Finding Authenticity

There was a time when quantity reigned supreme in my life; I designate this time in my history by referring to it as “college.” The days of all-you-can-eat dorm food and vast amount of watery beer are now thankfully in the rearview mirror, but why did they occur in the first place? Why did it seem better to drink ten Milwaukee’s Bests that I hated than two Black Butte Porters that actually brought joy? Maybe competition had something to do with it. Though nobody explicitly said as much, it was understood that your social standing seemed to be directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that could you stomach. In a fraternity, legend told of the brother who took 100 beer bongs in a single weekend, thereby joining the Century Club in the most incredible way possible. He was to be revered, as was the person capable of taking the longest pull from a plastic handle of Prestige Vodka, the elixir surely responsible for the greatest number of bad decisions in Westwood Village.

I must reiterate that this is no longer the way I view the world and, while I would like to point to a single eye-opening experience that shook my world like a game of Boggle, the actual change took its course over the length of a Monopoly game, which is to say several months. My first experience drinking a beer and actually enjoying it took place on the sands of Los Cabos, Mexico, when I added a bit of lime to a Negra Modelo and thought “Wow, this beer isn’t just going to get me drunk, it tastes good too!” Back in America, my two gateway beers are probably familiar to many other craft beer drinkers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the aforementioned Black Butte Porter from Deschutes. These beers are exceptionally made for the volume at which they are brewed and lead drinkers down two separate flavor paths (which ultimately lead to Double and Triple IPAs and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, respectively).

For me, however, the impact was much greater and more far-reaching than leading to high-ABV beers that top lists of must-have beers. At a time when Taco Bell constituted a significant portion of my diet, craft beer was the first food or drink that made me actually care about what I was ingesting. Again, the shift from beer pong light lagers to craft beer was a gradual one, but as my worldview towards alcohol adjusted, so did my attitude towards food in general. Maybe others are capable of drinking something made with love and care by a locally-owned brewery one minute and then scarfing down a soulless McDonald’s cheeseburger the next without considering the disparity between the two actions; I am no longer able to. Good craft beer makes you crave authenticity and quality, and sharpens your ability to spot poseurs. Note that I am saying “good” craft beer here: just because a brewery is local or micro does not necessarily mean it produces beer of exceptional quality. I’ve had plenty of beers that would qualify as “drinking local” that I do not plan to have again. Many of them come from young breweries who produce a line-up that reads like the first five recipes in a beginners homebrewing book, with a resulting product that’s not too far off in taste, either.

When I have these uninspired beers, I question why they were brewed to begin with and usually find myself answering the same way: someone with money must have thought a microbrewery would make them more money. The lack of enthusiasm reveals itself in the uninteresting beer. Similarly, I’ve had meals with all the trappings of new wave gourmet or edgy food truck cuisine, but I can tell they exist for the wrong reasons and can cut through the bullshit immediately straight to disappointment. Craft beer has raised this bar for me. “Good enough” no longer suffices. I’ve had hundreds of IPAs, many of which have tasted quite similar, and I can call out from memory the ones that made me pause and reflect before taking a second sip. That is the experience I want. I want a meal from a chef who was born to cook, puts her soul into a meal, and feels crushed if the food isn’t received well. I want to drink beers made by a brewer who would rather see a subpar batch dumped down the drain than passed along to consumers who hopefully won’t notice. There’s no end to almost-upscale gastropubs selling the same $8 fries with house-made ketchup or breweries whose offerings seemed to be designed for your friend who is in the process of graduating past Blue Moon and Shock Top. After a few tastes of the real McCoy, you’ll be digging a little deeper and trying a bit harder to weed out these types of “good enough” establishments.

What I’m suggesting borders on pretension and snobbery; in fact, maybe it skips the border and firmly exists in that realm. But consider this: it’s worth it. Life is too short to settle for quantity over quality, good enough instead of great, or the banal as opposed to the exciting. And for my money, good taste doesn’t become snobby unless you get preachy about it, so keep your head on your shoulders as it rises over mediocrity into the land of authenticity, where passion and originality reign supreme.

I Love Austin, TX

Most of my favorite American cities are those that take their food seriously. Quite often, a locale with a vibrant arts scene also plays host to innumerable great restaurants and bars. This is why I love visiting Portland but would never wish a trip to Houston upon anyone. Yet, a few hours to the west of that bland sprawl in Texas’ Gulf Coast sits a town that rivals any when it comes to arts, culture, and food. I had the pleasure of visiting Austin this weekend with my girlfriend Victoria for a quick getaway and spent 48 hours in gastronomic and zymurgical bliss.

We flew in late Friday night, with just enough time to check out Sixth Street, the bar destination of poor college kids, working adults, and tourists alike. The bars lining both sides of street, nearly all of which were leaking live music out of their doors and into my ears, were full to the brim and the closed-off street was bursting with people as well. It was actually a bit too overwhelming and we were tired from the flight so we decided to turn in early to enjoy a full day on Saturday.

