Florida’s Beer Scene: Summing-up

Spending almost seven weeks in a south Florida condo (soon to conclude with a return to Toronto) has allowed me to explore the surrounding beer scene. Cresting a few breweries, e.g., Khoffner, Funky Buddah, and beer bars both craft and “regular”, as well as a few beer retailers, one gets a sense of what is going on.

Writ large, craft brewing is similar to what we see worldwide, including Ontario. There are some differences, my sense is the average pilsener and non-IPA ale is lighter than  elsewhere I’ve been, due probably to the climate. Maduro Brown is an example, from Cigar City in Tampa, or the rice pilsener of The Tank Brewery in Miami.

Also, in a region like this where imports big in the 80s and 90s still do well including many U.K., Irish, and German beers, it is interesting to note, or such is my perception, that these beers actually influence current craft production.

I’ve had two craft Irish Red Ales that were very similar to (Irish) Smithwick’s, or Killian’s Irish Red from Molson-Coors (indirectly an import). One tends to assume that brewers follow religiously beer style descriptions issued by trade or other authoritative bodies, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes they respond to perceived market demand or simply personal experience.

On the import side, of course nothing in Canada can match the awesome beer choice offered by the largest retailers such as Total Wines, among other specialty vendors. Beers from abroad, from other parts of the U.S., and from Central and South America, abound in numbers and a variety never seen at home. This is due to the population size and diversity of this region, as well as the retailing system being in private hands.

And so, world classics or other items of interest can be found here never seen in Ontario, some of which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts or on Twitter.

The one advantage I perceive in Ontario is the freshness factor: the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LBCO) tends to offer beers packaged in the three months preceding appearance on the shelf, even when sourced half-way around the world. In Florida, I’d estimate the average is double that based on best-by codes I’ve been able to decipher.

For example, the St. Pauli Girl from Bremen, Germany I mentioned on Twitter appears to be six months from packaging. It was still good, but would be better at three months.

Beer as fresh as we get at home can be found too, apart the brewery tap context, I mean. At discount food chain Aldi I found excellent beer at great prices packaged within the last three months. And at Total Wines, most items in the Seasonal section, e.g., Anchor Christmas Ale, were by definition packaged recently.

I did buy the odd duff beer – too old or gone sour (unintentionally) in the bottle, but that was just two or three from many more purchases. I’m sure I could have returned them had I asked.

Still, freshness in beer is very important, and so our system in Ontario has the edge there.

With a larger range of (often) more interesting German beers to try than we get at home, I was struck by the continuing high quality of German beer. Germany is legendary for beer history and quality but it is a heritage that, in the hustle-bustle and bubble of craft brewing, risks being lost. (This is partly due to German inertia or insouciance, but that’s another matter).

Yet, even in the craft-crazy brewing world, even where many exporting German breweries are now owned by international companies based outside Germany, the quality shows. Almost every German beer I drank was excellent or a world classic. Even Beck’s Bier, brewed now in St. Louis, Missouri, is a fine example of blonde lager.

I can’t say the same for the British imports I saw here, one or two exceptions apart. The beers are certainly worthy but rarely rise to the heights of the German norm, IMO. One reason for that is the all-malt character of most of the German beers. The hop levels seem higher on average as well.

Certainly though, from any practical beer-lovers’ standpoint, there is nothing to complain about (in Ontario too): beer has arrived, and this has been the case for some years now. It is true in most parts of Europe, in Britain, in North America, and in many other places as well.

Correlatively, the imagination and disruptive quality of craft brewing have juiced up traditions in the classic beer lands: Britain, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium. This trend will only continue.

My only concern is, that craft doesn’t eat itself, by which I mean, indulging every whim of brewer or customer for variation in the palate to the point there is no standard any more, no yardstick.

This seems to be starting with stout and porter. The youngest drinkers, buying the endless flavoured variations, may never know classic taste of porter and stout.

I suppose something new will come of it all, and as long as it is beer, people will buy it. Nonetheless, if the building blocks of the craft beer revolution, inspired as they were by classic models descended from the 19th century, crumble, something irretrievable – and of gastronomic excellence – will be lost.

Did I have a “best beer”? People always want to know. I’ll say yes, under a few rubrics I typically favour.

