Archive for the ‘Beer Talk’ Category

Monticello Restaurant Beer Dream Team (Part Two – The First Bottles)

26 January, 2011 1 comment

The Seven Dwarves

So finally, after what seems like months of planning, discussion and some intensive research(!), we have our first beer selection coming to the restaurant tomorrow! I have ordered the first small batch of bottled beers, seven in all. As with so many things, it’s best to start small and simple, and so I cut down my original 30-strong dream beers to just these seven.

Kaitlin and Kelsey show off the beer at Monticello

Now you may notice that this list is heavy on the North Coast Brewery, and there is a very good reason for that. It seems to me that North Coast can almost do no wrong – I discovered this when I stumbled across their restaurant in Fort Bragg and worked my way through their sample flight. Simply put, they were all excellent, and some were, frankly divine, and I have to say that having them as the backbone of the bottled beer selection pleases me very much indeed.

We decided to start with a small selection that covers most of the beer types, all in 12-ounce bottles, all well known names, and all good examples of their type. Inevitably, there are things I’ve had to drop during the selection process; there is no hefeweissen, no American lager and no imports. Neither are there any of the really “big” beers yet – as time goes on we will be adding to this list to expand choice both for food pairing and sheer beer enjoyment.

So without further messing about, here are the seven on the shortlist:

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Monticello Restaurant Beer Dream Team (Part One – Kegs)

15 January, 2011 3 comments

Every beer geek has a dream. Among other things (hot air balloon ride, Grand Canyon, nude hang-gliding) I have long dreamed of getting together a list of my favourite beers, and freely admit that I never quite got around to it. This blog is a start, given that I’m listing the beers I’ve delighted in (and sometimes not), but it never really had much meaning in the Real World™.

When I was recently offered a job as the barman in a new restaurant venture in Davis, I realised that I had the opportunity not just to create such a list, but to realise it in the flesh, or at least in neatly serried ranks of bottles. I have spent the past few days not just imagining it, but meeting with distributors and enthusiasts (often in the same person).

The bar at Monticello Seasonal Cuisine

The bar will be opening soon, I hope – the Monticello Seasonal Cuisine has just opened in Davis, and their website will be up and running soon. In any restaurant opening there are priorities, and the kitchen is obviously the first. In this case, wine was second – the bar is almost complete at this time of writing, just a few minor details to finish (like the completion of the bar top, the keg system and coolers). I’m by turns excited and frustrated, eager to start work and getting to the grist.

So, without further ado, here’s the story and the list:

My Dream Keg Beers

Given that it’s winter here (albeit a mild, California winter), my first thought is to turn to the darker brews. I’d love to carry a porter, a stout and a brown, followed by some paler brews, but the system we will have needs to fit the space available, and that limits me to three keg beers.

The Dark Side

Currently I am caught between a porter (nice and warming) and a brown (a good starting point for darker beers, a little less challenging for some American palates). The brown ale came to a choice of three – the excellent Riggwelter (a personal English favourite), Lost Coast Downtown Brown and North Coast’s Acme Brown. Here was my first dilemma – the restaurant is specialising in seasonal, local food, and the plan is to be as local as possible in all things. Riggwelter was therefore out. Acme brown, it turns out, is not available on tap from my favoured distributor, which leaves the lovely Downtown. This is not a bad thing, given that Downtown Brown is one of the better-known browns, and is superb at its price point.

Now for the porter. Deschutes’ superb  Black Butte is available, is a sweet and warming ale, and then there are offerings from both  Anchor and Sierra Nevada. The sad thing is that for the time being, I am not carrying any porter, despite its being an excellent winter beer. It’s a problem for me, I admit, but until I’ve seen what the regulars will be drinking, I’m playing it safe. If requests for porter (or stout!) are many, I may switch, but for now,  there’s the “bottom end” sorted out.

A Bitter Brew

The top end has to be a nice hoppy brew. Not because I like the hop, but there are far too many people around here who do. After all, this is the West Coast, land of Lagunitas, and Russian River. Here was a real dilemma – one of my distributors (Southern Wine) recommended an ale unknown to me, one Nightstalker IPA.  The other highly placed horse was the wonderful Russian River’s excellent Pliny the Elder. I have tried this one (though I regret I have not written up my notes) and found it good, if a little high in the hop for my palate. My favourite in this field would have been the fruity Sunflower IPA from McMenamins, but given that it’s not exactly a local beer (and would be almost impossible to get!) I’m settled for Pliny.

