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Etched pint glasses by Glass Blasted Weddings
Just Lovely: Etched pint glasses by Glass Blasted Weddings

With the Super Bowl (just) behind us and Valentine’s Day on the way, the subject of matchups—including beer pairings—is presenting itself nearly as much as politics (thank goodness).

Put simply, beer and food are a match made in heaven …and when you get the right ones together the combination is… heavenly (eyeroll, I know, but it’s true).

Disclaimer: I’m no Cicerone, but after having spent so much time trying beer with friends and hearing their various observations, ideas, and doubts …I’ve developed some thoughts on pairings.

Whether it was at monthly beer club tastings, bars, breweries, beer dinners, or shopping, friends and family often defer to my judgement, claiming they don’t know anything about [tasting, picking, pairing…] beers. But guess what, you do.

With their powers combined: Beer and Snacks Conquer the Palate

With their powers combined: Beer and Snacks Conquer the Palate

The bottom line is you do have to at least appreciate the beer first and foremost. But I didn’t use the L-word for a reason (and it’s not fear of commitment)—yes, there are beer styles that pair fantastically with certain foods, but if you absolutely hate stouts (and I mean hate), you’ll never truly appreciate the way they melt the rich flavors decadent dark chocolate beyond maybe a sip—so don’t force it! First you have to take your personal taste into consideration…. then try these:

  1. Meta (think: “‘tis the season” and/or “I’m in the mood”)
    I like to start big picture when I’m choosing beer… is it a sweltering mid-summer day? (wishful thinking), a cold dreary night? A brisk winter afternoon? A sweet spring evening? All of these—plus holiday inspirations have something to do with our tastes. Just like Thanksgiving makes you think mmmm…turkey, a crisp fall hike might veer you towards a darker, nutty lager, while a day of kayaking lends itself to a light, crisp pilsner or hefeweizen.

    Your mood might also affect your choice—mellow stouts and porters allow for a thoughtful night of conversation, while a sharp IPA or pale ale has higher-energy social aura.
  1. Down to a Science (left brain)
    If you feel like beer-geeking out you can get all the information you need from a 2014-08-20-15-39-05quick internet search (Beer Advocate is a tried-and-true resource and RateBeer and UnTappd have a growing following, which means plenty of opinions to choose from …and don’t forget the breweries’ pages themselves—after all they did make the beer, the brewers often have some fantastic recommendations on what to drink it with.)

Years ago a dear friend gave me Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, which has been an invaluable reference while trying different beers. In fact, Mosher has an entire chapter devoted to Beer and Food, where he offers up some broad tasting tips before breaking down foods and beers.

  • Mosher notes that B & F can either balance or emphasize each other—carbonation, alcohol and the malt character or hop bitterness balance out sweetness, fats, and that umami (multi-Tasting Beer by Randall Mosherflavor) quality; sweetness or maltiness in beer balances acidity and spiciness in foods; and hop bitterness and spicy foods emphasize each other (uh, hello IPA and wings? yeah.)
  • Commonalities: Mosher recommends using the like elements of beers and foods such as the citrusy hop aromas paired with dishes involving lemon sauces, pepper, or vinegar; nutty malt flavors matched with crusty breads, aged sausage, or nutty cheeses; spicy yeast character (like what is found in a Belgian farmhouse saison) alongside equally complex dishes such as Indian or Cajun. The wide variety of malt flavors offer options galore: caramel malt (lightest) with sauteed meats or vegetables, toasted malt with grilled or roasted meats, and roasted (darker) malt with well-aged cheese, smoked meats, or chocolate. The options go on….

“Beer gastronomy was founded on creativity and experimentation.”
Randy Mosher

  • Courses: Much like what might be recommended in a flight, Mosher suggests starting off a meal with crisp, refreshing beers. Wheat beers go well with salads, while an American Pale Ale transitions to more succulent appetizers. For main courses, Mosher notes that the intensity of the beer and the food should match and that it is important to take into account not just the flavors, but the cooking methods. And lastly, for desserts, full-flavored beers supplement the rich sweetness of treats like cheesecake or fruit tarts (pair with a fruit beer), flourless chocolate cake (pair with an imperial stout), even chocolate chip cookies (pair with a brown ale), or creme brulee (pair with a double IPA).

    Complete with flavor profiles, icons to link beer styles, a flavor wheel, and even recipes for cooking with beer… I can’t recommend Mosher’s book enough.

