Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
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Lindemans Framboise belongs in the latter category, not least for its startling pinkish-red hue and light pink head. Whole raspberries are added to the lambic beer, leaving the wild yeasts to eat away the sugars and the fruit. When Lindemans Framboise is poured, the aroma of fresh raspberries--stems, stalks, leaves and all--wafts over the table. The palate follows through, delivering in full on its promise--sweet with a balancing sour edge and a complex earthy backdrop. It is ludicrously decadent with a slice of cheesecake.
If Belgian brewers are flashy, then British brewers are reserved and subtle. In a culture where life has traditionally revolved around evenings at the pub, people prefer pleasant, flavorful beers that soothe rather than shock. Even some of the largest British breweries still make good beer--witness Bass & Co.'s pungent and snappy pale ale. The British have fought hard to keep their traditional beer culture from being drowned in a sea of cheap mass-market lager. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a consumer group devoted to the twin British traditions of good pubs and good ale. Boasting almost 48,000 paying members, it is the largest and most powerful consumer action group in Europe.
Samuel Smith's Old Brewery of Tadcaster, Yorkshire, is one of the great standard-bearers of British brewing. Samuel Smith's beers are fermented in traditional Yorkshire squares--huge, open, shallow vats made entirely from local slate rather than modern stainless steel. The brewery is the last in Yorkshire to employ this old method, and it claims that it is a critical factor in flavor development.
Samuel Smith's brews several styles of ale, and all are classic renditions. Most popular is its Old Brewery Pale Ale, a honey-colored beer with an earthy malt, vanilla and butterscotch nose. On the palate, the hops are relegated to a supporting role, and a soft, round, caramel-like, slightly sweet character comes through, underpinned with apple and apricot. Roast beef, gravy and Yorkshire pudding leap to mind. Samuel Smith's Pale Ale illustrates the beauty of British brewing; it is the ability to be subtle without being boring.
One January afternoon a few years ago, I received a lecture on the subject of subtlety. I was in the tap room of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful Victorian breweries I've ever seen. Russell Sharp, the brewery's managing director, raised a bushy eyebrow and delivered a broadside to American microbrewers, opining that our beers lacked subtlety and grace. "Hops, hops, all hops!" he harrumphed. I defended American beers gallantly, but as I drank a pint of his finely honed ale, I could see his point. Then again, boldness, not subtlety, is the American strong suit.
Hops don't grow well in Scotland, so Scottish beers have always leaned on malt for flavor. In the United States, Caledonian's Edinburgh Strong Ale is sold as MacAndrew's Scotch Ale, a fine example of the Scotch ale style. Opening with an intensely toffee-ish malt nose accented with vanilla, this deep amber beer follows through on the palate with rich malt and fruit flavors wrapped around a pleasant sweetness, drying out into a toasty finish with a snap of hops.
Fortunately for the Scots, they have wonderfully flavorful malt to work with, made from traditional malting barleys that elsewhere have been replaced by more efficient breeds. Marris Otter and Golden Promise barleys provide the underpinning not only for Scotch ales, but for Scotch whiskies as well. Those who love The Macallan single malts will recognize the vanilla and butterscotch characteristics of these malts in MacAndrew's Scotch Ale as well.
We'll come back to England later, but now we hop over to Ireland for a pint of stout. Ireland's mysterious black ales have bred more music, tall tales and strange notions than just about any beer in the world. The strangest notion floating around is that stouts are beers scraped from the bottom of brewing vessels. In fact, stouts are ales made partly from malts that are highly roasted, like espresso beans, until they are black. Black malt has an aroma very much like coffee, and that character comes through in stouts.
Another notion is that stouts are very strong; this impression is no doubt due to their imposing appearance. Looks are deceiving, though, and just as a maduro wrapper often binds a mild cigar, Irish stouts tend to be flavorful, but with only about 4 percent alcohol by volume.
The sharp, snappy Guinness is the most famous and ubiquitous Irish stout, of course, but the uninitiated may find the increasingly available Murphy's of Cork more to their liking. As the beer is poured, nitrogen is injected into the stream, which breaks out in the glass into a dense white head with the consistency of whipped cream. A mild aroma of coffee and chocolate with a haylike whiff of hops leads to a surprisingly soft palate, with espresso and chocolate flavors intermingling in a fairly light-bodied beer. The finish is quick, toasty and dry, with hop bitterness pleasantly lingering.
Now, across to the United States, where you might say there is a revolution taking place in the beer marketplace, a revolution I'm happily part of.
