Living Food History

What is food history? It can be almost anything, from cooking your mum’s meat loaf to following a recipe in a decades-, or even centuries-old, cook book. It can mean writing about food of the past, an activity that stretches from the halls of Academe (which has taken to the subject assiduously in recent years), to blogging on old menus as I sometimes do, to writing sophisticated, nuanced works such as by M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David, or the food blogs and surviving food magazines.

But surely the most obvious form of food history is eating, literally, food of the past. That’s not really possible, you say. Food is perishable by definition. True, there is canned food, and famously people sometimes will sample from a tin found in a shipwreck or something of that order, but the chances to do that are minimal for most people.

In the world of drinks, the matter is quite different, as old wine, beer, and liquor can be consumed with little risk usually. People sometimes do this who have access, but I am talking here of food.

There is one area though where food history is living in the most palpable sense. The sources are not that hard to find, or haven’t been until recently anyway. A sub-culture in the United States sources and tastes military rations from different eras, some stretching back to the world wars and even earlier.

The leading practitioner is Florida-born Steven Thomas, and he has posted many videos on youtube describing his finds and the tastes of foods he tries. As cigarettes were packed in old rations sometimes and he smokes, he will offer opinions, say, on 1940s Chesterfields. I smoked decades ago and some of his descriptions remind me of 1970s unfiltered Camels, Philip Morris, or Old Gold.

Nor has Thomas’ work remained within the precincts (valuable as they are) of youtube. He was profiled in the pages of no less than the Financial Times magazine two years ago, read it here with descriptions of foods he tasted.

His observations on enduring national food preferences in the rations are interesting too. For example, it seems Italian soldiers sometimes get a shot of grappa with breakfast. British soldiers get their share of pudding and tea.

I find this area quite fascinating. By the way he has never gotten ill from eating an old ration (he did from eating a current one, he explains what happened in the story). He takes simple precautions – the visual and smell test, basically – but has remained hale even after eating Civil War hardtack, say, or tinned Boer War beef packed by Bovril.

Here is a sample video, for a U.S. Army field ration from 1943. This is not a novelty exercise, he expresses himself well and the comments are often of real interest.

He and his colleagues who do this – they have already held a convention, perhaps to become annual – are certainly food historians. They should be profiled in the North American food media as well as more specialized journals.

Food history must be thought of beyond the conventional. More broadly, the popular food world is not just latest trends such as bone broth, food halls, and vegan burgers.

Note re image: The image shown is a Greek field ration of c.2013. It was sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on field rations, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs to its sole owner. Image is used under terms of the stipulated Creative Commons open access (3.0) license, see text here. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Amsterdam 1870 AK Bitter – 2019 Version

I’m pleased to confirm that Toronto craft brewing pioneer Amsterdam Brewery will again brew, in collaboration with us, 1870 AK Bitter as a limited edition.

It is a medium-gravity pale ale and based on an 1870 English recipe I identified some years ago. This is the second brewing, I described the first last year in a series of posts.

This post summarized the effort and referenced other posts with technical details and my impressions of brewing day.

To keep things interesting we are changing it up this year: instead of Maris Otter floor malt we will use Chevallier, a historical variety I discussed in this post last year. My point there was, Chevallier is certainly a valid choice for any such project as it existed in 1870 and indeed was widely used.

At the same time, another English malt variety, even one developed much later such as Maris Otter, does not impact the essential historical validity. Of the numerous reasons for this, not least is the relatively high fermentation and hopping rates (for pale ale). The malt is relatively restrained in the palate, in other words, and hops have the biggest say…

Still, one cannot go wrong with Chevallier, and had we used it last year, likely this year we would use Maris Otter, if only to detect any contrast. As it turned out, for the second brewing it will be the other way around.

For hops, we are using only one variety, English leaf Golding, vs. two last year. They will go in mostly at the outset of the boil, which some Burton practice approved, with some in the whirlpool stage too.

Hops were added at different times during the boil in the past, as today. There was no iron rule but adding much of the load at the front end hopefully will impart maximum bitterness particularly as we intend to boil for two hours, as against one last year.

Bitterness was a prime object of the old beers, the idea being to maximize preservative character. Without today’s pasteurization and/or extensive refrigeration, unless consumed quickly beer would sour, not a desirable outcome for pale ale historically. The hop resins imparted by a long boil tended to enhance preservation – hence after all the name “bitter”.

The beer will be chilled and kegged for draft with some dry-hopped for cask (real ale) service. And some will be canned, as last year. We are using, as well, an English yeast this year, vs. American ale yeast last time.

In other respects we will follow the 1870 recipe again including for the hop charge, so three-four lbs/bbl by our estimate. Gravities will be about the same as last year. The higher gravity I.P.A. version also discussed by Aroma is a possibility for next year.

