Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today's column: Pitcher This: Pop the cork on something new this year

If alcohol has an official, traditional, front-and-center place in any holiday celebration, it's New Year's Eve.

Sadly, most people give beer the boot with the old year, and ring in the new with champagne. But any committed beer lover should resolve to celebrate with something brewed, not vinified.

Anyone thinking here that beer just doesn't seem special enough to take center stage at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 isn't thinking broadly enough about beer. There's a style for every occasion, and New Year's Eve is no exception.

A number of beer types work well for the traditional celebration, and are suitably rare to lend dignity to the moment. Perhaps most importantly, many are packaged in oversized, wine-style bottles. You can even enjoy the ceremonial, climactic pop of the cork at the stroke of midnight.

Belgium is the source of many of these styles, and the inspiration for many good interpretations by American brewers. Most are variations of strong dark and strong pale ales, often bottle-conditioned, that is with yeast still active after the beer is packaged, allowing it to continue fermenting, increasing its alcohol content and improving its flavor the longer it's stored. They're brewed in varying strengths, with the stronger versions labeled "dubbel" and "tripel."

Seven breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands have helped to make those styles famous. They're operated by Trappist monasteries that have brewed for centuries to help fund their religious work. Of these, beers from the Chimay Brewery are probably the most widely available here.

On this side of the Atlantic, the French Canadian company Unibroue makes an excellent line of Belgian-style ales, including a tripel they label La Fin Du Monde (French for "The end of the world") — a good choice for the end of the year. Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing makes an excellent tripel they call Golden Monkey, and New York's Brewery Ommegang has made a booming business recreating Belgian styles.

Most of the above beers and styles are light in character, with light, rich heads and a delicateness that make them a good substitute for champagne. There's even a style of beer brewed to mimic the methods that produce champagne, but good luck finding them.

Actually, all of these beers will be impossible to find on store shelves in Alabama, as most range from 7 to 12 percent in alcohol content — above Alabama's limit of 6 percent. Even the bottle size is restricted by law here, with nothing larger than 16 ounces allowed for sale. Meanwhile, Georgia's alcohol limit is higher —14 percent — and you'll have little trouble finding the 750 milliliter bottles there. I don't advocate breaking the law, but I will note that the Peach State's ban on fireworks doesn't seem to prevent citizens of that fine state driving here for their New Year's Eve supplies.

Of course, it may be too late to follow all the advice offered in this column for tonight, but look at it this way: You've now got a year to plan how to ring in 2010.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today's column: Joy and good beer

So you're shopping for a beer lover, and it just doesn't seem right to put a six pack under the tree. As if there was something wrong with that, the following suggestions ought to help fill the holiday with cheer — or, rather, cheers.


Beer tastes best when poured into the proper glass. No true beer fan can ever have too many glasses, or too many types — until room in the cupboard starts to run out (helpful tip — do not ask your spouse if it's OK to toss that gravy boat to make room).

The Web site sells what it calls "the Savvy Six-Pack" for $37.99. It includes six different glasses, each the best choice a different style of brew. There's a tulip for imperial India pale ales and Belgian strong ales, a 23-ounce imperial pint for proper service of British ales, a curvy hefeweizen with room for the generous head of wheat beers, a tall pilsner to show off the color and carbonation of lagers, a dimpled mug for many a German brew, and a stemmed cervoise that's good for many Belgian styles.

If that's too much, or if you've run out of time to wait

on shipping, many local retailers sell sets of simple, straight-sided 16-ounce pint glasses. These work fine for just about anything you're pouring, and have the benefit of keeping one from looking too fancified, if that's a concern. You'll often find them emblazoned with logos or ads for Guinness, makers of the famous Irish stout.

Reading material

Anyone who's been opened to the wider world of beer could probably use some guidance through its more obscure corners.

A few publishers are providing that guidance on a regular basis with magazines. The Web site mentioned above also publishes a monthly Beer Advocate magazine with lots of features and photography in a well-designed format. All About Beer, published every two months, is another good resource. It just produced a special issue, available in at least one local bookstore, that is a handy reference to most of the beer styles brewed today.

The little things

Bottle openers, coasters, bar towels, caps, T-shirts — you name it, there's probably one with a brewery logo on it being sold in a gift shop somewhere ready to be stuffed in a stocking.