  1. Get Creative (right brain)
    Sometimes a straight beer isn’t going to be what you’re looking for, maybe you want to add garnish (jalapenos in a resiny IPA, blueberries bobbing around in a lighter amber, cinnamon-sugared or salted rims), or perhaps even venture toward beer cocktails such as beermosas, black & tans, brass monkeys (that funky monkey—yeah it’s a thing), grog, or the increasingly popular shandy.
  1. Spread the love
    Last but not least, remember you don’t always need a full pint… try a flight while sharing appetizers with friends or pair a sample-size (4 oz is perfect) with each course. Not only does this let you really pinpoint your beers to your food, but it lets you see the way a beer (you might not want a whole pint of) melds with a particular food and how the two accent each other’s flavors.

Because of the immense variety that comprises the beverage “beer” you have so many options… you can pair ANY food with a beer and it might make you like the beer (or the food) even more!  Keep in mind that you know more than you think and base every decision on your own tastes.

base every decision on your own tastes…

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(Just a side note, right after I came up with this ’90s-tribute headline I heard that Nickelodeon is bringing back a handful of nostalgia with The ’90s Are All That, which doesn’t have Are You Afraid of the Dark? in its lineup just yet, but is on the right track)

Anyway, in present-day news, the beer club has been going strong… encountering hefty beers (and opinions to match) along the way.

For me, much like the Belgian tasting we had in January, this month’s tasting of stouts made it tough to pick a favorite. But unlike the Belgian category this was cause I knew I loved stouts and so I had to go into decimal points in my numerical ratings… and I am not a numbers girl. (For the record, I had to go into decimals at the Belgian tasting, too, which introduced me to quite a few Belgian styles that I loved, despite my previous distaste for the overall category).

My good friend, and fellow blogger Sandy and her husband hosted us for the Stout tasting.  There was plenty of chocolate and cheese to go with the dark beers (and some fabulous homemade pizza and chili to boot!)

I ditched my salty tooth that day and whipped up some chocolatey treats to go with the whole Valentines Day + Stouts… thing. Also I had been holding on to this recipe from Ladies Of Craft Beer for quite some time waiting for some sort of sweet tooth to emerge in me. And it did!

I made the LadiesOCB’s Double Double Chocolate Stout Brownies substituting High & Mighty’s Two-Headed Beast for the Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. Despite not being very popular as a sample at the tasting, the Two Headed Beast did go well with the rich brownies, which somehow mellowed the beastly beer’s… “umph. ” (The brownies were great warm, topped with ice cream later, too).

We tasted several varieties of stouts including milk/cream stouts, coffee stouts, imperial stouts, and, of course, chocolate stouts… here’s how things tallied up:

Overall favorite was organic Vermont brewer Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, which had a nice earthy, slightly dry flavor. Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast and Dogfish Head’s Chickory Stout tied as second favorite.

Least favorite was a little more dispersed, but it turns out our crew is not a fan of Paper City’s Riley’s Mother’s Milk (though I think the milk/cream stouts were in general less popular with the crew, cause Paper City’s other contestant, the Fogbuster Coffee Stout ranked well).

Here’s the full roster (in tasting order)… what’d we miss and what’s your take?

Samuel Adams Cream Stout
Paper City Riley’s Mother’s Milk Stout
Wachusett Milk Stout
Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout
People’s Pint Oatmeal Stout
Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout (my first favorite—I had a tie)
Paper City Fogbuster Coffeehouse Ale
Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast (my other favorite)
Dogfish Head Chickory Stout
High & Mighty Two-Headed Beast
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
Southern Tier Choklat
Avery Czar Imperial Stout
Hoppin’ Frog Double Imperial Stout
McNeill’s Dark Angel
Victory Storm King
North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout

Tonight we take a milder taste with Brown Ales (both English and American styles) so stay tuned for more recaps… plus a selection of my favorite quotes and reviews!

Cheers!

Red, amber, green, or black… Saint Patrick’s Day offers up the perfect (and possibly most united) excuse to have a beer… or three.

Get your Goodness: Washington, D.C., unloads

Here’s to hoping you all had a fantastic celebration, Irish or not, and that you got the chance to imbibe some interesting brews. I, myself, had some hearty corned beef and cabbage at local subterranean pub, Lion’s Den in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the sweet sounds of a local guitarist and a glass of well-poured Guinness rounded out my St. Patty’s Day. I topped it off with a little Irish whiskey for good luck, opting for Powers over Jameson (since I’d never had the former, and survey says… delicious!).