It’s exciting to be able to work again with Iain McOustra, Cody Noland, and the other brewers at Amsterdam. They are pros all the way and no matter how much one has read, written, and tasted, the pros who do it every day understand brewing like no other.

I’ve learned more than I could possibly have hoped to impart, but appreciate Amsterdam’s positive reaction to the first brewing, to the point of doing a Mark II. Amsterdam’s commitment to brewing heritage deserves the admiration and support of all who care about the art of brewing, its lengthy and honourable history, and no less shining future.

The pseudonymous brewer “Aroma”, who wrote the 1870 directions, is smiling from the empyrean vastness. Despite all the changes in materials, technologies, and whatnot he gets what we are doing. He is one with us and our contemporaries who love the beer palate – for whom it is, in sum, part of gastronomy.



Beer vs. Food

‍Beer is From Mars, Food is From Venus. Well, not Exactly, but…

One area of the food and beer debate rarely considered is their potential opposition. More typically, you will read of “what goes with what”, a spin-off from the same discussion in wine circles.

Yet, wine and food are boon companions in a way beer and food are not.

I approach beer primarily from a sensory standpoint. Not political. Not big business vs. small. Not old school vs. new. And not its place at the dinner-table, as eating changes the taste of beer in a way different from wine.

To maximise this way of liking beer, taste and nose are primordial, the object being to appreciate nuances of flavour and find exceptional examples. I taste for other reasons too (eg. historical, nostalgic), but am mainly interested in an optimal sensory experience.

Indeed beer by its heft, quantity, and calories is a type of food itself. Hence, normal food is, at best, optional with it in a way that does not apply to wines, dry wines at any rate.

I cannot properly appreciate – taste – a beer with strong food odours in the room, or when I eat anything with it except dry, bland crackers or bread, perhaps. To accompany a meal, beer is fine, but then the meal is the main object, it`s not tasting. 

The fine English beer pictured below preceded a Chinese meal. I`m sure they would go together well – it`s hard to see how things could go wrong – but to appreciate this fine example of the brewer`s art, I drank the beer first and ate after.

Traditional British places to drink beer did not stress food: U.K. beer writers since the 1970s have made much of the improvement in food quality in pubs. Yet, there was a logic to the old system.

The old pub did not simply facilitate people ingesting alcohol, but afforded them the opportunity to enjoy their preferred beverage on its full merits, without a passing plate of french fries or stew to compete with the beer. The banning of smoking in pubs had the side effect of enhancing this experience.

I will admit that probably most pub-goers don`t really care – after all a majority now drinks fizzy cold lager, some 65% as reported in James Beeson`s article from last May, here.

Had they been such connoisseurs, that shift would not have occurred and cask ales would still enjoy the 90% of the market they had before 1970. The shift from the old-established ales and, earlier, porter, occurred for reasons of fashion, business efficiency, and greater international travel.

Since drinkers did not tarry over the fine points of their brew, they were able to accept (British-made) lager in place of the old and stronger-tasting cask beers.

(In turn, the earlier palate of beer was likely largely the result of prevailing technologies as applied to available materials more than a specific epicurean choice. By largely, I mean for the majority of drinkers. Of course too fashion and trends played a certain role, eg., to expand the use of porter outside its cradle of London).

Today, craft beer in Britain is gaining on British lager, but even though it tastes quite different, the underlying reasons are similar to what spurred lager.

Those drinkers will drink craft beer with their meals, or on its own, just as they did the lager – the beer has a different function here, and tends to be fungible, to borrow from the economists.

But a minority of imbibers has always viewed what`s in the glass in a special way: a stand-alone datum of gastronomy capable of infinite perfection. They are epicureans.

Food is all very well, we enjoy it greatly, and its history, no less than beer, but the two are best kept separate except where beer is an ingredient in cooking. Our beer or two a day usually precedes dinner or lunch.  A meal always follows, but usually without amphibious help, maybe water, or diet soda.



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.


Tasting, Thinking, Blending…

Redhook India Pale Ale

If I read the bottle coding right, this was bottled in August 2017. The label states Portsmouth, NH as one of the brewing locations. That facility was later closed and re-branded by Craft Brewers Alliance, owner of Redhook, as Cisco Brewery, a New England brewery also in the CBA stable.

I knew all this when I bought it, but bought it anyway. The label stated dry-hopping – an addition of unboiled hops to the finished brew to enhance hop character – plus generous use of hops in the brewing. This encouraged me to think the hop charge would preserve the beer over 18 months, irrespective of any pasteurisation that may have been applied.

