Chimay Première (Rouge) – Is It A Great Beer?

IMG_20151109_080954Chimay is a legend, one of the select Trappist beer group, or beer brewed by monks of the Trappist order within the confines of the monastery. It was and probably still is the best known Trappist beer, as well.

The Notre Dame abbey at Scourmont, near Chimay (a town) in the wooded Hainaut of Belgium, has made beer since the 1860’s. Chimay was an early import to North America (from the 1970’s) and helped influence the craft beer revival here. Writers such as Michael Jackson wrote lyrically about the beer, and Trappist brewing in general. This caused a wave of interest in Belgian brewing which is unabated to this date.

I first drank Chimay Rouge, 7% abv then as now, in about 1980, in Montreal. A restaurant in Old Montreal, with flagstones dating from the French Colonial era, carried it.

To my best recollection, it was herbal and aromatic (perfumed), but whether similar to the beer today, it is difficult to say. In checking books both in English and French of the same period, there are few really helpful sensory descriptions. Michael Jackson used different terms in his books, such as blackcurrant, which can mean funky-vegetal, juniper, spicy, red fruit, but it is hard to pin down the palate from what he wrote. James Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, said it reminded him of his Aunt Beenie’s root beer, which is one of my favourite beer descriptions of all time. Root beer suggests a sweet and wintergreen or minty/herbal taste. I don’t find Chimay today like that, but again it’s hard to know what Robertson really meant.

As many beer fans know, Chimay is not an all-malt beer. It uses something like 15% wheat flour or wheat starch – accounts vary, but either is an adjunct – and 5% dextrose. The brewery says the beer has not changed since the 1940’s when famously, the yeast was isolated which is used in the brewing to this day. It is a strain which performs well at high temperatures and flocculates well, or drops in the bottle so the beer will look clear. Still, 80% malt is certainly respectable, similar to what British ales were using in the period before craft brewing from America impelled some British brewers to brew all-malt. Thus, it seems Chimay was not all-malt in 1980, although some doubt persists.

A factor which may have affected the palate more was the move, in the late 1980’s, to cone-tipped cylindrical fermenters. Prior to that, the beer was open-fermented as the Westvleteren beers, from another renowned Trappist brewery, still are. Some have speculated the behaviour of the yeast changed in the different vessel and altered the palate.

What does Chimay Rouge, best known of the three beers in the Chimay range, taste like today?  It is fruity, as in cherries or plums, and rather light-bodied, with a strong, bready yeast smack to it. The yeast taste is one which many who know Belgian beer will recognize. It is like the smell and taste of a fresh cork, a cork not long in the wine bottle. I used to think the cork in the tall bottle version of Chimay imparted the taste, but it tastes the same from the skittle-shaped bottle closed with a cap. As other Belgian ales have a similar taste, e.g. Leffe, whose recipe originates in monastic brewing, it is the yeast which is at work here.

The next time you have Champagne, see if you don’t notice a resemblance in the yeast background. I always felt that a wine yeast, possibly from Champagne, a region fairly close to Wallonian Belgium, may have been used to help isolate the Chimay yeast. Wine yeasts are adapted to fermenting wine at alcohol levels of 10-12% abv and more. Chimay’s beers are not quite wine strength but are much higher in alcohol than the typical ale of the mid-20th century which was 4-5% abv.

In the last 20 years, I find this yeast taste overwhelming in Chimay. It dominates the palate strongly, with malt and hop flavours playing a supporting role. I don’t find the flavour particularly attractive. For example, there is a scent of fine flowery hops in the beer, I’d guess English ones for recent brewings anyway, but that taste is almost submerged under the yeast dominance of the beer. Someone once suggested to me that Chimay is much better when aged a few years, that the yeast taste breaks down and the malt and hop flavours come more to the fore. I may lay a few bottles away and test the idea.

I’ll leave the reader with a final reflection. About a year ago, I had a bottle of Westvleteren Abt, the legendary Trappist beer from another monastery in Belgium. I hadn’t had Chimay prior to this tasting for a few years.

The first thought that came to mind when I swallowed it was, Montreal, 1980, Chimay Rouge, flagstones…

 

 

 

PBR Under The Gaze Of Beer Et Seq.

