adventures in craft beer and real food

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tasting Notes: San Miguel Pale Pilsen

To dovetail with my review of Kelly's Malaysian dinner, Kelly gave me the rare opportunity to try a southeast Asian beer. She brought back a 330 mL can of San Miguel Pale Pilsen for me to try.

The San Miguel brewery has been around since 1890 and was once considered a world-class brewing operation. Now, however, it seems to have floundered in trying to settle for the bottom line. It's easily the largest brewery in the Phillipines and is said to have a 90+% market share in many southeast Asian countries. It also brews two truly abominable brews under liscense: Miller Genuine Draft and Löwenbräu.

To say that I had high expectations for this particular macro would be a lie. Nevertheless, I thought I'd give it a chance.

Pleasant aromas filled the room the moment I cracked open the seemingly quaint 330 mL narrow-mouth can. Upon further investigation, the first aroma I picked up was decidedly metallic. I associated the aroma with brass. Beneath the metal, there was a generic citrus aroma that stymied all of my efforts to provide a more exact description. As the beer warmed up, a pleasant hint of mushroom started showing up.

As I poured the beer into a glass, a large head was raised. It dissipated almost completely within three minutes of pouring. The color was very pale, lighter than Mountain Dew when held up to a nearby lamp. Plenty of carbonation graced the beer, although it seemed to express itself with unusually large bubbles instead of a melange of smaller ones.

The flavor seemed light for a beer of 5% strength, and lacked a lot of qualities that I expect and enjoy in this style. Make no mistake about it: this beer is brewed in the international pils style, not the Czech-German pils tradition.

There's a light malty pils flavor that seems to run the gamut of the tongue and then stop on a dime. I was impressed by this finesse and control. Many smashmouth brews have macho flavor experiences that could only dream of exacting such a precise blow.

On the other hand, the pils style ought to be well hopped. It should have a crisp flavor brought on by the bitterness of hops and elaborated by perfuming hops. This beer, however, has no detectable hopping. It pretty much only plays its generic malt flavor, except for the occasional hint of mushroom or cranberry as the beer warms. The aftertaste is really where the good flavors are. There's a complex malty aftertaste that makes you want to sip it, which is difficult given the beer's quaffability.

If the ingredients list is to be trusted, this beer might actually have been brewed in the Reinheitsgebot tradition. It lists only malt, cereals, and hops. Upon examing their website, however, I doubt that the beer meets that standard of purity. Practically all brewers that adhere to the Reinheitsgebot boast about it online. That San Miguel makes no mention of the issue is evidence enough for me.

For all of its faults, this beer is extremely well balanced. The taste and the aftertaste are like sitting on a swing on a nice summer day. The direct malty flavor is elaborated upon by the complex malty aftertaste.

I'm not so sure that I'd put money down to buy this beer myself, but it was an intereting and educational experience.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Malaysian dinner

My friend Kelly invited some friends over recently for a sampling of authentic Malaysian dishes.

Now, mind you that my knowledge of Malaysian cuisine is limited to what I read about it in the September/October 2001 issue of Saveur and an episode of No Reservations. In the magazine article, James Oseland experiences the cuisines of Melaka. If you're as geographically ignorant as I am, Melaka is a state and city toward the western part of Malaysia. So the dishes I experienced are not strictly from the same region, but the high praise he dished for the cuisine ("Malaysia was my France; my palate came alive there") piqued my interest.

Kelly prepared three dishes: pau, tom yam soup, and a tapioca dessert.

Pau are steamed rolls. They were filled with either pork or sweetened bean paste. I was told that they strongly resemble the Chinese bao zhe (Chinese-philes please feel free to correct my spelling). They were delicious, although it's certainly not something that I'm accustomed to eating. I found that this was a creative use of beans, since I'm accustomed to them in French (e.g. salade de lentilles) or in the Mexican/Mexican-American traditions.

The tom yam soup was good, too. She used a Lee Kum Kee brand base, and added green beans, broccoli, red bell peppers, and shiitake mushrooms. The batch was then split. To one half she added prawns and catfish; to the other portion, Kelly added fried tofu. This was all served over cellophane noodles. All a very good combination of fish, vegetables, and exotic seasonings.

