On Wednesday I leave for a 6-day, 5-night trip to Playa Mujeres, Mexico. There will be sun, sand and crystal blue water, and all the food and drinks I can shove down my gullet. Now that’s a vacation!
The resort offers an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, from freshly made juices to smoothies, sodas, wines, spirits (including Cuban rum and a plethora of premium tequilas), and of course, your usual assortment of international industrially brewed beers, all included in the price of the room. One thing I don’t think they have is a wide selection (translation: any) of craft beers to choose from. Yeah, yeah … I know you’re really feeling sorry for me now.
But what’s a Zyme Lord to do in the court of King Corona? Where cerveza means something light and fizzy served in a clear bottle with a crusty lime wedge stuffed into it?
It’s not that I’m a beer snob; I just don’t like most Mexican beers, certainly not when there are other (cost-equal) options. I enjoy most spirits. Tequila actually has been my “go-to” spirit for a few months now. I’ve had many reposados and good silver tequilas on the rocks lately, because I find the Texas summer too hot for whiskey.
But that’s the problem. I’ve been drinking tequila all summer, and I’ve had some good ones. Isn’t vacation supposed to be a break from the norm? Isn’t there something else I should be looking for?
I’d love to say I’d liberate myself from the dogmatic prison of my resort and explore the real Mexico. Go deep into the countryside, find some old dude living in a shack who makes the best moonshine mezcal around. Even more so, I’d love to journey into Central Mexico and find an honest-to-goodness pulqueria to try pulque, an undistilled fermented maguey beverage I’ve read a lot about. But the truth is, I’m just not that adventurous … with my life, that is; not my tastebuds. So unless I can get canned pulque at the resort, I suspect I will return to the States once again without having tasted this mystique-filled Holy Grail of hooches.
And I doubt canned pulque would be worth it anyway. Probably best to just stick with what I know. And what I know is this: except for a Bohemia or two with a seafood taco lunch, I’ll probably go without beer until I get back.
But hey, six days without beer on a Mexican beach with great food and a Kindle full of classic science fiction novels is pretty much better than any other six days without beer. Right?
So off we go. And as Pink Floyd said, “Pass the tequila, Manuel.”
The film Fight Club (and I assume the Chuck Palahniuk novel, which I haven’t read yet) introduced the concept of the “single-serving friend”. They’re the people you meet briefly – on a plane, or at a crowded bar in an unfamiliar town – and start talking. You enjoy each other’s company for a few hours, then go your separate ways, never to meet again. In Fight Club, it’s a humorously cynical observation: casual partners for pointless conversation. An illusion of companionship to get you through a few hours of another day on your inexorable way to the grave. A brief distraction, nothing more.
Coming home from a trip to Miami for my day job, I had a 2-hour layover in Atlanta. I stepped off the plane hungry, but mostly thirsty, and beelined to the SweetWater Draft House & Grill (thanks to GateGuru on iPhone for the tip) for some hopefully good beer, and whatever meal they could provide.
The place was small and packed. The line for available seats moved quickly, but by the time I got to the front, no one was about to get up anytime soon. A voice said, “He can sit here if he wants,” to a hostess. As she walked over to relay the message, I realized the voice was referring to me. Why the hell not? I thought, and took him up on the offer.
Before I committed myself to the unorthodox arrangement, I eyed my unexpected dinner companion with the kind of guarded scrutiny that comes from having been in airports too long. He was my age, looked harmless, so I thanked him and sat down. He ordered a pint of 420 Extra Pale Ale and another for me on his tab, then introduced himself as Larry and told me where he was from. He too was on his way home from a business trip, and about to start the last leg of a grueling journey involving multiple connections.
I mentioned where I lived. “Austin! Keepin’ it weird!” he hooted. “What kind of music do you like?” It’s assumed worldwide that all Austinites are music fans (and it seems to be true). I named some of my favorites, and then asked Larry his.
“Gangsta rap,” he said. I nodded and told him how as a teenager I discovered what was left of a tape of N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton next to an apartment complex dumpster, and how from that day on it’s been one of my favorite albums. Larry high-fived me enthusiastically across the table. We exchanged some profanity-laden lyrics that frightened the table next to us.
