Session 118: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

sessionlogosmThis month’s edition of The Session sees host Stan Hieronymus of asking everyone to write about their doomed dream dinner plans:

If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?

Elephant in the room: I have been to one beer dinner and never ever plan to ever go to one again. I wouldn’t do that to any guest. So, let’s swap that out and think about four folk I would invite to a pub, to sit around and drink and snack with. No pairings. Not in my doomed dream dinner.

Other than that, this is a great topic for where I am in my life as a beer blogger. I have migrated 565 posts from the old platform to this new one and in doing so have revived some old friendships by revisiting some posts long forgotten. Based on that, my first guest to the pub is Pete Brown. Pete won the big prizes and a few others at last evening’s British Guild of Beer Writers Awards. Like may of the other beer writers I have met over the internets, Pete and I never have been in same the physical space even though he did participate in a ship to shore Morse code discussion with me back in 2007 as well as an interview with Knut and me back in 2006 upon the release of his second book. The beer I would serve Pete would be Double Double, the lost style that lasted from about 1520 to 1820. Its Elizabethan roots would, I hope, inspire him as a topic for his next book.

Next, I would build upon the Elizabethan theme by asking Martyn Frobisher to join us to explain what it was like to put in an order for 80.5 tons of beer as part of his preparations for his 1577 iron ore mining expedition to the high Arctic of what is now Canada. One of the more fascinating topics I have been able to research has been the unexpected presence of beer and brewing in Canada’s eastern Arctic well before the creation of the nation, during the great and grand first wave of northern exploration. I would serve him a gallon of whatever it was he requisitioned and let him explain it to the table. In the 1660s we have seen beer brewed in the Arctic and in the 1670s at least two sorts of beer being brought along  for the trip.

Two more? I would invite Sarah (alias Jenny) who was in the 1730s a runaway slave, the legal property of the brewer Hendrick Rutgers. And I would also invite the unnamed twenty year old woman from Barbados whose own brewing skills were included in the 1760 notice offering her for sale.  The notice said Sarah ran south with a white man while her Barbadian dinner mate was turned down at market, her advertisement running again a few month later. When I wrote about them I thought it was the saddest corner of the story of brewing I had ever encountered. I’d serve them whatever they wanted as they came to the table but I would be very interested in knowing what beer meant to them.

I am going to cheat… twice. I am adding another guest and one who was never ever dead or alive. I can’t think of anyone who might bridge the odd set of table mates than Piers the Ploughman, the hero/everyman of the 1370s morality epic. As we are told, Piers would get his halfpenny ale as he would think fit. He would hammer at Frobisher, himself a knight, on the order good government demanded. He would in turn comfort the enslaved and then round upon Brown, lecturing him on the rumours of everything from junketry to Putinesque vote rigging, saying with the wagging finger:

Then would Waster not work · but wandered about,
Nor no beggar eat bread · that had beans therein
But asked for the best · white, made of clean wheat;
Nor none halfpenny ale · in no wise would drink,
But of the best and the brownest · for sale in the borough.

Then, once the moral order was established, I would have them served the best and the brownest ale of the borough – especially for the ladies. They’ve earned it.

Maine: Interlude 2007, Allagash, Portland

Twenty-four bucks? What was I doing last decade? I have only a few of these aged big bottles left. I gave up a long time ago on trying to keep the cellar up. One of the few beers left from the days of glory, the era of beer blog ad revenue. I was throwing around the cash like a madman. Pretending that I mattered like some current era communicator. Stan actually mocked me about this beer in particular. But that was back in the day when folk weren’t questioning the fleece. Or at least when 2000 brewers weren’t making something good and sour for half the price. You know, the 75 comments under that post from some pretty interesting names are all… pretty interesting – but it’s as if they thought we would all be drinking $60 beers by now. Really? How did that turn out? Market forces thought otherwise. Bulk fine craft FTW!

