Anatomy of a Beer Dinner, Part 3 (Acid)

It’s been 5 years since Part 2 came out; that’s roughly 17 Bier Stein beer dinners if you count time that way. In that span, I’ve thought way too much about beer and food pairing (next on Weird Tales: The Curse of the Cicerone…), and given the “complement, contrast, cut” routine so many times I should have it tattooed on my tongue.

That routine, however, became too simple in 2015 when Tiffany at Party Downtown blew my mind with her wizardry. I’d brought a bunch of interesting German and Belgian beers to try, and we selected a handful to pair. Tiffany proceeded to create a menu of wild-harvested, fermented, smoked, sauced ingredients that, when paired with the beers, completed a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t even know was missing pieces. Lots of photos here.

Her deftness with acid was what got me. Although it’s never wise to focus on one aspect of a pairing – the idea is to create a sum-of-the-parts effect, not shine a spotlight – I hadn’t considered the fundamental importance of acid in a pairing before. So, here goes *quickly bones up on pH/TA lingo*:

Beer, like most non-water beverages, is acidic. There are something like a dozen different acids present in beer, each of which has a characteristic affect on the way our tongues perceive its acidity. Think of each acid as a different texture. Is it crunchy, smooth, bright, sharp, brittle? Think of lemons, vinegar, rhubarb, apples; those fruits contain different acids of varying pH that give those things a primary taste and texture – citric, acetic, oxalic, and malic. The higher concentration of an acid, the more you’re going to feel it.

Then, add in the other variables of sugar, fat, starch, all of which affect the way you taste. Complicated, eh?

So you’ve got your beer, but you have to pair it. What story do you want to tell with your pairing? Is it a short story with a cheery ending, or an epic? The acid balance will be a key character in your story. Here’s a nerdy story I’ve adapted from the Party dinner menu:

Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel, a billowy, malty beer with banana and clove and a little twang at the end, walks down a trail in the Oregon woods in the spring. It fills a picnic basket with dainty creatures: rhubarb, wood sorrel. It makes a garland of wild onion flowers. The rhubarb and sorrel, both containing oxalic acid, are cheery, fruity little guys. The onion flowers are fragrant, a little musky perfume around the beer’s wrist.

The beer reaches into the picnic basket and pulls out lunch: a smoked goat croquette, rich, buttery, and a little funky. Now we smell the smoke and clove, two related aromas, intensifying each other and conspiring with the rich toasty malt to make the beer sleepy. But the plucky rhubarb and sorrel, confident their flavors outweigh their size, take a heroic leap and swing off the onion flower garland like Tarzan! They’ve saved the day by brightening up all those flavors, the way a good garnish should. The last word is had by the bubbles, the carbonic acid, that clear debris off the trail ahead. “One more bite!”

dinner_alesong1Now back to “reality.” On August 15, at the Alesong beer dinner at The Bier Stein (for which I helped develop the pairings), a vichyssoise (chilled potato leek soup) with a dash of white pepper and matchstick-cut pickled beets was paired with Peche, a vibrant, tinglingly acidic beer.

Now we’re combining acids: the lactic and malic acids in the beer with acetic acid in the pickles. It didn’t take a lot for an intense reaction, but the soup’s creamy texture and coolness stopped the effect from getting out of hand. The pepper was essential – the “fulcrum” element – to tasting the beer and food in harmony, as it latched on to some of the fermentation and barrel character in the Peche.

So now when I talk about pairing, I talk about acidity, texture (crunch!), earthiness or brightness, and try to include all of the elements of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) in some sort of harmony. What that harmony is (is it a Bach harmony or a Ornette Coleman harmony?) depends on the beer. Thankfully, I get to work with people who are able to translate my nonsense into actually edible food. So you can, you know, eat.

I’ll have a more concrete writeup about this year’s fall harvest beer dinner at Falling Sky soon; I was not involved in the planning, just enjoyed the meal. It was a great example of the “food first” method, for its display of the chef’s intuition and adeptness with flavors as well as some moments that could have used more consideration of the beer.

Ciderlicious Brings Craft to River Rd.