From N.W.A. we moved to Parliament-Funkadelic. Then hoppy ales. We talked about whatever either of us mentioned that excited the other. Larry told stories about the origins of idioms and customs – like toasting before drinking – with the zeal of an elder passing sacred knowledge to his tribe. They might have been good-natured bullshit, but in that moment it didn’t matter; I applauded each one. At some point, he complimented me on my quick wit. But mostly he talked about how much he loved his wife, and how much he was looking forward to holding his baby when he got home. I shared something equally vulnerable and private.
When his plane was boarding, Larry got up. We shook hands and wished each other safe trips. He left. A few minutes later so did I, and boarded my plane going in an opposite direction. Then it occurred to me that I had been speaking with a complete stranger in a way more honest and unguarded than I often do with my real friends, at least on a daily basis.
What was it that loosened our tongues, convinced us to let our guard down so completely? The beer? Doubtful. Two pints in an hour is hardly enough to get me going. No, I think it was the fact of speaking to someone I’d never see again that gave me a sense of liberating anonymity. But it was unlike the shadowy anonymity of the Internet, where faceless alphanumeric handles respond to candor by shitting all over people they’ll never have to look in the eye. This was anonymity with a face, with eyes that glistened and a mouth that curled up or down as the conversation turned: indelible markers of the reality of the human being across the table. It was radiant, like an element that burns too quickly to be viable as a long-term fuel.
We didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t friend each other on Facebook. I did get a few laughs for the flight home, a fun story to share, and maybe some personality traits that will work their way into some character I write in the future.
But I also got a reminder of the fact that every other person in that airport, whether racing from gate to gate or standing in line for an overpriced beverage, is a real human being. They have names and stories to tell. They have spouses and children waiting for them somewhere. They have favorite songs playing behind those headphones fused to their ears, and they might be the same as yours.
So maybe the key is to appreciate single-serving friends for what they are: short distractions, yes. But distractions that can be enjoyed and remembered, and learned from. Does that make them much different from the books and movies we bury our faces in at the airport, trying desperately not to talk to strangers?
Today I kegged the all-Galena hopped American Pale Ale I brewed on the Fourth of July. That’s 7 weeks ago, a long time even by my standards. Due mostly to my day job, I haven’t had friends over nearly enough this summer, so I didn’t have a free tap until now. The Galena APA has been sitting in the primary in the Harry Potter closet all this time.
On the spectrum of anxiety over long rests on the yeast cake, I’m in the middle. I’m not one of those homebrewers who racks off the primary after a week, and I don’t usually secondary at all. But anything longer than 4-5 weeks and I start to get a little antsy. My inner critic kicks in and I begin scolding myself for letting my busy schedule and personal inertia destroy an innocent homebrew by allowing it to age past the terminus of perfection and into the sinister, uncouth dark age of spoilage. Then I get OCD about it. I sniff my hydrometer samples for the telltale “rotting meat” and “shrimp” aromas supposedly typical of autolysis. Once my fears are quelled, I leave it for a few more days, still fearing that the next time I take a sample, it will be too late.
Yes, I could just rack to a carboy after 4 weeks, but that would risk oxidation, which I consider a much more real and terrifying bogeyman than autolysis. I won’t rack unless I intend to age for a long time.
So I’ve been wary for a couple of weeks. But when I took the last sample before kegging, the beer didn’t smell like my Uncle Brian’s backyard during one of his legendary shrimp boils, so that was a good sign. It doesn’t taste like excrement either – huzzah, bullet dodged again.
But more interesting than this tiny conquest over beer-death (hey, I take the victories where I can get ’em) was the result of the dry hopping.
I added a half-ounce of Galena pellets (12.8% AA) a week ago. I always dry hop APAs and IPAs, but especially wanted to do so this time on account of the hop aroma lost during the long rest. Galena isn’t commonly used for aroma or dry hopping from what I can tell, but reports on the Interwebs had me expecting dark fruit aroma from the dry hops.