Best Overall beer: Andechs Doppelbock (Germany). Rich and deep-flavoured, everything exactly right. It would fly off the shelves at LCBO…

Best Florida Craft Beer: Mi-So Lucky Hoppy Rice Pilsener (The Tank Brewing, Miami).

Best American-brewed Pils: Beck’s Bier (German but brewed in St. Louis, Missouri for the U.S. market).

Best Munich-style Dark Lager: San Miguel Negra (Phillipines).

Best Stout: Guinness Foreign Export Stout (Dublin, Ireland)

Best Flavoured Stout: Left Hand Milk Stout (Colorado, U.S.) and Mackeson Milk Stout (originally English, now also Florida-brewed). A tie.

Best English IPA: Ridgeway Brewing’s Elf Winter Ale (England).

Best American IPA: DuClaw Disaster IPA, with fine orangey notes from an inspired hop blend (Baltimore, Maryland).

Best flavoured beer: Anchor 2017 Christmas Ale (San Francisco, CA. The 2018 was leaner, piney, not as good).

Saving Traditional Cask ale

In a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday, I opined that adding more malt and hops to the run of U.K. real ale might arrest the year-on-year decline of sales in this category.

What is this real ale? It is beer, any style can qualify, served straight from the cask or pulled from the cask in the cellar by handpump, without additional carbonation or filtration. It is not processed by pasteurisation and must be “kept” carefully and served with dispatch else it is liable to spoil, with dire consequences for the palate.

While cask ale can comprise any beer type – it’s a way to “condition” and serve beer rather than a beer type as such – cask ale is typically associated with U.K. “bitter” and more rarely, mild or mild ale.

The bitter is a descendant of 19th century pale ale, e.g. Bass Pale Ale, itself a domestic version of India Pale Ale, or IPA. IPA was the highly-hopped beer style made with pale malt only for much of its heyday and storied for its associations with the British Raj.

Since I first encountered it in the early 1980s bitter is a zesty, distinctive beer with a range of flavours of its own, depending that is on the brewery and sometimes how it is kept.

When compared to bland, mass market lager, the type that conquered the market in North America and was making serious inroads in Britain by then, the bitter had character. A lobby, the Campaign for Real Ale, formed in Britain in 1971 to preserve bitter as the large and many smaller brewers wanted to introduce a processed version of bitter, called “keg beer”, that tended to remove many of its distinctive features.

Keg beer was served filtered and chilled, and had injected carbonation, making it fizzy and soft-drink like. It often used a high proportion of a barley malt substitute such as maize (corn) or sugar of some kind. This all contrived to make it rather tasteless compared to the bitter and mild associated for generations at home and abroad with the English public house.

Yet, bitter was also typically made with grain adjunct or sugar, generally not as much as North American brewers used, but perhaps 20% of the mash. This tended to lighten its taste.

And the hoppy side of the taste equation depended on the amount of hops and their quality. Some bitter was still noticeably acerbic in taste as the very name implies and indeed it was to begin with, as historical studies show.

But much post-1960s bitter at any rate was rather gentle-tasting, presumably to meet the taste of the public, or (more likely IMO) for the reverse reason. Bitter ended by being sweetish too from using some caramel malt, a type that imparts a darker colour and more sugary taste than pale malt alone.

CAMRA did a creditable job to protect this category of beer, one centuries old, indeed all top-fermented beer was “cask” in nature at one time. But with the rise of craft beer, the milder end of pub bitters began to show up less benignly.

This was because craft beer especially in its early years (post-1980 for practical purposes) was all-malt and not fermented to the point you couldn’t taste the malt. It used as well large quantities of hops and North American hops at that, which have a different taste than traditional English varieties and demanded attention by U.K. bibbers for that reason alone.

Cask ale, especially where poorly kept as too often is still the case, in this light started to look fusty and retrograde.

CAMRA carries on albeit that cask ale is only a small part of the national market, about 13%; mass market lager has the lion’s share of the rest, with craft ales, about 7 per cent, climbing.

On my two English trips last year which to a good degree were beer research trips taking in two CAMRA festivals, I concluded U.K. real ale retains its core distinctiveness.

But the writing is on the wall, as many observers have concluded, for traditional cask bitter unless something is done.