Two words: Cider. Licious. OK, you got me on a technicality, but hear me out: Ciderlicious, the mobile purveyor of the biggest selection of cider in the greater Eugene-Springfield area, has set up shop on River Road. Officially named Ciderlicious at the Cider Station, this is a re-location of the same setup Ciderlicious started with in the Friendly neighborhood, but with far more turf and room for fun and food carts.

The Cider Station currently has 15 ciders and two beers on tap, with more on the way. There is a big tent with repurposed cable spool tables and picnic tables and plenty of seating. A large yard further back has room for more tables and lawn games. There are also three food trucks, Lanikai, The Dipper, and Dark Side of the Q. Right now, they are also serving up weekend brunches, a rarity on River Road.

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A nice backyard-type setup, right off the bike path!

The River Road area is the closest thing to a “beer desert” in Eugene, with only two places that carry a majority craft beer: The Filling Station growler shop and taproom way up north, and the beer and wine bar inside(!) the Fred Meyer just north of Beltline. Cider Station, located just north of Happy Hours near Park Ave., right near the river bike path, is more convenient for the closer-in River Rd. crowd.

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Randy Nelson, founder of Ciderlicious & The Cider Station

Owner Randy Nelson is high-energy and tactfully candid. He grew up in Springfield, and started homebrewing in high school. His long-time experience in the restaurant industry, an MBA, and entrepreneurial gigs in the tech and motorcycle worlds make opening a cider-focused cart pod seem understated, but Nelson has bigger plans.

“This is fermentation central,” he says about Eugene, “and people appreciate a craft product.” Starting out in the Friendly neighborhood, one of the older ‘hoods of Eugene with a hearty liberal DIY-minded population, was a good introductory move. “If we hadn’t started on Friendly Street, I don’t know if we’d exist now.” At first, most of the taplist was sweeter ciders; that gradually changed as his clientele became more educated about cider.

The move to River Road wasn’t initially the plan. “We did not want to leave [Friendly Street],” says Nelson, “we were forced to leave.” He wanted to carry out his current vision there, but had maxed out capacity. That was all he would say about the matter. Currently, a beer-centric trailer called B’s Tap House occupies the spot, operating in much the same way.

The Cider Station is pushing ahead with Nelson’s vision as he looks to establish similar enterprises “on the outskirts” of town, where craft cider and beer are less represented.

Every Thursday is “Take It Off Thursday,” when a few of the ciders are put on discount to help roll through to the next ones. The taplist offers a diverse array of apple-based beverages from sweet to dry; most lie somewhere in the middle. Most of the ciders are crafted in Oregon, with the occasional Blue Mountain or Finn River cider from Washington, or Ace and Golden State from California; no Angry Orchard here. Hi-Wheel Fizzy Wines (sugar-based fermentations with fruit) from Portland add some extra flair to the list, too.

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A panini and onion rings from The Dipper food truck at the Cider Station

Nelson and his employees are well-versed in the products, and happy to offer as many samples as it takes to find the right one, and may also suggest a blend with one of the hot pepper-spiced ciders on tap for extra fun in your mouth (or just take the heat!)

Over the last couple of years, cider was one of the fastest growing sectors in the alcohol industry, and certainly saw a swift growth in Oregon. The Eugene area now has three cideries, with WildCraft, Evenfall (formerly Rookshire Lane), and Cyderish each producing unique ciders using different techniques. Ciderlicious is the first business in the south Willamette Valley to take up the reins and present as much of the variety in cider as there is in beer (though, oddly, the taplist has not shown much Eugene love).

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(tap list from October; the selection has expanded since)

As mentioned, customer education about cider is essential for people to enjoy the range of taste and flavor that equals that of wine, and can lead to excellent food pairing adventures. Dry cider is often an acquired taste, as variations in the acid/tannin balance affect the perception of any residual sweetness, and bring out complexities far beyond the simple “apple” descriptor. For the carb-conscious, a fully dry cider has zero sugar content, yet can still have body if balanced properly.