I had the pleasure of catching a bit of Irish prep in Washington, D.C., as loads of Guinness appeared throughout the city. Not that I needed help getting in the spirit, but it sure did add to the anticipation… how did you celebrate?

Buried in the hip epicenter of Western Massachusetts that is Northampton—home to progressive colleges, boho-chic shopping, wide-ranging grub, and eclectic galleries—is New England’s oldest operating brewpub, duly named the Northampton Brewery.

If you haven’t perused the rest of this blog, I should mention how big a fan I am of brewpubs—these places, usually brimming with individuality, offer the steadfast trifecta of (über) locally-made beer, hearty cuisine, and friendly atmosphere. More than a sports bar, more than a restaurant, and more than a brewery, the brewpub brings it all together. In other words, I like food with my beer and vice versa.

The Northampton Brewery is a multifaceted establishment housed in a revamped 1890s carriage house. It features a low-lit bar area, a bright sunroom dining space, and a popular rooftop beer garden. Touted as the oldest brewpub in New England, it was opened in 1987 by current owner Janet Egelston with her brother Peter (with whom she also helped open Portsmouth and Smuttynose breweries in New Hampshire, which Peter now owns).

Served atop sullied copper-topped tables, the food at Northampton is hearty, bursting with flavor and creativity, and frequently embellished with beer-featuring sauces and recipes (telltale sign of a good brewpub). My menu item-of-choice, the pulled pork sandwich, comes doused in a perfected combination of zesty spices, their Pale Ale or Old Brown Dog, and homemade barbecue sauce. Topped with tangy slaw made with peppers and red onion it accentuates the underlying flavors of my beer samples (think a warm nuttiness in the red ale, herbal character of the harvest ale, and the ever-so-slightly tangy bitterness of the IPA).

Ah, the samples. Northampton does it right. I frequently grapple with the “dilemma” of whether to go with a flight of samples (which often risk being nearly shot-size) or miss out on trying the full array by getting pints of one or two selections instead. Here the samples (choice of four) come in 8-oz tasting glasses, presented on the always-appealing paddle, which are a fair enough size to get a feel for the beer while still trying out a few different styles.

I started with the Harvest Ale, a rich amber-colored ale emitting a light caramel aroma and bursting with fall sentiments plus a hint of hop bitterness thanks to the wet-hop process. Next was the Redheaded Stepchild, deep red in hue with a tangy sweetness with a smooth, hearty aftertaste characteristic of traditional red ales. The Blue Boots IPA had a sweet floral aroma with a nuttiness and hefty hop bite and the Black Cat Stout offered a creamy, rich coffee finish—extremely smooth and robust in flavor.

With fifteen year-round varieties, nearly as many specialty brews, and comparable seasonal selections, there is plenty to choose from at the brewpub. Styles range from familiar standards like stouts, porters, IPAs, and ales, but expands to lesser-seen experimentations like a German-inspired Sticke Altbier, bitters like the Daniel Shays Best Bitter and (Snow)(Sand)(No) Shovel ESB, and ryes including Magic Carpet Rye and Jess’ Goodbye Rye P.A. Apparently with a penchant for pale ales and IPAs (and fine by me) the brewery boasts quite a few variations on this style, experimenting with different balances of the Pacific Northwest hops they use. The brewery even goes so far as to have an annual IPA Week in December, during which six different India Pale Ales are available on tap. Otherwise, there is usually a mixed selection of about ten beers on tap, plus a few guest brews to round it out. Occasionally the brewery teams up with fellow microbreweries including siblings Portsmouth and Smuttynose for special beercentric events.

Whether going for a concert at one of the many music halls in Northampton, pairing your beer with locally made ice cream at nearby Herrell’s Ice Cream, or shopping at the various boutiques, Northampton Brewery offers a welcoming pit stop or a night filled with all the entertainment you need—hit up their weekly Celtic night on Sundays for live Irish music and a St. Patty’s feel all year long. Take a growler to go and you’re all set.

It may be closed on Christmas, but the Old Forge in Lanesborough, Massachusetts, is definitely in the holiday spirit.

Adding Christmas cheer to their 300+ (and international) bottle list, the Forge has a sampling of the festive line from England’s Ridgeway Brewery.