Why not?

Of course, the perfect gift for any beer lover is more beer. And if a six pack still seems wrong to you, a short drive can provide something extra-special.

Alabama law prevents any beer in a bottle bigger than 16 ounces from being sold here. That cuts out many of the finer concoctions from Europe's hallowed brewers and America's innovative brewmasters. Some are sold only in half-liter- to liter-size bottles, and served more like wine.

Not that I'm advocating the importation of alcohol, but just across the state line, Georgia has no container-size or alcohol-content restrictions. Any number of retailers could provide a great gift — for that out-of-state recipient, of course — to celebrate with on New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Those recipes I promised (Part II)

As promised, here's the second of three chili & stew recipes mentioned in last week's column. (The first is here.) Star Features Editor Tosha Jupiter has made this for just about all of our semi-regular chili days in the newsroom for a few years now. It's one of my favorites.

She typically uses an amber lager such as Michelob Amber Bock or Sam Adams Boston Lager, which sets this recipe apart from the porter- and stout-based stuff mentioned in the column. I think the bittersweet chocolate here must take the place of the darker malts in porter and stout.

I pulled the text of this recipe from The Star's Starbite food blog, maintained by Laura Tutor. It was in a post from our most recent chili day, where you can also find my chili con carne (which doesn't call for beer, but goes well with a few).

Chocolate Chili Con Carne
3 pounds beef chuck
Freshly ground black pepper
Gray salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus 1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon ground cumin, plus 2 teaspoons
2 tablespoons chili powder, plus 2 tablespoons
Masa harina (Mexican corn flour)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup lard
4 red onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 jalapeno peppers, sliced thin with seeds, stems removed
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 to 3 bottles (12 ounce) beer
1 can (12 ounce) diced tomato in juices
1 quart chicken stock
3 cans (12 ounce) black beans
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into large chunks

Cut the chuck into 3/4-inch pieces, or, to save time, have your butcher do this for you. Place the chuck in a large bowl. Season liberally with pepper (about 20 turns of the pepper grinder) and grey salt to taste- remember half of this will come off in the pan. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of the cumin and 2 tablespoons of the chili powder. Mix this well and coat the meat with the masa harina (this is a ground hominy flour common to Mexican cuisine and easily found in the Mexican food sections of many grocery stores). The flour will thicken the sauce and give it a specific, Mexican taste.

Preheat a cast iron Dutch oven on the stove over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and then the coated meat, spreading it evenly so it covers the bottom of the Dutch oven in 1 layer. Leave it alone, without turning it, so the meat will brown and caramelize. Meanwhile, add the lard. The meat has a lot of moisture in it, so a good amount of steam will come from the pan before it is caramelized. As it browns, slowly turn each piece with tongs.

Once all sides are caramelized, remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a cookie sheet to cool, leaving juices in the Dutch oven to saute vegetables. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes over medium heat until they start to caramelize and get soft. Add the jalapenos and allow to cook for 2 more minutes until soft. Add the tomato paste. Some of the same spices as were used on the meat will be used in the sauce. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of the cumin, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, the oregano, and 2 heaping tablespoons of the chili powder. Add beer. Stir to incorporate everything. Add diced tomatoes, and stir. Then add the reserved meat. Add chicken stock.

Simmer for 1 1/2 hours until meat is wonderfully tender. Strain juice from the black beans, add the beans to the chili pot and bring up to simmer. Then add chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Stir until it melts. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's brewing this weekend

I've got a crowd of around 15 coming over this weekend to talk about forming a local alumni group of my college fraternity. I expect there'll be some beer sipped, but in a responsible, adult manner. Even in school we weren't exactly the Animal House crowd.

As for what'll be on offer: I've got some Sweetwater 420 in the fridge finally, picked up on a trip out of town for Thanksgiving, along with some Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA. There's also still some of the Sam Adams Honey Porter, Abita Turbodog, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and a Hoegaarden or two. Then there's whatever else the other guys decide to bring along.

What will you be sipping this weekend? Where, and with whom?

