Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dregs Round-up for August 2013

I keep a list of interesting bits of information in my bookmarks. Sometimes I hope that I can turn them into a blog post or get time to do a project. That word sometimes is a mean, mean word. Every month or so I clean up.

Here is what is floating around right now.

Beer cocktail recipe for Compari and IPA. Saved this one because I am working on a post on doctoring beers. If you follow me on twitter, you'll see a bunch of experiments. I'll definitely get around to it but it is a matter of when. Also, Rhubarb Beer Cocktail.

Cooking for Engineers has a post on computer generated cookie recipes. This is similar to what I am trying to do with How to Read a Recipe. Instead of putting the emphasis on understanding the mechanics of the recipe, it generates.

Speaking of freaky engineering feats, how about a twelve course meal in a can? I can see this going somewhere, just not sure where. Most of my dinner parties include at least one type of gel and this is hitting my weird food that may work spot.

The last interesting bit that struck me this month was after doing the review of Brussels Bistro earlier this month, I heard Steven Page on Food is the New Rock podcast. It turns out that Steven Page was involved with the original Brussels Brasserie on the Danforth with Roger Wils. There is a good explanation of why the concept did not work and it just tied the whole thing together.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Defining Bad Beer, Part 2

In the last post, I made the argument that unspoiled mass produced beer that did not taste bad was not enough to define bad beer. I suppose, I could have said that small, handcrafted brews made by dedicated guys drank by three people are not necessarily good beer, as well.

So rather than worry about one person's definition of "bad" beer, (that's me!), let's see what is out there for a whole bunch of people saying what is bad beer.

Crowd sourcing or the wisdom of crowds is a big deal nowadays. There are different levels of ability of each individual adjudging beer but the hope is that somehow the overall approach evens out.

The Beer Club for Drinkers
An instance of the clubby kind of bar room chat and discussions is The Bar Towel.  The people running the show there also do the Golden Tap awards and Canadian Beer News. Frequent contributors are beer bloggers, beer writers, brewers, drinkers and thinkers. There are some beer reviews and it can be a little inside baseball. There is little total panning of a beer and it is hard to get at what makes a bad beer by reading the reviews. The whole thing feels like sitting at the bar and asking the scruffy regular what he thinks of the beer. Except, it is in a bar like the Only or Bar Volo and the scruffmeister may have even brewed some beer at some time and loves to shake up the youngsters. It is a cool place to hang out and get and give tips on events, breweries, and homebrews and all sorts of beer business. Hard to find anything out about bad beer.

Social Drinkers
So, if you can't figure out what those people are saying on the discussion boards maybe something like the tweeter can help. Untappd comes the closest to that type of experience. You can add friends, 140 characters of info, check in where you are... sound familiar? There are differences of course, chief being a badge system. You get badges for drinking. Drinking a beer on a special day, kinds of beer, beer events, and ... just go look at the options. There are both micro/macro beer tabs so that you can track whatever in the hell you are drinking. The badge system moves you mostly towards variety and craft brews. Although there are some badges that would only be fulfilled by drinking from the same brewery and the 'lite' brews of the world, so I suppose there is some claim to be serving the macro market.

It is hard to try to figure out bad beer as all the bits are organized to get you your next good beer. You can get the top beer by the style by country. If you want to see if a particular beer rating, if you type it in, it will give you how many people have drank it and what the average score out of five is. So, Coors Light doesn't end up scoring bad.

Full disclosure, this is the application that I use to track my beer likes and consumption. The standard ranking system is out of five stars. My ranking works on three stars being average, two being a beverage that I don't want to taste again and one star being please "God, no, don't make me taste this again". If something has no stars assigned, it is just that I was too drunk or my taste buds are messed up or I'm just not sure yet. Given that type of idiosyncratic ranking from myself, I know better than to trust what I see.

If you can find a beer that you think is bad and it is confirmed as a one star by a large number of drinkers then that might be a bad beer. I have not been able to find one of those yet. Not sure if it is the madness of crowds but even something like Coors Light Iced T gets 2.5 stars. Maybe plebes don't know what they are drinking? So if we can't trust the ordinary people, who can we trust?

Okay, let's get a bit more elitist.