Finally, the dessert consisted of tapioca boiled in water until soft to the bite. Some tapioca was placed in the bottom of mugs. One could then add coconut milk and/or palm sugar. Because I have a limited ability to eat tapioca on its own and didn't mix the dessert well, I actually wasn't able to finish it. But I imagine that with more exposure, I could develop a taste for it. And I quickly realized that it would look amazing served in wine glasses.

We drank reconstituted soy milk with the meal (served piping hot!) to keep with the traditional nature of the meal. As a Wisconsinite, I always thought there was something sinister about soy milks. I realize that there's an Asian tradition extending back nearly one thousand years of making milks out of soy beans. It's one of those things that when you apply a label to a product, you expect certain qualities. It's the same thing as when Heston Blumenthal served lobster ice cream. Customers didn't like it because they expected ice cream to be sweet. When he renamed it lobster bisque, his customers enjoyed it for what it was.

I tried to enjoy the soy milk as it was, but I couldn't drink much of it before my body started asking me why I was drinking it. Still, I'm glad that I at least gave it a try.

A German weissbier or a Belgian witbier would both accompany all three courses admirably. Saison would be an excellent partner will all of the complex flavors in the tom yam soup.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bar Review: Genna's Lounge

Location: 105 West Main Street, Madison, WI 53703

If you live in Madison, you've probably walked past Genna's and thought it was little more than a cocktail bar filled with the countless suits who work at the Capitol. You know what I mean. And yes, I'm told that they're known for making some fine cocktails but I went in undercover and wanted to see how they were doing with beer. After all, they do advertise for the Tyrenna Brewery (Milwaukee, WI) right in their window.

The building itself is situated on a triangular corner, thus resulting in an unusual right-triangle layout inside. You enter along one of the corners and face the bar. In front of you are a small number of clean tables surrounded by comfortable bar chairs. To your left is a selection of cheeses, crackers, and other food items. I didn't try any of it. The walls are adorned with classic Guiness posters, lending an Irish pub like theme to the place. But it wasn't as convincing as, say, Brocach. This is not the kind of bar you want to stroll into wearing bar clothes. Everyone there was attired at the business casual level. I found it lacking Dotty Dumpling's Dowry's gemütlichkeit, Brocach's craic, and the soigné of Barriques Wine Cave. But what it lacked in warmth, it more than made up for in class.

Behind the bar there are 12 quality beers on tap and over sixty bottles from which to choose. As I looked at the selection of beers on the wall, I was stunned by the bold variety. They had Chimay Rouge, Delerium Tremens, Anchor Porter, Sierra Nevada APA and stout, among other world-class beers. The beer with the last class there was PBR. If I had to criticize the variety at all, it's that they went for a "world's best" approach rather than drawing from the fine selection of local brews. They had Spotted Cow and Wisconsin Amber on the wall, but where was the Lake Louie Scotch Ale? Or the Central Waters Lac du Bay IPA? Or Lakefront Eastside Dark? Although I don't agree with the global focus, I respect Genna's for being bold enough to serve Chimay in 750 mL bottles. To my knowledge, there is no other bar in Madison with the variety that I found at Genna's.

The bar tender knew a bit about beer, which was a gentle surprise. Although Madison is a beer savvy city, a startling number are hooked on disappointing macros. The bar tender seemed to have a good familiarity with the world of beer. When I ordered a Anchor Porter, they were out. So he suggested a Sierra Nevada Stout instead, which he said is much like a porter. I was impressed by this suggestion because I agree that Sierra Nevada's Stout is sufficiently light that I could easily mistake it for a porter.