It’s 40º C out there. Seven week drought might end tomorrow. Worst summer for rain since 1888. Nutty. I just need a reasonably interesting beer. I just need it not to suck. I pulled it out of the cellar, stuck it in the fridge by the orange juice and the milk bags. [Canada. Go figure.] Hey… it doesn’t. It’s good. Still and a bit thick but in no sense off. Fresh with a lighter lingering finish than expected. The colour of aged varnished pine. An orange hue at the edge. On the nose, warm whisky sweet with autumn fruit, brown sugar and grain as well as a fresh Worchestershired yogurty hum. Pear and fig. The baked fruit crisp you dream of. The second half pint pour generates a lovely subdued tang when rinsed about the gums. Like 90% barley wine with maybe 10% old gueuze. Or less. Just a hint. And all those whispers of rich deep malty grain huskiness still there. Lovely.

Am I glad I spent $24 for this nine years ago? I’m sure I don’t care. Do you know how much I have spent on diapers and winter tires since then? It makes me want. And I just want a thick bacon sandwich. I have asked a child younger than this beer to bring me a chunk of the slab of Vermont cheddar we are working on. Fabulous. Rewarding. The espresso of a grain field. Big BAer love and deservedly so.

Is The Data Overload Becoming An Issue?

It was a bit of a revelation. Well, a joke and a revelation. I have a brother who is a bookman who sends rare finds for birthdays and holidays. This year for my 52nd I got this book on cheese. Published in 1960, it is a simple thing. More like a long magazine article than a full book. The author describes one trip taken in a car traveling from farmhouse cheese maker to farmhouse cheese maker. Cheeses are gathered in the back seat and the trunk… sorry, boot… and the taken back to London where they are eaten at dinners and parties with guests like Dame Margot Fonteyn and Stirling Moss. It’s all very light and comforting. It’s not all that unlike Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis which I reviewed six years ago now. Yes, a voice from another era and one imbued with class and cultural distinctions which don’t matter anymore. Yet it is filled with discovery:

Mrs. Roberts DOES still make Caerphilly but not in her cool dairy, which I had foolishly asked to see. That is only used for storing milk and cream! Her cheeses are made in the kitchen, with vats and presses a hundred years old, and they mature in the bedroom. As these ancient, heavy wooden vats are irreplaceable, she may soon have to give up her cheesemaking.

OK, like Amis perhaps without the ever present danger of arrest for driving whilst intoxicated. Perhaps. There are still bottles consumed as she goes about. But there is nothing snobbish about any of it. In the second paragraph, snobbery is the word used for the one who sniffs contemptuously at the mere mention of the cheeses of ones own country. It’s an essay about the pursuit of the real in a world where imports and processes have become the norm. Sound familiar?

This is a voice like the one in my head when I became interested in beer. Not a voice I hear very much of anymore, sadly. Between the quantity chasing tickers and the off-flavour seminarians and the worshipers of the next ever so slightly different hop strain, there seems to be little being left to individual discovery. Too much expertise in the beer to be assimilated from above. Not enough simple pleasure in the experience of it. The current bleat about poor quality in new craft is just the latest twist. The hand of industrial process now reaches down as one’s betters warn that if you eat that cheese matured in the bedroom you might encounter something unexpected, unplanned.

This is not to suggest all was better. The second half of the book is filled with recipes which range from the traditional – like that very attractive cheddar biscuit – to the weirdly experimental. I will not, for example, take up the recommendation to wrap eight bananas in ham and bake them in a sauce made with a whacking pile of grated Lancashire cheese. But there is a joyfulness about it all which big craft seems to be drumming out of me, drumming out of good beer. I don’t care. The errors and trials and surprises of all these new actual small brewers are too interesting to care about their elders and betters, the self-appointed senex with the standard operating procedures, marketing staff and strategic plans for the annual trade show.

Ontario: Windward Belgian Wheat, Stone City, Kingston

stone1The last year has been the scene of many a revelation when it comes to my relationship with beer. Among other things, out of nowhere two fabulous breweries opened up in my immediate vicinity after years of claiming my town was the least served by fresh beer for its size in the northeastern bit of North America. One is MacKinnon Brothers which I have discussed before. The other is Stone City Ales who have a great social media presence and a website with great generational honesty. One feels a certain pain knowing one has kept a beer blog for over a decade appreciating that it’s like knowing how to properly maintain an 8-track player.

The great thing about having local beer choices finally after a quarter of a middle-aged life waiting is now normal it is. I did my Saturday morning shopping run and hit Stone not long after the 11 am opening. I picked up a ridiculously under-priced Rochefort 8 at the LCBO to soak a flank steak from Pig and Olive in. Hit Bread and Butter bakery as well as the Quebec-based Metro grocery, too, with all its ever so slightly exotic tendencies and, then, home and unloading the making of a good feed. What has changed is that the good local beer fits in now as just a stop on the way. Nothing precious, special or even – frankly – craft. Just as good as all the other excellent stuff you can buy in my very foodie town.

