Monday, December 7, 2015

2015 Craft Beer Cellar Advent Box

This is the third year I got a beer advent box from Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont. The first year I kept it all to myself. That was just too much beer for me. The second year I split it three ways with my two daughters. That was too little for me and too much for them. Hopefully, I've dialed it in better this year with me taking the even days and my daughters splitting the odd days.

Here are the contents so far:

Day 1: Sierra Nevada - 2015 Celebration Fresh Hop IPA

Day 2: Weihenstephaner - Vitus Weizenbock
This was my first. It was rich and sweet with caramel and baking spice flavors. It was a bit hazy with a nice foamy head.

Day 3: Bantam - Wunderkind Modern American Cider

Day 4: Dog Fish Head - Old School Barleywine Style Ale Brewed with Figs & Dates

This was thick with burnt caramel, pine, fig and date flavors.

Day 5: Smuttynose - Baltic Porter

Day 6: Shmaltz Brewing Company - Hanukkah, Chanukah, Pass the Beer Dark Beer

Nice pick CBC for this, the first day of Hanukkah. This beer is very, very good, and the label is a riot. It had many of the characteristics of a good Belgian double. But it also had a bitterness profile like a west coast ale, with the slightly burnt flavor that reminded me of a chocolate malt.

Day 7: Chimay - Dorée Ale Brewed with Spice

This is a good place to publish this first report. More as I drink them. Thanks Craft Beer Cellar!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gail's Hot & Sour Soup

This quote on Facebook from my high school friend Melinda prompted me to share my wife's recipe for hot and sour soup.
"Was excited to read some homemade hot and sour soup recipes until I got to one whose ingredients completely turned me off: "This silky version includes traditional ingredients like earthy tree ear fungus, tender bamboo shoots and lily buds." TREE EAR FUNGUS???? Turkey vegetable it is."
I strongly encourage you to not let "fungus" turn you off. It's just a funny translation of "mushroom." Here is a picture of the three odd ingredients in the recipe:

On the left is the dried lily flower, which is also called golden needles and in Melinda's recipe, lily buds. They are the strange ingredient. They are a rolled up lily flower petal. The middle ingredient is simply labeled "dried mushrooms," and are also called black mushrooms, but they are simply Shiitake mushrooms. You want the dried ones because they are much more flavorful. The third package is Melinda's tree ear fungus. The package is labeled "dried black fungus," and they are also called tree ear or wood ear mushrooms. They are just a mushroom. We see small ones growing on oak trees in our own yard.

We found these bags at H Mart, but they are available in any Asian grocery.

Gail's recipe is the result of many increasingly better attempts until this excellent soup emerged. The key bit of advice from a friend of hers was, "No hot oil; white pepper." We like it thick, but the nice thing here is you can tune the hot by varying the white pepper, the sour with the vinegar, and the thickness with the cornstarch.

Gail's Hot & Sour Soup
Quadruple the recipe to use a whole can of bamboo shoots and a whole lb. of tofu.
Makes: 4 c
Hands-on prep time: 30 min
Start-to-finish time: 2 hr

1 oz uncooked chicken

8 dried black mushrooms
6 pieces dried wood ears (1 T)
6 pieces dried golden needles (1 T)
4 c vegetable stock

¼ c bamboo shoots
4 oz tofu

½ t white pepper
4 oz can mushrooms in liquid

2 T brown sugar
2 T soy sauce
2 T rice vinegar

1 T chopped scallion
1 egg
¼ t sesame oil

3 T plus 2 t firmly packed cornstarch
¼ c water

Heavy soup pot with cover
  1. Defrost chicken if necessary; soak black mushrooms, wood ears and golden needles in stock 30 min.
  2. While dried vegetables soak, drain and rinse bamboo shoots; cut into matchsticks; cut tofu into ½” cubes; cook chicken and cut into matchsticks. 
  3. When dried vegetables are softened, remove from stock; cut into matchsticks, discard any hard stems. If bouillon is used for stock, make sure it is completely dissolved. 
  4. Combine stock, soaked vegetables, bamboo shoots, tofu, chicken, white pepper and canned mushrooms, including liquid, in pot; bring to boil. 
  5. When soup boils, reduce heat; cover; simmer 30 min. 
  6. Stir brown sugar, soy sauce and vinegar into simmered soup. Taste and correct seasonings. Recipe can be paused at this point. Reheat to boiling before continuing. 
  7. Remove soup from heat; chop scallion; beat egg; mix in sesame oil; set aside. Dissolve cornstarch in water; stir into soup; return to med-high heat, stirring constantly, until liquid thickens slightly and becomes translucent, 1-2 min. Do not stop stirring for even a moment or else cornstarch mixture will sink to bottom and form an unappetizing glob! 
  8. Slowly add egg mixture, stirring for a count of 5 (to keep egg from cooking in one big piece), then letting sit undisturbed for a count of 5 (so egg isn’t completely incorporated into broth). 
  9. Serve immediately, topped with chopped scallion. 
Substitute pork or shrimp for chicken, or eliminate meat and egg entirely for a vegan version.