At the forefront of the American brewing revolution marches the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico, California. Like a Ben and Jerry's of the beer world, Sierra Nevada started in 1980 with a couple of talented and enthusiastic home brewers at the helm of a brewhouse cobbled together out of used dairy equipment. Now a regional powerhouse, the brewery distributes virtually nationwide. The company's fanatical devotion to big flavor and excellent quality has made it among the most respected brewers in the United States.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is, without doubt, the benchmark for the new American pale ale style. Whereas English pale ales tend to be earthy and subtle, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is brash and proud of it. The northwestern Cascade hop is prevalent in the nose, instantly recognizable by its intense grapefruit and pine needle aroma. Big hop bitterness and bright citric hop flavor open up the palate, which is fruity and medium-bodied; there is just enough malt sturdiness to hold up the hops, which cruise right on through to a dry, crackling finish. The bottled form is actually bottle-conditioned, with the light haze of yeast contributing some additional earthiness. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a delicious beer that seems to delight in spicy cuisine, particularly Mexican and Thai, the cilantro and lemon grass complementing the fruity Cascade hop.
Brooklyn, New York, was once home not only to the Dodgers, but to dozens of breweries as well. At the turn of the century, 48 breweries dotted Brooklyn, making it one of the great brewing capitals of the world. By 1976, they had all fallen silent, victims of declining beer sales and growing competition from the emerging national breweries. But in 1988, the Brooklyn Brewery--for which I became brewmaster in 1994--started producing flavorful beers akin to those brewed before Prohibition.
Brooklyn Brown Ale is a more robust American cousin to the brown ales that were once popular among the English working class. Roasted malts provide a russet-brown color and chocolate and caramel notes in the nose, which is also suffused with a spicy hop aroma and a touch of fruit. After a hoppy snap up front, nut and caramel flavors predominate on a sweetish, malty palate with chocolate and coffee overtones showing through. The beer finishes clean and dry, with a bit of hop lingering. Steak au poivre has met its match.
Porter, a forerunner of the more heavily roasted stout, was the most popular style of beer in England and America during the 1700s. George Washington brewed porter, as did Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin was said to be particularly partial to it. The D.L. Geary Brewing Co. of Portland, Maine, recently started producing a nice version of the style. Geary's London Porter pours thickly, with a deep brown color and generous head. Coffee and dark chocolate predominate on the nose, which foreshadows a malty medium-bodied palate with well-defined roast character in the center, following through to an almost smoky finish with a hint of licorice. Porters should be more roasted than brown ales but less so than stouts; Geary's London Porter threads that needle beautifully.
Czarina Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia during the latter part of the eighteenth century, was a woman who usually got what she wanted. Among the many things she wanted was delicious stout from England. Unfortunately, by the time barrels of stout reached the Baltic ports from London, they had usually spoiled. British brewers solved this problem by brewing a very strong stout, braced against the long sea journey by alcohol and a generous dose of preservative hops. The style became known as Imperial Russian Stout, and to find it today, we return to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout contains no chocolate, despite its intense chocolate, licorice and fruit aroma. Roasted malts again play the parts of coffee and chocolate as deep malt flavors and a snap of hops open the palate, giving way to a full-bodied semisweet palate full of toffee, raisins, anise and cocoa. The warming alcoholic finish is smooth, chocolaty and very long. This is an excellent beer to have with dessert, or even as dessert.
To finish our whirlwind tasting, we must return to England and visit the Eldridge Pope Brewery in Dorset. Eldridge Pope produces several fine ales, but it is world-famous for one in particular, Thomas Hardy's Ale. Thomas Hardy's Ale is a barleywine, which means the beer carries the same strength (and in this case, the same complexity) as a fine wine. Aged for nine months before being lovingly bottled on its yeast in dated, numbered bottles, Thomas Hardy's is always a work in progress. By the time it leaves the brewery, it has reached an alcoholic strength of 10 to 11 percent by volume, strong enough to set out on a journey that can last for decades.
A bottle of 1994 Thomas Hardy's Ale still exudes a powerful aroma of deep, musty malt, molasses, maple syrup and fruit. The palate is quite sweet and full-bodied, full of plums, raisins and other fruit as yet unmarried to the others, with bitterness stepping in towards the finish to yank it back into some semblance of balance. Interesting, but disjointed.