PBR IN ITS AMERICAN AND CANADIAN GUISES, AND INCIDENTAL REMARKS ON BLENDING

Before the craft beer era, and well into it, a common feature of the beer scene was to compare the same beer as brewed (or available) in two distant places.

For example, Munich’s Lowenbrau became a locally-brewed, licensed beer in the U.S. in the 70’s. Somebody might get hold of the German original and bring it to a tasting to compare to the local one. Another example: James D. Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseurs Guide To Beer, compared Molson’s bought in Toronto with the imported one he could obtain in New Jersey. (Molson told him they were the same but Jim liked the one brought direct from Canada better). A version of this was to compare an import, Heineken, or Beck’s, say, with the same beer just off the plane from Europe; this was usually an eye-opener.

We still do this today, even in the hyper-sophisticated and complex world of contemporary beer. Someone might bring a Goose Island Honker’s from Chicago and compare it to the one made in Toronto now. In fact, I may do this soon, as I have some local Honker’s and will be in the States soon where I can get the Chicago one – or at least an American one, since it is brewed in different places now by AB In Bev.

The extra-large can of Pabst Blue Ribbon you can get at The Beer Store in Ontario is brewed in the U.S., in distinction to the other forms of PBR available here. PBR is a famous old beer, one of the first national-scale lagers, and it had a premium image. I recall it in the 1970’s as having a pleasant, perfumed taste, quite different to today’s, but that’s another story.

With the growth of the craft beer segment  – i.e., the return to flavour which all beer had historically – PBR declined in profile, but then had an unlikely revival: it became a “hipster” beer, a commonly used but somewhat misleading description. Hipster implies a socially-aware young person, one in tune with trends. One would expect hipsters to favour craft beers, and many do of course. But the hipster community is not uniform. One of the sub-sets was more concerned with price and retro appeal than the myriad distinctions of the craft world with (often) prices to match. It is this group who took to PBR.

While some have predicted a fall for PBR, the company’s website reports continued growth and enthusiastic reception by millenials. The beer looks possibly to become, or become again, an enduring American icon. And so, a long and winding path: from local (1800’s Milwaukee) hero to national icon to declining American adjunct beer to a niche exemplar of cool. What’s next? Well, calm appraisal under the eye of Beer et Seq, we will look at both the American one brewed at La Crosse, WI and the version made by Sleeman in Ontario.

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The outsize tin is the American, the other, the Canadian one.

I found them rather different. The only thing that was similar was the unmistakeable high corn or other adjunct content, it lends a distinctive dry, starchy note familiar to most who know the elements of the beer palate.

The American one was better, with a notable lager yeast smell, that typical sulphur note so many blonde lagers have around the world.

Unfortunately (for me), instead of the sweet malty taste one hopes will follow as for any good helles, a keen flavour of corn seemed to dominate, as you might find in cornbread or popcorn. But still the taste was reasonably full and mildly sweet – recognizably a beer, the type that became popular in the later 1900’s when malt rates were reduced significantly and hops too. A well-made product by the standard of what it is.

The Sleeman version had none of this lager yeast aroma – not necessarily a bad thing as I don’t favour the “sulphur springs” note. However, it had very little else going for it. The beer was very attenuated, meaning very dry, and had a chemical-like note, to my palate. It was as if you might blend seltzer water and Schweppes tonic water with a touch of toffee apple caramel added.

I am sure many like these beers but they are not something I normally go for. So what to do? My answer, as many will guess here, is to blend them with another beer, one that has much more malt and taste. This evens out the flavours and, done right, reaches a stasis I find much more to my taste.

I tried a Belgian porter the other day, Viven Porter, 7% ABV:

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I corked the bottle after a swallow or two. It is a good beer but the brewer must be a using a well-smoked or roasted malt as the beer had a strong “cured” taste, almost like some Scotch whisky. It was a bit dry, too, for the style, IMO. In Beer et Seq’s world, its best vocation, as for the PBRs, is blending.

In a pint glass, I poured two thirds the PBRs combined, 2:1 American to Canadian, intentionally. The third part was the aforementioned porter.