What Do You Call a Group of Beer Nerds?
Two sites where self selected beer nerds gather are ratebeer and Beeradvocate. These sites are primarily for 'sharing beer information' and 'respect(ing) beer'. There are articles on how to judge and taste beer. A lot of the material is good but there is a fine line between liking the finer things in life and judging other people's taste because they aren't yours. Snobs versus nerds is the way it is put on Beer Advocate.

There is a standard judging criteria that is followed by beer nerds wanting to be judges. Both these sites users will use this rubric often. This is helpful for you to understand what makes a good beer and indeed what kind of tastes are not to the style of beer or desirable in a beer. This makes for good understanding of relative merits of beers within categories. There are helpful guides on both sites to help the process.

So, onto the bad beer ranking on Beer Advocate. Handily, here is their bottom of the list. Their top of list for American Adjunct Lager includes PBR which is not one of my favourites but that may be a factor of where I tried it. Regardless, the brothers who run the site gave PBR a healthy mark and others on the site panned it. There may be a little play between beer nerds and snobs at work. If you take a look at some of the discussions, you get stuff about shelf turds, deviation ratios and questions on why would you like PBR. The deviation stuff is cool. It shows what the range of difference in the marks for any beer is and also an individual's deviation from the review average. The funny thing is that some people obsess how far away they are from the average mark as if it is some type of black mark on their ability to taste beer. It is possible that some beer is not universal and will strike someone's palate differently. It rings a little bit of I want to be different in the same way that those people are different. There is that fine elitist line.

Rate beer has a little bit of difference on their site. They have a list of the worst beers. Olde English 800 appears there and the brothers of Beer Advocate agree. On untappd, Olde English Canada gets a decent score but the American one seems to be about equal across the board. So, we have one candidate for a bad beer. Rate beer has a system of ranking a beer within a style. This exists in Beer Advocate but it is not as explicit. The explanation is here. This idea may explain why I wasn't able to find American Adjunct Lager as a style. That's one of those macro type beers. There even have a link for top macros that is broken. Not sure if they have noticed or care.

So what can we draw from these two? The problem with the lists on the two beer nerd sites is that there seems to be a bias towards micro ales and a bias against macro lagers, even though some of the more reputable tasters would rate some of the beer higher than the general users. The elitists can't agree on a bad beer as a group. Since there seems to be little agreement between the four sites listed above, maybe the crowd isn't enough? Democracy is the worst system except for all the others we have tried. Yup, that is a bastardized quote that I am not even going to look up. Check the google.

So, is this just the misinterpretation of self selected beer people and their understanding of judging? I guess to answer that we will have to wait for Part 3. That one may take a while because I want to do a little on the history of judging. Not something that I am an expert on. Vetted judges work, more or less, for the legal system. Some people make the bad quip about the system being a LEGAL system, not a JUSTICE system but we will wait until next time to chime in.

If you want to revisit Part 1 on what is not to be considered bad beer then go back and click earlier in the sentence.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Defining Bad Beer, Part 1

Ben Johnson recently had his best beer experience to date and blogged about it. He invited several other beerlebratories to think about their best beers. It added more to think about in the continuing internal debate on what makes a good beer and a bad beer.

Best and Worst
First, let's get the best beer stuff out of the way. Best and worst beer experiences are often about set and setting. Guess it makes sense, given that alcohol is a drug but this mantra works for food too. One of my favourite MFK Fisher pieces is about going for a walk in the Alps and coming upon some strangers. All of them add an element to an impromptu snack that is basic but incredibly memorable. Sharing a 50 after helping a buddy move all day or having that first beer of the summer after mowing the lawn makes many beer go down well. Go read The best beer I've ever had series for more examples.

The worst beer would also fall under this category. Imagine receiving a text of a loved one's death when you are having a quiet pint on a perfect day. I can guarantee that the most delicious beer would be forgotten and maybe even reviled. Another example, imagine your team is up by two goals in the last sixty seconds of a series winning game and ...  well, those beer during that overtime period may even be left undrunk, too salty to drink from tears of misery. Even a Belgian quad may be poured down the drain like so many dreams of another victory parade.

I'm not going to try to define best and worst but to a more workable definition of good and bad. This is one of those perennial beer nerd questions that rattle around the rooms, both virtual and real. What makes a bad beer?