This opinion piece a couple of months ago in the U.K.-based Brewers Journal, I believe by Tim Sheahan, the editor, points up the problem: too much beer at a CAMRA festival doesn’t “stand out” and is too warm.

The temperature issue can be mended with enough goodwill and effort. The standing out can be addressed by adding more hops and malt to the beers, and sometimes more alcohol.

I tasted too many indifferent, weak bitters on those trips. (I tasted a lot, based in part on being given small tastes, or discarding most of a purchased glass after tasting, so no I didn’t drink 10-12 beers in a day, nowhere near it).

That type of bitter may have suited to get large bags of crisps down in the heyday of real ale in the 70s-90s but today, with craft beer rising in foamy waves around the country, real ale must up its game to stay current.

Some may say, this is altering the nature of the drink, even history. It’s not. Traditionally bitter and mild were much stronger than today and considerably more hopped. Historical data is available to show this and is daily offered and discussed by the historical beer community, of which I am part.

In fact, craft beer has simply brought back the original taste of cask bitter and mild, or if not literally the taste, the spirit of it, the idea of a well-flavoured drink that emphasises its compositional ingredients.

Far from traducing the character of bitter, giving it a more hoppy taste – in particular but not necessarily with flowery and arboreal English varieties – will enhance its historical character.

Will the drinkers drink it though? Well, look at the success of highly-flavoured craft beer in Britain in recent years. Improve the quality of British beer of the traditional type – bring it closer to what it was originally – and surely people will gain a new understanding of it.

There isn’t much to lose really given a steady decline in sales of cask ale in recent years. See Edith Hancock’s article summarising the dire numbers, from the Drinks Business.

In fact, some brewers have produced bitter or pale ale in the way I’m suggesting. Ridgeway Brewery’s Elf series shows how good this beer can be, I tasted a Winter Ale at only 4.5% ABV purchased in a Florida liquor store not long ago. The beer easily survived the trip and is not pasteurised, due in good part to its charge of fragrant English hops.

Historical recreations of English beer styles by definition attain the palate in question.

The time is nigh, and while the endless discussions of how to improve serving conditions are important, they can be distracting too, as no matter how well you present a beer, if it offers a timid taste by nature you can’t improve that.

Conversely and as the opinion piece stated in the Brewers Journal, a craft beer chilled and carbonated – the typical craft IPA, say – will still impress because made to a high standard to begin with.

The way to make English real ale more successful is to make it a better beer on average. In saying this, by no means do I suggest there aren’t many excellent traditional cask ales in Britain today. Of course there are. One can debate the names but that is not the point here, my brush is broader than that.

Improving the overall standard of traditional real ale will improve its prospects to survive, and likely too for CAMRA as an influential and relevant organization.


Whence the Highball?

Various explanations are offered for this term of the American drinking vocabulary. While increasingly a period expression, most interested in drinks history know the highball is a tall glass of whiskey, diluted with ice and water or seltzer, and later pop of some kind (although whiskey-and-coke is not really a highball, IMO).

Some say the highball term derives from a mechanical signal in the 1800s on the American railways. If a ball was raised high on the signal post, the train could drive through at speed. So, the idea of getting somewhere fast on the rails was transferred to drinking: one obtained a quick buzz from drinking a whiskey highball. There is a French term, “Rapide”, for an alcohol concoction that may have a similar, or possibly still unrelated, rationale.

This explanation always struck me as contrived. Moreover, a long drink doesn’t intoxicate quickly, it is meant to be sipped, and imparts its effects gently. It is rather a short neat drink that would intoxicate faster, but that is not a highball.

I believe I have an original explanation, at least, I can’t recall having read it elsewhere (citations or comments always welcome).

“Ball of malt” is Irish usage for a glass of whiskey, meaning a small measure neat. Many sources attest to this, no controversy attaches. It might derive from “boll of malt”, a measure of barley in former times, and been transferred to the drink the malt makes.

So, a highball is a tall glass of whiskey, watered that is, nothing more.

True, the Irish sometimes add water to whiskey, but traditionally not a lot, as in Scotland, it is still a short drink. 50/50 was traditional, no ice, Especially in earlier visits to the U.K. I saw whisky drunk that way many times.

Irish customs influenced American distilling practice, via the Scots-Irish emigrants who had a large role in developing rye whiskey (in Pennsylvania), the antecedent of bourbon whiskey. Both these American forms use a mixed grain mash, as does still Irish single pot still whiskey, the traditional type vs. the more recent Irish single malt.