I drank two beers there. Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout and Anchor Steam. I believe they cost $4 and $3 respectively, which are very reasonable prices in my opinion. When the bar tender placed the bottle and glass on the counter, I was disappointed by three things. First, the stout was served ice cold. The temperature at which stouts ought to be served is often said to be 65° F. Second, the glass was unusual to say the least. A pint glass would have kept with the Irish-themed decor and have highlighted some of the qualities of the beer. Instead it was the dreaded American tumbler glass. Third, I was carded. Now, as you can tell from my profile, I'm still only 24. And I understand that bars suffer serious consequences when they serve people who aren't of age. But I feel that carding is somewhat declassé and it shows a lack of respect for the guest.

The Oatmeal Stout was almost certainly skunked, which is an unfortunate consequence of the fact that it's sold in clear glass bottles. I still have no idea why brewers sometimes insist on non-opaque bottles. In my mind, it shows a lack of respect for their product. Still, the rich oatmeal flavors danced on my tongue followed by waves of roasted malt flavor. A wonderful beer. The bar can't be blamed for the bad bottle. One problem that haunts beer bars is that they have sacrifice freshness in obtaining diversity. From what I've heard, Genna's has a good reputation for serving fresh brews.

I had my first brush with Anchor Steam as well. Unfortunately, I drank it after the stout so my pallate wasn't able to give it the attention it deserves. I'll review it under my standardized conditions at a later time, so stay tuned!

In the summer, Genna's has a balcony where you can sit and have a beautiful view of the Capitol. The mere thought of a beautiful summer evening with a pint of Hefeweizen sounded so appealing that I knew that I'd be back.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

WBW 19: When in Rhone...

Insert double-take.

You: I thought this was supposed to be a food and beer blog. What's with the wine?
Me: I could make something up. Like... No matter how much I prefer beer to wine, wine is an essential part of food experience and artisinal food culture. Or... I think you might be interested. But the bottom line is that I know very little about wine. If I'm serious about cooking, I need to change that. Perhaps Wine Blogging Wednesdays will help me develop as an oenophile. Consider it a sub-plot.

Jathan at Winexpression was looking for Rhone blends.

I picked up a bottle of 2002 Clos du Caillou Côtes du Rhône. I was interested in it because I heard that it was good. From reading things, such as the Wine Bible, I knew that the wine would be untamed with spicy, juicy qualities. What I didn't expect was how interesting the wine would be.

The nose was ostensibly disappointing. At first, it seemed to be of oak from top to bottom. As I put my nose further into the glass, however, I picked up raspberry, alcohol, and a rhubarb-like tartness. At 14% alcohol, I was actually surprised that ethanol wasn't more prominent in the aroma. The taste was both complex and delicious. The flavor leads in with a strong hand of oak that filled my mouth. After a few seconds, a burst of pleasant tannins took over and imparted a powerful leathery flavor. Finally, there was a rich bouquet of berries. Bits of raspberry, cranberry, and strawberry all lingered on my tongue for minutes. Echoes of oak and vanilla ended the taste experience. The wine left my mouth feeling slightly dry. True to form, it was just slightly velvety.

The estate was under the leadership of Jean-Denis Vacheron when this wine was produced, who holds an eight hectare estate just north of Avignon. He died an untimely death the year this wine was elaborated, and had his work continued by his wife Sylvie Pouizen and the talented Bruno Gaspard.

In Courthézon, the grapes grow in a squarely mediterranean climate. Despite 2002 being an off year for southern Rhone wines (think raining and flooding), I think it added a Jekyll-and-Hyde character to the wine that makes it more interesting. It's not sunny, but it certainly doesn't have the mulgrims either.

The two principle constituents of the wine seem to be grenache and syrah. I surmise that the fruitiness and warmth come from the grenache while syrah contributes hints of spice. I'm not familiar enough with Rhone varietals to further analyze the blending.

I imagine that this wine would be a good partner with many red meats. A steak cooked rare or medium rare with pepper on it, would be fantastic for example. I don't know how it would turn out, but I think it would be interesting to try this wine with tuna sushi.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Political commentary: why tagging isn't it

The Wisconsin State Journal printed an "our opinion" piece today entitled "Tag livestock to stop disease." The editors come out strongly in favor of proposals to require the tagging of livestock. Wisconsin has always been an exemplar of agriculture quality standards. It initiated the nation's first livestock identification system. Such systems require all farms that possess livestock (including hobby farms) to register with the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. This registry helps the government in the event of outbreaks of diseases. The program has been adopted by many other agriculturally-minded states.

