Monday, June 22, 2009

Festifull of Beer

So this past weekend I volunteered at the American Craft Beer Festival put on by, a website and magazine dedicated to spreading the word about good beer. Well, they spread more than word. They spread beer, too, all over the floors of the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. That's where I spent a couple of afternoons hauling ice, moving kegs, dumping buckets of "slop" (a harmless, slurpy mixture of beer and rinse water), and taking out the trash for several thousand festival attendees. I won't bore you with romanticized narrations of my volunteer duties, but needless to say it involved a lot of standing and smelling like stale beer.

If you've never been to a beer "festival", I suggest you attend one. Just one, though. One's enough. It's exactly as you'd picture it: this one had booths from 75 breweries (serving over 250 different beers) lined up in a giant open space packed with eager imbibers that roam the floor, line up for samples, and slowly (or quickly, depending on your size and/or drinking rate) become louder, less inhibited, and more likely to stumble and bump into each other. The fests I have experience with usually have multiple sessions, each around 3.5 hours long, and allow unlimited sampling in 2 oz. serving cups. It's a lot of fun, of course, as long as you pace yourself (eat a sizable meal beforehand) and appreciate many different styles of beer. And there's usually a lot of really, really tasty beer. You may even have a brewer pour you a beer.

As a volunteer, I was able to sample a surprising amount of the good stuff. Due to venue rules, we weren't allowed to drink on the floor, so periodically we'd grab a sample and have to sulk back behind the curtains for some secret drinking. I now can somewhat sympathize with smokers. Among some of the stellar brews I sampled were a few mind-blowing ones worth mentioning. Surly Brewing had a Russian Imperial Stout simply called "Darkness," which is thick and black as ink and tastes like alcoholic molasses. Foothills Brewing also had a RIS called "Sexual Chocolate" (brewed with cocoa), and the sample I tasted had been aged in oak bourbon barrels. Brooklyn Brewery offered a fruity, spicy Belgian-style beer called "Cuvee de Cardoz," brewed with a healthy amount of anise. All of the beers I tried stole the show from anything else I consumed during the fests, including peanut butter crackers, granola bars, slim jims, and bathroom water.

Oh, and people! I saw a number of familiar and famous faces. Erica Reisman and I enjoyed some lamb and chicken slamwiches at a place called Flour. Erica also attended one of the sessions and was looking like she was enjoying herself quite a bit. The legendary Colin Mahoney made a tall appearance, and I also got to see Alec Pinkham and Julie Cap-low! on the festival floor. My childhood (and current) friends Lyra and Larsson Burch and Jessie Beecher were spectacular in their hosting and Taboo abilities.

Present at the fest were some celebrities in the brewing world. You will probably have no idea nor any interest in these people, but I'll mention them for my own gratification. In the picture you can see me with Jason Alstrom, co-founder of the BeerAdvocate empire. Brewers and presidents from respectable establishments were also present, from Harpoon to Otter Creek/Wolaver's to Odell.

All in all, it was a rewarding experience. I wouldn't be telling the whole truth, though, if I didn't mention that, after observing (and participating in) a weekend of beer saturation, I felt more than a bit of both physical and mental fatigue. I enjoy beer, of course, and I enjoy trying different kinds of beer. But when perhaps a year's worth of sampling different kinds of beers is crammed into a weekend, the ritual loses its enjoyment. To me, a high-quality beer is meant to be enjoyed singularly and slowly. That is why I suggest attending just one or a few beer fests. Get the feel for them, try a few new or special brews, but realize that enjoying just one or a couple at a concert or with friends at a cookout is usually a more satisfying experience. Cheers, nonetheless!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

LARBing: Live-Action Role Brewing

Just finished my first brew session of the summer and the first in a different spot than the traditional 84 Hope Street in Providence (also the first solo brew, without my usual brewing partner, the incomparable Eric LoPresti). Yup, I spent an afternoon up here in balmy New Hampshire boiling a syrupy concoction that will hopefully be a tasty Belgian golden ale in about four weeks. The beer should taste like a crude, blue-collar version of Duvel, the renowned ale from Belgium that tastes like the nectar of the gods (or the Devil, since that's who it's named after). It looks a lot like god piss, too. I brewed this batch as a test-run in anticipation of my brother's wedding celebration in late August. He commissioned me to brew an IPA and a Belgian Dubbel, so I thought I'd do a little practicing. Wouldn't want a houseful of puking party-goers, now would we?

Here's how I brewed this particular beer with a bit about the general homebrewing process, not including fermentation, bottling, or conditioning (I'll get to those in time):

First, the ingredients. I used 3.3 lbs light malt extract, light candy sugar, .375 lbs pale grain malt, 1 lb dried wheat malt extract, 1 lb dried extra light malt extract, 1 lb dried light malt extract, 1 oz Czech Saaz hop pellets, 1 oz Northern Brewer hop pellets, 1 oz Styrian Golding hop pellets, and 1 packet Fermentis T-58 ale yeast. This makes no sense to most of you, I know. I'll explain.

To begin, I heated up some water and steeped the pale grain malt for about 20 minutes to make a sort of 'grain tea.' "Malt" is barley that is soaked in water and allowed to germinate slightly. At the right moment, germination is ceased by drying, or kilning, the barley on heated floors. Allowing the barley to germinate releases enzymes that help break down the barley's starches into simple sugars that feed the yeast during fermentation. Barley can be kilned lightly or heavily, giving beers more delicate or roastier flavors and lighter or darker colors.