Warning: Reheat on the stove since this soup explodes in a microwave when hot enough to eat, even with short heatings separated by frequent stirrings.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Festbier Education 2015

I went on a festbier frenzy this year, tasting a total of twelve. Five were from Germany and seven from the US:

By German law, Oktoberfest beer includes any beer both following the Reinheitsgebot and brewed in Munich. So, it can really range in style, but is classically a Märzen style beer, sweet and malty, low hops with a rich mouth feel. My tasting ranged from the light blah of the Hofbräu Oktoberfest to the over-the-top dark and rich Berkshire Brewing Company Oktoberfest Lager.

The top beer of the group was the Ayinger, which was the best example of the style and a most wonderful malty, clean drinking joy. The best of the US beers was the Left Hand. It had all the characteristic malty richness and green bell pepper flavors I came to expect from the festbiers. The Berkshire is worth a special note. It was basically true to style but pushed over the top. Think double IPA compared to an IPA. It was probably my favorite beer of the bunch, but I never would have appreciated its differences without tasting the others. As a group, I found the US beers better since the German beers were uneven.

Here are a few notes on each beer:

Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen - Malty, honey brown and crystal clear, slightly thin finish, rich on the back of the tongue, with caramel notes. A decent beer, but not noteworthy.

Weihenstephaner Festbier - Straw colored with an impressive, bright white and lacy head. It had tiny bubbles that tickled my tongue. Malty but not cloying, rich, full, chewy, not a bit watery. It finished with pepper flavors (both black pepper and bell pepper) that I found characteristic of the style.

Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen - Rusty apple brown, cloudy, thin head, ordinary, slightly malty, like Michelob. I'd pass on this.

Hofbräu Oktoberfest - Straw colored, light head, creamy, slight malt, not sweet but with a sweet
finish, a little sour, blah. Again, a pass.

Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen - Light brown, bright white head, malty with rich pepper flavors. This was the best of the set. If you can only have one, this is the one.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest - This is a collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele. Honey colored, full head, no lacing, malty, rich, green pepper, full bodied finish. Better than any of the German beers except Ayinger.

Brooklyn Oktoberfest - Brown, medium head that dissipates quickly, light malt flavor, tiny bubble effervescence, lighter bodied than average, slightly cloying finish, saccharine. I'd skip this one.

Victory Festbier - Brown, clear, lacy head, lightly malty and clean, but not rich enough. It was okay, but not great.

Left Hand Oktoberfest Märzen Lager - Dark brown with foamy head, malty, rich with green peppers. A good showing.

Sam Adams Oktoberfest - Honey brown with good malty flavors. This is a good, safe bet beer.

Märzen Scorseze Oktoberfest Lager - A good, safe beer, similar to the Sam Adams.

Berkshire Brewing Company Oktoberfest Lager - Amazingly interesting, true to style but pushed to 11 like a double IPA compared to an IPA style. Intensely creamy, malty and pepper flavors amped up
to the point of giving hops-like bittering.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Craft Beer Cellar 2014 Advent Beer 4

I mentioned in my previous post that I struggled to drink a beer each day last year, and that I had a plan for that. Now the plan can be revealed. I'm sharing the beer box with my two (grown) daughters. Since they've been out of the house, we've sent them a present for each day of December, just like this beer Advent box. And so this year, I split the beer three ways.

Now on day 4 I had my second beer, an Allagash Saison. While saison is not my favorite style, this was a good example.  It was easy drinking and dry, with pepper and grapefruit notes. I would have rather had either of the beers my daughters got. Day two was a Firestone Velvet Merlin, an oatmeal stout with coffee/chocolate flavors. Day three was a Scaldis Noel, which I remember fondly from last year as one of the highlights.

As any good father would say, I'm glad my daughters got the best of this cycle.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Canned Crab Compared: Spoiler - Disappointing

We happened to have four different cans of crab meat in the pantry, so we decided to make crab cakes for lunch. The amazing differences we saw when we opened the cans inspired this blog entry.

It's hard to imagine this is all the same food. The first two cans are from Bumble Bee, labeled "fancy lump" and "pink." Neither one seems to fit its label. The third can is Geisha snow crab meat. It looks markedly better than the others. Hold that thought. The final can is Roland white crab meat. It looks like the crab equivalent of sawdust.