Those reports weren’t exaggerated. There’s a definite cherry/berry aroma here. It’s deceiving for a pale ale, as it doesn’t exhibit any of the notes we typically associate with “hop-forward” beers: not floral, nor herbal, nor citrusy. But it’s enticing. Coupled with the bready malt notes of the Munich in the mash, the beer ends up smelling a little bit like cherry pie, more so like a tart blackberry cobbler.
That isn’t coming through in the flavor, but I haven’t tasted it properly (i.e., carbonated and chilled) just yet. That first pint will be one for my personal record book, I’m sure. And I’m already thinking about other ways to use Galena as a late-addition hop: as a component in a late-hopped Belgian dubbel, paired with some Special B malt; or in a dry farmhouse wheat with a little bit of rye or mahlab – yeah, I’m still jonesing to use mahlab.
This could be the start of something unorthodox and awesome. You and me, Galena, we’re goin’ places.
Close on the heels of the recent battle with my kegerator over the pressure of my kegs (which I’m happy to report has been stable at 8 PSI since my last post), I saw an article shared on Facebook dealing with storing and dispensing draft beer. The article, written by Julia Herz and published on craftbeer.com back in January, is here:
Ostensibly a “cheat sheet” for craft beer retailers to teach them to properly store, dispense and serve craft beer consistent with the demands of an ever-more-knowledgeable clientele of brew enthusiasts, it’s still great information for a homebrewer to have. Especially one who’s kegging and serving their homebrew on draft.
It’s also timely advice for a lot of Central Texas taprooms, now that we’re in the hottest month of the summer. Many bars here are used to serving tall frothy helpings of pee-colored American lager in frozen mugs to guys coming in off the hot asphalt and looking for something cold, wet and flavorless to slake their thirst … not knowing better, many of them assume colder is better and serve craft beer in frozen mugs too.
Frozen glasses are never right for craft beer. Never. Seriously. They numb the tongue and desensitize the tastebuds. Next time you’re at a pub and you order a glass of some rare new offering from Belgium or California or Rehoboth Beach at $9 for 12 ounces, and your bartender brings it to you in a frozen glass: send it back.
I don’t care how hot it is outside. You paid premium for that beer. You deserve to taste it. And you should tell them so. Otherwise, how are they ever gonna learn?
The one thing in this article I don’t fully agree with is the assertion that all bottled and kegged beers should be kept refrigerated. For bars and pubs, maybe. They need to turn out the freshest product possible. But taken out of context and at face value, this “rule” can be interpreted too broadly.
Case in point: high-end bombers sold in groceries and liquor stores. Many beers sold in 750 ml bombers benefit from long-term storage before drinking. Brett ferments and wild ales, barrel-aged and oaked stouts/porters, barley wines, and Belgian abbey-style ales all develop interesting flavor characteristics when cellared correctly (read: cool – but not cold – and dark) for several months or more. The natural microbe and oxygen reactions that develop these flavors don’t happen at refrigerator temperatures.
But too many stores selling bombers are keeping them refrigerated, presumably in an attempt to keep these high-ticket items fresher (and sellable) longer. The problem for those of us who want to age them is that unpasteurized beers don’t respond well to going from room temp, to fridge temp, to cellar temp. It won’t turn them instantly to cat piss, but it’s not recommended. A bomber that’s been refrigerated at the store has effectively had its long-term aging potential reduced – even if you slowly raise the temperature and cellar it, it’s not going to have the shelf stability it would have had otherwise. I won’t buy refrigerated bombers unless I plan to drink them soon, and I’ve been politely informing the staff at a high-end grocery store in my neighborhood of this for several weeks. I’m sure I’m not the only one fighting this fight, and I’d hate to see this cheat sheet work against our efforts if misinterpreted.
But aside from this small split in our ideologies, I think it’s full of great information, and I hope you will too. Read, learn and enjoy. Prosit.
My name is Shawn, and I have a problem with gas.
Specifically, the carbon dioxide tank in my 3-tap homebrew kegerator. About two weeks ago, I noticed that my beers were getting a little overcarbonated. My regulator, it turned out, was set to a very high 14 PSI. I try to keep it at 10 PSI, which produces an acceptable level of carbonation for most beers; not ideal for all, but it’s good enough and a simple round number.