The Middle Way

Now the centre is tricky. In the summer, the middle may well be a pilsner, but in the moist and misty Davis winter, I felt that we should have a local brew, light but not pale. I’d considered having the brown in the middle and the porter as a dark base, but finally I settled on Sudwerk’s Märzen, largely because it’s well-known locally, is a good example of the type, and for me, Sudwerk’s best. But this is, of course, all subject to change.

Not only subject to change, but all rather academic at the moment, given that the bar is not yet open, although I am seriously hoping that I will at least have some bottled beer to serve by the weekend of the grand opening on 22nd January. Meantime, updates on the bar (oh, and the restaurant) are at their Facebook page.

Monticello Seasonal Cuisine are to be found at 630 G Street, Davis, CA 95616.

The Beer Bra. Really.

2 November, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve been a wild rover for many a year, and muckle have I seen. I’ve seen folk drink from yards of ale, I’ve been in pubs which serve from glass chamber pots, I’ve seen men drink beer from a wellington boot. There’s all manner of glassware, pewter and whatnot all designed with one delightful task in view; that of drinking beer. I’ve seen beer hats, kilts that boast the ability to carry 20 bottles of beer, but until today I have never seen anything so outrageous, so bizarre and so just-plain-wrong as this new technology.

There exists a container (or possibly a pair) that is shaped after the human female bosom and designed to fit in the upper female undergarment. You may doubt, you may scoff, but it’s a genuine product and it does appear to meet a genuine need. After all, who wants to carry several bottles or cans into a sporting event, or some other venue where they don’t allow you to drink anything other than their (frequently overpriced) fizz?

There are a couple of problems that I see with this device. First of all, I wonder what it’s made of, and whether that material (presumably some specie of plastic) would affect your drink. I’m wary enough of beer in cans or growlers without worrying about whatever might taints the taste of your ale. Even those “safe” acrylic glasses one is forced to quaff from occasionally do affect the flavour.

The second problem I consider to be temperature-related. Most people fuss about beer being served at anything even approaching room temperature, so you’d need to consider the effect of having a couple of pints of cold beer strapped to your boobs, and the affect of enjoyment as the beer temperature approaches body heat!

It’s available in different (bra) sizes, and does enhance the bust; indeed the manufacturers boast that “you can turn an A cup in to double Ds”. It’s an odd world and it gets odder each day, and this is more proof, as if it were needed.

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An Englishman’s view of beer

6 October, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m a real beer lover, possibly even a beer geek. I enjoy craft brews from everywhere – I loved them in England, now I enjoy them in Northern California. The microbrewery revolution has resulted in great ales being available in abundance, so I talk about great microbrew beers, beer culture and history. This is not just a review site, it’s about the love of well-crafted beer and how best to enjoy it. Browse and enjoy. Cheers!

Categories: Beer Talk

Lager and Curry – Taj Mahal Premium and Kingfisher Premium

5 October, 2009 2 comments

There’s a great British drinking tradition that seems to have grown up in recent years. It is connected with imports – lager (not a British traditional drink of yore) and curry (which in England generally means spicy dishes from the Indian subcontinent). The history of these two elements comes together with the nouvelle tradition that is the “boys’ night out”, which revolves around binge drinking and a late night meal (and all too often, relieving themselves in a shop doorway).

When I was a youngster, back in the days when hairy elephants roamed the earth, an evening’s drinking involved going to the pub around 7 o’clock until closing time (11pm), sinking a number of pints of bitter before hying to the nearest fish-and-chip shop for six-penn’orth of chips and a Pukka pie. The beer was typically 3.8% – 4% ABV, the meal about 25% fat.

Taj Mahal Premium Lager

Taj Mahal Premium Lager

This was soon to change; with the advent of the stronger lagers, those who were determined to consume more booze could do so. At the same time, the number of “Indian restaurants” was growing, with business-savvy hardworking immigrants spreading around the country. The scene was set for the lager louts, with their alcoholic pertinaciousness, to consume a more exotic diet of European (and later, American) lagers and evermore spicy curries.

Now I don’t want to give the idea that every British male spends every night filling themselves to bursting point on this explosive mixture before throwing on the way home, nor that this is limited to the female of the species. This is, however a trend that seems to be growing, to the point where the Government is getting concerned; about the binge drinking, not about the curry consumption.