I then added this malt tea to a bigger pot with near-boiling water. At this point I added all the malt extracts (in both syrup and powder form - they're essentially the same thing) and the ounce of Northern Brewer hop pellets, and I brought this stew to a boil. This made the kitchen smell like popcorn, according to other members of the household. Chris Duffy, if you're reading this, I guess you've been vindicated. Apparently, brewing beer can smell like popcorn, crescent rolls, or rice pilaf. I dunno. Anyway, boiling will help to further break down starches into sugars and denature proteins that should settle out of the boil or fermentation vessel. That statement may not be entirely accurate, but... just keep reading. Hops are added to impart their bitterness, which balances the malt's sweetness, flavor, which can range from piney to citrusy, and aroma. Bittering hops are added at the beginning of the boil; aroma hops are added near the end.

After half an hour of this bubbling, steaming boilfest I added the ounce of Saaz hops and boiled for another 10 minutes or so. Then it was time for the candy sugar! Candy sugar is basically rock candy, and it adds more sugars for the yeast to munch on as well as a slight residual sweetness and oomph to the texture, or "body", of the beer. It's usually reserved for Belgian beers. Back in the olden days, Belgium was the world's foremost producer of rock candy, as monks would fill monastery cathedrals with huge vats of sugar water, tie hemp twine across the top, and boil away. During WWII, Belgian troops received half a pound of rock candy as part of their rations.

Enough lies, back to the brew. After stirring in the candy sugar, I added the last ounce of hops and shut off the heat. When this liquid (called "wort", not beer yet) is cool enough, it can be poured into the fermentation bucket and yeast can be added. To get the wort cool quickly (to prevent bacterial infection), I used a copper coil that carries cold water through, but not in, the wort. My wort chiller is leaky, so I had quite the Rube Goldberg-esque contraption.

After the wort was chilled and poured into the fermentation bucket, I added the Belgian yeast and sealed the deal. I'll let those yeasties go to town for about a week, then bottle that shiznit. If any of you are around in four weeks and brave enough to drink a pint or two, stop on by! Blueberry pies accepted as donation.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Hell Is Going On Here?

Dear Friends and Family Members,

Hello and welcome to my old-fashioned, world-wide-web log, known to the youth of today as a "blog," which you can view instantly from your own personal computer-device. I never thought I'd be blogging, but here we go. This'll be an adventure.

Along with the adventure of blogging, I'll be posting here semi-regularly about my actual, non-digital adventures. If you haven't yet heard, I'll be perusing the hills and dales of Europe starting this fall and continuing indefinitely (most likely 3/4 of a year) with a specific goal in mind: job training. Through the WWOOF program (more on that later) I'll be working on farms in exchange for room and board. Not just your regular old, washed-up vegetable farm, though. (Blegh, who eats vegetables?) No. Cheese farms and farms with breweries. This will all be in anticipation of coming back to the States after some refreshment, invigoration, and inspiration to pursue further a career involving cheese, beer, or perhaps something else that involves fermentation or moldy shit. Kombucha? Sauerkraut? Unlikely, but only time will tell.

So, this blog is not entirely self-serving. I hope that it will entertain some, make others jealous perhaps, inspire a few more, but mostly allow folks to know what I'm up to and encourage them to respond in turn with their own life stories. This especially applies to those of you who just graduated from Brown with me. Keep in touch before we both fall off opposite faces of the Earth.

Also, I started the blog early both to get you on board and hooked and to let you know what I'm up to this summer (I'm working in a most wholesome bakery and will be going to music festivals and enjoying other tidbits and morsels of fun). More on that later this summer.

Before I lose you all, I'd like to announce my first farm! I'll be starting in south-central France (Dordogne Perigord, I guess) in early September at La Ferme de Laubicherie. The farm is run by a man named Gerolf Jacobs, a Belgian ex-pat who's had a dream of living on a farm in France since he was but a wee lad. Now he's running what looks to be a gorgeous farm and B&B, with everything from pigs to a clay oven to fields of golden barley. The highlight for me will surely be his microbrewery, where he makes some outlandish but truly satisfying-sounding beers with walnuts, chestnuts, and even truffles (the fungus, not the chocolate). Check out his website here:
I'll be at Laubicherie until mid-November, then I have to decide whether to hang around southern France at a cheese farm for the winter or head north to Belgium and spend the blustery months at a farm near the fairyland cities of Bruges and Ghent. I'm leaning towards Christmas in Bruges. You, dear reader, will find out soon enough. All the farms I'll be staying at will probably be found through the WWOOF program. WWOOF, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms, is an organization that has a database of thousands of farms, mostly organic, from all over the world. Workers, preferably willing, pay a nominal fee for each country to access the contact info for these farms. All we have to do is contact the farm, set up dates to work, and find out a way to get there. Grub and a place to rest your weary bones are provided in exchange for your work, so it's a fairly cheap way to see the world and learn a thing or two about the pastoral life.

So that's it so far. I hope you all can follow this pointless public diary for at least a post or two. And comment if something I said tickles you, or inspires you to break out in song, or annoys the crap out of you. Anyhow, enjoy!


PS - About the title: There's a category of cheeses that are termed washed-rind. Generally orange in rind color and fairly pungent, they are so because they're periodically washed with or cured in a brine solution or a bath of beer, wine, or other alcoholic treat. Cheese and beer. Bingo.

About the blog picture: Beer by Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont (Chimay Grande Réserve), cheese by Lincet (Le Délice de Bourgogne), farm cottage by Wood, Body By Jake