December 17, 2012
With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.
Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
Other Holiday Spirit Boosters
Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.
Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.
He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.
Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.
Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?
August 2, 2012
“A glass of the Chianti. With ice on the side.”
While I’ve had more than a few raised eyebrows shot in my direction for willingly diluting my red wines with ice, my distaste for the acetic sting that accompanies warm wine far outweighs my concern for thinning out my drink with a cube or two of ice. I’ve often wondered about the age-old “rule” that red wine should be served at room temperature, while white wines should be served chilled. Personally, I’ve always found room temperature red wine to be, well, repulsive.
It turns out that my uncouth icing of the reds is not completely unjustified. Most red wines are served too warm; the “room temperature” rule originated in Europe, where room temperature is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, chilled white wine came from the European cellar, where temperatures hover around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
In America, to achieve the ideal wine temperature you actually have to cool red wines and warm white wines, assuming your reds are stored in a room temperature wine rack and your whites are kept cold (too cold!) in the refrigerator. Average room temperatures can be over 70 degrees and most refrigerators are a frosty 35 degrees Fahrenheit. One critic recommends putting a bottle of red wine in the fridge for 45 minutes before serving while taking a bottle of white wine out of the fridge 30 minutes prior to serving.
For those with a more refined wine-tasting palette, temperature can be adjusted to accommodate bold, dark versus light, fruity red wines, and white wines can be served warmer or colder depending on whether they are sweet and full or crisp and light. Between a robust Bordeaux and a bright Pinot Grigio, the temperature graduation for serving wine runs between about 65 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take two or three degrees.
The reason temperature is so important to bringing out the flavor of wines is that warming or chilling wine can unlock different layers of flavors within the wine. Serving wine at a temperature too far from its ideal range may overpower desirable flavors with alcohol or tannins.
When wine is served too warm, the dominant flavor can be that of alcohol, masking the subtler flavors of the wine’s ingredients. This effect is particularly noticeable with strong red wines that have a higher alcohol content to begin with. On the other hand, chilling a wine brings out greater astringency, which means the wine tastes sharp and tart as the flavor of tannins is emphasized. The trick is to find the happy medium for each wine, especially important in bringing out a wine’s aroma. Goldilocks had it right about more than just porridge when she said, “Too hot, too cold….just right.”
The good news is that there are no hard and fast rules for the “exact” correct temperatures for serving wines; it truly is to the preference of the individual. The chart above page can be used as a guideline, but by experimenting with a wine’s temperature, wine enthusiasts can fine tune their favorite “flavor sweet spot” of aromas and flavors.
Even my habit of dumping ice cubes into my red wine turns out to not be completely unrefined, although the practice is definitely a point of contention between wine experts. Famous chef Mario Batali, who was featured on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and his own cooking show “Molto Mario,” has been noted to chill and dilute his wine with fruit-juice-based ice cubes. I’ll consider that permission enough to continue my controversial use of ice.
Cheers to that.
May 11, 2012
I love my mom and all, but I also want to recognize another set of mothers—those blobs of yeast and bacterial cultures found floating in unpasteurized cider, wine vinegar, and other fermented liquids, like cloudy constellations of pond scum. The Dutch have a word for mud and mire (modder) that may have lent its name to these mothers, but given the proliferation of the term across Europe—French mère de vinaigre or Spanish madre del vino—etymologists suspect that these slimy sediments of mother derived from the mother who takes care of you.
Two mothers seemingly at odds, right? Well, thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary made a valiant, if somewhat perplexingly worded attempt, to tease out exactly why the lees at the bottom of the barrel came to be named for your female parent:
The transition of sense is difficult to explain; but most probably the scum or dregs of distilled waters and the like was regarded as being a portion of the ‘mother’ or original crude substance which had remained mixed with the refined product, from which in course of time it separated itself. (The term may possibly have belonged originally to the vocabulary of alchemy.) An explanation sometimes given, that ‘mother of vinegar’ was so called on account of its effect in promoting acetous fermentation, does not agree with the history of the use. It has been pointed out that ancient Greek γραῦς old woman, is used in the sense ‘scum, as of boiled milk,’ but the coincidence is probably accidental.
Wine left out in the open air will spontaneously ferment into vinegar if the right airborne microbes land on the surface (Acetobacter bacteria and Mycodermi aceti yeast); the oxidation process can also be kick-started by mixing in the cloudy undeﬁned bacterial and fungal cultures left at the bottom of an old vinegar container—an old, yet reliable, mother. These cultures work in much the same way that yeast or sourdough starters give rise to beer and bread (why these cultures are more often called starters and not mothers remains one of the many vagaries of the English language). Perhaps, then, it’s not all surprising that one mother gave birth to another.
November 10, 2011
Mealtimes are fairly well represented in fine art. Wayne Thiebaud had an affinity for deserts. Manet gave us images of Breakfast in the Studio and Luncheon in the Grass. And I think Da Vinci may have a dining scene in his oeuvre as well. And then there’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s instantly recognizable scene of a convivial bunch of diners enjoying a summertime meal alfresco. Completed in 1881, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of the most famous midday meals committed to canvas, but it’s curious to note that in spite of the title, there’s precious little food to be seen. Taking a cue from Clara Peller, I have to ask: where’s the lunch?