This produced a perfect blend. Barley malt was evident while lightly modified by adjunct, which I’m good with (I don’t mind adjunct as such), and there was a lightly roasted tone throughout. The beer was a dark brown with reddish highlights, and rather, in flavour not colour, like Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier from Bamberg which has a lightly smoky note.

The PBR oil cans are still in the fridge, each about half-full. (I leave any can of beer opened for 2-3 days with blithe unconcern – there is so much CO2 to begin with that the amount which bleeds off usually works to the beer’s advantage, with plenty of gas left). Tonight or tomorrow, I’ll do a blend like the first one, but using Sinha Stout for the one-third which is highly flavoured. This is the fine, almost Imperial stout from Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, the brewery was established by British colonials in the 1800’s.

 

A Pot Pourri Reviewed

First, a fine dunkel from DAB in Dortmund – maybe not classic dunkel (dark lager) territory but DAB nails the style: coffee/dark nut-like, a little sweet, good racy hops underpinning the malt but in a neutral way.  Beer as it’s meant to be, few craft dunkels come close.

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Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide in Denver, Colorado, a very rich, well-bittered stout with a grainy, coffee-like palate. This version was “regular”, no unusual yeasts, no aging regimen in bourbon barrels: all to the good. A worthy beer to stand with the great English exemplars of the style, if slightly under them in the league table.

 

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Beau’s Lugtread (no image shown).

The current draft samplings of this beer show it being the best ever brewed at Beau in eastern Ontario. While nominally a kolsch-style, it tastes like a blonde lager in every usual particular, and what a lager. The clean but tasty malt and German hops are to the fore, and the yeast background complements these flavours – the old DMS taste, which spoiled the beer in my opinion, is finally gone.

This is the essence of great German-style brewing, and I hope Beau will keep the beer exactly as it tastes now, it can’t be any better.

The Session – November 6, 2015

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TWO BEERS MEET AND END UP GETTING CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The Session is a monthly round-up where bloggers tackle an assigned topic and submit the results to the Session leader. Today, Mark at Kaedrin Beer Blog has requested that two beers be tasted, compared and contrasted, optionally in connection with a movie double header. Not being a movie buff I’ll do just the beer part.

Below are two beers, both lagers, yet different as can be. There is only one glass pictured, and that’s because after trying a few ounces each, I blended them.

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Guinness Blonde Lager is a new release. Occasionally, a classic or even something solid and valuable can emerge from a first try. My experience is more that first tries don’t reach the mark, and that is the case here. An aromatic American hop taste – generally characteristic of pale ale or an IPA – sits uneasily with a caramelized malt tone and the beer’s description, blonde American lager. To me the beer has a “processed” taste, one I often encounter in craft-type beers from large brewers.

Perhaps there was an attempt to blend an IPA palate with a lager profile to lighten it and make it more accessible.

The Czech Kozel always tastes to me like a lighter version of Pilsner Urquell. This sample, very fresh at only three months from packaging, fits that bill perfectly. It is clean and classic in palate, but a little light, and therefore dull, IMO.

My solution: I blended them, as shown in the pint glass pictured. The malts combined very well as the Kozel’s clean pale malt cut the caramelized tone of the Guinness Blonde, but the latter’s malty quality loosened the restraint of the Czech beer. The blended malt taste now is auburn with blonde highlights (or the other way around!). On the hop side, the roiling American hop taste of the Guinness Blonde was improved by the noble Saaz variety which informs the Kozel. I mixed them 50-50 but if I did it again, I would do 60-40 Kozel to Guinness, possibly even a touch higher on the Kozel.

The blend was excellent, a dark blonde lager with some American accents, similar to some “brown bitters” from England.

I wasn’t planning the blend, but as mixing beers frequently improves the taste of the components, I often have recourse to it to avoid discarding something I don’t like.

 

A Beer And A Shot

A BOILERMAKER

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Above is a beer I have written about before, but I mention it again due to its high quality and unquestioned savour of terroir.

It has a rich, molasses/butterscotch taste, very Bavarian and difficult to emulate in North America (I’ve never had one at any rate).