Appearance is important, but for crab cakes, flavor and texture are much more important. We didn't taste them individually, but the resulting crab cakes tasted good, if a bit light on flavor. And, if you've ever had crab cakes in Maryland, you will appreciate big lumps of crab. Our recipe says to use fresh Maryland lump crab meat, but canned crab will do in a pinch. Which is certainly true.

We thought we had a clear winner in the Geisha can. But, look at what we pulled out of the can:

Apparently, Geisha puts a few choice chunks on the top of the can. It looks nice when you open it, but the bulk of the can is no different than the other cans. At least there are a few good lumps there. Perhaps that allows them to put the deceiving picture on the front of the can. That said, the Geisha is the star of the bunch with the best color and texture, and at least a few nice lumps.

I wish I could end this article with a summary of poorly textured crab meat. There is one more problem with these cans. Each can was labeled as net 6 oz. and "dr wt" 4.25 oz. "Dr wt" stands for drained weight. The problem is that drained weight is not measured, the way normal humans drain a can of crab meat. Normal humans force the liquid out of the meat by pressing the can lid down into the can until the liquid stops coming out. The official drained weight measure is done by pouring the can into a sieve: no pressing. As a result, these four cans had 2.9, 3.3, 3.5 and 4.0 oz. of squeeze drained crab meat.

Our crab cake recipe calls for 1 lb. of crab. We found that our four cans had 13.7 of the supposed 17.0 oz. on the label. We tolerated that and enjoyed our crab cakes.

Crab Cakes
Makes 6 cakes

1 lb. Crab meat
1 t. Salt
3/4 t. Fresh ground pepper

1/2 c. Mayonnaise
1/2 t. Yellow mustard
1 t. Worcestershire
1 t. Lemon juice
1 Egg

2 oz. Saltine crackers, finely crushed
1/2 t. Baking powder
2 T Parsley minced

Oil for frying
  1. Heat oil to 375. Use a thermometer, since too cold makes for greasy cakes, and too hot will burn them
  2. Mix crab with salt and pepper
  3. Mix mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire and egg
  4. Fold into crab mixture
  5. Add 1/4 of crushed saltines, baking powder, and parsley to the mix
  6. Put remaining saltines on a plate
  7. Form 6 crab cakes, coat lightly with crushed saltines
  8. Fry in oil for 1-3 minutes per side
  9. Drain on paper towel
  10. Serve hot

Friday, July 17, 2015

Heady Topper's Little Brother and a Pretty Things FlowerLand

This last weekend, Gail and I took a trip to Waterbury Vermont to tour the Ben & Jerry's factory.  We had a beautiful day that also included two unusual stops for donuts, a nice sampling of Cabot's cheeses, and a not-so-nice sampling of spirits.  But that's not the point of this article.

As it turns out, besides being home to great ice cream, Waterbury Vermont is also home to one of the worlds best beers: The Alchemist Heady Topper.  This is a beer that some rate #1 in America, but most put in the top ten.  And it is only available in Vermont.  And ... only on certain days ... and only at certain liquor stores.  Let's say, it's difficult to come by.  No wonder that beer lovers make pilgrimages to Waterbury.

If you are out of luck and in town on the wrong day, your best option is the Prohibition Pig restaurant, which sometimes has some on stock.  But we were doubly out of luck: no Heady Topper left.  Nevertheless, sitting on their deck on such a beautiful day with my wife, a cuban sandwich and pulled pork tacos was close to heaven.

What Prohibition Pig did have was a second offering from The Alchemist: Focal Banger.  Before we talk about Focal Banger, though, we need the context of Heady Topper.  Heady is a double IPA, which doesn't really describe it much, because it's so unusual even as a double IPA.

I've noted before that hops in beer has three characteristics: bitterness, flavor and aroma.  Heady turns up the flavoring hops to a crazy level, like drinking a flower garden that has grown under a grove of pine trees.  If you aren't into aggressive beers, you could either hate it or love it.  Hard to tell.  Taste it if you get a chance.

Focal Banger is Heady Topper's little brother.  It's labeled an IPA, but I think it's best to think of it as an IPA and a half.  It has the same flavor profiles as Heady, but at about 75% intensity.  And it keeps the same level of hoppy bitterness.  This is truly a remarkable beer.  Beeradvocate rates it 100.  If it falls short anywhere, it would have to be that it is balanced slightly over bitter for my taste, which becomes more evident as it warms up.  A minor flaw, if that.  Even more amazing, The Alchemist doesn't even give it a nod on their web page, "We are currently focused on brewing one beer perfectly – Heady Topper, an American Double IPA."  It was a real treat to miss out on Heady Topper, since this was the consolation prize.

