August 30, 2011
People between North Carolina and Vermont are cleaning up after Irene, the storm that destructively tromped along the eastern seaboard this past weekend. Hurricanes in the northeast are pretty rare and can leave people at a loss for how to prepare for extraordinarily severe conditions. At the very least, there are standard pieces of advice you can use to more or less muddle through a nasty situation. But perhaps even rarer are freak events involving food that cause a lot of damage. Those with an appetite for tragic tales might enjoy the following:
London Beer Flood: In the late 18th century, the Meux family brewery attained celebrity status, at least on account of the spectacular size of the vats they used to craft porter—one had the capacity to hold some 20,000 barrels of beer. Unfortunately, the hoops holding one of the vats together had corroded, and on the evening of October 17, 1814, they completely gave out, loosing some 3,500 barrels of beer that knocked down the brewery walls and flooded Tottenham Court, killing eight.
The Great Mill Disaster: Built in 1874, the Washburn “A” Mill along sat along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota and at the time was the largest flour-making facility in the United States. “Was,” unfortunately, is the operative word. On the evening of May 2, 1878, the stones used to grind grain gave off sparks, igniting particles of flour dust in the air and causing a massive explosion. (Flour, a carbohydrate, is made mostly of sugar and burns very easily.) In all, 18 people were killed and the blast started other fires that destroyed six nearby mills.
Boston Molasses Disaster: In Boston’s North End, near the city’s financial district and working class Italian neighborhoods, there stood a molasses tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Built in 1915, the vat was capable of holding some 2.5 million gallons; however, by 1919, locals were complaining that it was leaking, and on the afternoon of January 15, it exploded. Flying metal knocked out the supports of nearby elevated train tracks and a 15-foot-high wave of molasses crashed through the streets at some 35 miles per hour, knocking down and enveloping people in its path. Parts of Boston were standing in two to three feet of molasses and the disaster left 21 dead and 150 injured.
Basra Mass Poisoning: In the winter of 1971, shipment of grain arrived in Basra, Iraq; however, it was treated with a methylmercury fungicide and was intended only for use on seed. (If ingested, methylmercury can cause serious neurological damage, and in high doses, can be deadly.) The bags were accordingly marked poison—although only in English and Spanish—and the grains were dyed bright pink to indicate they were not for consumption. Nevertheless, bags of grain were stolen before they could be distributed to farmers, the dye washed off and the grain sold as food. (Another account says that the grain was freely given away and the recipients thought that washing off the dye would rid the grain of mercury, making it safe to eat.) Some 6,500 people were hospitalized, 459 of whom died.
June 29, 2011
In John Steinbeck‘s 1945 novel Cannery Row, the loner marine biologist Doc loves his beer—so much that one of his friends jokingly remarks that one of these days he’ll order a beer milk shake. ”It was a simple piece of foolery, but it had bothered Doc ever since,” Steinbeck writes. “He wondered what a beer milkshake would taste like. The idea gagged him but he couldn’t let it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream. Once the thing got into your head you couldn’t forget it…. If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known—they might call the police.”
Doc eventually gets over his neuroses at an out-of-town diner and orders the shake—half a bottle of beer added to some milk, no sugar—under the pretense that it’s doctor’s orders to help treat an infection. The resulting flavor, described as nothing more than the sum of its dairy and stale ale components, hardly sounds appetizing, and Doc’s post-swig twisted facial expressions pretty much say it all. So from there on out, I’m guessing he probably went back to pairing beer with savory foods, like hamburgers, which is what most of us do. But who’s to say you can’t find beers fit for a dessert course?
Greg Engert, the beer director at Churchkey and Birch and Barley restaurants here in DC, chatted with Smithsonian online reporter Megan Gambino a while back about beers to sub in for New Year’s champagne toasts. It only seemed fitting to pick his brain over e-mail about brews to satisfy the sweet tooth and how to incorporate them into the dessert course of a meal.