The real thing, from people who know exactly what fine beer is all about. Just don’t get it too old, this one was four months from packaging and still tasted very fresh.

Below, a new release from Crown Royal.  It is 90% rye mash, meaning a rye grain mash (all rye or mostly) taken off the still at a low proof (under 80% ABV) as all traditional spirits are. I’d guess the 10% is a whisky made from a neutral spirit base or mostly. It tastes like a U.S. 80 proof bourbon if you added a measure of Canadian whisky to it, like a watered down bourbon.  Not bad, but for the price or less, better options are available, IMO. The taste is sweetish, a little apply, with some oak, no char that I can tell, a decorous whisky in the Canadian tradition albeit less timorous than the typical Canadian whisky blend.

 

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The Changeability Of Beer

Tasting different beers recently, a thought came to me that has recurred periodically: beer, I mean the same brand, can be quite changeable from glass to glass.

Generally, one thinks of craft beer in this connection, but industrial beers are liable to changeability too. I prefer to call it changeability rather than inconsistency since the latter implies a value judgement, that is a perfect standard, when in fact this is not possible or desirable.

A bottle of Stella Artois last night at a reception in a downtown hotel surprised by its creamy freshness and beery quality: malty, hoppy, what beer should be. I’ve had it other times when it seems skunky or with too much grain (or other) adjunct.  Same thing for many other beers, mass market but especially craft. Heineken seems similarly better to me lately, but whether it is faster shipment, evolving or better production processes, or luck of the draw is hard to say. Sometimes you can put your finger on it, a can of German dunkel that was particularly good made me check the website. It turns out the beer is flash-pasteurized only, not tunnel-pasteurized which is a more lengthy, and intensive, heat sterilization of beer. I doubt the same brand was treated this way (for export anyway) ten years ago.

In the craft area, the situation is more acute since breweries cannot always get the same hops or other materials for their brands, they have much less buying and stocking power than large concerns. Second, service methods at point of dispense vary, e.g., some bars are more particular about cleaning lines than others. The beer may be stored before service in a variety of temperatures, depending again where you drink it, or the season. And if a keg has sat one month somewhere vs. two or three elsewhere, or ditto in the same place between the first and second times you try it, the beer is likely to be better when younger. Add to this the fact that contract breweries often change suppliers, which introduces another variable.

Many breweries, and not just craft, tend too either to get better over time or worse. Even when the beer is consumed at its optimum condition and quality, a yeast change, say, or different cold storing regimen, may affect the palate. An Ontario craft beer I like a lot now in the past had a noticeable “boiled veg” taste I believe resulted from DMS, or dimethyl sulphide, a by-product of certain certain yeasts when used in association with very pale malts. This is a typical Central European lager flavour, one that has few gastronomic merits in my view except perhaps when consumed with food (which may explain or in part the continuance of this flavour profile). In recent months, the beer seems much cleaner and the taste I found objectionable in the past, completely absent. I believe this was intentional on the part of the brewery and a good move. The malt and hop qualities are more to the fore and the yeast background is subtle and non-obtrusive.

A factor particular to craft breweries is, sometimes the same beer comes cloudy, which can affect the palate, and sometimes not, or less so. You really don’t know until the pint is poured.

Even though the average beer fan may not, or always, be able to articulate what he or she doesn’t like in a beer, I’ve always felt small differences matter. They won’t likely order something again which hits them wrong. The challenge for brewers is to come up with a flavourful potion of malt and hops – a good formula to begin with, and then to try to make it and ensure pubs serve it as consistently as possible. A tall order to be sure, but those who are good at this stand the best chance of success.

When one adds this reality to the profusion of brands and styles available in the market today, it really means – for one who focuses carefully on palate – each drinking experience is different. Predictions based on the beer today are not always reliable, even, again, for mass market products.

It’s good to keep trying a range of beers if only because you may be surprised at some beers which under-performed in the past, and conversely, firm favourites may for a variety of reasons decline in quality.

 

 

Sauerbraten From Ruth Vendley Neumann – An Appreciation

 

Sächsischer_SauerbratenSauerbraten, or “sour roast”, is a dish well-known in the cookery of Germany and what used to be known as Mitteleuropa.

