Friday, September 30, 2011

Senses working overtime

Funny tasting beer is no laughing matter, and when presented with it, we turn up our noses, spit it out and/or shove it away.

Sometimes off flavors are obvious; other times they can be a "what's wrong with this picture?" moment and take a little bit of deduction to zero in on what just killed the pleasure of a pint.

Occasionally, the need to know exactly why is less important than the sensory conclusion that the beer had noticeable flaws, for whatever reason. Other times – like aspiring to become a bona fide beer judge or just to have a well-sharpened palate – you want to be able to draw the more formal conclusions, rather than just settle on the broad summation that the brew went bad.

That's where flavor orienteers come in. (The phrase is our coinage.)

New Yorker Mary Izett is one of those folks who helps you straighten out your taste buds' compass and parse those things that went awry in a brew (she's presenting a workshop on the subject at Amanti Vino in Montclair on Saturday). It's an endeavor she got into five years ago, when she started the NYC Beer & Food Pairing group, and the New York City Degustation Advisory Team a year later with Chris Cuzme, leading people, as she says, "through beer and food pairings and consulting with bars and restaurants."

The New York City/Long Island columnist for for Ale Street News also teaches beer judge certification classes, among other topics on brews, and you'll find her leading educational seminars at Get Real NY fests.

Her tips for putting the finer points of good tasting into your memory banks and not leaving them on the tip of your tongue are a combination of practice and study.

"The best approach is to slow down and focus. When I studied for the BJCP exam back in early 2006, I carried the guidelines and a notebook with me everywhere I went," Mary says via email. "I took notes on every beer I drank, comparing these to the guidelines and really focusing on what I was seeing, smelling and tasting. I learned so much by doing that! And now the BJCP guidelines are available as a smart phone app, and there are some really nice apps for taking beer notes.

"I also highly recommend reading Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer – so much excellent information is contained within this tome. It's a must for anyone looking to improve their beer palate."

Let's not forget, there's plenty of great beer everywhere these days, from great brewers of all stripes. But let's not kid ourselves either. There's some beer out there that's not up to code. And the sources of and reasons for brews tripping the funk alarm in a bad way are many.

"There are plenty of commercial beers that I come across that have off flavors," Mary says. "I just tasted a commercially brewed blond (from a craft brewery) a few days ago that was a (diacetyl) butter bomb. And it was at a very reputable bar that keeps their lines immaculate. I've had flawed brewpub beers, too, and as a BJCP judge, plenty of flawed beers in competitions.

"Dirty lines can also be a problem at some bars. And of course, kegs can be mishandled before they get to a bar, and casks can be poured for too long. There are plenty of opportunities for flaws ... I think you'll come across the most in whatever realm you drink the most, be it homebrew, brewpub or commercial beers."

O-fests on tap

Oktoberfests on the radar:

Artisan's brewpub in Toms River serves up its annual Oktoberfest on Friday night (7 p.m.), a multicourse affair where the märzen is the headliner (with a main course of short ribs with beer sauce) and a pumpkin ale (with apple strudel) is the encore.

  • Oct. 8: River Horse's annual salute to the autumn fest in Lambertille. It's set for a 1 p.m. start at the brewery's back lot and will run just one day this year. (Rain date is Sunday, the 9th.)
  • Oct. 9: Long Valley Oktoberfest, noon, brewpub parking lot.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Upcoming: Ken Burns docu on Prohibition

Something to keep on your radar for this weekend: filmmaker Ken Burns’ new documentary work, Prohibition, a spotlight on America’s 13-year, wrongheaded experiment with temperance.

The three-part, five-hour series begins at 8 p.m., Sunday (Oct. 2) on PBS. Burns’ documentary, made with Lynn Novick, traces the headwinds of the temperance movement, how it played out and why Prohibition was such a colossal failure.

What makes Burns’ Prohibition worth your time is simple. A lot of what we know or heard about America's going dry is shaped mostly by Hollywood gangster dramas. Burns’ docu serves up a refreshing round of facts, and once again the filmmaker calls upon author Daniel Okrent (a source in the 1994 Burns-Novick docu Baseball). Plus, you may notice a lot of the political fits, obfuscations and maneuverings playing out today look similar to those of the early 20th century.

Okrent’s 2010 book, Last Call, is the definitive account of the Prohibition Era, pulling together all the social and political forces that set the Terrible 13 in motion, and detailing how America stayed wet when the mandate was dry.

The 18th Amendment, and accompanying Volstead Act, marked the first time the nation’s charter took away a right and the first time the country took an eraser (the 21st Amendment) to something it had added to the Constitution.

