Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drinking for the Phoenix

Much of my new drinking has been driven by what I am writing about for The Providence Phoenix. Some have already trickled onto the blog already, but here are the ones I have neglected to this point:

Irish Ayes
Murphy's Irish Red Beer, Score: 5
O'Hara's Irish Red, Score: 5
O'Hara's Irish Stout, Score: 8
Strangford Lough Legbiter, Score: 6
Strangford Lough St. Patrick's Best, Score: 5

Justified Arrogance
Stone 07.07.07 Vertical Epic Ale, Score: 8
Stone Double Bastard Ale, Score: 9
Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine Style Ale 2006, Score: 8
Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine Style Ale 2009, Score: 7
Stone Russian Imperial Stout 2006, Score: 9
Stone Russian Imperial Stout 2009, Score: 8
Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, Score: 9

Eel River Climax Noel, Score: 6
Neumarkter Lammsbrau Organic Pilsner, Score: 8
Pinkus-Mueller Organic Ur Pils, Score: 7
Samuel Smith's Organic Raspberry Fruit Beer, Score: 3
Samuel Smith's Organically Produced Ale, Score: 8

Have Beer, Will Travel
21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer, Score: 1
Butternuts Moo Thunder Stout, Score: 4
Central City Red Racer Pale Ale, Score: 6
Oskar Blues GUBNA Imperial IPA, Score: 5
Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, Score: 8

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Savor the flavors of beer

Beer is a chef’s best friend
By Josh Smith June 16, 2010

Beer makes everything better, even food. And not just as an accompaniment to food, but as food.
Cooking with beer is fun and can add flair to just about any dish. Beer is versatile enough to be used with most cooking techniques: marinating, grilling, baking, frying, stewing, poaching, simmering, braising, and beyond. When liquids are called for, beer can generally be substituted.

While many have cooked with wine, the same is not true for beer. This is curious since often the ingredients in beer are more appropriate in the kitchen. Hops provide bitterness, malts sweetness, and the yeast produces a fluffy and tender texture. Even in small amounts, beer can have a profound impact on a dish’s flavor.

This is important to remember since flavors become concentrated when boiled down and beers have a tendency to act as a bittering agent. Pairing with sweet vegetables or adding honey can overcome this obstacle. Similarly, including thickeners like flour or gelatin can help to offset beer’s natural tendency to thin out a recipe.

Given beer’s carbonation, it’s often a good idea to whisk out the bubbles beforehand. That said, you do need to use fresh beer; flat beer is never a good idea. And don’t worry about serving any of these meals to little Jimmy — alcohol evaporates when heated.

But what type of beer is best to cook with? For starters, don’t cook with a beer you wouldn’t drink. Much like when pairing beer and food, I prefer to use lighter beers with lighter dishes and heavier beers with more robust meals. Dark, malty beers are typically easier to cook with versus a hop monster or another extreme beer.

Most of the cooking that I’ve done with beer has been with meaty entrees. Beer is especially useful in these situations since it can tenderize, flavor, and even sanitize the meat. I’m not the only one who has figured this out; beer-battered fish is a brewpub staple and beer can chicken has made repeated appearances on the Food Network.

But for me, where else to start but with beer brats? I use six ounces of my homebrewed Porter to simmer some bratwurst and chopped sweet onion (which has already been browned) for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced to a syrup. The brats can be served alone on a bun or as a side along with the onions. Just about any beer will give the sausages more flavor than cooking them in water, but I really love how the sweet malts give a depth to the taste of the brats.

My wife also has an exceptional recipe for BBQ-Stout ribs. The rub is made up of a few different basic spices and the barbecue sauce. Along with an onion, three cloves of garlic, and two bottles of Stout, cook the ribs and remaining sauce in a slow cooker on high. Six hours later you will have some delicious ribs that just fall off the bone.

I’ve cooked with lighter beers as well, such as cod poached in Pabst Blue Ribbon. As you might expect, you don’t taste the beer in the fish since there isn’t a whole lot of flavor to begin with. Not a huge deal with PBR, but generally, if I’m going to pour precious beer into my food, I want to taste the beer!

As I mentioned before, beer doesn’t have to be limited to meats or entrees. Half a bottle of Black Lager worked beautifully in my black bean dip appetizer. When baking beer cheese bread I’ll use a fairly traditional Pale Ale. And supposedly Wit beer is the secret ingredient for the world’s greatest pancakes!

For dessert I recently poached four cored apples in maple syrup and Shipyard’s Prelude Special Ale. Topped with whipped cream, toasted oats, and fresh berries, the presentation is appropriate for the fanciest of dinner parties.

