are still taking place on members of the fourth, and increasingly on the fifth, estate. These rights must be continued to be protected today as much as people fought for them in years past.

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We should fully appreciate the risk journalists take in covering stories. Veronica Guerin will long live in the Irish consciousness and there’s a wonderful tribute to her in the Newseum in Washington, DC. Journalists are daily taking risks to draw our attention to issues that are occurring long from our doorsteps.

Brooklyn Brewery, a member of the Class of ’88 craft beer start-ups, is a company that actively recognises this. It’s hardly surprising given that co-founder Steve Hindy was one-time Middle East correspondent for Associated Press in the early 1980s. It was during this time that he picked up the home-brewing bug. It was a popular pastime amongst diplomats based in dry countries. I’ve come across Irish engineers based in Saudi Arabia who are keen Brewers because what else would they drink. Apparently they’ve become quite adept at in their words “converting” non-alcoholic beers into sometime supposedly passable.

Back in the US, home-brewing eventually led to Hindy to giving up the journalism game and start the brewery with Brooklyn neighbour Tom Potter. The brewery’s growth is an interesting story, including being criticised for contract brewing, Milton Glaser, launching Sierra Nevada in New York and giving Garrett Oliver a vehicle to unleash his talent on a global scale. These are covered in two books by Hindy, Beer School (with Tom Potter) and The Craft Beer Revolution. The latter is also Hindy’s take on the craft beer revolution and includes a number of interesting insights into the personalities, events and controversies that marked the last 40 years of the US craft brewing era.

He may no longer be a journalist but Hindy still tries to do his bit. He’s been known to give talks on the role of foreign correspondents and participate in charity and other fund-raising initiatives. For example, he hosts War Correspondents at the Brooklyn Brewery. It’s an annual series of talks to raise money for RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), which provides free advanced first aid training to independent conflict reporters, photographers and filmmakers.

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So for this World Press Freedom Day, I’ll raise a glass to journalists everywhere (even if I don’t always agree with what some of you write) with an appropriate beer for the occasion. What else could it be but Brooklyn Lager, a beer that people may overlook today but it helped win over a lot of people to craft beer. I even remember trying it a good few years back in a dingy bar inside New York’s Penn Station.

The beer pours polished copper. It has light floral and lemon notes on the nose. The flavour is earthy and herbal. Grassy notes are kept to a minimum. There’s healthy dose of bitterness both on tasting and in the finish. The malt backbone keeps the bitterness from getting away from itself. It’s a beer that’s crying out to have with a good club sandwich and chips.

The most wonderful time for beer

The only bit of Christmas shopping I like is carefully selecting the beers to enjoy over the holiday period. The most important choices are the beers to be savoured alongise the Christmas meal itself.

Food and beer pairings can be a joy but also at times the attempts to get them right can be a real test of endurance. Christmas Day dinner can be one of those occasions where choosing the right beers can be a particular ordeal, simply because of the range of food and differing flavours being experienced. One caveat is that Christmas seasonal beers may not be ideal because of the strong flavours contained within. These can be perfect on their own (e.g. BrewDog’s Hoppy Christmas while decorating the Christmas tree) but depending on the specific profile of each beer, they can be tricky to match with food, particularly a Christmas menu.

Menus of course vary between households but a common thread exists – deep, rich and luxurious foods that will appeal to a broad range of ages and people around the table. Some may go with a 1970s style with a prawn cocktail to start and a trifle to finish but others may have soup or light starter finishing off with the traditional heavyweight Christmas pudding. At the heart of most menus will be a roast. An obvious choice given so many dishes to be prepared for one meal, taking advantage of a slow-cooking main course helps preserve the sanity of the chef.

Christmas Menu

Starters

Prawn Cocktail

The problem with this course is not necessarily being careful not to overpower the prawns themselves but the Marie Rose sauce. The tang of the ketchup is the key feature of this dish.

Verdict: Galway Hooker is a fantastic match (it would also be an excellent choice for a Christmas all rounder).

