Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sharing is Caring

There is a tension between the individual wanting it their way and the natural urge to share food. This post is a little more passive observational than many of my posts. Just throwing an idea out there and seeing if it floats.

In the last few weeks, I have noticed a tension between two different approaches to food consumption. There is a tension between the individual wanting it their way and the natural urge to share food.

On the one hand, you have the Kitchen Library on the Danforth which is an extension of the Toronto Tool Library, both who are a member of the so-called new share economy. It is really an internet version of asking your neighbour to lend you something without the hassle of creating a relationship. Okay, that's a little unfair. It is a way for a group of people to share tools and equipment that are rarely used to ensure maximum economic benefit.

Not Far from the Tree is another organization that helps fruit tree owners collect and share their bounty. Owners get part of the pickings and the rest gets used to generate income for charitable causes.

On the restaurant front, you have the rise of communal tables and small plates for sharing. I had a meal in this fashion at Hopgood's Foodliner recently and the server guided us through the appropriate dishes to greet the table.

A lot of these services have replaced or renewed the idea of community and extended family. Growing up in a small town, the idea of borrowing and lending was common. You often helped your neighbour with picking crops and exchanged pickles, jams and excess produce. The internet seems to be allowing this to occur again. Instead of sitting passively in front of the television screen watching Food Network and mowing down some gourmet takeaway from the local gourmet food shop, we are starting to touch someone through the wires and share food experiences.

Cities makes anonymous easier and allow for carrying privacy like a cloak. Cities make anonymity easier and allow residents to carry privacy like a cloak. With the rise of individual wrappings of stuff, like apples, hummus and veggies, fast food restaurants with individualize menus and the fall of family style servings at restaurants, it seems natural that their would be a push back.  Buffets are giving way to communal tables.

As food issues become more prominent in the industrialized world, I wonder how these tendencies will play on the world stage.

Someone suggested the above edit and made a true wisecrack that I must have been sleepy when writing this. Thanks, Chris...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beer is Going Highbrow?


In Food & Wine's October issue, there is a column on beer that made me slam down the magazine and tweet. Given that I tweet a lot, that is unsurprising. This time, it is different. I respect the magazine and expect it to have authority. It does get a little dicey when it moves from its core strengths but they try.

The article in question, 'Beer Is Going Highbrow (and Why That's a Good Thing)', by its very title is already creating a dissonance. There is a dominant idea that beer is lowbrow or common. I thought that this was an attempt at getting a headline. I read the article once, then twice, to make sure I understood what just happened. There were a couple of tired tropes such as the vinification of beer, and a surprise of the breadth of beer's taste but there was something a little more unsettling to me.

In this article on beer, wine is mentioned twelve times with two of those instances being in the compound word wine-ification.  Beer is mentioned 36 times. I have not looked closely at all the other articles in this months issue but I believe it is safe to say that most articles on wine don't mention beer at all. This 1:3 ratio is a little high for a non wine article. This issue of mentioning beer's rise needs to stop being compared to wine. In fact, the whole article is a series of missed story lines. The real interesting bits are not followed due to the self described 'proud connoisseur of Miller High Life' not getting the parts that are unique to beer.

For an analogy, it would be like taking a veteran tea drinker who, when they drink coffee, drinks Tim Horton's (Dunkin' Donuts for our American friends) and bringing them into coffee culture to describe it. They will have to fall back on what they know (tea houses, tea brewing and preparation) against coffee. There is always the possibility that curiosity will move them beyond this position but it would require a lot of effort.

Some of the missed opportunities include describing the evolution of watering holes with no mention of the history of breweries and pubs being the first places often built when towns began in North American. Little heed is given to the evolution from sports bars to gastropubs to the brasseries. Brasseries may be new to America but they had a long history in Belgium and France.

There are some words spilled over the complex delivery system in the Torst bar where they have a custom-built system to control carbonation and temperature of each beer. That is where it stops. A description of the look of the system with no pressing of the bartender on why this is. I am genuinely interested, as a reader, on what adjustments to a pedestrian beer could make it better. If you pulled a Bud through that system, how far could you pull the flavour in different directions? This is something that is distinct to beer.