The following morning began with a trip to JuiceLand, a small chain of juice bars peppered throughout Austin (and one location in Brooklyn). After a strawberry-banana-peanut butter-chia seed-apple juice smoothie there and an hour wandering around the giant, flagship Whole Foods in the center of town, Victoria and I headed west with our friends who were visiting from Dallas. Fifteen miles down the highway, houses become scarce, trees become abundant, and the ranches of hill country reveal themselves. Out this way lies the best one-two punch of beer and pizza I have experienced in America so far: Jester King Brewery and Pieous pizza.

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These people are about to receive 500 mililiters of beer after 3 hours of waiting in the sun.

My first encounter with Jester King was about four years ago when their beers still made it out to California regularly. I picked up a 750ml bottle because of its artwork and name: Black Metal Imperial Stout. It was (and still is) badass. A year later, Jester King had changed their recipe for this beast of a beer by fermenting it with yeasts native to the ranch the brewery sits on instead of pre-packaged cultures from White Labs or Wyeast. Just after this change took place, I visited Austin and happened to meet the owner of the brewery, Jeffrey Stuffings, who graciously gave me a tour the following day. Jeffrey capped the experience by opening a bottle of a raspberry sour beer called Atrial Rubicite, which instantly blew any framboise or other raspberry beer I’d ever had completely out of the water. It was extremely sour, yes, but what I couldn’t comprehend was how fresh the raspberries tasted. After sitting for months in a barrel and a few weeks or more in a bottle, it seemed like the fruit had just come off the bush.

Fast-forward a couple years and Atrial Rubicite is one of the most sought after beers in the world. Any beer trading forum you view will have at least one post (if not many) with the title “ISO: Atrial; FT: You Name It”. ISO is beer trading shorthand for “in search of” and FT signifies what the poster has “for trade.” People love Atrial Rubicite. And luckily enough, of all the weekends I picked to go to Texas, July 24-26 was the one that the brewery decided to release this year’s batch of their sour nectar. Needless to say, it was packed. My previous visit saw five cars in the parking lot and this one saw north of 500. The line for bottles of Atrial Rubicite was about three hours long. Did I mention it was 95 degrees outside? It’s an outstanding beer, but I wasn’t going to risk heat stroke, a terrible sunburn, and my precious time on a short trip for 500ml for a beer I’ve had before. Yes, it would be an outstanding addition to my cellar but I was happy enough with enjoying it fresh from the tap on that sunny Saturday.

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I forgot to take a picture until I was almost done. It was that good.

The beer pours a beautiful rosy pink color, with a white head of foam that dissipates fairly quickly. From five feet away you can smell the fresh Washington raspberry aroma volatizing and finding its way into the pleasure centers of your brain. The taste is quite tart, though slightly less sour than previous batches, with raspberries front and center. I detected a bit of acetic acid (vinegar) and a tinge of oak, but to a far less extent than the berries. The beer warmed up quickly, given the temperature outside, but it retained all of its desirable characteristics even as it passed 75 degrees. Victoria loved the beer, as did my other two friends, one of whom was a wine drinker skeptical about trying it. After purchasing enough bottles to fill my suitcase, we departed with rumbling stomachs clamoring for pizza.

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Sopressata decided to meat in the middle.

Okay, maybe they weren’t clamoring for pizza, but we were hungry and I was keen on introducing my three companions to Pieous, home to some of the most authentic Neapolitan pizza I’ve had this side of the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the wake of other beer enthusiasts who had made the three-mile trek to Pieous, despite the existence of a perfectly fine pizza establishment on the same parcel of ranch that Jester King inhabits. Evidently they also were in the know. I ordered one of the most popular pizzas, the Fat Queen, which is topped with pepperoni, sopressata, and Italian sausage. Normally, a pie that loaded with meat would be a greasy, salty mess with a jumble of flavors that become difficult to differentiate—not here. The spiciness of the sopressata heightened rather than masked the fennel flavor of the house-made sausage and made the savory notes of the pepperoni more pronounced. The sweetness from the crushed tomatoes did not detract from the subtle sweetness of the fresh mozzarella and the bed of sourdough crust that the ingredients all sat upon was perfectly cooked, with bubbles that had blackened beautifully and an edge that was delightfully chewy.

As if this were not enough (and it certainly was), I insisted that we also split a pastrami plate. When the owners took over the space two and a half years ago, there was an old, high-quality smoker that they could not get rid of, no matter how unrelated it was to their idea of perfect Neapolitan pizza. Keeping it in the restaurant proved to be a brilliant move, because the pastrami they make in it is some of the best I’ve ever had. It has black crust on the exterior, but comes thinly sliced and ready to melt in your mouth instantly, like a hybrid of a smoked brisket and pride of a Jewish deli. The platter it came on also had pickled onions, two types of mustard, sourdough bread, and a pickle. All of these were quite tasty but after trying a bit of each, I decided to eat the pastrami all by itself and I’m sure I made the right call.