Cider culture was another victim of Prohibition; the Johnny Appleseed story, as told by Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, was a proliferation of wild apples that were primarily used to make cider. The temperance movement hit cider hard, and it’s only now reattaining its place in the beverage consciousness. New England and Michigan have had small cider producers for some time, keeping the fires burning. For a while, the most popular ciders were the sweeter offerings from Woodchuck in Vermont, followed by Angry Orchard (a division of Boston Beer Co.). While those still remain the most popular, sales of 2 Towns cider recently outstripped Angry Orchard in Oregon; a remarkable feat.

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Though no longer in Friendly neighborhood, it’s still friendly!

Cider Station
675B River Rd.
Eugene, OR, 97404
Hours:
Wed-Thurs 4-8pm
Fri, 4-9pm
Sat, 11am-8pm
Sun, 11am-5pm
Closed Mon & Tues

Learn to Homebrew Day is Saturday

One of the longer-running promotions from the American Homebrewers Association, the 19th annual Learn to Homebrew Day (formerly Teach a Friend to Brew Day) is this Saturday, November 3. This year, Eugene’s local homebrew club, the Cascade Brewers Society (of which I’m VP), will hold a public brewing demonstration at ColdFire Brewing on November 3 from 11am to 4pm.

The demonstration will include examples of extract brewing, brew-in-a-bag, all-grain brewing, cidermaking, and bottling. Other members of the homebrew club will be available to talk and answer questions when the demonstrators are busy brewing (which, if you attend, you’ll see is mostly cleaning. Spoiler alert!).

If you’re already a homebrewer, this is a good opportunity to do a few things:
1. Have a beer at ColdFire; see what happens when some people get really good at homebrewing.
2. Get nerdy with other homebrewers
3. See if you might want to join a homebrew club that does things like this
4. See #1

Homebrewing is the reason there are something like 6,500 craft breweries in the country now (up from, like, a dozen 35 years ago). It’s why we have hazy IPA and crazy stouts and all sorts of things that are barely catching on in other countries. Homebrewing is why the U.S. has a brewing identity.

Even if you’re not interested in taking up the hobby, it is worth it to see the different processes used, keeping in mind that many homebrewers make beer of equal caliber (and sometimes better… sometimes not) to that of commercial breweries.

You can RSVP at the Facebook event here.

(Image from hombrewersassociation.org)

Eugene Fresh Hop & Oktoberfest Roundup

Now begins the season of seasonal beer! In the Northwest, that means fresh hop beers, brewed with raw, wet, sticky, grassy hops that impart the true effects of the summer growing season. I look forward to seeing who makes the best use of this inconvenient ingredient (they soak up a LOT of wort, and require heavy scheduling to get them from farm to kettle within hours). The Wheel’s fresh hop beer is already gone because they brewed a super small batch, but it was a crazy mouthful of peachy Centennials.

Also, obviously, we have Oktoberfest, which begins today (9/22)! The lovely gold-to-amber lagers have heft in two ways: alcohol strength and how you treat the stein. Here’s a rundown of Eugene-area breweries and beer bars joining in the celebration of the end of fire season. I’ll update as more information comes in:

Events by Date:

Weihenstephaner Festbier Cask Tapping at The Bier Stein
Saturday, September 22, 2pm – Get into the spirit of Oktoberfest served in the old-fashioned tradition, straight from the cask! (Today, most of the Oktoberfest beers are served from giant storage tanks below ground in the fest halls. Augustiner, the only fully independent old brewery in Munich, still serves its festbier from wooden barrels.) The Bier Stein will have plenty of festbiers and Marzens on draught, too. More info: thebierstein.com/events

Falling Sky Oktoberfest Brewers’s Dinner
Sunday, 9/30, 6:30pm at the Deli, purchase tickets in advance. Beer dinners at Falling Sky are never short of good beer and lots of food. The menu looks lovely, with all the from-scratch goodness Falling Sky is known for. The beers will include the annual release of  Cloud Gazer Oktoberfest Bier. More info: https://fallingskybrewing.com/falling-sky-brewers-dinner-ticket.html

Weihenstephaner Beer Dinner at The Bier Stein
Wednesday, October 3, 6pm, purchase tickets in advance – This may be the classiest way to experience German beer during Oktoberfest. With 6 courses plus a welcome beer (Original Premium, of course!), the menu features a nice mix of tradition and inspiration, and is the only place you’ll get to try Braupakt (a hop forward hefeweizen, collaboration with Sierra Nevada) paired with a Thai-style papaya salad. It really works! $65 includes all food, beer, gratuity, and a good time. More info: thebierstein.com/events

Beer Releases by Brewery:

ColdFire: Marzen – 6.1% abv, 18 IBU. Brewed using a beta>alpha step mash with Pilsner and Munich malts, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Saaz hops.