There is talk about how a new beer glass has been designed to enjoy IPAs. What is left out, is why was a new glass required. North America has become so innovative in brewing that there are a number of new and emerging styles of beer. Some are an historical recreation of brews where others are something new. American style IPAs are one of these new styles. There is a quote from the producer of the glass that this IPA glass outsells their wineglasses. Is there something about beer that makes more than two or three styles of glasses mandatory?

The roots of these more interesting conversations are there and the author knows it. In the last third of the article, a beer sommelier states that the current beer culture is probably close to pre-Prohibition era. The author goes on to discuss the sommelier as being one of the earliest pioneers in pairing beer with food totally ignoring the Belgians and the Germans. The sommelier in question is Greg Engert, who Food & Wine chosen as one of ten sommeliers of the year in 2010, the first beer person to be chosen as such. The author could've followed up on these comments and left over dangling questions.

The coffin nailing comment of ' "beer" soon began to feel like an inadequate term to describe what I was drinking." made me think of two things. Food & Wine would not send someone who only drank Baby Duck wine to a winery and accept the same statement above with the word wine in it. It would be disrespectful.

The other thought was about the beerification of wine. Wine is now being put on tap, the places it is being served are more democratic, and vintners are becoming more like rock stars and less like old money, old vines. There is experimentation with adding flavours to wine and in general, the process of wine making is simpler and has not evolved as much as beer has in the past 10 years. Barrel aging, wild yeast strains, new strains of hops, revival of hopless beers, and grain experimentation are just a small smattering of exciting and innovative events in brewing. That is the real story, not how beer culture is the new wine culture. Beer culture described in this manner reminds me of the snobbery against California wine in the past.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Defining Bad Beer, Part 3

Time for another whack at the bad beer pinata. In the first part of this series on trying to define bad beer, I made the argument that unspoiled mass produced beer that did not taste bad was not enough to define bad beer. In the second part, I argued that aggregate sites such as bulletin boards, beeradvocate, ratebeer and untappd were biased towards micro and craft brews and at best could help you find a candidate for bad beer. In this part, we take a look at the experts.

History of Beer Judging
You can bet that in ancient Sumer, where the earliest beer recipe can be found, some may have died at the king's hand over bad beer while others were exalted. Now that could be Guy Kavriel Kay's next historical fantasy novel. The tale of some brewer, probably a woman, being raised to courtier due to her prowess with the brew. In a slightly more contemporary note, Toronto Beer Week starts tomorrow and there will be a documentary about the guy who may have started the modern era of beer judging, Michael Jackson.

He approached beer in a local and historical approach, treating beer as a product of terroir. He made a modern differentiation between ales and lagers and started to form the framework for describing different styles of beer. His first major work was written in 1977. I was unable to find where he defined bad beer but did find where he talked about what some others thought bad beer was. This definition of styles led, of course, to judging how well a beer met a style. Before we get there, let\s talk about the other experts that have come since Michael Jackson.

Battle of the Experts: Sommeliers
There are two recognized arbiters of beer and beer service are Prud'homme and Cicerone. Both are focused on delivering beer as intended by the brewer. The lower levels of Prud'homme are geared towards appreciating beer to the final levels where you are expected to achieve a level of proficiency in terms of 'methods of designing, developing and facilitating beer education programs and events'. Cicerone helps servers get to understand all aspects of beer and to serve the beer in a way that it should be. These both hint at the intention of the brewer and ensuring that the beer served is free of technical defects from improper storage or serving. There is that word, intentionality. That will show up in the fourth part of this series.

Unfortunately, bad beer, in absence of defects, is not discussed in either syllabus. So, the experts are refusing to weigh in on bad beer or is it something else? Let's go a step further and discuss judging of beer because many of these people who achieve sommelier status, at some point, judge beer at competitions.

Here Come the Judge
There are a few judging bodies but I'm only going to tackle the Beer Judge Certification Program because it is one of the best documented of the bunch. They publish clear study guides and beer style guides. There are objective and measurable characteristics with clear examples. For instance, Lite American Lager states that there may be some light corn and sweetness and that strong flavours are a fault. Examples of this style are, you guessed it, Miller Lite and Coors Light. So, they are supposed to taste like that. Hunh, who would have thought that?