An American tale of curry-and-lager

Recently, we learned about a local curry house in Dixon, about 12 miles away from us. Excited about the prospect of my first good curry in several months, off we trotted to the Punjabi Dhaba restaurant where we decided to sit down a a traditional meal of chicken tikka masala, jalfrezi, naan and bhajis. Washed down, of course, with a traditional Indian lager. Well, two – I opted to go for a small sampling. Not a binge, oh no.

Taj Mahal Premium

I started with a Taj Mahal out of the United Breweries (India) stable. I’m afraid I have little to say about this, other than it’s an American-style adjunct lager. It’s a light colour, with a good white head.

There’s little nose beyond a hint of grain and very little hop. It drinks like any other lager, with a fairly thin body, a light maltiness and the faintest tang of hop and grassiness. I did find it a little sour rather than sweet, which detracted from the overall enjoyment for me.

It’s quite effervescent, not at all sweet, and in keeping with the style, relatively devoid of character. Simple is what it is, and refreshing, and despite the protestations of many curry-and-lager fans, it’s not what I’d choose with a spicy meal. C-minus, and a detention.

Kingfisher Premium

Kingfisher Premium Lager

Kingfisher Premium Lager

The next pick was Kingfisher Premium, another lager from United. This poured with a skinny-looking head that sadly didn’t last long enough for a decent picture, and a tad darker than its cousin. A little maltier in the nose, with some sweetness apparent, it was more appealing and appetising.

There was a little more body than the Taj Mahal, it was sweeter and more flavoursome, the hops seemed a little more forward and it lacked the musty, faintly skunky flavour. Overall it was decidedly more pleasant, with a better balance of taste, a mix of sweetness and a touch of bitter at the finish. It did better than the last, with a C+ rating.

Overall, neither beer really satisfied me. My guess is that anyone who is having a spicy meal won’t notice that the beer is mediocre, because what they want is light refreshment to cool the mouth. For my part, I’d take a pale ale any day, to balance the strong flavours in a curry, and a little more hop would certainly not go amiss with all those spices vying for attention on the palate.

Oh, and I can hear your comments now. Complain all you like that I didn’t get legless and then go for the curry – I have too much respect for beer, food and my constitution to go through all that.

Categories: Beer Talk, Beers Tags: , ,

The Importance of Good Head

1 October, 2009 1 comment

“I believe a person who has never worn a beer-foam mustache is missing something.” – Jim Dorsch

So what does the head on a glass of beer do? Is it, as many people feel, a barrier to the beer, at best a moustache decorator? Is it just for looks, or is there a deeper reason? Not everyone demands a good foamy glass, and there are local variations; in Norwich, where I began my drinking life, beer was served without head, but in the Midlands and North (of England) a good foamy head is expected.

Head is as much part of a good beer as good body, adding visual appeal and doing other surprising things. One of the things that a beer’s head does is traps molecules of the smelly stuff, releasing these  aromatics with each little bubble that bursts. So a head adds not just to the appearance but to the enjoyment of the brew.

A Little Science

Kevin, getting excited about froth

Kevin, getting excited about froth

So what makes for good head? (Stop sniggering at the back, please.) Hydrophobic polypeptides, according to wikipedia. In simple English, this means strings of amino acids that repel water. Doubtless some clever chemist¹ will seek to be more accurate, but that will work for me. These chemicals disagree with water to the extent that they get as far away from it as possible, rising to the surface where they form the bubbles that in turn make the foam. The amount of head produced depends on several factors, then – the chemical composition of the brew in question, and the carbonation (or nitrogenation, if nitrogen be the driving force).

There’s a big variation in differing beers. Adnams Bitter, the beloved beer of my late teens, produced a skinny cap of foam, whereas many of the Belgian styles produce such a head of foam that the breweries produce special glasses designed to handle the profuse frothiness. Most of the American bottled beers I’ve been sampling lately produce about a finger’s width of head when properly poured, but there is of course a good deal of variation there depending on the pouring style. Open the bottle and pour it straight into the bottom of the glass and you’ll get more, trickle it gently down the side for less.

Similarly, in draught beers, there’s variation depending on whether the beer is pumped by hand or CO2/nitrogen pressure – too much pressure or gas and the depth of head exceeds the depth of beer. This is a crime to the beer-drinker, who is paying for liquid, not froth. It’s damaging for the vendor too, as many pints of beer can be wasted by pouring off excess foam. For a long time in Britain, CAMRA campaigned for pubs to draw their beer so that the top of the liquid was at or above the pint line (which is marked on pint pots in the UK), and to this day, there’s a hue and cry raised if a pub consistently serves too much foam and too little beer.