Falling Sky: Nuggets of Wisdom Fresh Hop English Pale Ale – 6.1% abv, ~40IBU. Fresh Nugget Hops from Goschie Farms. Release Date: Friday 9/28

Small Tents Session Style Oktoberfest Lager – 3.6% abv, ~19 IBU. On tap now.

Ryein’ on the Hill – Rye Oktoberfest-style Lager. 5% abv, 20 IBU. Release Date: 9/23 for our Worlds Shortest Bike Race at the Pub location.

Cloud Gazer Oktoberfest Bier – 5.7% abv, 25 IBU. Release Date: 9/30 during the Fall/Oktoberfest inspired Brewers Dinner at the Deli.

Falling Sky & Coldfire: Fresh as You Like It Imperial Fresh Hop Brut IPA – 9.5% abv, ~68IBU. From Scott Sieber, head brewer at Falling Sky: “Fresh Amarillo and Chinook from Crosby Hop Farm and wet/dry hop addition of freshly shattered Mosaic hops.” They used the liquid nitrogen freeze & shatter method developed by Breakside a few years ago. Release in early October.

Manifest: Fresh hop Pumpkin Sour – 5.6% abv. Here is the description from founder/brewer Brandon Woodruff: “We made a fresh hop Pumpkin Sour using only fresh hop sterling hops. The [sic] was open fermented using spent Cabernet barrel staves to inoculate the wort. Doing the first 80% or so of fermentation the beer had 20 lbs of fresh hop Sterling (2.8lbs per bbl). Once transferred to unitank 2lbs of espresso was added. The beer is packed full of pumpkin and spices. The spices used were Chinese five spice, all spice, fresh ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Beer itself leans more toward a Flanders red than American Sour. Some malt sweetness.” Release date not included.

Oakshire: Fresh Hop Ale 2018 – 6.6% abv India Pale Ale brewed with 100% Crosby Hop Farm Amarillo. Release Date: 9/25. (Note: This is the first year release of Amarillo grown on Crosby soil.)

Plank Town: Oktoberfestbier (5.6% abv, 22 IBU) & Seavey Lupin Fresh Hop Pale Ale (5.1% abv, 35 IBU)
Plank Town released its Oktoberfestbier in August. Brewer John Crane describes it as a very quaffable malty lager with honey and spice aroma and flavor.

Seavey Lupin, also on tap now, was brewed with 21 pounds per barrel of fresh Willamette and Cascade hops from Norton’s Hop Farm on Seavey Loop Road. Crane says it has a “fresh, grassy and herbal aroma. Nice malt character followed by a clean dry finish.” This will be showcased at Tap & Growler at the beginning of October.

Sam Bond’s Brewery: Comet Fresh Hop IPA, 6.0% abv, available on draught and in package around 9/27. (Note: I love Comet hops for the fresh, bright orange aroma, and am stoked to try a fresh hop version!)

The Joy of Hop Harvest

I visited my first oast in 2011 at Hop & Brew School in Yakima, Washington during the hop harvest. With the temperature breaking 130 and the humid air made more lethargic by sleepy vapors, I saw a football field-sized, three-foot-deep bed of freshly de-bined hops and thought, What a wonderful world. The extensive piece I wrote about the action packed two-day experience was published in the newsletter of the Cascade Brewers Society and read by approximately twelve people.