Don’t be put off by the goofy names (like Reindeer Droppings or… Santa’s Butt), Ridgeway is serious about its beers. When the lauded Brakspear Brewery closed in 2002 (re-opened by Wychwood Brewery since then), master brewer Peter Scholey devoted his talents to opening his own brewery. Scholey, obviously with a wordy sense of humor, started Ridgeway, whose wide-ranging styles with themed names pop up around the holidays, imported to the States by the Shelton Brothers.

The Ridgeway holiday lineup includes:

Bad Elf (a strong, warm, 6% ABV IPA)
Very Bad Elf (a 7.5% ABV well-rounded English bitter… are we noticing a pattern here?)
Seriously Bad Elf (a popular 9% ABV Belgian tripel, banned in Connecticut apparently due to the appearance of Santa on the label… bah humbug!)
Criminally Bad Elf
(a hefty 10.5% ABV Barleywine-style ale)
Insanely Bad Elf (this 12% ABV imperial red is only available in elf-sized 330 ml bottles)
Pickled Santa (a whole-spiced 6% ABV traditional English bitter)

Reindeer Droppings (a 6% ABV English amber balancing it’s sweet with a bit of tartness, what has that Rudolf been eating?)
Reindeer’s Revolt (a low-key 6% ABV English ale for those of you protesting Christmas’s spice)
Warm Welcome Nut Browned Ale (a classic 6% ABV brown warmed up for the season with extra hop and malt character, perhaps a better welcome than the ol’ milk and cookies routine?)
Lump of Coal (you may remember this from my 12 Sips of Christmas post, a dark 8% ABV holiday stout)
Santa’s Butt (a 6% ABV winter porter named for a large brewing barrel (or “butt”), not Santa’s rear)

With whimsical labels illustrated by Massachusetts artist Gary Lippincott gracing the 550-ml bottles, Ridgeway’s offerings make the holidays a bit brighter… or darker, depending on your tastes.

If you’re looking to escape from family frenzy, the Old Forge offers about five of these by the bottle, plus holiday tap selections like Tröegs Mad Elf and Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, in its rustic wood-paneled pub garnished with twinkle lights, hot wings, and gleaming beer-club mugs. (Or, if you want to spread the cheer, check out your local beer store and bring ’em home to your loved ones).

Ho-ho-hop to it.

Special Thanks to: Shelton Brothers, Peter Scholey, and Santa’s little helpers.

As part of a cross-blog experiment led by my friend and fellow blogger Sandy, this post is being written in conjunction with several other (largely financial) blogs under the umbrella inspiration of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Beer lists, and specifically holiday lists, have been done before. But here’s my (current) take. I’m stretching beyond beer for this one, but bear with me hopheads, I save the best for last.

First sip: Let’s start with something traditional… Eggnog! I love eggnog and, until last year, never even thought of it as a homemade possibility, but it is and it’s relatively simple… and well worth it (think, spiked). After perusing a few recipe sources I settled on my steadfast (yet underused) Joy of Cooking cookbook. I opted for the cooked version for safety, though they offer an uncooked version for traditionalists (if you’re looking at a circa-1960s JoC like my parents, however, raw is the only option as those were simpler, less salmonella-fearing times). You make a custard using a dozen eggs, heavy cream, milk, sugar and nutmeg… chill it, add your dark liquor of choice (I did brandy), and refrigerate some more. It’s fresh and as nutmeggy and boozy as you want.

Second Sip: Keeping on the traditional note (and leaning towards experimentation) this year I intend to try something new. My favorite Christmas book growing up was A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an intriguing, off kilter prose poem by Dylan Thomas and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.
I don’t know what it was about this gritty story I loved so much, but for one it felt like England. Wassail, meaning in good health, is a traditional English warmer made with spiced beer (or wine or cider) and baked apples. DRAFT Magazine offers up a fantastic sounding recipe in their holiday issue using Florida-based Cigar City Brewing‘s Warmer Winter Winter Warmer, a 10% ABV malty Old Ale. (You could also try substituting Founders Black Biscuit or the Southern Tier Old Man Winter for the Cigar City). Stay tuned for my take on this one.

Third Sip: Though not alcoholic, one of my favorite winter warming beverages is (what my family calls) Russian Tea, which is a simple combination of Tang (yes, Tang), spices, and instant tea—all mixed with hot water. It offers an aromatic, tart alternative to the usual mugged beverages.