Those recipes I promised (Part I)

So, it took a day or two, but I've managed to round up the recipes I promised you in Wednesday's column. They get a little long, so I'll divide them up among three posts spread over a few days. The first one is Star multimedia director Justin Thurman's Porter Chili. I haven't tasted it yet, but he's threatening to make another batch soon to share with the newsroom. Above the recipe is a note from Justin.
I feel that the porter brings heartiness to the chili that I don't get from other liquids. I use the porter much like someone would use a beef or chicken stock in a recipe. I drain all ingredients so that the beer is the main liquid in the chili. I love porters, I have used many different ones but Abita Turbo Dog is my favorite. This really worked out well with a chili that I made with venison as the meat.

I remembered a few years ago a man in my home town winning a chili cook-off and he said his secret was beer. Being a beer lover, I thought I would try this but I wanted to use the kind of beers that I drank. Turbo Dog was the first beer that I tried this with and it is still my favorite today.
  • 1 large red onion diced
  • 1 red pepper diced
  • 1 yellow pepper diced
  • 2 pablano peppers diced
  • 2 jalapeno peppers diced
  • 2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce diced
  • 1 pound of ground venison (beef and bison work as well)
  • 1 pound of bacon
  • The remaining adobo sauce from the chipotle peppers
  • 2 cans red kidney beans drained
  • 2 can black beans drained
  • 1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes drained
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper
  • 2 bottles of your favorite porter.
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onions and peppers in olive oil until translucent and add to crock pot. Cook bacon in pan until done, leaving bacon grease in pan. Cook the venison in the bacon grease. Chop bacon and add it and venison to crock pot. Add remaining ingredients and cook on low overnight.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Today's column: Keeping warm with bubbling beer

(Recipes coming soon, btw. -Ben)

With the mercury plunging, a good beer or two may warm you up, once the capillaries in your face relax and turn your cheeks rosy. But that serving temperature — cool to ice cold — might just give you the shivers this time of year.

It's never too cold for a beer, really, but if you're looking for another way to warm up with a cold one, why not heat it in a pot? Of course, it's important to add more ingredients than just the beer.

Winter's chill winds make it the right time for savory, slow-cooked stew or a nice, hot chili. And a bowl of either can benefit from cooking with the right beer.

The dark, roasted flavors of porters and stouts are a big part of many stew and chili recipes.

Porters are ales made with barley that's dried at higher temperatures before the brewing begins, yielding a darker malt. Stouts follow the same model, with some of the barley actually roasted and unmalted for a dry, crisp effect.

Those methods tend to result in full-bodied beers with intense flavors. Adding a bit to a stew can lend a bitter complexity, and some recipes even replace the broth outright with a bottle or two.

Countless beef stew recipes classify themselves as Irish with addition of some the Emerald Isle's most famous export, Guinness Stout. A version from Margaret M. Johnson's Irish Pub Cookbook that credits the Guinness brewery's bar calls for a half pint of the thick, black beer. It swirls with the savory flavor of sirloin cubes browned in oil and butter, and the stout mixes well with the slight tang of carrots, parsnips and turnips.

In chili, stouts' and porters' roasted malts, plus the more intense bitterness from hops, can help to balance the spice from hot peppers. One colleague at The Star uses the Turbodog porter from Louisiana's Abita Brewing Co. in place of beef stock, then adds venison or bison meat for a truly unique flavor, though he says beef works just fine, too.

Another Star staffer (we eat a lot of chili here) uses dark lagers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager or Michelob Amber Bock in place of inky porters or stouts in a lightly spiced chili recipe. Standing in for the dark complexity of roasted malt: bittersweet chocolate, which helps balance that spice even more.

Slow cooking is a favorite method for many of these dishes, in part because of the way it tenderizes chunked meat and allows seasonings to penetrate the other ingredients. Adding a bit of alcohol only intensifies the tenderizing effect, and the malt and hops can really work their magic given a few extra hours.

Using a slow cooker, though, takes time. Perhaps there's no better way to spend that time than sipping whatever beer didn't make it into the pot. At least the kitchen should be warm.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What's brewing this weekend: Leftovers

Appropriately for the holiday weekend, I'm just trying to take care of what I've got left in the fridge before beginning a search for something new. So far that's meant some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (ol' standby) and Abita Turbodog. There's also a Sam Adams Honey Porter or two left in there that I might get around to pouring.

What are you drinking this weekend with your leftover turkey and dressing?