When did people start brewing beers meant to appeal to the sweeter part of our palate?
Beer, as a fermented grain-based beverage, has always displayed some degree of residual sweetness. In fact, most beers would have displayed very little “sweetness” as we today comprehend that sensation. Until the technological innovations that began in the early 18th century and culminated in the 19th, beer would have for the most part been much lower in alcohol than today’s variants, had a dark hue, almost always shown some sort of roasty or even smoky quality (both on account of primitive malting techniques), and would have also almost exclusively displayed at least a mild acidity, as well as a sort of earthy, somewhat funky quality we would now mostly associate with Old World wine (due to a lack of yeast science, more rustic brewing techniques and equipment, as well as the affection for such flavors).
I think the larger desire for sweetness is a 20th-century invention, and one only made possible by technological advancements, then instilled in a larger culture with the advent of processed food, as well as with Prohibitionist movements that swept the West with a flurry. I like to remind people that with the United States’ nearly 15 years of the Great Experiment, a generation of young men and women grew up without tasting alcohol, and soft drinks swooped in to ensure that soda-pop, and simplified, concocted—i.e., unnatural—sweetness would remain an indelible part of our world.
What qualities make a beer suitable to serve as (or with) a dessert?
Sweeter, grain-based flavors offer beer as a companion to so much of our foods, as they allow for ales and lagers to complement the sweeter notes that abound in all aspects of cuisine. I am not just talking about sugary sweetness, but starchy sweetness, as well as the sweeter notes inherent in the fatty, protein-laden, buttery tastes we discover in so much of the dishes we enjoy. Beer’s matching with food is extremely complex and many interactions are contained within the felicity of food and beer.
So, when most people think dessert, they think of sweetness, and beer certainly has that covered. Malty beers arrive on the palate showing fantastic notes of toasted bread, biscuits, nuttiness, caramel, butterscotch, toffee. These are all flavors we find in desserts. And beers can very emphatically showcase chocolaty and coffee notes in those darker brews with roasty notes. Fruitier flavors abound in some of the maltier styles already mentioned, but are also seen in the yeast-driven brews, which—through fermentation—produce boldly fruity and spicy notes. These are typically stronger Belgian ales, with those that are lighter in color tasting of apple, pear, peach, orange, lemon, banana, apricot and figs, as well as clove, pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and coriander. The darker varieties offer banana, fig, prune, raisin, cherry, plum and vinous flavors. Spices arrive in the guise of clove, pepper, rose, nutmeg and cinnamon. Some of the funky and sour brews, the Flanders red and brown ales, the fruit lambics, are also excellent for not just showing off fruitier flavors, but reminding us that their acidity is often present in fruit itself. So fresh fruit desserts can work nicely with these drinks that are actually more naturally similar to the fruits themselves. And this is to say nothing of the beers that are brewed with many adjuncts to either establish or heighten the flavors of the beer. We have malty beers brewed with hazelnut nectar, roasty stouts with cacao nibs and sweeter Belgian lambics crafted with fruit, or at least fruit juices.
Can you pair beers with more traditional dessert offerings?
Beers can pair well with so many desserts it is mind-boggling. The ability to identify very emphasized flavors in our beers, like chocolate, fruit or nuttiness, makes it so pairing beer and dessert is quite an approachable endeavor, and one that is instantly rewarding. The easiest approach is to look to mirror the flavors of the dessert with flavors found in certain beers; however, one needs to make sure that the impact of flavors from both are even, otherwise a light and airy dessert will be overwhelmed by a rich and boozy brew, even if they share certain major flavor effects. The same is true for a bold and rich dessert when paired with a lighter and more restrained ale or lager.