I bought a growler of Stone’s Windward Belgian Wheat. Eleven bucks after growler returns. It’s a 4.9% cloudy thing. See that picture? Cloudy. I am working on my cinéma vérité approach to representing beer in my art. The beer gives off very evocative aromas. Is it just me or do some wheat beers smell like babies straight from the bath? Maybe its just me. I diapered for 14 years. Anyway, the scents are twiggy herbal – mace, rosemary and lavender – with cream of wheat and meadow in mid-spring. Maybe even oolong tea with its earthiness. In the mouth, there is a grassy acidic bite then a wall of dry French bread crust with more of all that rich tangy complex herbal construct. The effect is drying rather than astringent. Extremely appetizing. I would love to soak pork shoulders in this for the best part of the day and slow smoke it for another, too.

Early signs of BAer respect. Every beer from here is a favourite. As I found in last December‘s taste test at Bar Hop in Toronto, Stone’s beers stand up to the best. This one is just another chapter in the same story. Lucky me.

The Beer On My Path To Owen Sound And Back

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I had one of those happy sad events over the weekend, a remembrance of someone two generations older than me, forty-eight years older to be exact. I won’t get into details but suffice it to say that anyone who ensured there was a good beer in the fridge was an ally as much as anything. The weekend was moderation itself with plenty of time spent listening to stories of generations past as well as seeing who might make the funniest strangest face, me or a seven year old. But there were stops and there were meals. So – as a service – I offer a few thoughts.

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I will mention the last first. On the road home, we stayed off the main highways given the snow and went with the 1930s era ones, now secondary roads. Which brought us into the towns on the north shore of Lake Ontario. In Trenton, we came across Port Bistro Pub. A burger for me which I might have enjoyed more had the other plates not looked better. The picture above in the middle does not do justice to the architectural nachos consumed by the boy. The salsa was light and lime while the cabbage cole slaw was cut with shredded green apple. You wanted that intel, correct? I mean one needs to project to all parts of the theatre, no? Fine. I admit it. The reason for that all is as background to me now mentioning the one glass of milk stout I had which was made by Gateway Brewing, also of Trenton. It was good. I shall hunt it out again. I took no notes so that is about it. Sorry. Did I mention I was six hours into a none hour snowy drive? Worth a visit.

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On the way up, I was more prepared. Or at least I aimed and when I found Northwinds Brewhouse, I had… a burger. But as it was a burger eaten on a Friday unaware of the one I order on the next Sunday. I shouldn’t have had two. But I should have had this one. I had a gratzer as well as a mild. I did make the mental note that it was really grodziskie. But then I noted that these were two of the three beers under 4%. And each passed a critical test, the favour of the one who doesn’t really like beer. I took away the 3.8% farmhouse ale, too. That’s the bottle shop’s chalk board up there. All extremely well made and all the beers entirely avoiding the trend of adjunct craft. No phony baloney fruit sauces in the saison, no silly “vanilla note from a vanilla note giving” bourbon barrel aging. Just that sort of well managed expert brewing that occurs when the basic ingredients meet an intelligent ambitious brewer. I like. Oh, and the chance of a fried egg on your chips. That helps, too.

What did the two places have in common. The spaces were clean, contemporary and well suited for the offerings. I particularly liked how Northwinds employed some clever sound dampening panels up in the rafters. Made what might otherwise have been a bit of an echo laden industrial space into a very strong candidate for my favourite Ontario beer house. Port Bistro? It was the wall of glass facing the river. Another faces the road. So tidy I might have felt awkward if that was an emotion I was capable of feeling.

Not Beer: Welcome To Seed Catalogue Reading Time

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I know I mentioned I am sick of winter but did I mention I am sick of winter? I did? OK. Did I mention that I am already gearing up for spring planting. With any luck, three or four weeks from now I will take out the bag of soil I keep in the basement all winter, dump it on the ground and ram in a bunch of pea seeds. It’s my way of shaking a fist at the lingering frost. Peas like a few other common vegetables survive early frosts quite well. Not hard in these parts to get a few crops in that might start providing some salady bits before mid-May. The first peas are as good as the first tomatoes – except they come two months earlier.