More importantly, the purpose of the judging and scoring is to:
  • To give the entrants valuable feedback on the quality of their brew as perceived by the judges in order to enhance the quality of homebrewing.
  • To provide training for aspiring beer judges.
  • To maintain valid standards of judging.
Took the above from their site. They are trying to help homebrewers be better. When you enter a competition, you have to state what style you are brewing. Even if you do a fruit beer, which is a catchall category, you still should note the underlying style that you have added fruit. Once again, it is about the intention of the brewer. A 'bad' beer is one that does not conform to the ideals of the brewer. 

Styles do evolve and get created over time. Older styles are often revived. The workings of how this happen can be seen by looking at how the judging guide has changed. None of this gets us closer to bad beer, though. We get from the experts is that the history and geography of a beer matters. The way that the brewer intends the beer to be appreciated matters. 

So, in the last part, I'm going to try to pull these two elements, the drinkers and the brewers together in some way at getting at the bad beer. 

Before I get to that one, a few things. This part will be my weakest. I can't pretend to be well versed in beer judging and it was only with hours of research that I could make sense of this area. What this post has kindled in me is a sense that maybe I should spend some time looking at these three programs. If you are at all interested in understanding the depth and breadth of beer nerdery, I would recommend highly going through the three websites. 

The second thing is that in the last week, a great post summing up the approach from the other side was posted. I include the link here because it definitely gets at how not to be a jackass and how to be a good snob. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Beer Forward Restaurants

A nearby cafe, Lazy Daisy's Cafe, had a contest to help determine the beer selection. I reviewed this place when it opened and it has largely lived up to my assessment. It is a local focused business and all of its effort goes into creating and maintaining their prime clientele of families. Now it is time to expand the business to include evenings. Already they have had comedy nights where some headliners try out some of their new material. There has been alcohol served under a special occasions permits but now, alcohol will become a fixture.

My recent restaurant reviews have included some type of assessment of the beer available with the food and how it matches. So, I am now wondering what advice would I give someplace like a local cafe on what to include on their craft beer list. We'll ignore all those definitions for local and just go with a more woolly idea that the beer has to be able to be delivered within four of five hours of an emergency beer call.

Lagers: There are two good reasons for this entry, the first is to piss off the craft beer snobs and second, lagers are the most popular beer in the world. You have to give people something they recognize and like. You could get a little loose with this definition of lager and include Kolsch as a style. Steamwhistle, Lug Tread, Mill St. Organic are all reasonable. If you extend craft to include the way the beer is made rather than who owns them, then Beer Academy has a few and Creemore Springs would be a good addition. Only warning, don't only stock lagers. Find no more than three and go with it. These don't have to change often because stereotypical lager drinkers are ones that stick with it.

Farmhouse/Miner's Ale: These are spiced, flavoured ales that are known for their refreshing ability. Grissette was made for miners to drink and biere de garde and saisons were the same for farmers and their seasonal workers. Originally, these were all lower alcohol beer meant to go with the breaks during the work. Not to get you drunk but tasty. From experience, it is easier to get help if your lunch spread is tasty. The differences between farm work is slight so any advantage to getting help is a benefit. 

So, these all share a dryness factor, sometimes fruity and sometimes spicy. Great Lakes Brewery has three grissettes bottled but due to the low alcohol, they may not age well. Saisons and biere de garde will stay a little better but availability can be an issue. Oast House from Niagara is doing a number of these styles. Black Oak has a summer saison. Amsterdam has started experimenting and maybe they will continue to offer a new saison depending on the season. Nickelbrook, Bellwoods, and Sawdust City all do at least one good saison.

The saison beer style often appeals to those who drink red wine. The biere de garde can be a little malty. All of these pair well with common workers' food. I would advise cafes to change their ingredients on the sandwiches to go better with the brew. Mess around until you find something you like.