Think like a pastry chef and approach your pairings as if you are continuing to craft the dessert. To that end, in addition to looking for complementary flavors, matching fruit with fruit and chocolate with chocolate, one can seek to forge new complimentary relationships on the palate. So perhaps bringing a stronger Belgian dark ale to that chocolate cake, rather than the imperial stout; the Belgian will show some caramel and hints of cocoa to mirror those flavors in the cake, while adding some delicious dark fruit and spice flavors to add a complimentary nuance to the dessert. The same would work for bringing a nutty, toffee sweet barleywine the cake: this dusts the slice with shaved hazelnuts and drizzles of caramel.
What would your top recommendations be for dessert beers and what draws you to these particular brews?
Top styles for dessert beers fall into these categories. They should typically be bolder brews, as dessert comes at the end of the meal and the palate may struggle to fully engage milder flavors. Also, desserts tend to be richer, or at least intensely flavored.
Malty, bready, nutty, caramelized brews: English strong ale, barleywine, Scotch ale (aka Wee Heavy), doppelbock, eisbock
Roasty and chocolaty brews: sweet stout, oatmeal stout, porter, Baltic porter, Belgian stout, brown ale, imperial stout
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with brighter notes: sweet fruit beer/sweet fruit lambic (brewed with strawberry, raspberry, cherry, peach, apple, etc.), Belgian strong blond ale, tripel, Belgian strong pale ale, Weizenbock (pale), wheatwine
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with darker notes: dubbel, Belgian strong dark ale, Weizenbock (dark), quadrupel
Tart, funky, fruity brews: Flanders red/brown ale, traditional fruit lambic; blond, pale and dark wild ales
So perhaps if Doc were a little more beer-savvy before going into the diner, he could have had a better milk shake. He’s not the only one who has been intrigued by the pairing—and some even find it preferable to enjoying beer on its own.
May 27, 2011
With the official kick-off of outdoor barbecue season this weekend also comes an alarming increase in beer waste. According to the Bureau of Bogus Statistics I Totally Just Made Up, as much as a third of every beer opened during the summer months goes unconsumed. The primary reason: the beer has gotten warm. When the mercury climbs, canned and bottled beverages don’t stand a chance of remaining palatably cold to the finish. With sodas or mixed drinks, it’s no big deal—just add ice. But beer doesn’t taste good with ice (even, in my opinion, when “ice” is just in the name).
Some people might say, “I don’t have that problem. I drink my beer in one long guzzle so it never has a chance to get warm.” Those people might have problems beyond warm beer.
For the rest of us, some marketing genius out there invented the koozie. The koozie, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is a little foam insulating sleeve that fits around an aluminum can or, in more recent versions, a bottle. No one seems to know the origin of the name (or of the product itself, which became popular sometime in the 1980s), but my best guess is that it is a corruption of the word “cozy”—as in a tea cozy, meant to keep the teapot warm—with an extra “o” so it sounds like “cool.” Switching the “c” to a “k” must have been a byproduct of the era when bastardized spellings and superfluous umlauts were considered cool (see “Mötley Crüe”).
Whatever the origin, the koozie has several undeniable benefits: It keeps your hand from getting cold and covered in condensation. It’s a good way to identify one’s beer at a party, where it could easily be confused with look-alikes—the second most common cause of beer waste, according to the BBSITJMU. It can be used as camouflage: a friend of mine who was pregnant, but not ready to reveal her status to friends, covered her nonalcoholic beer in a koozie to avoid arousing suspicion. Finally, it’s a personal billboard, allowing you to proclaim your allegiance to a sports team; declare important sentiments, like that you’re “not as think as you drunk I am”; or go formal with a tuxedo koozie. You can even support independent crafters by buying felted, crocheted or cowhide koozies on Etsy.com.
But how well do they actually work at keeping your beverage cold? In the interest of preventing beer waste, I put them to the test. Recently, my husband and I conducted an experiment with three bottles of beer: I held one in a koozie, my husband held one without, and a third one, also koozieless, was set down between sips. We drank them at the same rate, alternating between the two held beers and the third beer, stopping at five-minute intervals to evaluate the temperature. The air temperature was 67 degrees Fahrenheit (not exactly sweltering, but it was early evening).