Off Flavours 
Firstly, let's not discuss off flavours in your beer as defining a bad beer. There are good courses for objectively looking at what can go wrong from brewing to serving beer, as anyone who follows Mirella Amato can attest. She often has classes to help those in the industry or with the interest in figuring out what is causing the undesirable tastes. There is some questions around some of the off tastes but we will ignore this for now. We will come back to questions of intentionality in a later part especially when talking about using beer flavours that aren't ordinarily desirable. In short, skunked or stale or buttery popcorn tasting beer is spoiled and may be no reflection on the beer or the brewer. If you have an habitual offender, then that could be a candidate for a bad brewer brewing bad beer.

Macro versus Micro
Is the question of bad beer just whether it is being made by GoliathCorp or David's Little Brews? Local Brewer Brews Bad Beer could become an Onion story with little imagination. It is too common for someone with a passion for homebrewing and a cadre of friends (let's call them enablers) to open a brewpub or brewery and put out lacklustre libations that fail to impress. On the other hand, craft beer drinkers sometimes find them at a party that has nothing craft or even crafty to drink and are left staring at a row of tall boys with familiar names. Tasting one doesn't kill them but it doesn't steer them off the craft beer course. Are either of these examples of bad beer? Not necessarily but neither are examples of good beer. So, the debate doesn't come down to size of the operation or level of craftiness.

(Not Good = Bad) or (Not Good ≠ Bad)
In some ways, this is a statement of subjectivity. The line between good beer and bad can be blurred by our own likes and dislikes. If we find a beer not good or to our taste, it doesn't necessarily mean that the beer itself is bad. It can't just be about desire or indifference. Bad beer has to be undesirable. This does lead us down the slippery slope of whether undesirable beer to one person can be desirable to a general population.

Everyone Loves a Bad Boy
There is a whole history of mediocrity in brews that do not firmly place them into bad beer category. This could refer to mass market beer. There is a fine sport of treating mass market beer as the enemy of good beer while at the same time reifying the superior taste of the craft beer speaker. In some ways, this is a revenge of the nerds scenario.

This serves to build the nerds versus frat boy mentality of beer appreciation. Most aficionados that I come across have a wide latitude in their beer tastes with little regard to the popularity of a beer. This is really what we talk about when we talk about beer not tasting of something in particular. It even exists in beer nerd circles under the guise of the now trending category. On one of the Albino Rhino Beer Reviews, one of the reviewers noted that IPAs are like the Bud Lights of the craft beer movement. So, there is that.

With these few starts at defining what a bad beer is not, the next post will focus on looking at whether rating systems can tell us when a beer is bad.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Restaurant Review: Brussels Bistro

When I hear the word bistro, two types of restaurants come to mind. The first being an owner run establishment selling comfort food mainly French influenced. The second is a variation on the first but using newer French plating, local foods and slightly trendy (BierMarkt take a bow).  Brussels Bistro is the first kind of these restaurants.

Roger Wils, the chef/owner, used to own the Belgian restaurant on the Danforth. He had a loyal following. It closed leaving very little in the way of Belgian food. In the past few years, he started showing up at one of the local farmers' market with piles of pastry and meat pies from his Saucier label. Maybe he got tired of the questions about when he was going to open a new restaurant or maybe he got the itch to get back into the kitchen because that is where he can be found.

My first introduction to Belgian food was through the beer. Around twenty years ago, I found myself sitting at a cafe in Brussels,with my first plate of mussels and a witbier followed by a brun and then a lambic. The beer matched what I was eating ending with a chocolate dessert and sour. On returning back to Canada, too many restaurants opted for wine without regards to the breadth of experience that a good beer pairing can offer.

The Brussels menu does not want for wine. There is a small curated list of beers that include Chimay, Liefman's (including Goudenband) and I believe Krombacher. Normally, I take notes just after leaving or look for the menus of the restaurant. This menu of classics is made for beer and wine pairings but strangely, the website is missing their beer. My point is that I may be misremembering the lager but it was definitely a German one.