Seven years later, the process is no less beguiling; nor has it changed much. This year, I toured Crosby Hop Farm’s fields and processing plant with my New School crew Ezra (founder) and Michael Perozzo (southern WA contributor). I took some video that smoky morning, and spliced together a quick tutorial on the process (I did the music too!):

Those are the basic maneuvers performed at any hop farm. What the video fails to capture is the momentum of history, the pace of information, and the contiguity that hop farmers have with the craft beer world.

Before the early 00’s, hop farmers were dealing with a just few people who represented giant brewing entities with no need for creativity. At the same time, hop breeders were at the precipice of the future, with Simcoe and Amarillo hops achieving acreage for the several hundred craft breweries (microbreweries we called ’em then, kids) that made beer with flavor and adventurousness. Yes, Cascade had been a hit long before, but that was low wave on a shallow shoreline compared to what was about to crash on the sands of our sensory glands.

The evolution of craft beer in the 21st century parallels that of social media and global information sharing. With the communities that flourished on the internet, including the beer rating sites Beer Advocate and RateBeer, beer drinkers had a “virtual pub” in which to discuss and rave about their favorites. The IPA buzzword “IBU” and now-patented hop varieties, with their “citrusy” and “dank” aromas, quickly rose in the ranks of the collectively inebriated unconscious. There was demand, craft brewers listened hard, and in turn put demand on hop growers for more aroma varieties.

Over the decades of commercial hop growth and brewers contracting in hop futures, there has always been a shifting balance of aroma and bittering hop acreage. Farmers must be brutally honest with their plants to be successful, which means tearing out rows to replace them with varieties that, ideally, will be very popular in two years. Despite the Internet, hops don’t grow any faster.

Fast forward a little bit, to around 2008. Although fresh hop beers were not entirely new, their popularity had grown quite a bit. This meant that more brewers were getting directly in touch, going to the fields, and trading information with hop growers.

Crosby Hop Farm has taken a leading edge on this front. Blake Crosby, a 5th generation hop farmer, sunk his teeth into the business several years ago. Rather than just sell hops to wholesale brokers, he guided the farm through a renaissance that would incorporate growing, processing, importing, and direct sales and marketing into an all-hops-everything juggernaut in the Willamette Valley.

I covered the early season process and a bit about Crosby in an article for the Oregon Beer Growler earlier this year. But this tour, just when the harvest was winding up to go full bore, made it clear that the relationships that hop growers like Crosby and Goschie farms have with brewers and drinkers is another seam strengthening the fabric of craft beer.

Since Crosby integrated other aspects of the hop business, it’s had to build a strong marketing team and develop language that diverges from the agronomic lingo you’d hear at a Hop Growers of America meeting. Now, the story of the farm becomes part of its terroir. Its Salmon Safe certification isn’t just for the land, it’s part of the salesperson’s toolbox. Welcome to the 21st century, hops!

Though marketing is never a measure of quality in any product, closing the gap between producer and consumer does enhance the information relay. Does a beer drinker need to know the hop grower? Obviously not, the same way we don’t need to know our chicken farmer. But it sure does help make informed decisions. And really, hops are far outside of the scope of scrutiny for the ethically-minded consumer. The Salmon Safe designation is, as far as I can tell, the best compromise between conventional and organic pest and fungus management. Every hop grower I’ve spoken with says that the time and effort to get a much lower yield using organic practices is hardly worth it on any sort of production scale. That’s to be taken with a grain of salt, as certain hops do better in different climates and can be successfully grown organically; those are not the hops people are looking for in an IPA, though. The point: if you, the consumer, prefer drinking organic beer, you have the ability to contact the producers of organic ingredients and find out who uses them.

As we roll into fresh hop season, complete with the crazy array of fresh hop festivals in the region, it’s worth appreciating the incredible amount of hard work at hop farms between August and October. A lot of the manual labor is done by temporary workers, many of whom are Latino men and women. Many farms have on-site labs. Crosby has a pelletizer as well, and a warehouse of hops to manage and rotate through. Hops go from the field to a ready-to-brew format in just a couple days, which is part of what makes the harvest so exciting; in the coming months, as breweries start brewing with their 2018 hops, we’ll start tasting the effect of this year’s weather on the first crop of Amarillo grown on Crosby soil.