Smoked Salmon

This can go in many directions. A Weisse beer that has strong lemony-citrus notes such as Franciscan Well’s Friar Weisse would work here as could O’Hara’s Curim Gold. Belgian Wit beers would be okay but to be aware that not everyone likes coriander as much as one might think. Hitachino Nest’s Weisse is a stunning match for smoked salmon (tried it at a tasting earlier this year), after all Japanese independent breweries are making incredible beers that match fish perfectly. I’m also thinking of the smoke and some porters would work here (e.g.  Five Lamps’ Blackpitts porter would bring something to the dish). A light smoked taste with also a bit of body would be O’Hara’s Stout. While it has flaked oats in the beer, a wholemeal stout itself could be too filling. We’re not having a sandwich here and we have to leave room for the main course itself. For citrus aromas and flavour, it’s easy to go down the route of an IPA but you should air on the side of caution. We would need an IPA that doesn’t have too much heft in the body in terms of caramel malt. An interesting possibility to use a black IPA (e.g. burnt notes in Eight Degrees’ Zeus along with some citrus character but have already selected one of theirs for later).

Verdict: Estrella Damm Inedit, need I say more. The bottle brings a certain celebration to the proceedings. It just pairs like no other, after-all it was perfectly crafted to accompany many a dish at the now closed elBulli. Even with the subtle spiciness of the coriander, this wheat beer brings champagne-like joy to the drinker.

Pate with Cumberland sauce

This starter has been chosen to represent the “cold” course, which buys you precious time on the day to focus on the other courses (also it’s Christmas for the Chef as well).

Verdict: Crafty Dan’s Big Ben, which evokes bright red fruits and picks up on the cumberland sauce. It has slight notes on the aroma with nutty flavours, but the fruits with a light spicing making this an excellent pairing (especially with the bread on the table).

Main Course

Roast Turkey, all the trimmings etc

As we eat an usual array of food during one sitting, an easy bet would be an ale (especially a strong ale if you want to indulge) from the land of pie and mash. However, there’s a complete overload of flavours on the table from the roast turkey and ham to other meats (or vegetable roasts), the herbs and spices that permeate both the stuffing and the side dishes, the cranberry sauce and other condiments. Also in keeping with a little bit of luxury that is Christmas dinner, the bottle is also important. For this the large sharing bottles are required because they capture the conviviality of the meal itself. A Bière de Garde such as 3 Monts, pick up on the herbaceaous aspects of the meal as well as bring a welcome refreshment with each sip.

Verdict: Chimay Première (Red) is ideal. It is not as full bodied as the Grand Reserve but it interesting and would match the roast flavours, including the slight caramel sweetness that occurs. The fact that it’s a Trappist offering, it lends a certain reverential awe to the day itself. Belgian Dubbels and Tripels ideally match large and hearty meals.

Desert

Christmas Pudding/Chocolate/rich desert

After gorging on 3 courses, the pace starts to slow and conscious that the board games might make an appearance, it’s time to pair the desert and coffee course with what better than a strong stout that exudes coffee and chocolate notes that perfectly complement this course. Of course, if it was just the Christmas Pudding or cake, a barley wine like Louder from the Porterhouse or Belgian Quad would work here equally.

Verdict: Eight Degrees’ Russian Imperial Stout because it’s good to celebrate all the good things in life and what’s better than to toast another remarkable year for Irish brewing than an excellent strong stout. Forget the espresso, the kitchen’s now closed.

Post-meal simply enjoying Christmas night

This is for when people decamp to couches and the Christmas present DVD box-sets come out or a movie on the TV. This is time for a sipping beer that will also pair along with the moment that when you think you couldn’t eat any more, one feels the need to make a sandwich with the leftovers. For me, I’ve always been partial to Delirium Tremens because there’s a fair bit of pleasant complexity going on. This could the time to open the O’Hara’s Double IPA or if you have some relatively strong beer in stock.

Verdict: Brooklyn Local No.2 because I want to keep in with the dark Belgian strong ales. This is luxuriant in its spiciness with sweetness coming from of honey which compliments the dark fruit and chocolate flavours.