My companion and I shared appetizers of a salad with goat cheese and a charcuterie platter. The prices were what to be expected but the portion sizes are really generous. We followed up these starters with a bowl of mussels in white wine and poulet chasseur. The chicken was served with stoemp (mash) and brussels sprouts. These dishes were solid. This type of cooking is not solely about technique and pretty plates.  It is comfort food done to please the eater. Make no mistake, it feels as if the chef is cooking for himself. Appetizer portions are generous and we could have just had two appetizers and mussels which would leave scant room for a dessert.

There were only two desserts available, so they better be good. The kicker was the chocolate mousse. Dark Belgian chocolate that you could feel melting in your mouth. The technique was a little off in that small chunks of unmelted chocolate were dotted here and there. It was the best part of the menu.

The frites has suffered the same fate where the flavour was rich but the crispness was not quite crisp enough. Part of this has to be the first week of getting the timing just right, part of it has to be what will become the charm of this place.  It feels like the place that I went to in the 90's in Belgium minus the outdoor sidewalk and strong summer sunshine.

I hope that this restaurant continues to have the type of year that it has had in its first weeks. There is a need in Toronto for strong beer forward restaurants. I would like to see the introduction of a few more choice beers such as a saison and maybe the recognition on the list of some Belgian styles from Canada that are becoming quite well known in the rest of the world. The addition of Denison's Weissbier to pair with mussels or Ephemere Cassis for dessert would be an example of the kind of nod that I am speaking. But this restaurant must maintain a balance between old world best of hits from Belgian and mix in some of the newer approaches to food that is underlined by the *shudder* foodie culture.

The mussels were cooked the same way I received them for my first taste. Not rubbery, full of flavour, bread and beer. Sense memory is strong and we will be going back. Thanks.
Brussels Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Medieval Menu

Something I have been meaning to post for a long while. I learned a lot by preparing this meal and I'll leave my comments until the end of the menu.

1st Course
Brawn in Pepperade
Bruette Saak
Stewed Cabbage w/ cinnamon & cloves
Custard Cream Boil

2nd Course
Pomme Dorryse
Coney in Clear Broth
Custard Lombard

Buttered Beer
Assorted Ales
Sweet White Wine
Red Wine

It was weird trying to find recipes for this feast, mainly because there was not a lot of cookery books about. The internet was helpful but only so much. I did make heavy use of Cooking and Dining in Medieval England and adjusted the recipes to use available ingredients when the English or older ingredients were not readily accessible. Another source that I used not so much for recipes but rather for understanding the flavours was Darina Allen, an Irish cooking teacher, and I am selling her short. 

I could go on for ours about how an medieval meal was constructed and why I chose what I did but I think more importantly, you may want to know what some of those things are. 

First Course Descriptions
Salet was a mixed herb salad. No greens were used and just a touch of herbed vinegar. Brawn is just pork with the sauce, a white wine, pepper and clove concoction. Very deft touches on all the spicings. I was surprised by how much spice would be used for a middle class house and how delicate the flavours were in the dishes. Bruette Saak was chicken in a clear spicy broth. It allowed me to indulge one of my favourite idiosyncrasies of meat and fruit. Dates were added to give the dish depth. Stewed cabbage probably doesn't need an explanation, does it? Custard cream was a savory custard served in a tart shell. 

Second Course Descriptions
Pomme Dorryse, or Golden Apples for those who do not like French with their meals, are meatballs. These contained currants and saffron. Gingerbryd is not what you are thinking. The medieval gingerbread was a mixture of quite spicy crumb balls held together with honey. Coney in Clear Broth is rabbit in broth. Sensing a theme with all the broths? Custard Lombard are individual sweetish custards with very little fruit at the bottom. Shrimp was the last thing listed but it is the one dish that most startled me and gave me insight into medieval cookery. Boil shrimp, serve it with a little wine and herbed vinegar. I am guessing that this eventually gave way to the shrimp cocktail we know now but it was more impressive because of its simplicity.

The only other menu item I would like to draw attention to is the buttered beer. That was definitely a hit or miss for people. You are basically adding sugar and spices to a low alcohol ale and serving it warm. 

I learned so much about balance and adding more acid to my meals from making this one. It is why I do some of these theme parties so that I can look at my own food in a different way. Most of the preparations were of the simpler variety. I tried for a typical Sunday meal for a middle class household. These household would definitely have at least a cook to cook and probably a few staff in the kitchen. It is possible to do these preparation without help but only for a dinner party.