IPA: It's the standard beer for novice craft beer enthusiasts. That may be a little unkind but every brewery does one of these. This beer is great as a palate cleanser and pairs well with spicy foods. You gotta have one. Flying Monkeys does a good job with theirs and has that name brand recognition. In reality, most local brewers do a decent version from Amsterdam's Boneshaker, Double Trouble's Hops and Robbers to a little more food friendly but expensive to carry Spearhead. It might be best to get something that isn't on the LCBO shelves like GLB's Karma Citra or Wellington's Shangra-La to attract beer enthusiasts with something they may not have tried.

Witbier/Weissbier: A wheat beer goes great with food. Differences between the Belgian wit and the German weiss are that the wit is spiced and slightly sour while the weiss has banana and clove notes from the yeast. There are more nuances but that is the basics. This is the type of beer that you pull out for a summer day. If you are looking for a local German weissbier, you can't go wrong with Denison's Weissbier. It is phenomenal with scallops and seafood. If you do go with the witbier, then White Picket Fence by Bellwoods would be good. In general, if you are operating a bar/cafe on the east side, bringing west side microbrews like Indie Ale House, Bellwoods and Kensington would be a good idea. 

Porter/Stout:  Need something to go with dessert and for those people who say they only drink dark beers. Just for the record, the colour of the beer may have nothing to do with the flavour. When people talk about drinking dark beer, it is roasts and malts with chocolate and coffee tastes they are talking about. Mill St. Coffee Porter and Sawdust City's Long Dark Trip to Uranus are good examples. This is often treated like a seasonal, so maybe it would be good to offer either a porter/stout or a sour beer. 

All that stuff above is mainly about styles but what I mean by a beer forward menu is that there is at least a beer for each course that compliments and makes the meal more enjoyable. There must be a mix of recognizable names and new brews. There has to be some accessible beer for new drinkers but a challenging beer or two for aficionados. Might be worth a small bottled beer selection for just this purpose. The staff need to be able to explain what these beers are like and be able to suggest what goes with what. Lazy Daisy has gone a long way to engaging the local beer drinkers and this is what their business model has been. It will go a long way to help to gain goodwill from the regulars if they are included in making the decisions. If only every restaurant would take some simple steps to making their beer list more interesting for food pairing... 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Drunk Review: Pizza Pizza Pizza, Hawaiian

An apology and a warning, maybe two warnings. I wrote this post drunk and may have  inadvertently made some comparisons that read like sexual assault. So, two warnings: may cause triggers and don't write drunk.

So, I blame this missive squarely upon the shoulders of The Only Cafe and Lindsay at Sauce on the Danforth. The former provided me with a curated flight, curated by me, of upper shelf beers that are beyond approach and a soupcon of excellence of a Brouwerij de Moulen, Bombs and Grenadine. The latter aside from the Toronto cocktail riffed most excellently on the Last Word and the Lumiere using Chambord, both chartreuse cocktails. Tbanks Lindsay.

I walked the block to Subway and ordered something and still felt hungry. I stopped at the Pizza Pizza joint and ordered my kids' favourite pie slice, the Hawaiian. Basically, it is ham and bacon on a pizza and not much else.

The whole thing tasted of crunch and that is not a taste. It consisted of the kind of sound that could drown out an ipod mini. Reminded me a bit of the classic Crunch commercial of the nineties. There was the slight saltiness of baconness and the occasional juiciness of the pineapple. My upper palate is slightly abraded while the the lower piece of the tongue feels assaulted. I'm left with the taste of moreness but not in a good way. As is in, I wish I got moreness for the money spent.

Look, in general, I don't hate this franchise but in what it offers the drunk person, I cannot forgive. I wish that I hadn't ordered that pizza because I feel that tomorrow morning I will be left with dry mouth and soreness and wonder if I had been involved in some horrible orgy that I may not have given consent to. Not a good feeling. I feel like I need another drink to clear the salt taste and memory from this episode. Look, I'm a happy-go-lucky drunk but feel as if I have been just assaulted.  Don't do this drunk. Fine if you're sober and know what you are getting into but don't do this under the influence of drink, pot or any other drug. Just say no. Pizza Pizza on Urbanspoon