It’s not the only bet I will have at play in the garden. I’ve left parsnips and leeks to overwinter. More than one pot of soup to be made of the sweetened roots. Saison Dupont’s true partner is fresh spring harvested parsnip. I pulled that batch up there out of our suburban front lawn a couple of years ago. Need fresh seed for the 2016 crop. There’s parsley and chives and maybe a few other herbs under the drifts waiting to send out fresh shoots, too. The other great spring crop is bok choi. I only learned this two growing seasons ago when I bought a pack on a whim. It grows like mad in the cool spring air and again in a second season in autumn. Ten bucks gets you 1,000 seeds if you buy the commercial grower size packs. That’s a lot of small shoots, a lot of dinners.

I am convinced one of the best ways to understand beer is to understand all the things you can eat and drink. Better than buying hydroponically fed, commercially produced veg growing food will give you an earthier experience as well as a small but direct appreciation of agriculture and some of the tensions plants face. Beer, after all, is a result of our relationship with edible plants.

Beets, Beet Greens, Fence Posts And Poppies

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A busy Remembrance Day. Elementary school assembly hall at 9:15 am then right over to the main City of Kingston gathering. I say the main one as there is another which starts about 15 minutes earlier for the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery about 200 yards away, then one for the Burma Star after the main one, then one after that at the naval memorial. All are well attended. And well protected. A large police presence with other sorts of security moving around us. All well received. Except by that guy with the black back pack on the bike. Seriously. He went on his way after a good searching.

Lunched. Being off work while the kids are at school does wonders for the luncheon scene. Luncheon dates need a revival. Our first time at Carmelinda’s. No avacado to be seen but a solid and surprisingly good chicken sandwich. Thence to Home Depot for stuff to further fix the fence. 12 gauge metal plate to screw in across a week spot. $3.39. It must be 45 weeks since the ice storm of last December. I have the fence 78% fixed and will have to get through another winter in that admittedly enhanced state even if the rot is in. It actually feels fairly solid even if it’s all jury rigged. Cheap and jury rigged. Needs to be cheap seeing that the new in-the-wall oven is coming in two weeks. Why?

Oh me nerves. Convection oven fan motor fried right at the end of roasting the chicken for dinner. It made a funny noise and, when I looked in the oven, the fan at the back was glowing bright orange like the coals at the foot of the gates of hell. Race downstairs. Shout to the kids to get upstairs. Thinking of how to call the fire dept. Pull fuse for oven. No flames when I get back upstairs. Leave oven door open to let everything cool. Then find a really good bottle of port. Because the chicken was, in fact, done. Like the oven. And roasted chicken and roasted convection oven fan both good with good port.

That was Saturday night. Me on Facebook, Oh. Me. Nerves. So, a new oven is coming.

And then the beets. Maybe 15 pounds of them? A third of a bucket with a full bucket of greens. Chopped the greens, sauteed them in olive oil and garlic, added a little ham, a little mustard. Kids ate it with a 60% rate of enthusiasm. I’ve seen worse.

Book Tour Tales: Why Do I Love Upstate New York?

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Back home. Been in the USA since Thursday and, unlike a lot of you who have to cross an ocean or get out a map, I was able to hit three grocery stores on the way home. See, I live 37 minutes from the international Thousand Islands Bridge, the most beautiful border crossing on the planet. So I bought laundry soap. But unlike most trips into the nearby Empire State, the family was not in tow. I don’t take off in another direction all that often. Which means I had a lot of time in the car to think about stuff. Or at least stuff other than where Mr. Bunny had gotten himself to. It’s always under the swim bag, by the way.

I had all the time in the world to think about what attending the SUNY Cobleskill event Grain to Glass meant. It certainly was the opposite of that stunned big craft celebrity brewer neediness. The room was full of people interested in becoming better brewers, better hop growers, better business people. It was also held on alumni weekend at the school, largely an agricultural college. There were chain saw demonstrations as illustrated past the corn stalk. There was free pulled pork from the hospitality school students, classrooms of diesel engine repair classes to check out and a whole bunch of other stuff. Beer was a topic among topics. It was a trade. It was placed in its proper place. A hipster free zone where no one gave a rat’s ass about the next PR twisty line coming out of the national Brewers Association board. Excellent.