But when my precious beers were suddenly pouring out as 80% head, I knew something was amiss. So I got on my knees, pulled a keg out of the kegerator to get to the 5-pound CO2 tank at its home on the compressor hump, relieved pressure at the tank valve and turned the regulator screw a tiny bit counterclockwise to lower the pressure. It doesn’t take much to get big results: a few degrees of torque on a quarter-inch bolt can result in a difference of 3-4 PSI, and sometimes it takes a day before it stabilizes.
But it seemed like it was going to work, for a few days. Then, by coincidence, the tank ran out of gas (I suspected a leak, but thankfully found none). Unfortunately, it was a Monday and I live too far from Austin Homebrew Supply to go there on a weeknight, so I had to wait 5 days before I could get it refilled. Once done, I happily hooked up the newly filled tank and set the pressure to 8 PSI in the hopes that the pressure differential would bleed out some of the extra carbonation in the beer and equalize at the level I’m looking for.
And bleed it did. I poured a pint of Weiss Blau Weiss a few days later, and it was straight-up flat. The regulator was surprisingly at 3 PSI. I was in full WTF mode by this point, until I realized that I set the pressure before I opened all the valves in my gas manifold. 8 PSI with one valve open to one keg dissipated after I opened the other two valves.
Now I think it’s back to normal. We’ll see in a couple of days. And someday I’ll invest in longer beer lines for the system. Longer beer lines mean more distance for the beer to travel from keg to glass, which means it doesn’t come out so fast and so foamy even when the pressure’s a little high. That’s the next logical step, but I’m hoping to put that project off for a less-busy weekend.
Was there a point to this story? No, mostly I’m just venting. But it’s a solid cautionary tale for any homebrewer out there still slaving over a bottling bucket, manually filling and capping 11 bottles for every gallon of homebrew and thinking, “Once I get my kegging system, all my problems are going to be solved!” I once thought that, too.
Nope. Sorry. There will always be problems. Something can always go wrong. Especially when your hobby’s primary equipment options are mostly Frankensteined together by DIYers from common appliances, picnic gear and plumbing fittings. Problems are a given. You just have to roll with them.
But that’s part of the fun. Anybody can go to the store and buy great beer by the case. What makes homebrewers invest the time and the money in all the constant tinkering? Ingenuity. Creativity. And a morbid, wretched drive to find problems that need solving. It’s the same reason I build my own desktop computers from scratch instead of buying them off the shelf. It’s the same reason I’ve been researching and outlining my novel for an obsessively long eight months, poking holes in my own ideas before I write the first page. Like many men, I may shout and curse and bang my fist when a frustrating problem rears its head, but secretly, I love it when a problem arises, because it’s another chance to prove how smart I am by solving it.
So here’s hoping this problem is solved … for now. A pint is calling my name, so I’ll test it soon. But I’ve got hours to kill before bedtime, and who knows what might be waiting for me in there?
We left off at …
Fourth Course: Scots Gone Wild Sour Real Heavy with venison liver mousse, black pepper cherry jam, arugula, country levain – The first three courses were all paired with beers made from the same Lost Gold IPA wort. The first new wort in the lineup was a single-barrel wild fermented Scotch ale. It was good, with floral and dark berry notes on the nose and a murky chocolatey red-brown color. It was tart and astringent, very refreshing and great for summer, and paired well with the very rich venison liver mousse. I love venison, though I'm not a fan of organ meat, and a quick glance around the room told me I wasn't the only one outside of my comfort zone. But with a little faith in the chef, I tucked in with an open mind, and I'm glad I did. A bite of the liver mousse spread on the levain bread with a chaser of the sour Scotch ale was fantastic, but the portion was big. I finished mine, but I saw a lot of unemptied plates.
Fifth Course: Highlander Barrel-Aged Real Heavy with bone marrow, blood sausage, herb salad, fougasse – Before this next dish came out, the servers brought out an enormous pretzel-like bread (the fougasse, I believe). It was delicious, but there was no way the two of us at our table could fit more than a few bites in. The beer, also made from the Real Heavy wort above but aged in red wine barrels, was my least favorite of the night. It had little aroma and a bitter, medicinal flavor. After so much good beer and good food, it was a minor letdown. As for the food, this was my first time eating bone marrow, and it wasn't bad, but I preferred the blood sausage. The herb salad was very sparsely dressed, well-balanced to the strong, earthy flavors of the protein on the plate.