After a lazy afternoon spent napping and digesting, we all met up with friends, old and new, on Rainey Street—the de facto row for gastropubs, hip restaurants, and new condos. Our first stop was Clive Bar, which seemed (not unlike other bars on the block) to have been converted from a bungalow-style house into a bar with a large outdoor patio. At the back corner of the patio was a small building which looked like a small church from the old West, but it served mescal instead of the good word. On a warm Austin night, it was the perfect place to throw back a mescal mule, chat with friends, and soak in the ambience of the coolest city in Texas.

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We will be back soon!

To finish the night, I brought as many people as would listen to me down the street to Craft Pride, a bar that only serves craft beer brewed in the Lone Star State. I had a few fine offerings, but none compared to the Yellow Rose IPA from Lone Pint Brewery. I had heard about this beer, forgotten about it, and ordered it after far too much deliberation looking at the big board. It had a fine citrusy aroma and extremely clean taste full of grapefruit, pear, and honey. I sought it out the next day at a bottle shop to no avail, but will soon be asking a friend in Texas to ship bottles my way.

I could hardly believe how much great food and drink we had packed into a single, scorching day in the heart of Texas, but we pulled it off and went to sleep happy. Our second and final day in Austin was much more relaxed and involved a homemade breakfast of chicken and waffles, a trip to the Barton Springs creek, and Victoria’s first experience with queso—the dip that epitomizes Tex-Mex cuisine. Two days was not nearly enough time to explore everything Austin has to offer. With hundreds of great local restaurants and innumerable food trailers, the capital of Texas has a rich food culture, which I fully intend to explore on repeat visits.


What’s your favorite part of Austin? Where should I eat on my next trip (other than Franklin BBQ, because, obviously)?

 

Gose and Gueuze: What they Are, and Which to Choose

As sour beers become more and more prevalent in the craft beer community, folks might have started to notice them popping up on tap lists to a point that could almost be called mainstream. If you see some of these styles, they may not be as self-explanatory as say, a brown ale or imperial coffee stout. Two such styles that are similar in name, color, and alcohol are gose and gueuze (sometimes spelled geuze). They’re both sour and originate in Europe, so let’s do a bit more to differentiate them.

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Bahl Hornin’ indeed

Gose (pronounced as either “goes” or “go-suh”) is a German style of beer brewed with about 60 percent wheat malt and the addition of coriander and salt. It should have pleasant citrus tartness that originates from the lactobacillus bacteria that is added to the beer (naturally or purposely inoculated) before the boil happens. This style nearly died out in the 20th Century, but thankfully gained a second wind in the past few years due to the popularity of sour beers. While it’s not necessarily easy to brew, it is far less time-consuming than most sours, which often require months of aging in wooden barrels. Thus, more breweries are willing to brew a gose as a way to foray into the world of sours without a significant initial investment. My first encounter with the style was Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose, and to date, is still my favorite (although I did pick up a bottle of Sante Adairius’ gose last time I was there that I need to drink…). A quick note on the name: Boonville, CA is not only home to Anderson Valley Brewing Company, but also an extremely specific regional dialect called Boontling. In this dialect, “kimmie” means man or father and “yink” is a boy or son, so I’ll let you put two and two together.

Not pictured: Cantillon

With apologies to Miller High Life, the true champagne of beers is gueuze. It demonstrates some of the highest levels of craftsmanship in the brewing industry and takes years to make. Gueuze is a blend of spontaneously fermented sour beers called lambics, which have been aged from one to four years. Spontaneous fermentation occurs when the brewer leaves the wort (unfermented beer) out in the open overnight in a koelschip (say: coolship), which allows all of the bacteria, yeasts, and microbes to fall into it and begin the fermentation process. The beer is then put into barrels where it sits for either one, two, three, or sometimes four years. The brewer or blender, as sometimes it is a separate job, chooses the ratio of each vintage to go into the final blend, which is called gueuze. The result is a sour, layered beer with flavors ranging from mushrooms to grape must to peaches to oak. Be forewarned though, the beer usually carries a strong Brettanomyces aroma, which smells like a horse blanket or sweaty socks. Enough exposure removes the negative connotations of this aroma and clues you in to the amazing flavors that are likely to follow. The most well-known and arguably the best producer of gueuze is Cantillon, in Brussels, but a few other breweries do outstanding beers as well. Drie Fonteinen, Tilquin, and Hanssens each make gueuzes that hold up nicely to the beers of Jean Van Roy, the master of brewing and blending at Cantillon.

In a slight bit of prevarication from the title of this post, I’m not actually going to tell you which to choose, but hopefully you now have a better understanding of these two similar-at-first-glance-but-not-really beer styles. So, go forth and drink sour beer!