What a difference eight years make. A rare bottle of 1986 Thomas Hardy's pours with a very light, creamy effervescence. A strong aroma of baking dark-grain bread fills the senses, blending with rich sherry and Madeira notes. On the palate the beer bursts forth in full glory, full rather than truly sweet in the center, a symphony of maderized malt, honey, chocolate, vanilla, plums and raisins, with brighter fruit emerging in the long, smooth finish. The aftertaste lingers magically. The Eldridge Pope Brewery claims that Thomas Hardy's Ale will age well for at least 25 years. There is no reason to dispute its assertion, and bottles more than 10 years old are regularly sold at auction for hundreds of dollars.
A journey through the world of beer only begins with a tasting of a few distinct styles. Look around you, though, and you will see new opportunities to discover the multitude of beers that are now available in America. Wheat beers at the beach, pale ales at the barbecue, barleywines and eisbocks with cigars in front of a winter's fire--the delights of centuries of fine brewing are again at our fingertips. It's about time. The renaissance of fine beer is at hand.
Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery and the coauthor of a forthcoming book on fine beer. A Brew and a Smoke Tips on matching the right beer with the right cigar
Style: Bavarian Wheat Beer
Color: Hazy Amber
Notes: High natural carbonation, earthy nose of cloves, banana, bubblegum and smoke. Snappy, spicy and refreshing on the palate.
Cigar: Zino Mouton-Cadet (Honduras) or Macanudo Hyde Park (Jamaica)
F. Boon Mariage Parfait
Style: Gueuze Lambic
Color: Hazy Gold
Notes: Fresh herbal nose with an earthy backdrop of of wet wool and lemon peel. Pleasantly sour, dry, fruity and complex on the palate.
Cigar: Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 (Cuba) or El Rey del Mundo Robusto (Honduras)
Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Pale Ale
Style: English Pale Ale
Color: Honey Amber
Notes: Malt, vanilla and butterscotch nose. A soft, round balanced palate with sweet caramel malt dominating. Underpinning of apple and apricot.
Cigar: H. Upmann Churchill (Dom. Rep.), Fonseca Triangulare (Dom. Rep.)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Style: American Pale Ale
Color: Caramel Amber
Notes: Cascade hop in the nose shows grapefruit and pine needles. One taster found green tea. Sharp hop bitterness and bright citrus on the palate with malt balancing.
Cigar: Te-Amo No. 4 (Mexico) or Cruz Real No. 2 (Mexico)
MacAndrews Scotch Ale
Style: Scotch Ale
Color: Deep Amber
Notes: Intense toffeeish malt nose accented with vanilla. Roasty caramel on palate, with butterscotch and fruit. Snappy hop finish.
Cigar: Avo Maestoso (Dom. Rep.), Arturo Fuente Hemingway (Dom. Rep.)
Country: Czech Republic
Color: Deep Gold
Notes: A true pilsner with a floral, perfume-like hop nose. Sharply bitter up front on the palate, leading to a slightly sweet bready malt center.
Cigar: Temple Hall Belicoso (Jamaica), Macanudo Hampton Court (Jamaica)
Style: Trappist Ale
Notes: Spicy hop and bright fruit aroma. Focused bitterness, a dry spicy palate with notes of rock candy. Bready malt and fruit compote in the finish.
Cigar: Partagas Almirante (Dom. Rep.), Montecruz No. 200 Natural Claro (Dom. Rep.)
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Style: Flemish Red Ale
Color: Brownish Red
Notes: Raisin, caramel and Madeira nose. A tart palate with a complex interplay of hard candy, oak, fruit, amaretto and sherry.
Cigar: Bauza Robusto (Dom. Rep.) , Punch Chateau L (Honduras)
Color: Deep Brown
Notes: Dark fruit, raisins, chocolate and coffee in the nose. Palate is slightly sweet and caramellish, with nice roast malt and fruit flavors.
Cigar: La Gloria Cubana Wavell (U.S.), Cuba Aliados Valentino (Honduras)
Brooklyn Brown Ale
Style: American Brown Ale
Color: Russet Brown
Notes: Spicy hops and toasted malt in the nose, with a chocolate background. Nut, chocolate and caramel flavors on a slightly sweet palate with a nice hop bite.
Cigar: Cohiba Esplendido (Cuba), Arturo Fuente Short Story (Dom. Rep.)
Style: Flanders Golden Ale
Color: Pale Yellow
Notes: Bright, perfume-like nose with spices, citrus and pears. Light-bodied, but strong and spicy, bracing hops, rustic hay notes; one taster noted white chocolate.
Cigar: Licenciados Excelente (Dom. Rep.), Ashton Churchill (Dom. Rep.)