Anyone learning about foreign cuisines in the 60s through the 80s knew about sauerbraten. It’s from the time quiche lorraine, green peppercorns, cassoulet, sole almondine, and coq au vin were popular – and I daresay carbonade flamande, the Flemish beef-and-beer stew.

Dishes go in and out of style. This has little to do with their inherent goodness and more to do with fashion and other vagaries.

Chuck Cowdery, America’s authority on bourbon whiskey, recently commented here that my carbonade flamande posting made him think of sauerbraten. Indeed, there are numerous similarities. Both use beef as the main meat, and onion, both use vinegar or another souring agent, and both can have a spicy note.

In fact, there are numerous dishes across a band of north-central Europe which are broadly similar. Yorkshire had a dish of beef and beer, a harvest dish for farm workers. The Czech Republic has beer goulash, see a good example here, as do Germany and Austria. Poland does a turn in beef or game marinated in beer, vinegar and spices. Similar versions appear yet further east. Each is somewhat different though and assumes finally a national, or ethnic, character.

Anyone who knows the sauerbraten may object: but it’s based on red wine! True, but not exclusively. A beer version exists too in the German countries.

Below is a recipe for a beer sauerbraten, but first a note about the source. It is from Ruth Vendley Neumann’s Cooking With Spirits, published by Castle Books in 1961. According to Internet sources, Ruth Neumann grew up in the Detroit area before World War II. She trained as a concert violinist but later became an advertising executive in the Chicago area; she had her own agency in Winnetka for many years. This book is what might be called topical (like most cookbooks), not seeking to mark any kind of culinary achievement or stand as compelling social history or memoir. It is mostly a collection of recipes, many of the author’s own devise, which employ in some way beer, wine, spirits, or liqueurs in cookery, from soup to nuts.

In the 1950s, cookbook publishers, and probably still today, were looking for a new angle, something to catch the attention of the public. In that period, you saw books on lazy susan cookery, Polynesian food, cooking with leftovers, and outdoor cooking. It’s no surprise someone thought to publish a book using, not just wine or beer, but any sort of beverage alcohol in recipes. There was an element of novelty, even fun, to some of the food writing then.

Today, the obsession with supposedly natural food and “clean” eating can cast a Soviet-style humorlessness on dining. The 50s were less sanctimonious. If  there was a certain florid superficiality, so what? It was no worse than the studied gravity which attends the business of fueling the body today. In any case, the enthusiasm and “can do” was understandable as a reaction to the strains and privations of the wars recently ended.

The publisher of Cooking With Spirits found the right person to write it. The book displays the author’s enthusiasm and optimistic attitude, personality traits which must have assisted her professional (non-culinary) work, too. And for those who look, there are a number of entertaining asides in the book, and useful social history.

One is her spare but deft portrait of an Italian-American colleague she encountered in a WPA sewing project in the 1930s. This was a New Deal-era program, for those not familiar with the acronym. The colleague brought zucchini sandwiches from home which entranced Neumann, who gives the recipe, called Zucchini Paganelli. It was her friend’s, except with some Chianti wine added. Another nugget describes a pie Ms. Neumann’s mother made from Concord grapes. She says the only problem with it was you couldn’t stop eating it: “Too darn good”.

There is a story of a beef sirloin dish a friend enjoyed during a 1920s fishing trip in Wyoming. The friend, a young executive with General Motors, was introduced to the dish by a “Turkish rug dealer” who had joined the excursion. The sirloin, a 5lb. centre cut, was treated with cognac, chili sauce, and mustard, amongst other things. The result convinced Ruth Neumann that her previous philosophy, “when I eat steak, I want to taste steak”, henceforth required qualification.

During the early 1950s she traveled with her husband to Germany and Austria. The early 50s was still a time of shortages and rebuilding in Germany, the place wasn’t on everyone’s “Europe” list then. Perhaps she or (I’d guess more) her husband was of German background, as she mentions they went more than once.