“It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. By the time we see the table, all that’s left are a few not-quite-empty bottles of wine and a compotier of fruit such as grapes and pears, perhaps a peach or two. “It’s the end of the meal. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a beguiling picture. It’s of that time that comes when everyone has had a delicious meal, they’ve all gathered, they’ve focused on the food and now they’re just focusing on each other and this beautiful day and they don’t want it to be over. And we’ve all had those kinds of experiences where you want to linger and those are the best meals we ever have.”
The scene takes place at the Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where people of all social classes mixed and mingled as they enjoyed their leisure time away from the bustle of the city. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists. It remains open for business, although the scenic views have changed a bit since Renoir’s time.
But it seems Renoir wasn’t much of a foodie. In a memoir, son Jean Renoir, who made a name for himself as a film director, remembers his father preferring simple fare, even when finer things—like veal and soufflés and custards—were laid on the table. In terms of food as a subject for his paintings, actual foodstuffs crop up most often in his still lifes, and even then, his attentions turned to raw ingredients instead of finished dishes. “He could paint a beautiful onion,” Rathbone says. “They’re the ingredients in their most natural form, which is their most beautiful moment. Let’s face it, a chopped onion isn’t nearly as beautiful as an onion whole. I think Monet and Caillebotte did more prepared food in their still lifes than Renoir did. We have a wonderful still life in the collection that’s a ham and it’s a marvelous subject in Gauguin’s hands. He makes the most beautiful ham you ever saw.”
Instead, Renoir seems to prefer to focus on the social aspect of the dining experience. “He was a people person, and people love food. So I think the subject came to him naturally.”
Next time you are in the D.C. area, you can enjoy Luncheon of the Boating Party first-hand at the Phillips Collection, which is a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro.
October 12, 2011
Like the average casual wine consumer in America, I drink bottles mostly in the $10 to $15 range. I’ve never decanted my wine (poured it into another container to allow it to “breathe” before serving), and I’ve wondered if the practice really improves the taste or if it’s just a wine snob’s affectation. It seems even wine experts disagree on whether or when decanting makes a perceptible difference, and whether that difference is necessarily positive.
All agree on one clear benefit to decanting: done properly, it means any sediment that has accumulated in the bottle won’t end up in your glass. Sediment is usually only an issue with red wines, especially older ones, although decanting also works for unfiltered wines of any age. Decanting to improve a wine’s taste is more controversial.
First, a little (simplified) science: wine, as a fermented food, has a complex combination of chemical compounds. The character of the wine is constantly changing as these compounds interact with one another and with light, oxygen and humidity. Left to its own devices, wine will eventually turn to vinegar. Bottling or otherwise storing wine (as in casks or tanks) slows down that process almost to a halt—the trick is capturing it at the optimal point in its evolution. Most wines made today, especially those in the low to middle price ranges, are intended to be drunk within a few years of bottling. But others are meant to be further aged in the bottle, allowing them to develop what is considered the perfect balance of flavors.
Decanting, ideally into a wide-bottomed decanter that increases the wine’s surface area, exposes wine to oxygen, speeding up its transformation. The disagreement is over whether this change is significant to be worthwhile, and whether the change is always for the better.
Andrew L. Waterhouse, a California viticulture and enology professor, explains in Scientific American that an expensive (more than $20) red wine intended for cellar aging can taste astringent or “closed” if drunk before its time, and that decanting allows unpleasant volatile compounds to evaporate. In theory, it also “softens” the harsh taste of tannins, although Waterhouse notes that chemists have not observed changes to the tannins after decanting.
But Jim LeMar, a wine company sales representative, points out the risk of losing pleasant aromas through decanting. He argues on the blog Professional Friends of Wine that today’s winemaking techniques have mostly eliminated undesirable sulfuric smells, “rendering aeration before serving moot.” He continues, “Some VOCs [volatile organic compounds] are present in such minute concentrations and are so volatile that they may be exhausted and disappear completely with only a few seconds of aeration. Is it worth sacrificing these scents for what amounts to superstition that has little scientific basis?”
At the other extreme, Joseph Nase writes in New York magazine that all wines, even whites, can “come to life at an accelerated pace” through decanting. “This is especially important for younger wine,” he continues.
The latest wrinkle in the debate is the practice of “hyperdecanting”—mixing wine in a blender to maximize oxygen exposure. Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of the recent Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and a proponent of the technique, claims it “almost invariably improves red wines—particularly younger ones, but even a 1982 Château Margaux.”
But John M. Kelly, a Sonoma Valley winemaker, contends on his blog that just because a wine objectively changes through decanting or hyperdecanting doesn’t mean everyone will prefer that change. It’s a fair point, and one that brings us to the bottom line: if you want to try decanting, go for it. If you like the results, keep doing it. If you don’t, or you can’t tell the difference, don’t bother. Decanting, as with everything about wine, is a matter of taste.