The next step, they say, is to tag individual animals. Such a tagging system would take the identification system to a new level of detail, by tracking livestock from birth to slaughter. If it were then known that the Jones' have a problem with BSE, this would help farmers demonstrate that their animals never were on the Jones' farm.

Yet there are significant problems with these ideas. Namely, the proponants of these measures are trying to cover a deep wound with band-aids. Neither program does anything to solve the fundamental causes of BSE, which is fundamentally linked to the practice of feeding animals the by-products of meat production. A cow infected with BSE will have all of its nerve tissue contaminated. So no part of the animal can be safely used. It cannot be destroyed with heat, radiation, or extended freezing. Yet animal parts are simply recycled back into the system of feeding more animals, thus spreading the disease.

Shutting down this grotesque industry of making low-cost feed from animal "left-overs" would be a good first step.

People who are nervous about the potential of consuming BSE-infected meat are turning to small-scale farms. Such farms are an essential alternative to mass-market meat suppliers in that they raise their animals in a responsible manner, without the use of hormones, antibiotics, and vegetarian feed. The animals are often slaughtered on site by highly skilled personnel, a far cry from the de-skilled meat packers that butcher the meat for supermarkets. The meat is sold at a price that allows the farmers to make a living, invest in their land, and pay their hands fair wages.

Yet the very proposal that the Wisconsin State Journal is touting could very well put at end to such farms. Yes, the initial participation would be voluntary. But the decision to register with the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Registry was once voluntary, too. And now it's become mandatory. Large scale farms can afford to "chip" their animals. Small scale farms, the ones who are standing up to all of this insanity, are inherently ill-equipped to bring their operations into compliance. The practical result is that many, many organic livestock operations would be forced to shut down.

And for what?

So a meat industry can continue selling us meat from carnivorous cows, pumped up with growth hormones and antibiotics, and kept indoors for their entire four year life? Meat that needs to be irradiated because slaughter house conditions are so unsanitary? And is virtually untraceable once it leaves the plant? And even if it is found to be contaminated with anything, be it E. coli H157:O7 or BSE, the government still has no legal ability to monitor the quality control testing or to issue a recall.

The State Journal tried to cast the debate in terms of the civil rights of the farmer versus the government. Whether such concerns are valid is up to lawyers to decide. However, it characteristically misses the point of the entire issue.

Tackle the real issues. Then let's talk.

Tasting Notes: New Glarus Sour Brown Ale

Beer: Unplugged Sour Brown Ale
Brewery: New Glarus Brewing Company (New Glarus, WI)
Style: sour brown ale

How could I pass up the opportunity to review one of the rarer styles out there? Sour brown ales are a strictly Belgian affair, although several American craft breweries have tried their hand at it as well. Traditionally, the beer is brewed in and around Flanders. The most notable producer of it might be the New Belgium Brewing Company with La Folie.

The beer poured a hazy brown color and raised very little head. What head did develop dissipated quickly. There was no carbonation to speak of, as is appropriate for this style of beer.

The nose is pleasantly complex. A bold sourness hits first, followed by apple and orange peel notes. As I drank the beer, I found it to be only ostensibly sour. Yes, it is sour. It evoked the word "bizarre" in one of my friends. But it's a gentle sourness that may require some acclimation. The sourness quickly gives way to a sweet flavor that lingers on the tongue. It carries with it a convincing apple taste, with undertones of a fruit basket. I picked up hints of grapefruit, strawberry, and pineapple.

I'd really like to try this beer with sweet and sour chicken, Chinese restaurant style. The sour-sweet contrast in the beer would mirror the sweet-sour contrast in the dish. And it would do so without the flavors cancelling each other out. Many chicken and pork dishes would also go great with it, especially ones with sauce bontemps. I also think it would be a refreshing partner to apple pie, where the apples in the dessert would really bring up the apples in the beer.