Sixth Course: Vol. 15 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout with bitter orange bread pudding, caramelized honey, figs, walnuts – Yep, you read right: Easy Tiger worked bread into the dessert as well (bravo, maestros). By this point, I was stuffed, but I finished this tasty and surprisingly light bread pudding. The beer hit all the notes one expects from a RIS, though my (perhaps desensitized) taste buds didn't taste much barrel character in the stout. And the stout may have gone better with a chocolate cake than with such a light bread pudding. After everything else, I couldn't finish the beer, and I wasn't the only one. I hate to waste, but there's only so much one can consume in an evening.
So there you have it: a delicious dinner and a great beer flight. Easy Tiger and Real Ale truly went all out with each of their contributions and made a good team. The plating portions and the beer pours were impressive, and a great deal for $55 a head. On the other hand, smaller portions would likely have kept the appetites in the room going longer. Maybe even long enough for the less adventurous folks in the room to embrace those organ meats on the later plates.
But hey, Easy Tiger is learning as they go … and I recognize that “The portions were too big at my six-course gourmet microbrew dinner!” is totally a first-world complaint. So I'm not complaining at all. It's just an observation, and maybe will raise some awareness that could eliminate waste in the future.
As for Real Ale, I'd say they showed Austin that this now-old-standby in the local beer community still has some surprises up its sleeve. But they are bigger than the upstarts; and bigger, for a commercial brewery, means bigger risk. Smaller breweries can brew a small experimental batch and eat the cost of having to dump it if necessary, but a brewery the size of Real Ale takes a huge financial hit if they make a 60-barrel batch of something that turns out undrinkable. The trick of fermenting 3 different worts 6 different ways seems a good way for a brewery that size to experiment: if one of the beers turns out bad, there's still barrels and barrels of another beer they made from that wort they can still sell. Is that as exciting as the reckless abandon of a smaller brewery? Well, no … but it still can turn out a bunch of damn good beers, as Real Ale proved.
So thanks to Easy Tiger and Real Ale for a great night that left me happily stuffed and happily buzzed. I'm looking forward to the next one. Prosit.
Happy #IPADay 2012! Notice I didn’t say “hoppy”. I can be an awful punster sometimes, but not that awful.
I’ll post the second half of my review of the Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger soon. But first, a break to celebrate the second annual IPA Day!
IPA Day started last year as a tribute to this celebrated style. From the IPADay.org website:
Founded in 2011 by beer evangelists and social media personalities Ashley Routson and Ryan Ross, IPA Day is a universal movement created to unite the voices of craft beer enthusiasts, bloggers, and brewers worldwide, using social media as the common arena for connecting the conversation together.
IPA Day is not the brainchild of a corporate marketing machine, nor is it meant to serve any particular beer brand. IPA Day is opportunity for all breweries, bloggers, businesses and consumers to connect and share their love of craft beer. It is an opportunity for the entire craft beer culture to combine forces and advocate craft beer through increased education and global awareness.
India Pale Ale has become one of the surest things in craft brew today. Once an English style, it’s taken the U.S.A. by storm in recent decades as American brewers have taken the concept across the pond and transformed it into something we can now call our own. And having had a few traditional English IPAs last year in England, I can assure you, what we call IPA in the States is a very different animal. Not necessarily better, but different.
I’ll be honest, the first time I tried an IPA I wasn’t a fan. But once I had a few proper examples, it didn’t take me too long to convert. What’s not to love? The smooth, sweet firmness of a solid malt backbone? The fresh, citrusy/floral aroma and flavor of good hops? The refreshing, clean fermentation profile?
Sure, IPA has its roots in nineteenth-century British imperialism (click here for the story if you don’t know it) … but you know what else has its roots in British imperialism? Earl Grey tea. And Freddie Mercury. Who doesn’t love Freddie Mercury? The British Empire doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
I’ll be celebrating IPA Day with a bomber of Deschutes Hop Henge Experimental IPA and a homemade sprouted-bean curry (and a surprise Guild Wars 2 stress test, but that’s unrelated … except that I’ll be drinking IPA while I play it).