Fourth Sip: I can’t list winter beverages without Hot Chocolate… my favorites? At home I prefer using Ghirardelli’s unsweetened cocoa powder and a little sugar (add a little zest with cayenne if you’re feeling spicy or a little Kahlua for kick). Our local chocolatier Chocolate Springs in Lenox, Mass., whips up a decadent version that is very well-worth a try.

Fifth Sip: On a recent trip to Germany I was introduced to Glühwien (pronounced glew-vine, and basically translated to “glowing wine” …mmm). Red wine is mulled with spices (and sometimes citrus) to form an aromatic alternative to the traditional red. If you’re fancy (and have connections) you can top it off with a Zucker Hut, a sugar cone (“hat”), which you douse with rum and light on fire allowing it to seep into the mulled wine. This is best done with friends… and a fire extinguisher.

Sixth Sip: This one is a classic, but is a semi-recent discovery of mine. The Hot Toddy is a mixture of brandy, whiskey, or rum with hot water (or tea), lemon, and honey. It is both light and bold, and with a whiskey bite it will warm you up from the inside. Try using the Berkshire Mountain Distillers new Berkshire Bourbon Whiskey.

Seventh Sip: The last of my non-beer recommendations is Single Malt Scotch, something I’ve been exploring recently, usually opting for the bold smokiness of the peatier varieties. For this holiday theme I’m going to recommend the highland origin, double-casked Aberlour because of it’s rosy color and combination use of bourbon and sherry barrel-aging for a fruity aroma and ginger spiciness with a smooth finish (good peaty alternatives would be Laphroaig or Talisker).

Now… who’s ready for some beer?

Eighth Sip: One of the best transitions from fall into winter are cranberries. Not having much in the way of a sweet tooth, I love the tart berries in many forms—relish, muffins, juice, pancakes… they are also one of the few fruits I can tolerate in a beer. Both Harpoon Brewery and Samuel Adams make excellent cranberry beers. Harpoon’s Grateful Harvest Ale balances out a reasonable dose of fruit with full-bodied malt character and slight hop bitterness. (Added bonus: $1 from every six pack sold goes to your local food bank). The Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic naturally adopts a sweeter flavor from its brewing process, but the addition of fresh cranberries and the wheat’s heartiness form a festive balance.

Ninth Sip: For our last monthly beer club meetup we sampled an array of pumpkin and spiced beers that included several winter seasonals. The Southern Tier Old Man Winter and 21st Amendment Fireside Chat were my two favorite spiced ales (which I’ll admit I was wary about to begin with). Both managed to pack that zesty winter flavor into a hefty beer without overpowering with spices. As with many winter seasonals these are a bit higher in alcohol (both about 7% ABV), but neither tasted too boozy, therefore allowing for more tasting all around.

Tenth Sip: The first time I purchased the Ridgeway Brewing Lump of Coal it was largely inspired by my intent to put a jesting “lump of coal” in my dad’s stocking for Christmas. Then we opened it (after the presents… and breakfast) and realized it was more a reward than a punishment. Uber-dark with a chalky bittersweet chocolate flavor and smooth body, it’s now a tradition, stocking or not, for me to procure this English beer (imported by Shelton Brothers of Belchertown, Mass.) for our family’s yuletide.

Eleventh Sip: Winter’s bluster pushes us closer to our woodstoves, Otter Creek captures those wintry sentiments in its Stovepipe Porter. This dark ale has a prominent roasted character and a hearty, slightly herbal bitterness. Smooth and full-bodied it goes well with stews, roasts, chocolate, and fires.

Twelfth Sip: I couldn’t skip my favorite beer style (what is Christmas without the ones we love?) so here’s that hop fix, but kicked up a notch to follow suit with other winter strong beers. The Lagunitas Hop Stoopid is a hefty Imperial IPA with a well-balanced flavor, not too overpowered by syrupy malt, but bursting with hop bitterness (what are the holidays without bitterness? wait…). This one’s available all year, but is a nice winter treat in my opinion.

And those are my 12 Sips of Christmas… they taste best when shared, so eat, drink, and be merry… together.

Hoppy Holidays!

Special thanks to: Sandy for the idea, family and friends for drinking together, and Santa… for the spirit.

Talking Pints

“What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.”

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Samples with a sunny disposition at Northampton Brewery

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