Then, there was thinking about where I fit in to that proper place. People were really interested at that event and the others Craig and I attended about their region, their history and their beer. Beer was part of their culture. They were not there to learn about their niche hobby. There was no beer community. There was beer in the community. So, they wanted to know about traditional hops as opposed to new hybrid flavoured hops. Folk there – like at the other events – want to know about US ale brewing history, how there was two centuries of beery life before lager. It’s good to imagine how brewers in training might want to emulate those who came before them instead of some big craft guy who they see on YouTube or a TV ad. Are you picking up a theme?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the real treats of the trip was talking with a guy who has run a bar called The Lionheart for a quarter of a century who has found the way to sell three dollar pints of US craft beer while making a good living. A lot of it has to do with running a good bar with great staff but a lot of it also has to do with ignoring the next big thing that never turns out to be the next big thing. Taking care. Supporting local. Looking for value. Remembering the customer pays the bills not the suppliers. Including different sorts of clientele. Serving a mix of clients was also the obvious decision Browns of Troy which was running a charity event in another section of the brewery while we were holding forth in another space talking about the city’s brewing heritage. In a third section, the bar crowd were kicking back Brown’s great oatmeal stout or an IPA made on site as Jeter played his last game for the Yankees on the big screen. And as the Giants beat the Washington Whatchamacallits on another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s it all mean? Why do I bother spending holiday time and more money on discount hotels than I will ever make on the book to visit again and again. I was telling someone how weird it is studying and writing about the history of a city I have no personal connection with. Yet when I am there – whether it is Troy or Cobleskill or Syracuse or up in the North Country – it feels like a place that is entirely normal. Not to mention beautiful. Yesterday afternoon I cut out of the SUNY event to take three hours to doddle my way over to Syracuse on a warm Saturday afternoon care of route 28 then along route 20 to route 92. Changing leaves. Pre-interstate main roads though small towns, along river valleys over rolling hills farmed for generations. Took me through watersheds that meet the ocean at Baltimore, New York and east of Montreal. Bought a hot dog at a Stewart’s.

Reading what I just wrote, if I am Stan I might think about how beer comes from this place and with the farmstead brewing and hop yards and cideries there is a lot to be said for that. But it is also a great place that you can learn about through its beer, its bars and its breweries. Beer isn’t a community. It is a window through which you can get to know about a community. That is why I am actually optimistic. You may not catch that from time to time but I do disagree with the idea posted by Boak and Bailey last week that beer is not as rich a seam as food, or music, or film. Beer is as rich but you have to know what beer isn’t to appreciate the point. Beer is not passive and it is not haute or elite. It is pervasive and innocuous. When we say beer is like bread we have to remember it is really like bread. An everyday thing. But we live and have lived in the everyday for hundreds and thousands of years in communities built around the brewery as much as the church and the town hall. That’s what people do as they do other stuff with their lives. Like these guys who you can see in the background of the picture above. People of the beer, I’d say.

That’s worth writing about.

What Korea Is Teaching China About Beer On TV

We live on a big planet. So big that that there is no reason to expect to understand why this is happening:

In “My Love From the Star,” a romantic comedy about a Korean actress and her extraterritorial boyfriend, the show’s main character (played by Korean A-lister Jun Ji-hyun) is crazy for chimek—“chi” is short for chicken and “mek” for “mekju,” the Korean word for beer. She specifically likes to partake in a meal of chimek to celebrate the year’s first snowfall. That on-the-screen tradition is playing out in real-life fried chicken joints across China as fans of the show get their chimek fix. “These days when my friends and I get together, we order fried chicken with beer,” said Ada He, who works for a real-estate company in Beijing and is a self-professed Korean drama lover.

We are further told that more “than 3.7 million posts related to the Chinese term for chimek have been published on Weibo over the past few weeks.” Korean fried chicken is fried twice but it all looks a lot like, you know, chicken. Some guy in Melbourne ate it with 4 litres of beer and left a review on the web this very day. The fad showed up in NYC in 2007. Apparently, one must get some fried chicken delivered to your picnic spot near the Han River.

Is the beer any good? Or is it only the goodness of the chicken that suits the beer? Not sure.