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Peter LaFrance

Friday, August 14, 2009

That First Taste of… homebrewed Pale Ale

As I remember it, the weather was warm so it had to be either late spring or early autumn of 1976 or 1977 when the idea of brewing my own beer found me, as I sat on the floor of a now-defunct book store in Ossining, New York. The slim, thin paperback book was written by some British fellow and had been published in Canada. All of the measurements were in the metric system and the temperatures were in Centigrade. It told me how to brew my own beer. It told me not only could I brew my own beer but that it was even better than anything on the market.

At the time I had just finished a few years in New England, Vermont to be specific. There I had been introduced to “stubbies” of Labatt and Molson, the “stronger” beers from Canada. Now that I was back in Ossining I was sure I could find more of the same. I was wrong and had to survive on Schmidt’s’ Tiger Ale, Ballantine Pale India Ale and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It was the Pabst Blue Ribbon that got me thinking that there might be something to the homebrewing idea. The bottles I would haul back and forth from the fridge to Fiories’ Beverage were sturdy, heavy duty, brown and crown capped. The book said that these were ideal for homebrewing. And then I told someone else about my idea and there was no stopping. You can brag about how many brews you downed the night before but you have to deliver if you brag that you can brew your own beer.

And so it was that the two of us (me and the person I had boasted to) stood in the musty old wine supply house on Spring Street in a rather dingy corner of what folks were calling SoHo (South of Houston Street). The one and only sales person was reciting a list of bits and pieces that we would need to get the brewing thing in operation. As I listened to the list it occurred to me that the book had mentioned that the experience should set me back only twenty or so American dollars. This was getting out of hand. Begging poverty we departed and wondered what the next step would be.

Not to be deterred we figured that if a wine supply shop was the place to go it might be a better idea to see if there was one closer to Ossining, headquarters for the operation. Those were the days of the rotary dial telephone, the telephone books of white and yellow. Both of us, recent veterans of higher education, chose the yellow pages and found a business called “Wine-Art” in Elmsford, NY.

It was a short drive to the small shop set just off the road. When asked for a homebrewing supply list the proprietor paused and asked what kind of beer we liked to drink. At the time Bass Ale was the most exotic brew I knew of so I threw that name out for consideration. He nodded and said that we were looking to brew pale ales and that it would not be too difficult. He went on to explain that malt syrup would be the basis for the brew. The hops were in a small envelope and looked like the final results of a rabbit’s digestive process. He then offered us two different foil envelopes marked “yeast” with red stars on them. These few things on the counter, he then asked how we were planning to brew the stuff up. I showed him the book and as I did I noted, at long last, the Wine-Arts logo on the back cover.

He flipped through it and told us that we were on the right track and that although we could probably find a kettle large enough to boil what he called “the wort”, we should probably use a glass “carboy” and five gallon “food-grade” plastic bucket for the “secondary” and “primary fermentation”… the book will set you in the right direction he said. The rubber tubing and funnel for pouring could be obtained from any kitchen but it would make sense for us to also spend a few dollars on a thermometer and hydrometer… about fifteen dollars.

We walked out of that place with the makings for the first homebrew, a five gallon glass water bottle, a white plastic bucket with tight fitted lid, a hydrometer and a thermometer about a foot long and an inch and a half around. It was a bit thing. The hydrometer, a thermometer shaped thing with a slender shape rather than the rotund temperature instrument, was a bit more mysterious. There was also a small tin can, about the size of two tinned fish cans, with a Mite-Mo label on it… something called dextrin. We were ready to brew our first beer.

I will not bore you with the details of the boiling, cooling, fermenting, and bottling of that beer other than to assure you that we waited the full two weeks the book said to wait before opening that first bottle..

I will, however, try and tell you what that first sip tasted like…

It smelled sweet from the start, a toasted grain bread aroma. Then the cool liquid cooled but didn’t chill my mouth followed in a nanosecond by a brown sugar candy flavor that was almost immediately speared by a sharp tang of almost metallic bitterness that quickly slid back as the sweet brown sugar returned and slid to the back of my mouth with the swallow of the beer. Then, as I opened my mouth there was a resonance of all those flavors in the back of my mouth and into my nasal passages where the green minty grapefruit aromas came and went as quickly as a thought. It was a sensation like none I had ever experienced before.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

That First Taste…

I have often wondered what it was like for that first brewer to taste the first beer on earth. Naturally that never happened because the brewing of beer took time and evolved over thousands of years.

However, I can imagine, about six thousand years later, a brewer in London, England, as he opens the first bag of the new coke-roasted malted barley.

It had been specially ordered, at great expense he would add, along with a good deal more hops that he was used to using, to go into the new triple thread or what some of the brewers were calling “porter” after its popularity with the working men of the district. He had tasted and rather enjoyed his first porter and had it on good authority from many of the other brewers that this would be the answer to the pale ale swilling gentry and the stale ale merchants who were holding stock well past prime and selling it for two penny less on the market. There would always be short selling middle men and the gentry could have their rather expensive pale ale!