And if you don’t usually drink IPAs, or you don’t think you like them, why not give them another shot today?
Don’t forget to share your IPA celebrations via social media with the hashtag #IPADay. Cheers.
Easy Tiger opened earlier this year on East Sixth Street, promising fresh baked-in-house breads, ample taps, and a menu that goes beyond pizza, all just down the street from the chickenpox of dive bars and music venues that dot the sidewalks of what the kids call “Dirty Sixth”. This was Easy Tiger’s first beer dinner, and it showed – mainly through oversized portions; a good problem, really – but the dishes were tasty and the pairings on the mark.
It would’ve been hard to imagine it when I first moved to Austin, but Real Ale is now the big kid on the block in Central Texas craft brew. With every new brewery that sets up shop in the region, Real Ale becomes more and more the elder statesman, and they’ve been accused of letting themselves go stale, of not pushing the envelope. (Aside from their flagship ale Firemans #4, most of their beers fall firmly in the American-British spectrum of bitter/pale ales: an APA, a rye APA, an IPA, etc. … but they do make a fantastic barleywine and some nice German seasonals.) The lineup for this beer dinner seemed carefully choreographed to prove that the old dog still has some tricks in it, and while I’m not sure I bought the routine 100%, the beers were well-made and I had a fantastic time.
Aperitif: Firemans #4 – Before the first dish came out, we started with a 6-oz pour of Real Ale’s ubiquitous flagship blonde ale. If you haven’t tasted this beer, you haven’t been to Austin. It really is everywhere, and it’s been the gateway to craft beer for frat boys and good ol’boys in this town for years (not to mention a few people I know). Call it boring; but you can’t argue with its quality, and they brought out the freshest batch I’ve ever tasted for this event. Crisp, clean taste, a nutty continental malt aroma, and a noticeable but not intimidating noble hop flavor make this a beer you can buy a case of for that stubborn Bud drinker in your family, even for your mom. And I have.
Then the marquee lineup started: 6 dishes paired with 6 beers, about 6 ounces worth of each (cue Iron Maiden). The trick I mentioned earlier was that these 6 beers came from only 3 different “wort streams” – this was a new term to me, but basically means simply that 3 different worts were fermented under different conditions to produce 6 different beers.
First Course: Lost Gold IPA with mussels, smoked tomato, fennel, leaks baguette – Real Ale’s aptly named year-round IPA pours a deep golden color. The aroma abounds with grapefruit and floral notes. The flavor is a modest but noticeable blast of hops that doesn’t fail to refresh. It went astoundingly well with a smokey mussel stew served family-style with a whole baguette (for two). We scraped the bowl, and it was a big bowl. And all I can say about the bread is, “OMG, bread!” You can tell it’s what Easy Tiger does best.
Second Course: Empire Barrel-Aged Lost Gold IPA with duck sausage, corn pudding, watercress – The second beer made from the Lost Gold IPA wort was aged in red wine barrels that left a blanket of sour cherry fruit notes on the whole thing. The hop aroma faded with the aging, as expected, but the bitterness remained, and the beer poured enticingly murky. A hint of pungent funk from the barrel complemented the rich, earthy duck sausage. The corn pudding was light and fluffy; it complemented the sausage just fine but was easily overpowered by the beer. The disparate elements of the dish worked better separately than as a single bite.
Third Course: Imperium Wild Lost Gold IPA with apricot-braised goat, local shell pea cake, mint gremolata – The third version of Lost Gold was aged in similar barrels to Empire, but wild fermentation was induced for a funkier flavor. Floral notes took center stage on this one, and it was very dry, balancing very well with another rich protein dish. The apricot balanced both the gaminess of the goat and the funkiness of the beer. By now, I was really excited about what the night had in store. I was eating great food and enjoying the results of an experiment on how one wort could become three very different beers.
Check back in a few days when I post my reviews on the last three pairings of the evening, and my overall impressions. It was a delightful and insightful night.