During one of the trips, she was much taken with a sauerbraten in which beer, not wine, was the base. She calls it, Ben Burkhart’s Sauerbraten. I’m not sure who Ben Burkhart was or is, perhaps the owner of the hotel where the dish was served. This is how she starts her account:

The date was October 15, 1953. The Schottenhaml Hotel in Munich was just getting back into shape after the ravages of the war; so when my husband and I arrived there from Cologne, we had to tote our bags through the back door. The front façade still presented a gaping hole where a bomb had made a direct hit.

The recipe uses 4 lb. of beef round or chuck, 2 cups wine vinegar, 3 cups beer, 2 onions, 2 tbsp. pickling spices, 3 tbsp. brown sugar, 1 tbsp. salt, flour to dredge the meat, and Mazola to brown. Of course, sour cream enters into it too. Not hard to make but you need time for the marination.

Despite the use of beer, the recipe is not like a carbonade flamande in that much more vinegar is used, and the mustard and herbs of the Belgian dish are absent. Still, it is easy to see the general connection. And indeed for cooks in Flanders or Brussels who use spice bread in their carbonade and put in a swirl of crème fraiche to enrich the dish, it probably bears more than a passing resemblance to a beer sauerbraten.

The more classic wine sauerbraten does have a different taste though. Bacchus puts it on a different vector!

Sauerbraten, any version, is due for a revival. Maybe Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown will hunt down a good one, or Rachel Ray.

I’ve made some of Ruth Neumann’s dishes – her lamb curry with addition of gin, or “Bourbon-cued Chicken” are terrific – but not the beer sauerbraten. One day I’ll try it though. As the saying goes, what’s not to like…

Note re image:  This image is in the public domain and was sourced here.

 

 

A Classic Beer Dish: Carbonade Flamande

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Carbonade flamande is a simmered or baked dish of beef, onions, beer (and sometimes stock) and, often, vinegar, sugar, and herbs. Mustard is often added. A thickening of some kind is usually present, bread, flour, or another starch. Spelling varies, you will also see carbonnades flamande, or à la flamande, and the noun in singular or plural.

The dish is a star performer in the cookery repertoire of the old region of Flanders, an area which straddles three countries: the far north of France area around Lille and Pas-de-Calais, Belgium, and Holland.

Carbonade flamande is perhaps the best-known dish of beer cookery, rivaled only by Welsh Rabbit, a melted cheese and beer dish.

There are many recipes in countless books and online. Most are similar in their construction but I find the variations can make a difference. I will set out the recipe I feel gives the best result. I stick to beef vs. other meats as I find the dish is best with beef, but it is interesting to try it with pork or veal, say.

“Carbonade” seems to derive from carbonado, and one easily sees the connection to charbon (coal), carbonized, and similar words.

Hence carbonade was meat cooked over a bed of coals or burning embers, not a stewed or baked dish as it is today. How these shifts occur is one of the mysteries of food history.

A point of interest is that if you search in Google Books for the 19th century a few recipes come up yet none involves beer, or that I could find. The recipes are similar to today’s, but call for vinegar, stock, or water or some combination.*

Sources from the slightly later Edwardian era, including impressively Escoffier, remark on the dish as a Flemish (Belgian) specialty cooked with “old lambic” or another Belgian beer of the acid, lambic group. Probably the “vinegar” in older recipes was sometimes a Belgian sour beer. The fact that vinegar is called for today when using a standard ale or lager makes sense as the combination emulates the sour taste of lambic or gueuze.

So in all likelihood the dish is not a 20th-century invention but goes back hundreds of years in Flanders where sour agents – vinegar, acid beer, or verjuice (sour grape juice) were used in cooking. In general, carbonade flamande is a survival of medieval cooking practices, many of which had a sweet-and-sour signature.

I give my recipe in summary form only but in a way any moderately experienced cook can follow. It is not actually mine but from a Belgian beer cookery book dating back to the 1970s or 60s I looked for it but can’t find conveniently find it, it is in a box somewhere.

Still, the thousands of recipes you can find for beef carbonade are similar, differing often in a detail or two. Some add bacon (I don’t think it helps the dish), some mix beer and stock (I like beer only), some use ginger, nutmeg, or mace instead of green herbs.