Honestly, though, simpler recipes allow the beer to stand out better. It is hard to beat Rogue’s Chocolate Stout in an ice cream float. Or how about some of Lindeman’s Framboise over vanilla ice cream? Be creative! When it comes to beer and food, if it sounds good, it probably is.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Union Station

Disclaimer up front: I am no apologist for brewpub chains. All too often it seems like these restaurant chains view beer as nothing more than a product and marketing edge. So this was actually my first visit to the John Harvard Brewpub chain.

Union Station has a great location right in downtown Providence. After a summer concert in Waterplace Park, my wife, a couple of friends, and I stopped in for a meal and sampler tray. The brick ambiance of what was assumedly an old train station was pleasant. The memorabilia celebrating another brewer -- Narragansett -- was kind of odd.

The Summer Blonde (4) was quite malty for a blonde. It was also the only beer of the night with decent carbonation since their tap lines desperately needed a cleaning. Golden Spike Ale (6) really wasn't a golden with a dark complexion and generous hopping. Probably the best beer of the night though... Trip Hop (5) tasted a lot like a flat, fruity Wit beer. I had high hopes for their Half Day IPA (5) but it too was flat with a cloying bitterness. The proceeds of the River Otter Ale (3) went to the Roger Williams Park Zoo, which was nice. Sadly, the beer was not, tasting most like a raspberry Snapple. Lastly, was their Barleywine (4), with raw piney hops, some alcohol, and a general dullness.

I don't like to pile on brewers, so let's just say this is exactly what you would expect. I would rank it a half step below Rock Bottom Brewery. Still preferable to The 99, Applebee's, and the like though.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beer on a Budget

In defense of expense
By JOSH SMITH May 19, 2010

The beer industry is generally considered recession-proof, since people are still going to drink beer when times get tough. But has the same been true for more expensive craft beer in the recent recession?

Not too long ago one of my favorite fellow beer bloggers, Jeff Alworth of, commissioned a very unscientific but still interesting survey on whether the recession had influenced personal drinking habits. An impressive 53 percent responded that in some way their drinking habits had already changed. Obviously a shift is underway, which leaves the question of how to continue drinking craft beer when on a budget.

This isn’t just a theoretical exercise for the Smith household, as my wife was recently laid off along with several hundred other teachers in her district. Being reduced to a single income would certainly alter our lifestyle, drinking habits included. Judging by Rhode Island’s 12.6 percent unemployment rate, the third highest in the country, we aren’t the only ones making tough choices.

Making matters worse is beer’s rising price tag. The past few years have seen the largest cost increase for ingredients since the dawn of the craft beer movement. With many farmers shifting to planting corn in order to cash in on lucrative ethanol prices, the cost of a pound of malted barley has increased by 50 percent. Still more pronounced is the shortage of hops, which have quadrupled in price in some places! Even the cost of glass bottles has gone up. Every one of these costs is passed on to the consumer, giving you the days of $10 six-pack that are now upon us.

So when I am feeling a little strapped for cash, my first recourse is to stay in that night. It is expensive to drink out, and you probably pay two to three times more in a bar for the same exact beer you can buy in a store. While not economical from a volume perspective, sampler trays allow you to try four different beers for around $8. Samplers provide an opportunity to be social and experience what a bar has to offer without breaking the bank.

When stocking up on beer, make sure your liquor store’s prices are where they should be. Driving the extra distance to my favorite store makes a difference — 50 cents to a dollar less on each purchase adds up. Watch for sales too: Nikki’s Liquors in Providence recently featured HARPOON as their “brewer of the month,” offering six-packs for $7.49. Not bad.

Be sure to consider volume as you shop as well. Just do the math; even a moderately priced 22-ounce bomber at $5.49 works out to be an $18 six-pack by volume! When you really think about it, six-packs are a no-brainer. It is harder to find 12-packs of good beer, but at $15 for a case of SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE or SHIPYARD EXPORT ALE, the price is right.

Obviously some beers are a better value than others. Try to avoid slickly marketed and overpriced brands. Both newly-launched and local brewers tend to be cheaper, and bargains can always be found among the German lagers.

Regional brewers like NARRAGANSETT and YUENGLING are an even better deal with six-packs for only $5 — and for ’Gansett you are getting six tall boys! I will often keep one of these on hand to switch over to on session nights.

This is a topic for another day, but one more way to save money is by taking up home brewing. The initial start-up cost of equipment will be under $100 and from there on out you are churning out six-packs of delicious homemade beer in a style of your choosing for only $5. Pretty cheap as far as hobbies go.

Hopefully these tips will help, but I wouldn’t be writing this column if I wasn’t prepared to defend the added expense of drinking good beer. Ultimately, beer expenditures make up a very small percentage of your house-hold budget, and bring more than enough joy to justify the outlay. Besides, even the most expensive beers are still a whole lot cheaper than drinking a bottle of wine!