Within five minutes, there was already a subtle but noticeable difference between the beers we were holding—with koozie and without—and the unhandled one. The latter was still frosty, while the others had already started to lose their chill. The gap widened over the next ten minutes. At 15 minutes, the one without the koozie was warmer than the one with, but the unhandled beer was still coldest. Finally, at the 20-minute mark, all three were less than refreshing, but the one that had been held least remained coolest.
Our conclusion: the koozie helped, but not as much as limiting the beer’s time in hand.
Would the results have been different if we were using cans? If the air temperature had been warmer (especially if it had been warmer than human body temperature)? If we had a beer in a koozie that we set down between sips?
Hard to say. If any science-minded beer drinkers out there care to conduct their own experiments, be sure to let us know the results.
February 8, 2011
Anyone who watched American television in the 1980s probably remembers the Australia tourism commercials with Paul Hogan (aka Crocodile Dundee) saying he’d “slip another shrimp on the barbie” for us. Never mind that Australians don’t use the word “shrimp”—they call them prawns—the catchphrase stuck, along with its concession to American nomenclature.
It is true, though, that Aussies love a barbecue. In the two weeks I was there over the holidays, I attended no fewer than four. Most featured sausages and marinated chicken, usually served with ketchup (or tomato sauce, as they call it) as the only condiment. But one barbecue was different.
The friends I stayed with in Melbourne are a bi-continental married couple—the Australian husband, Konrad, met his American wife, Nikki, while she was studying abroad in Queensland—who had returned to his homeland after about seven years in the States. During his time in America, including a year in Jacksonville, Florida, Konrad had developed a deep appreciation for Southern-style barbecue. Since returning home, with nowhere local to sate his cravings, he had bought a smoker and made it his project to learn how to replicate his favorite foods himself. During my visit he planned a backyard bash to introduce his Aussie friends to a barbecue with all the Dixie fixin’s—pulled pork, brisket and beer-can chicken with four kinds of homemade barbecue sauce on the side, plus potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and cornbread. Sweet tea and mint juleps were on the drink menu.
But first we had to go shopping. It turned out that the main ingredient in cornbread—cornmeal—was not stocked at local supermarkets. We tracked down a Spanish market in the artsy Fitzroy neighborhood (the Melbourne equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg or L.A.’s Los Feliz) where we found a package of P.A.N. brand, which had a drawing of a sassy-looking lady with her hair tied up in a polka-dotted scarf.
Since we were out for the rest of the afternoon and evening, this meant carrying around a sack of cornmeal everywhere we went. “Pan” became a kind of mascot, and we took a series of photos with “her” that became increasingly ridiculous as the night wore on.
Konrad and Nikki spent the better part of the next day preparing for the feast that afternoon. For the most part, the food seemed to be a hit with the Aussies. The biggest surprise was the baked beans—over there, as in England, baked beans are most commonly eaten at breakfast with eggs and toast. Their version comes out of the Heinz can in a relatively bland tomato sauce without the zip of BBQ baked beans, and some of the guests were downright excited about having them in this new context. The macaroni and cheese and the smoked meats and sauces also got raves.
As for the cornbread, I think Pan, which was pre-cooked, was the kind of cornmeal meant for arepas (delicious South American corn fritters) and not quite right for American cornbread. Although I didn’t get to try the resulting corn muffins before they disappeared at the party, they must have tasted alright anyway.
Maybe next time, they’ll introduce the Aussies to one of my favorite Southern dishes, shrimp and grits. But I’m sorry, y’all, “prawns and grits” just sounds wrong.