Prohibition did not ban the partaking of alcoholic beverages. It only outlawed the commercial manufacture, importing, transporting and sale of intoxicating beverages (consequently, lots of religious and medicinal production of spirits and wine resulted, both genuine and disingenuous; homebrewing also got a nice boost).

The result of going dry – the unintended consequences – gave rise to a regiment of gangsters and widespread corruption (in New Jersey, at least two names come up – Newark’s Abner “Longy” Zwillman and Atlantic City’s Nucky Johnson) and a sprawling illegal booze trade (by both land and sea) to slake the thirst of folks who had no intention of ending the party. (Jersey trivia moment: The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919, taking effect a year later. The Garden State was the last of the nation’s then 48 states to ratify Prohibition, in 1922, two years after dry had become the law of the land. Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only states to say, “Screw it, we’re not going there,” and did not ratify the go-dry amendment.)

Despite its demise 78 years ago, Prohibition has had a lasting effect: the federal income tax (to replace lost tax revenue on booze); women’s right to vote (suffrage boosted the odds of Prohibition’s passage, since women were at the forefront of temperance); mixed drinks (something was need to cover the shitty taste of bathtub gin); and his and hers restrooms in bars (a byproduct of speakeasies, since before the dry era women usually did not frequent bars, but rather quietly imbibed at home).

There was also a colorful lexicon of slang, of which a few phrases still remain, while others make for great bar names, i.e. blind tiger, rumrunner.

For beer enthusiasts, the end of Prohibition gets celebrated each April 7th, the day beer became legal again in 1933. (Jersey trivia moment: Eight months prior, in August 1932, candidate FDR gave a campaign speech in Sea Girt in Monmouth County, during which the future president talked of giving Prohibition the heave-ho.)

On Sunday, pour yourself a beer and toast the cooler heads who prevailed and consigned Prohibition to the ash heap of history.


New Jersey beer enthusiasts who descend upon the Great American Beer Festival tomorrow through Saturday will find some of the trappings of home in Denver.

Jersey craft brewers attending the 2011 incarnation of the nation's biggest beer fest are Cricket Hill, Flying Fish, Harvest Moon, Iron Hill and Long Valley.

There's also a group presence of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild: Flying Fish, Iron Hill, Cricket Hill, Kane Brewing (one of the state's newest breweries), Basil T's and Harvest Moon.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Old World tradition, New World innovation

Belgian beer made in New Jersey by a Belgian, as an American for Americans.

That's the vision Wim Vanraes has for his planned Saint William Brewery, a project that the Somerset County resident has been nurturing for a year, building momentum via blogging and paying calls on other beer-makers on the Garden State craft brewing landscape that he seeks to join with a triple, a honey ale and an amber ale.

Wim, 31, is a Belgian native who lives in Warren Township and became a U.S. citizen last year.

So far for his planned production brewery, Wim has met with financial and branding consultants – advisers who will become his core management team. The first round of financing is expected to be in place by year's end, Wim says, and a third-generation Belgian brewer who trained him has agreed to work as a consultant and help set up the brewery.

Right now, he's siting a location (the New Brunswick area is a possibility), searching for a viable building that can be adapted to a brewery. Constructing a building is also an option, should a suitable existing building prove elusive. Other details being worked out include what size brew house and fermenters to start with. Of concern is keeping within a financial safe zone, but also ensuring appropriate growth potential has been accounted for.

"There is a lot that comes with opening a brewery nowadays; it isn't sufficient anymore to have a great beer you can make. There is the whole production side to it, but that is not enough in itself," Wim says. "In order to be able to keep making great beer, the brewery has to be successful as a business as well, balancing the passion and art of the brewer with the calculations and projections of the economist. Especially in rough times as we see now, everything needs to be planned and anticipated and prepared for, beyond the beer and production aspects. The reward will be there in the end: great beer, made in a healthy brewery."

Wim was born in Sint-Niklaas, a town in the province of East Flanders. He was raised there and lived there until after graduation from Ghent University eight years ago with a master's in archaeology. (His wife, Melissa Lariviere, teaches second grade. Melissa is originally from Detroit, but moved to New Jersey when she was little.)

Right now Wim works as a freelance translator/proofreader (English to Dutch, Dutch to english). Before the economy soured, he worked with a company that cleans air conditioning units and commercial kitchen exhaust systems. Starting a brewery is a path to career change.

But Wim notes there's much more to it than that. Beer is central to Flemish culture, part of its folk traditions, and something he's been involved with since his youth. It's a catalyst for socializing, a force that unites people.

And that makes it a natural fit.