Now, back to the brewer who, ever since he can remember, has tasted only malted barley roasted over wood fires. Even the most closed roaster could not keep out that slight hint of smoke that he knew by heart. He was convinced that he could even tell which maltster had roasted the grain by the mixture of wood and type of wood used to roast the grain. Of course it was also his imagination… but eight out of ten correct choices at the tavern when he had been challenged was almost enough to convince him of his talent.

Let us join him on that early morning in May when he strode into the brewhouse and there they were… the first bags of malt specially roasted in one of the new coke fired roasters.

Before he could let the thought cross his mind he knew there was no touch of wood in the air that always came with a new malt shipment. Just his imagination… His sharp knife slit the top of the bag and a stream of the palest roasted malt he had ever seen spilled down the side of the bag. For a moment he watched the last of the grains spill out and reached down to take a few between his fingers only when the stream stopped.

He tested the first few grains between his front teeth and then sucked them into his mouth and chewed them with his back teeth to taste the bready heart of the grain. There was too little to tell but the difference between anything he had ever tasted before was making him impatient for another taste to prove what he already suspected.

The next half fist-full of pale ale malt was something like he had never tasted before.

The pure malt flavors were essential and his mind must have raced imagining consistent brews like he had never had a chance to brew before. If this was the pale malt in such a pure flavor state he could only imagine what the various roasted malts would taste like.

All from a first taste…

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Music to Drink Beer By

There is a legend in the bar business that Country Western music is real beer-selling music. It seems the songs about prison, a dog/horse/mama dying, love-gone-bad, and hangovers are the perfect accompaniment for the mass consumption of industrial beer.

On the other hand the consumption of a high octane (highly alcoholic content), ten year old, ebony opaque elixir that pours like sweet crude oil must have a music that would fulfill the sensual requirements for its enjoyment. I can envision that brew should be tasted to the hypnotic sounds of a French Canadian fiddle player, and the warm smell of wood fire in a cast iron stove set on a huge flagstone set in wood floor in the corner of an ancient wood frame farmhouse halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, on a frosty September night.

And then there is the sound of inlet waves on a stifling hot summer afternoon in August as they slap against the pilings and the sides of the fishing boats in a small marina, that begs to accompany a pitcher of ice cold lager.

However, music is the subject of this rant and so I shall return to topic and observe that I can think of no seventeenth century classical music that would call out for the enjoyment of the quaffing of a beer to complete the moment.

The music heard where beer was enjoyed in the world of Bach and Mozart would have been the music of the masses. The lack of pretense that is the essence of honest beer would be the perfect accompaniment to the balladeer, the dance band, the solitary stringed instrument or vocal group.

If this is accepted as truth the precedent is set and it is simply a matter of following the thread from the popular music of that time to the popular music of today; which brings us back to the romantic impressions that are iconic Country Western.

Here is a music that evokes all that folks in the United States hold sacred, self contained, insular characters who answer to no one and will whip your behind if you don’t agree with them. This is a romance that holds the honesty of manual labor above the slick maneuvering of paper-pushers. No stinking imported beer for these folks. These folks are red, white and blue nationalistic who will cling to their American beers, if they can get them for $12.00(US) a case of twelve ounce aluminum cans, all the better.

As for me, if it wasn’t so freaking isolated you would find me sipping my Imperial Stout in Quebec listening to that fiddle player for the rest of my life…

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Taste of Left Hand St. Vrain Tripel

Left Hand Brewing Co.
Longmont, CO (USA)

Preface: This bottle has been hiding in the back of a closet, in the dark and never more than 70F… how long it has been there I cannot tell you. The company site says it is a seasonal and other site notes also make it a seasonal but I have no idea when it was first brewed or if this is a latest edition of the brew. Nevertheless, the following are my notes. It is 9% avb and I intend to finish the bottle so wish me luck…

Appearance: This is bright golden, crystal clear, well carbonated brew. The head is fairly tight knit foam of fine and medium sized bubbles that are not long lasting. The Belgian lace is thin.

Aroma: The first impression is a steely grain sensation. Next comes a more metallic aroma with citric undertones. The lip to sip aromatics echo the previous.

Mouth feel: This is a relatively light feeling brew.

Flavor: The first flavors are slightly tutti-fruity and then there is a sugar candy flavor that steps in and takes over. The second impression is not substantially different from the first. Aspirating the last sip (taking a small sip and sucking in air through lips drawn together to give the beer an air-kiss) reveals no additional aromatics or flavors.

Finish: There is a rush out the door by these flavors, save a banana flavor that lingers for a while longer. In the end there is more than a trace of sugar.

Comments: If I didn’t know any better I would say this is a “high-test” wheat beer fermented with some Bavarian strain of yeast… but then I should know better.

I would prescribe this brew as a summer solace to be taken on the patio of a cafe in the shade of leafy trees just after a thunderstorm.

Left Hand Brewing Co.: http://www.lefthandbrewing.com/

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