Friday, December 09, 2005

To have and to use five great beers.

Aristotle, a wine drinker, once observed, “With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it."

When it comes to excellence in the art of brewing, availability is the chief factor standing between misty-eyed reminisces of Yorkshire cask ales and stopping by a Louisville area pub to “have and use” a pint of favored elixir.

Here, alphabetically presented, are five great beers. All are personal favorites, and while they don’t begin to tell the full story of beer’s stylistic diversity, they can be found locally.

BBC APA (American Pale Ale), (Louisville, Kentucky)

The best microbrewed beer brewed in Louisville is BBC APA, as crafted by its original brewer, David Pierce, at the BBC Brewing Company downtown on the corner of Main & Clay.

Dave’s signature APA originally was formulated along the lines of an English-style pale ale, but with American hops and yeast. He says, “Eventually Centennial hops became available, and I stayed with them because they give a more crisp bite.”

Fusing elements of different brewing traditions into a delicious and innovative hybrid is the defining glory of contemporary American microbrewing. APA’s medium body is malty and slightly toasty, as with English ales, but the hop kick is all-American, with some citrus notes and a long, satisfying bitterness at the end.

BBC APA holds its own with spicy ethnic food, and is my all-time favorite with chicken wings.

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (Ft. Bragg, California)

Although the celebrated Guinness Draft Stout remains one of the world’s great light-bodied, low-gravity ales, it doesn’t make this list.

Heresy? Perhaps, but my preference now lies with the heaviest member of the roasted, coffee-like stout family: Imperial Stout.

This strong ale, along with its more elusive cousin, Baltic Porter, packs a full deck of flavors into one glass, and varies widely in strength (from low abv’s in the 7% range all the way to 11%, and sometimes beyond). Viscosity always is high, and mouth-feel broad. Imperial Stouts can be intensely fruity, roasted, sweet and dry all in the course of a single serving.

Old Rasputin’s name harkens to the ale’s original Tsarist export market, and conjures black and mysterious imagery appropriate to the style. It is the best all-purpose example of Imperial Stout available regularly, although Samuel Smith Imperial Stout is slightly truer to the style’s English origins.

Other excellent, seasonal interpretations are Avery “The Czar,” Bell’s Expedition and Stone Imperial Stout. All the preceding are well suited for sampling with kippers, smoked oysters and pickled vegetables.

Pilsner Urquell (Plzen, Czech Republic)

Repeat after Stone Brewing Company (maker of Arrogant Bastard Ale): “I am not a fizzy yellow beer drinking ninny here under false pretenses.”

Indeed, somewhere around 90% of the world’s beer drinkers drink mass-produced industrial lager, most of it serviceable in a pinch but profoundly uninteresting.

Regrettably, today’s omnipresent golden lager often is referred to as “pilsner,” which is akin to ground beef being represented as filet mignon.

Fortunately, the yardstick lager that inaugurated the worldwide pilsner-style craze 170 years ago still is brewed in the Czech city of Plzen, hence the Pilsner name.

Pilsner Urquell is richly golden in color, firm but not heavy in body, and with notable dollops of Czech hop flavor, aroma and bitterness. It still displays far more character than its legion of imitators, and is a versatile choice with food, standing especially well alongside fresh vegetables, chicken and fish.

Rochefort 10 (near Rochefort, Belgium)

A monk may devote his entire life exploring the relationship between man and God. At six certified Trappist monastery breweries in Belgium, the brothers expand this cosmic search to the science of fermentation, keeping venerable brewing traditions alive.

Among the products of these six breweries, Chimay Blue and Westmalle Tripel are best known. Achel’s signature Kluis is relatively new, and Westvletern 12 remains reverent but is seldom seen outside Belgium.

Orval’s rural setting is stunning, and its unique hop and yeast character tempting, but the highest achievement of Belgian Trappist brewing is Rochefort 10, which issues from the reclusive Abbaye Notre-Dame de St. Remy near the Ardennes town of Rochefort.

My cherished Rochefort 10 weighs in at 11.3% abv, and lawnmower beer it isn’t, pouring creamy brownish-black, with mellow, deeply fruity esters and subtle hints of nuts. The flavor is pure silk, full-bodied, tasting perhaps of semi-sweet chocolate, with an alcohol note or two suggesting licorice liqueur.

Rochefort 10 is contemplative and refined. Drink it for dessert.

Schlenkerla Marzen (Bamberg, Germany)

Alarmingly, beer consumption has been on the decline in Germany for many years, and in the beer-crazy Franconia region, home to 500 or more breweries as recently as the 1980’s, the number has dropped to just above 300 in 2005.

But in Bamberg, the jewel of Franconia, the number of breweries recently has risen from nine to ten – for a city of 75,000!

My favorite of them all is Schlenkerla Marzen, brewed by the Brauerei Heller Trum, the family business of my friend Matthias Trum, and served from real wooden barrels in their venerable tavern in the heart of Bamberg’s Old Town.

To be labeled “Marzen” implies grounding in the Oktoberfest-style amber lager tradition, but this version incorporates a tradition at least as old as the harvest fest itself, namely the use of an open beechwood fire to smoke the barley after malting, which still is done inside the Heller Trum brewery.

The handcrafted result is a fine German amber lager beer that tastes -- well, smoky, and although enduringly fine by the half-liter, is positively joyful with any strongly flavored foods like grilled meats, game, sausages or piquant beer cheese.

First published in Food & Dining Magazine (2005).

1 comment:

David R. Pierce said...

Thanks for the plug. I originally brewed APA to suit my taste and vision of an APA. The fact it is our flagship now is very heartening to me.

Whole Foods has Rochefort 10 & 8 for $6.99 a bottle.