I was talking to Gail tonight about the Beeradvocate rating.  I said I would probably give it a 98, as I opened a bottle of Pretty Things FlowerLand.  98 is a pretty good rating, but I wanted room for something better. Did I mention I was pouring a bottle of Pretty Things FlowerLand?

FlowerLand is labeled an "Overgrown IPA," a nod to the agressive use of four different kinds of hops.  The best comparison I have for FlowerLand is of course Focal Banger.  For what it's worth, I think FlowerLand is better, so I'm glad I left myself some room with my 98 rating for Focal.  I'd give FlowerLand a 99.  To describe it in similar terms, it's like drinking a flower garden that has grown in a caramel factory.  And the bitterness level starts out perfect, but drops off a little as the beer warms.  Move over Meadowlark; I have a new Pretty Things favorite.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Privateer Rum Factory Tour

With the weather so cold and the snow so deep, it's tough to think back to last summer. A friend was coming over and we had planned to make piña coladas, but we were out of rum. Always interested in local spirits, I picked up an unfamiliar bottle of Privateer True American Amber Rum.

Now, on this first weekend of spring, it was still cold out, and a little more snow was falling. Gail and I had to get out of the house. Gail remembered that the rum came with a voucher for a tour of the distillery in Essex, so despite the snow, we took a road trip.

Our first impression was that we were in the wrong place. Look beyond the pile of wires with the discarded refrigerator. Could that warehouse be the distillery?

Sure enough, there above the door were the broken letters and shadow remnants of the word "PRIVATEER."  In case that wasn't clear enough, it was repeated in stick-on, hardware-store block letters with a mismatched "I." The danger sign on the door reminds you that there might be flammable materials inside: "No smoking or open flame." While this was clearly the right place, it made us question for a moment if it was the right place for us.

I'm glad we decided to go in. The outside doesn't give a clear impression of the inside. Half the warehouse was filled with bright stainless steel vats connected to tall and shiny copper condensers. These were the mixing vats and stills for making the rum. The other half was filled with oak barrels for aging it.

Right in the middle of the large room was a small bar where we started our tour.  In the back of the warehouse, next to a large window where we could see it was still snowing, sat a man working on his computer at a desk in a way that reminded me of Willy Wonka. It was the founder/owner Andrew Cabot. His ancestor, also Andrew Cabot, was an American revolutionary privateer and rum distiller.

Our tour started with a history of rum, which I won't try to repeat here. That can be your teaser to take the tour yourself. You won't regret it.

Then we tasted the sugars that go into making their rum, comparing them to the lower quality ingredients used in other rum manufacturing. I was interested to learn that the brown sugar we buy in the store is "painted" brown sugar. It is white sugar that has molasses added back for consistency. Privateer uses "real boiled" brown sugar, which is an intermediate state of sugar refining that, best I can tell, is otherwise called light muscovado sugar. Suffice it to say that their brown sugar tasted better than the store bought.

The other big difference was their use of grade A molasses instead of the blackstrap molasses used in other rum production. Grade A and B molasses are what we get in the grocery store and are usually labeled "fancy" molasses. Blackstrap molasses is the gunk that comes out at the end of the sugar refining process. It tasted a little like a harsh black licorice. People are not meant to eat that stuff.

Next, we took a tour of the production floor. It was just a few steps between each station in the big room: mixing, first and second distillations, tank aging for the silver, followed by barrel aging for the amber, and finally bottling.

We were intrigued at how each barrel imparts unique flavors to the rum inside it. Privateer carefully blends them to create a style that matches their brand, while aiming to make each batch better than the previous batch. When you buy a bottle, and you should, you will see a hand-written batch number that you can learn more about on their web site. My first bottle was batch #16. While this is the last batch listed on the web site, we bought a bottle of batch #22 after the tour.

We enjoyed a tasting at the end of the tour. Our guide suggested that we cleanse our pallets with a swish of the silver to be spit on the floor. We couldn't bring ourselves to do that, both because ... well yuck ... and because it was too good to waste.

Privateer is good enough to sip straight. In fact, if you handed me the silver and told me it was a good vodka, I wouldn't argue. Certainly, none of the harsh rum flavors that go so well with Coke and lime. I can't wait to try their simple daiquiri recipe: 2 oz silver rum, 0.75 oz simple syrup, 0.75 oz lime juice.

The amber tasted more like a whiskey than a rum, with a hint of top-shelf reposado tequila. Those harsh rum flavors that I assume come from the blackstrap molasses are missing here. Sipping rum: who would have thought?