And it sure did: the beer showed not a hint of damp paper oxidation or other age affliction. The hops were well-integrated in the taste and the beer had a good malty body to “absorb” them.

After all, India Pale Ale was meant to be long stored and shipped, originally. Only recently did the idea grow, for reasons valid unto themselves, that IPA needs to be drunk as fresh as possible. That is true of beers given a large dose of aroma hopping where that burst of flowery fruity freshness is wanted in the palate.

The original IPA was different: the idea was to preserve the beer from souring and if hop bitterness or other attributes diminished in the process, that was okay and even proof the hops did their job. Redhook IPA, a beer with an impressive craft lineage – it has its genesis in Ballard Bitter, an early product of the pioneer brewery (founded 1981) – is perfect for such treatment.

This is not to say it is not excellent when very fresh; I’m sure it is.

The hop accent here is the craft workhorse Cascade, perhaps 100% Cascade, as many early craft ales were. I’d think Jack McAuliffe’s historic New Albion Ale (1976-1984) tasted similar to this beer. It has a citric taste but without the 100 watt intensity many later IPAs featured.

The taste is a bit earthy too and, well, “down home”, but this was the taste of early American craft ales on the West Coast as I well recall.

Redhook’s IPA is still popular in Seattle, home turf of the brewery, and long may it reign there.

Hands Across the Water Blend

I mentioned this blend in a tweet and it turns out to be perhaps the best I’ve ever done, it’s half each of the beers shown below. The result is like a really good Munich Dunkel, or dark lager. The American (Florida) Kölsch is certainly very nice on its own, as is the Spaten double bock, but the combination creates synergies that surprised me.

True, the Kölsch is top-fermented (by nature), the other is a lager, hence bottom-fermented, but with both reflecting a German approach in mashing and hopping, it all meshes really well.

If need be I’ll rely on the current fashion in brewing to use mixed fermentations, but that only goes to show if the final result is good, go with it.

I did the blend because I had two bottle ends to use up and also, the Spaten is around 8% abv and I wanted to bring the strength down. I had a feeling though the result had to be good given the components, and it was, in spades.

Funky Buddah Brewery

I stopped by the Funky Buddah brewpub and brewery for beer and lunch, in Oakland Park, Fort Lauderdale. It’s built in a stylish, prewar factory or warehouse with a spacious area for the long bar and seating. The brewing kit and fermenters are tucked in the back.

The building is painted in a buff yellow that enhances the mid-20th century feel. You see similar warm structures on the West Coast.

The beer styles offered, a wide range, are contemporary to the max, with flavoured beers leading the charge but choices available for traditionalists such as myself who generally eschew the flavoured, sour, and wild.

The best beer, or one I liked best rather, was Gloves Off IPA, a red IPA hopped with Amarillo, an orangey hop I favour in pale ale styles, and feisty Mosaic. These give an American stamp without the strong grapefruit taste that can be coarse unless in the hands of Allstate.

A dark ale hopped with English varieties was less successful with a biscuity edge familiar to anyone who knows craft brewing in the last 30 years, i.e., not really trad English.

Hop Gun (I had a flight) is an in-your-face west coast IPA, as the name implies.

An oats-infused pale New England IPA was good too, drier and perhaps influenced by the brut style.

A Marzen beer was letter-perfect Vienna-style, malty and the true, inimitable Mittel Europa. It’s in my genes, trust me.

No stout unflavoured was available, a real pity as flavouring the stuff traduces the character. A bourbon barrel Imperial Stout was very good for the style and nice to have as an option, but a regular Imperial stout, one of the great beers of the world, would have been appreciated.

Good pub food, burgers, pulled pork, tacos, wings, etc. completed the picture.

State of the art brewing for the most part, and good atmosphere with even a functioning rail line next door to rattle and roll ya when the beer lulls to complacency.

In the end, the Buddah is all-American, down to noting when I was paying that my bank card is “international”. Yes and no.





Wine of the Country

I’m going down the country, where I’ve never been before

I’m going down the country, where the beer tastes like water.*

Before craft beer and craft anything, before pumpkin latte and iron chefs, there was (of course) an appreciation of fine beer, food, wine. It took different forms, generally more elitist, more exclusive, at least as mediated through the general culture.

The preoccuption characterises the West back to ancient Rome and Asian and most other cultures too.

In these earlier times a lover of food was often “epicurean”, a word that sounds suspiciously old-fashioned now, or suspiciously anti-democratic. He or she might be an essayist, poet, traveller, ethnologist. The world was simpler then (tell me about it). There was no hospitality industry to speak of, no field of food science, no university departments of food history, no or few newspaper columnists who specialised in food and wine, never mind beer.