Some cooks marinate the meat; some add the sugar or vinegar during the cooking or at the end, and on it goes

A note on the beer: It may sound odd on a beer blog to suggest it, but the beer doesn’t really matter. I have used lambic, porter, Imperial Stout, Coors Light, and everything in between. If you use the sugar, vinegar, and mustard, which you should, it all comes out similar.

So my rule is, I use any beer I have, or a blend of leavings – almost anything.  A dash of whisky, brandy, port or gin is good too, but don’t add too much, you don’t want a “brandied” overtone.

You need a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of beef, a second cut like chuck, round, shoulder, shank. It can be sliced in half-inch slices or in chunks. I like chunks. You can flour the meat or not.

Sauté it to a medium brown in a pan. Don’t add too much beef when browning else it will “steam”, do it in two or three batches. Slice yellow or white onions, four or five, sauté them in more fat, any kind will do but I find butter is best, maybe mixed with olive oil.

Some people like the onions browned, I find it better to have them translucent. Transfer the meat and onions to a casserole dish, I use the oval enameled type. A Creuset-type is good as well but watch the cooking time, as the extra insulation holds the heat and these vessels need less time to avoid a drying out.

In a pot on the element pour an Imperial pint (20 oz) of beer or more, you may need about 30-35 ounces. Add the vinegar, a few tablespoons. Any kind will do but a good red wine one is best, and the sugar. Sugar is important, you need at least a tablespoon, it modifies and mingles with the beer and vinegar to produce the classic sweet and sour palate. The sugar can be white or brown, even maple syrup works. In a pinch, honey or molasses.

Add a rounded teaspoon of mixed dried herbs – the mixture is important – and a bay leaf or two. The herbs can also be in bouquet garni form. Bring all to a boil and skim, this is also important, it makes for a better dish. Pour hot beer mixture onto the beef and onions in the baking dish.

Next, take a couple of slices of semi-stale but good bread, any whole grain type say, and cover well with a Dijon or any good mustard. Place slices of bread mustard-side down on the top of the mixture, the liquid should come to near the top lapping the bread.

Cover and bake at 325 F or even 350 F for a couple of hours, I find at 350 F sometimes barely more than an hour is enough, but test meat until it is cooked but still firm. Cooking will take more or less time depending on the meat, your oven, etc. It is better to let the dish cool on the stove, then remove any noticeable fat, and then place in fridge and reheat well the next day.

Proverbially such dishes improve over a day or two.

I should add: half-way through the cooking blend everything with a spoon, you will see the bread disintegrates and helps lightly to thicken the sauce. Also, salt and pepper at outset but don’t over-salt, you can always more later but too much salt will ruin the taste (for any dish).

I don’t like garlic in this dish. Some Belgian recipes use a spice bread, a gingerbread-type, for the thickening element. I have tried this but don’t think it is better than using good whole grain. The idea is to lightly thicken the sauce. If you like the ginger taste, add a little grated or ground ginger.

Drink the braise with any beer you like or a red wine that can stand up to a sweet and sour dish. A good Zinfandel, or Beaujolais, say. Riesling works well too actually, a Spatlëse, say.

Brussels sprouts lightly steamed or boiled with butter, or cabbage sections cooked the same way, are traditional to accompany. Plain boiled potatoes, or noodles buttered, or the classic French fries of Lille and Belgium, also. French fries may sound odd with a braise but they are classic for this dish.

One thing I would advise: don’t mix too many flavours, you may get a muddled result. Escoffier’s fairly simple recipe (see pg. 398), from 1904, employs the classic lambic but is otherwise quite basic. Taste is heightened and improved as a result, imo.

Note: For those who wish to adding bacon or nutmeg, mace, or ginger this French recipe looks good. It calls for a liter of Pelforth Brune, a sweetish, dark beer. Leffe Brune, a Belgian abbey-type, can be used or a similar beer for yet a “sweeter” taste. You can adjust sweetness with less or more sugar though, that’s why the beer doesn’t really matter except perhaps at the extremes, Bud Light vs. an imperial stout, say.

Note re image: image appears to be in the public domain and is sole property of its lawful owner, as applicable, it was sourced here. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*I documented some of these in a later post, here.