A Little Beer Snobbery

“Head retention” is another thing you’ll hear about, which means what it says – how the head holds up over time. Smaller bubbles generally mean better retention, and so does the chemical makeup – if the surface tension of the bubble is great enough, the head lasts longer. Other elements come into play as well – the drier the glass the better the head, and a clean glass is essential for good formation and retention. Don’t believe me? Try a Belgian Duvel in a dry glass and a damp glass – in the dry glass you’ll get a pillowy head that stands up for ever, whereas the damp glass produces less. An experiment I have tried myself with the added advantage of allowing me to drink two glasses of the amber delight!

You’ll also hear about what happens to the head as you drink it – there’s even a term for the froth left on the sides of the glass as you consume. “Belgian lace” is the term I’ve most often heard, and of course there are those Real Ale Bores who can go on about this seemingly for ever. Oops, is that the time? Sorry.

Of course, brewers know their markets and their drinker’s preferences, and many add various things to beer to boost head and retention – sometimes as part of the genuine brewing adjuncts (wheat makes for a good head) but sometimes by artificial chemical means. The former is allowable, the latter is, to my mind, Just Plain Wrong, but then I am something of a beer purist, if not an actual snob.

¹ See also this site for more actual science

Categories: Beer Talk Tags: ,

Session Beer, or How To Drink All Evening

21 September, 2009 1 comment

So you like to drink beer? You like to drink a lot of beer? You like to drink a lot of beer over the course of a social evening, but not be falling-over drunk at the end of it? Then what you need is a session beer.

What’s a session beer? Typically, such a brew will have three qualities; an alcohol content of generally less than 5%, a balanced flavour and a light to moderate body. There are good reasons for specifying these things.

First of all, in a social setting, getting blotto is a no-no; the object of an evening in company is to be, well, companionable. You also want to be able to make it home in one piece and however you plan to do that, having a bellyfull of beer and a bloodstream full of booze in not conducive to a safe or comfortable journey. (On a side note, and for safety information, and because I worry about you all, I found a Blood Alcohol Count calculator tool that you may find to be of use. Respect beer and enjoy yourselves, but let’s be careful out there.)

Flavour and body can be issues, too. Some beers can be quite challenging on flavour after a while – for some, a lot of highly-hopped or bitter beers can be hard to handle, for others, sweeter brews. Heavy beers too, have their problems; I can think of half a dozen beers I’d not want to drink one after another.

So in short, a session beer sits in the middle of the ABV, taste and body range, enabling the enjoyment of many pints over an afternoon or evening, without damaging conversation, comfort or safety.

A Little History Session

I’ve heard many a tale regarding the origin of the term, but the one that seems right to me concerns the old UK pub licensing laws. At one time, pub opening times were strictly limited; 11am til 3pm and 7pm until closing time at 11pm. These four-hour sessions were presumably set so that no-one could sit in the pub all day and get plastered. Workers leaving work therefore had four hours of drinking time until they were thrown out of the boozer, and hence if they wanted a reasonable and sociable time, and to enjoy a few pints, they’d limit themselves to those beers that they could drink throughout the opening session.

At the time, most pub beers were around the 3.5% – 5% alcohol mark, with a few other beers like barley wines and “old ales” that were stronger. It was vital, then to know the difference between the stronger brews and those that one could drink all night.

Over the years, the law changed, and permitted pubs to open longer hours (although to this day most pubs still have to stop serving at 11pm). The “session beer” is still a valuable thing, however – provided you’re a social drinker.

Pacing yourself

Back in the day, when I was a young and cocky boozer, it was not uncommon for me to head to the pub on a Friday night and expect to sink six or eight pints (Imperial pints, mind you – 20 fluid ounces) over the course of an evening. Allowing for travel and food, I’d be drinking for about four or five hours. No way was I going to be pounding down strong Scotch ales, perilously hoppy IPAs or heady Imperial stouts for that time.

Food can be important too – having something to eat isn’t going to stop the alcohol from taking effect, but it does tend to buffer the beer, and can slow down the rate of absorption a little, which is why the British drinker frequently munches on crisps (that’s chips to you American folk) or peanuts, presumably on the basis that every little helps.

The beer of choice was generally Bitter, occasionally Dark Mild or Brown, but always around the 3.8 – 4.5% mark. That way I could hold my own at the bar, the conversation and the trip home. These days, of course, I’m the responsible married man, out for one or two and home before nine (with one exception, of course). It turns out that every man is entitled to one mistake; every woman, apparently, is allowed one rolling pin.

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