January 14, 2011
Do you have what it takes to be a food scientist? If you would like to find out, perform the following simple exercise, which was designed and executed by a team of professionals led by Fred Shih of the USDA’s Southern Regional Research Center. By the end, you will know (a) the difference between beer-battered fried foods and those fried in water-based batter, and (b) whether your future will be in the lab, gathering data that could improve the human condition, or at the bar, overfilling on unhealthy snacks.
1. Procure quantities of wheat flour, long-grain rice flour and pre-gelatinized rice flour. Also pick up some canola oil, Vidalia onions and tilapia filets. Oh, and beer.
2. Whip up six equal batches of batter: three with beer and each of the flours, and three with water and each of the flours. Be sure each batch achieves a viscosity of about 120 RVU. Then cut the filets into squares measuring 3.8 by 3.8 centimeters, and the onions into strips measuring 3.2 by 0.6 centimeters. Batter your fish and onions thoroughly, but save a sample of each batter by itself.
3. Fill your deep fryer with canola oil to a depth of 4.5 centimeters and heat the oil to 190 degrees Celsius. Fry everything—the beer-battered stuff for 2 minutes, the other stuff for 4. Also fry samples of each batter alone, until each one looks golden brown. Then let all your samples cool so we can begin our analysis.
4. First, we are going to determine how much oil each batter sample absorbed—”oil uptake,” in the lingo. Get out your supercritical fluid extraction system and fill the sample cartridge with this stuff in this order, starting from the exit end of the cartridge: 1 gram of Ottawa sand, 1 gram of diatomaceous earth and 1.5 to 3 grams of batter, to fill. Then use 65 mL of carbon dioxide to extract the sample at 51.71 MPa and 100 degrees C. For the love of Mike, set the restrictors to 140 degrees C, and keep the flow rate between 2.5 and 2.7 mL per minute. Pretty soon oil will be extracted from the batter sample. Weigh the oil and do some pretty complicated math, and you will have your oil-uptake data.
5. Now we can test for textural qualities, which eaters are more interested in anyway. Remember those batter-only samples from step 4? Take your Stevens QTS Texture Analyzer and, using an acrylic cylinder probe, perform a double bite test on them at 60 mm per minute until you reach an 80 percent deformation target. Your Texture Pro software will generate data on the hardness of each sample and the quantity of fractures. For the sake of simplicity, we will define “hardness” as the peak compression force attained during the first cycle of the force deformation curve, and “quantity of fractures” as the number of occasions the load decreased by 5 percent before reaching the target value in cycle 1. Okay?
6. And finally, we come to the all-important sensory evaluation—the moment when our carefully fried foods meet the tongue. Convene a panel of eight specialists trained in Sensory Evaluation Techniques (Meilgaard, et al., 4th edition) and feed them each four strips of coated fish or onion samples so they can evaluate them for hardness, fracturability, crispness and toothpacking. Just so everyone’s on the same page, let’s say “hardness” is the force required to compress the food; go with a scale of 1 to 14.5, with Philadelphia cream cheese being 1 and a Life Saver being 14.5. “Fracturability” is the force with which the sample breaks, with 1 being the force required to break a Jiffy corn muffin and 10 the force required to break a Finn crisp rye wafer. Now, “crispness” is the force and noise with which a sample breaks, on a scale of 3 (a Quaker low-fat chewy chunk granola bar) to 17 (Melba toast). “Toothpacking,” of course, refers to the degree with which the sample sticks to the teeth, from 1 (uncooked and unpeeled carrots) to 15 (Jujubes). After your panelists have tested the samples, record their scores on a computerized ballot-counting system that will tabulate and graph the scores for you.
Following these simple steps, the Shih team found that the oil uptake of beer batters was 9 to 18 percent greater than water-based batters. Its instrumental textural analysis found that beer batters fried up softer and more fracturable than water-based batters. And its panel of trained sensory evaluators found that beer batter made the tilapia filets and onion strips softer but crispier.
Your results may vary. But your method may not.
(Hat tip to NCBI ROFL.)
—by T. A. Frail