 

 

 

Cask Days Notes

CSLABYhVAAANs2bA most enjoyable afternoon was spent at Cask Days annual event at Brickworks in Toronto yesterday. This multi-session event is always best attended IMO earlier in the weekend, as the beer choice is more complete (some kegs run out by Sunday especially this year as none were held in reserve). However, no one can complain with something like 200 firkins as a start-off, from some 360 to start.

I had some good beers from B.C. and Alberta, pale ales and bitters notably, also black IPA. Washington State too was still well-represented yesterday, and New York. I had three ESBs from different countries and none particularly impressed, but that can happen anywhere at any kind of beer event, it’s luck of the draw and of the moment.

There seemed less pumpkin beers this year, even at opening of the first session, which I think reflects a trend in the business. E.g., there are fewer at LCBO than in previous years. I like pumpkin beers and would hope there would be more next year. The prevalent style seemed to be IPA with a wide variety of styles – e.g. pilsener, sours, stouts, saisons, wheat or weizens – in lesser number.

Event organization, music, food station variety and layout and other amenities (e.g. the cool pinball machines) were the best ever, as was the easy procedure to enter where they validate your ticket while still in line. I don’t remember it as crowded on a Sunday in previous years which is good, more people are attending in general, clearly.

A first rate festival that attests to the sophistication and maturity of the beer scene in Toronto but also the savvy and sophistication of the Morana family who run this show to the benefit of all beer fans.

Note re Image:  Image is from Cask Days twitter stream received over the past weekend.

 

 

Three Disparate Drinks

A tasting of three drinks I found particularly good recently.

Trafalgar Pumpkin Shine

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This is a craft distillery product from Greater Toronto Area’s Trafalgar Distillery, an offshoot of Trafalgar Brewery. This makes excellent use of a white (unaged) barley malt distillate which comes off the still at a low proof, in the territory that is to make a fully-aged spirit except not aged. Moonshine, if you will. Since such drinks have a very pronounced taste, they were in the old days often flavoured with sweetening and spices or herbs. Drinks such as Drambuie, say, have their origins in this tradition. The Pumpkin Shine uses puree of pumpkin, ginger, brown sugar and other good things to modify and temper the feisty flavour of unaged whisky spirit.

The result is very successful, a drink that gains its character from precisely being all these things. If you blended vodka with the puree, sugar, etc., it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Although pictured with ice, I found it better neat; the rocks tend to over-stress the distillery, or young spirit, character. Taken neat the drink has a perfect equilibrium.

My Own Blend of Porter

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Following ancient tradition, I continue to blend my own beers, especially porter and stout, to get an optimal taste. In this case, I used Wells Young Courage Russian Imperial Stout, 2013 vintage; Old School Stout from Tree Brewing in British Columbia; and Ste. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from Montreal. The Imperial Stout is a couple of years old and has a marked oxidative note. The other two were in good condition but the B.C. one had (IMO) a noticeable edge of roasted barley (unmalted) which lends a drying note in stout or porter, something I don’t favour unless very muted. The Ste. Ambrose is quite nice but a little light for my taste. Blending these together, I got what I think is a better result than each. Very little of the Wells Young Courage Imperial Stout was needed, 10% or less, as its pungent character informs the whole despite being added in small amount. Guinness used to add – I am not sure if it still does – a few percentage points of vatted, or aged, stout to the standard beer. I can see the logic, i.e., of not going overboard with the “stale” element (to use the old brewing term). Just a little is enough, as an 80’s pop song advises.

Cat Lady India Pale Ale from Bellwoods

Excellent, orange-scented IPA from Toronto’s classy brewpub, Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington Street. It’s a potent 7.4% ABV. The tangerine and orange notes come from Amarillo and other hops used, no actual fruit flavouring is added. This is, I’m sure, what fine pale ale was like in the heyday of the style. While American hops were used, the particular blend resulted in a rather English character, accentuated probably by the good clarity of the beer and clean but savoury malt background. It’s the kind of beer which imparts (seemingly) more a clarity and repose of spirit than a dizzy buzz: the great drinks of the world do that you know, but just have one.

This needs to be a regular offering at the pub.

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