But there were serious students of the palate, and people have always written books or essays on food that studied its esthetics, social context, and history. It is idle to recite the names, google Gastronomy and that will clue you in. I’ve written about mid-20th century gastronomic societies as well as some 19th century proto-beer critics as examples of this distant past.

This old school elucidated or entertained into the 1970s when suddently appreciation of food and drink took on a democratic spirit. This coincides with the growth of the consumer society, itself an outgrowth of liberalisation of economies and triumph of industrial capitalism in the West and elsewhere.

Overlooked cuisines, Jewish food, say, or soul food, or regional Chinese cooking, came in for close scrutiny and became the stuff of commissioning editors (talk about old-fashioned!).

And so we’ve ended, or so far, with cooking and travel shows, national cooking competitions, the Gordon Ramsays, the Jay Rayners, the Rachel Rays. The tone varies now from braying to babying, but the preoccupation is same as it ever was: good things to eat, where they come from, how to find or prepare them.

In the older period, before pocket guides much less online information available at a keystroke, the idea was prevalent that when travelling, you should drink the “wine of the country”. Of course the idea persists, and has even grown. Ideas such as terroir, “drink local”, and ethnic food exploration all give expression to the same notion.

In other words even in a more elitist time, when gastronomic societies abounded, when writing seriously about food required a private fortune (e.g. as Julia Child had) or a day job of some kind, the idea existed that wine, and by implication other comestibles, had value simply by being local, hence authentic.

Even if one didn’t have the money to order a classified growth in a grand hotel, one could sup the local vintage, perhaps in company or view of those who made it or their kin.

It might be a Cahors, a Rioja, a minor Friulian wine. It might be Bohemian Pilsener, or a British “bitter”. You drank what you found on the ground, almost literally.

Where did this idea of wine of the country originate?

It goes back at least to the 1800s, as citations in the sense understood today – today meaning here, c.1975 – go back to 1900. Ernest Gilbey, the English wine merchant whose name famously adorns a brand of gin, used the term in Parliamentary testimony on additives in wines. He stated some Portuguese “red wines of the country” were never exported, due at the time to the difficulty to preserve them (a clue to why things changed later).

The term wine of the country became part of the cultural acquis by WW II, a chattering class staple.

The American novelist Hamilton Basso, Louisiana-born but based in New York most of his career, used the term to title his 1941 novel of southern Gothic, Wine of the Country. Here, the words were a metaphor for a regional ethos he contrasted negatively with the cultured if emotionally less fevered northeast.

With the spread of a worldwide foodie culture as well as a sophisticated food and beverage science, the idea of the local is today qualified. It still exists of course, but is influenced much more so by developments in other places than ever before.

Hence ironically if you ask for IPA in London, you will get the American type that was developed from about 1980, not the English original that inspired it. If you ask for a glass of red wine in Europe, you might get something tasting rather of California – in that style – than anything from a Continental canton. Mondo vino, it’s been called.

Still, local still means something, it does exist, sometimes with a little searching.

What is the wine of the country in Florida?

It is unquestionably mass-market, adjunct beer. Walking miles through suburbs and seaside towns these last weeks, the litter on lawn and waterways confirms it: Natural Light (or Ice); Busch; Modelo; Bud Light; Corona. I never saw a craft beer container discarded that way. The highest order of beer treated that way was Heineken – just the carton wrapper, actually.

The crushed cans – well, crushable you know – attested all to the regional taste. The beer might be made in Florida (the Buds and Busch, say), it might be made in Central America somewhere, but it all offered light taste, relatively low alcohol content, and generally low price.

The ranks of those beers in the supermarkets, the beer lists in the restaurants, simply confirm this. Of course, there is a vibrant craft brewing culture here, and some 300 breweries in fact that churn out craft beer as good as anywhere. But it’s still decidedly a minority taste, I’d estimate not more than 10% of state sales, 15% maximum.

The “wine of the country” in Florida is one of the beers mentioned, or another of that type, Presidente, Victoria, Dos Equis, Miller Lite, Old Milwaukee, the list goes on.

And so in line with the old injunction, I am drinking the wine of the country. The implication of old was, the local stuff might be good, but if bad or indifferent drink it anyway because it is genuine, the people’s choice.

I’ve tried as well numerous craft beers, but also this wine of the country, to see what the old learning could teach me. Well, not that much really. The mass market adjunct beer seems less palatable than ever.

I’ve tried Budweiser, Corona Familiar, Presidente, Foster’s Ale (brewed in Texas), and from a beer specialist point of view, it’s all rather uninspiring.

The craft sector, as well as certain quality imports, are where the action is for the student of beer, but these are not the wine of the country. Not yet.


*With apologies to Canned Heat, c.1970