Later, we infer the sizable emigration from what is now the Republic of Ireland added more Irish whiskey knowledge and lore to American drinking folkways. I think ball of malt likely was shortened to ball, meaning a short drink of whiskey. When people poured whiskey into tall glasses in America, ergo the highball. No need for belaboured explanations relating to old railway technology.

It would be satisfying to find a citation for lowball to mean a short measure of whiskey in the U.S., that would tend to clinch it. I’ll look.


The Croquette Rediscovered

Some time ago in a post, I made the half-serious suggestion that the croquette is due for a revival. I was referring to the often cone-shaped, breadcrumbed mixture of cooked meat, fish, cheese, or vegetables deep-fried to a crispness.

These were a staple of diners, middle-class restaurants, and country club lunches into the 1970s. The border between a croquette and many other kinds of enveloped fried food can be indistinct. The Chinese egg roll is a kind of croquette, so is the peppery British fish cake, but I am referring to a dish most North Americans over 50 will recognize.

Brown in colour, often containing a rich mixture of minced cooked ham, chicken, or other meat well-seasoned, two servings the size of a smallish pear made a nice lunch with a side of cooked vegetables. The filling was typically enriched with a bechamel or other cream-based binder.

I am saved from the trouble of sketching the history and world reach of this food, as a Wikipedia essayist has done an excellent job, see here. The lapidary France entry contains a plausible suggestion for the ultimate origin.

One might respond to Beer et Seq, well this is just one of many dishes that fall out of favour due to the vagaries of food fashion, why not make your own? The reason is you need the proper deep-frying equipment, not always easy to manage in a home setting.

Although, a friend showed me recently how sous vide is easily achieved at home now, so I suppose this other way to cook can be adapted to home conditions without too much trouble or (safety) risk as well.

Still, cooking for us at home means baking, broiling, shallow-frying (French toast, say), and boiling. Plus microwave. If I wasn’t going to find the croquette in a restaurant, it wasn’t going to happen.

Until I came to south Florida for a spell. I re-acquainted with the croquette in Cuban restaurants, where it is offered as an appetizer in smaller portions than I recall from the main dish, but with the same taste, especially ham croquettes.

I’ve seen them sold at the prepared food counters at Publix and Winn-Dixie. They are commonly encountered here, therefore, in the general community.

Now why this odd survival? The reason clearly is the popularity of the dish in expatriate Cuban communities. The croquette was and is a popular dish in Cuba and in some other Caribbean islands as well, especially Puerto Rico.

The transplanted communities have kept the taste going here, and as often happens the larger community takes to it too.

As Wikipedia states of the Belgian version, all comes down to the quality of the filling. But in a general way that is true of all cooking. Look, if poutine from Quebec, or Buffalo chicken wings, can adorn menus of the world and even sometimes the cartes of luxe restaurants, why not the croquette?

It already does in forms not so distant, but I mean the classic golf club croquette lunch of the mid-20th century. My guess is, the dish in Cuba descended from American influence before Fidel Castro and has continued despite, or maybe because of (the economy of the dish), his arrival.  Croquettes in Cuba are likely a hangover from an older time, as are the 1950s GM cars that still rumble through crumbling Havana.

Perhaps the dish arrived direct from Spain, where in truth it is well-known, but I have my doubts. The taste of those I’ve tried is exactly the American version I remember well from years ago. The first taste was a Proustian moment – it brought back those simple but satisfying lunches of c.1970 Montreal.

This poster offers what seems an excellent version of the Cuban style of the dish, made with ham.

A classic lunchtime or club dish, croquettes need good coffee to accompany – another Cuban specialty, so it all works well. Neither wine nor beer really suits, well, maybe a sparkling wine. Colas or juices are too rich, really.

In a pinch, iced water is just fine, another wine of the country here, indeed a hardy survivor since the 19th-century (British visitors noted the penchant with regularity).

The croquette is a phoenix, in a word, at least to Beer et Seq. One of the few birds he hasn’t seen al fresco on perambulations – including the rooster, the Egyptian goose, the swan, the duck, the cormorant, the heron –  appeared first to him on the plate at La Caretta.