Monday, August 01, 2016
AFTER THE FIRE: The devil made me drink it.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
One of my wife’s favorite Mexican dishes is Camarones a la Diabla, or Deviled Shrimp. Seeing as this delicious specialty tends to be among the higher priced entrees at local Mexican restaurants, we resolved last weekend to try cooking it at home.
The results were excellent, and it will get better as we dial in the recipe, which was chosen because it does not include ketchup.
Laugh at your own peril. This familiar condiment also is a key ingredient in the appetizer spare ribs served by your favorite Chinese carry-out shop.
Happily, having recently bought a few assorted six packs in anticipation of entertaining friends, there was a beer already in our fridge that was fully appropriate for pairing with our inaugural batch of Camarones a la Diabla.
And no, it wasn’t ice-cold, carbonated urine like Corona or Modelo Especiale. Can we retire the laziest of all foodie saws, the one holding that Mexican beer and food go together perfectly? So does ice water. We should be saving the corn for our tortillas, and drinking beers that bring character to the table.
Like German-style wheat ale (Hefeweizen), which during our meal was Hacker-Pschorr Weiss. Indeed, it's multinational-owned, and I’d have preferred Schneider Weiss or even Aventinus, but the important thing is shift, and nitpicking German-style wheat ales isn’t the point to this digression.
Rather, it is to make the case (yet again – I’ve made a career out of this) that Hefeweizen is a wonderful accompaniment to many Mexican and other Latin American cuisines, something you’d never know judging from restaurants alone, since most of them venture no further than the usual pale, limp, beer-flavored suspects.
It’s so enduringly tedious, but verily, this pairing problem disappears when you cook dinner at home.
To which I say: “Viva la revolución!”
There was a time when I eschewed Hefeweizen, primarily because whenever I was unable to persuade timid pub customers to move beyond starter wheat ales to a wider range of options, it grated deeply within the cavernous void of my tortured, curmudgeonly soul.
This ideology began eroding when Diana decided that Hefeweizen was one of the few beer styles she genuinely liked. I grudgingly indulged her at first, then one fine day at the German Café in French Lick, she offered me a sip of her Weihenstephaner.
My chagrin was immediate and boundless. I’d simply forgotten how much I liked Hefeweizen, and now it is a beer we can enjoy together.
You’re here to learn from my mistakes, and there’s no denying that German-style wheat ale is a singular classic. Hefeweizen is half (or a bit more) wheat and half (or slightly less) barley, and is fermented with a special ale yeast that imparts fruity flavors and aromas more commonly associated with bananas, apples and cloves.
Significantly, neither fruit nor spice is used in brewing Hefeweizen. It’s all about the behavior of the yeast amid a warm fermentation temperature, and the tasty markers graciously left behind.
In fact, “Hefe” is the German word for yeast, and “Weizen” means wheat. “Weisse,” or white, is often used somewhat interchangeably, as the cloudy appearance of wheat ale once prompted snap descriptions of it as “white.”
This same blurry phenomenon is to be found in Belgium, where “Wit” also denotes whiteness. While brewed with wheat, it bears no further resemblance to the German variety. The Belgians use orange peel and coriander to spice their wheat ale, and these ingredients traditionally have been forbidden by the beer purity laws in Germany, though these bastions may finally be crumbling.
Occasionally, German-style wheat ale can be found in its filtered incarnation (“Kristall”), but this is comparatively rare, and makes little sense in the first place.
Decades into the “craft” beer era, most American-style wheat ales remain resolutely flavorless unless they’re heavily spiced or intentionally hopped-up, as with Three Floyds Gumballhead. These usually are brewed as seasonal summertime thirst quenchers using house ale yeast strains, resulting in clean, competent and thoroughly uninteresting temporary lodgers.
Meanwhile, most authentic Hefeweizens come in shades of gold, although “Dunkel” indicates a variety brewed with darker malts. Schneider Weisse is as dark as Franziskaner’s Dunkel, but the brewery sees no need to tout this on the label, reminding us that beer style categories aren’t always exact.
Traditionally, Hefeweizen was a warm weather libation and generally unavailable year-round, even on its home turf in Bavaria. The style staged a remarkable comeback in the 1970s and 1980s after very nearly becoming extinct. Nowadays, German-style wheat ale can be consumed every day if so desired, throughout Germany and the world.
This brings us back to Mexico.
Mexican restaurants invariably adorn watery lagers with slices of lime, and just as predictably, I toss them in the ashtray, so let’s be clear about the proper use of citrus fruit garnish in beer.
There is no proper use for citrus fruit garnish in beer.
If lemons were intended for use in Hefeweizen, then lemons would grow in Germany. They don’t. Do oranges grow in Belgium? No, and they don’t grow in Colorado, either, so they have no place in a glass of Coors’s mock Belgian Wit ale, Blue Moon.
(Blue Moon is a multinational shelf-space colonist, not indie “craft,” so get over yourself and move on to something better.)
When you place a slice of citrus fruit in a beer, whether it is a competently conceived and brewed German or Belgian wheat ale or the soapy lagers brewed in Mexico, you are mindlessly following the marketing dictates of someone at Great Satan Inc. who’ll you’ll never know, and who makes more money deceiving you than you will earn in your entire life.
This said, I’ve forged a shaky provisional peace with Dos Equis and Negra Modelo in the absence of better choices at most Mexican restaurants, but the fact remains that ethnic eateries in general, from taquerias to sushi bars, and from dim sum emporiums to Indian curry houses, would benefit from stocking just a handful of beer styles invariably capable of transforming the dining experience in a meaningful way that lager simply cannot achieve.
At the very least, bottles of American Pale Ale, German-style Hefeweizen and indigenous Robust Porter would transform ethnic dining in the metro Louisville area. Toss in an IPA, a Belgian Saison or Tripel and a German Gose, and we’re getting somewhere.
At the high end, that’s $300 wholesale for six cases of beer. Margins are solid. It isn’t nuclear physics.
Thinking back to Camarones a la Diabla, the “deviled” sauce had a mild acidic bite from the tomatoes, and plenty of pepper flavor. Overall, the dish was restrained in the Scoville context, which makes sense, because you wouldn’t want to overwhelm the shrimp.
My Hefeweizen’s medium-bodied fruit and esters coated the mouth and complimented the peppers. The effervescence acted as the curtain being raised on the flavor of the shrimp. It was hard to tell whether the clove was coming from the beer or the food, and it didn’t matter. It fit like a glove.
The earliest verified written instance of my disgruntlement with the beer status quo at local international restaurants appeared around 2003. Nothing ever seems to change, though I have a bit more time these days, and have found myself guided back into the home kitchen.
Perhaps at long last I can follow up on the imaginary pairings that haven’t always been possible to test. Most recently, it was Greek Moussaka with a Belgian Abbey Dubbel.
If I get around to doing it, I’ll let you know how this meal turns out.
July 28 (at NA Confidential): ON THE AVENUES: An imaginary exercise tentatively called The Curmudgeon Free House.
July 25: AFTER THE FIRE: Before the deluge, or knowing how this whole beer business started.
July 18: AFTER THE FIRE: Moss the Boss, his dazzling beer café, and what they taught me about “craft.”
July 11: AFTER THE FIRE: We are dispirited in the post-factual world.
July 4: AFTER THE FIRE: Euro ’85, Part 34 … The final chapter, in which lessons are learned and bridges burned.