Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beer Equivalency

Drinking wine in an analytic way has helped me put beer styles in better perspective. Take for example India Pale Ale (IPA). I used to love IPA, but I've come to realize that they're generally poorly balanced. And yet they represent a beer drinker's beer, much in the same way a Napa Cab would be a wine drinker's wine. IPA's tend be high alcohol, which gives them a degree of robustness not found in lighter beers, but what's usually most noticeable is the hops. Some IPAs are extremely bitter and almost metallic tasting because of the hoppiness, and are aromatically dominated by the hops as well. This represents almost a one-to-one correlation with a highly, extracted, high alcohol, heavily oaked Napa-style wine. Here there's bitterness and aromatics dominated by oak influence, as well as tannins from both fruit and oak that drown out any nuance.

I'm no expert, but Double (Triple?) IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts seem to be the most extreme examples in the genre. Certainly I'd go to these as man beers, especially because of the effects of the elevated alcohol. But given that brewing offers the flexibility to combine virtually any ingredient to add flavors and aromas, it almost seems a waste to focus on power at the expense of complexity.

On an unrelated note, a couple of beers I tasted from Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara showed an unexpected aroma: funk. As in Brett funk. This was present in both their California Ale and Stock Porter. I know they produce one beer, a wheat ale, intentionally using Brettanomyces yeast. They also note the California Ale is "fermented with a unique yeast strain that accentuates the hoppy spiciness, while also imparting fruity and subtly tart flavors." Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but Brett produces acid in the process of fermentation and when allowed to dominate the fermentation produces sour ales. Is the "tartness" from a "unique yeast strain" really referring to a controlled, secondary contribution from Brett? The brewery also writes that the "aromas are spicy and earthy, reminiscent of the rich agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Barbara." A euphemism for animale funk, perhaps?

The Porter meanwhile is aged in Zinfandel barrels, so that's another potential source of Brett. Furthermore, their beers are bottle conditioned, which I take to mean there are fermentable sugars and yeast that continue the fermentation in bottle. You can be sure that if Brett's around, it'll assist in the bottle conditioning since it's a very robust micro-critter.

Anyway, these were complex, medium bodied beers. Whether the Brett was intentional or introduced from ambient sources (barrels, another beer), it added a little attractive rusticity that one rarely finds outside the wine world. Now if only wineries could figure out how to co-exist with Brett. Right now, at least in the US, it's treated like the plague. Maybe brewing in relative micro-quantities allows one to manage Brett where in the less controlled fermentation of grapes it might run completely rampant, however.

5 comments:

Jeff said...

Interesting note on the Brett. I certainly have had some funky Belgian beers in my day, but none that I really would have identified as "Bretty." Then again, I generally don't approach beer in the same way I approach wine. Having said that, I'm all about Stone Vertical Epic, Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, La Chouffe, and my personal favorite, Piraat. Beer is cool because you can pick up Piraat for 10$, and it's basically one of the top 10 beers in the world. That ain't possible with DRC...

CabFrancoPhile said...

The one ultra-Bretty beer I've tried that was specifically recommended to me is the Girardin Black Label. Very sour, though not as stinky as I'd hoped it would be. Maybe you've already had that one?

Beer is much more scientific, and what you make is very reproducible. Wine has this problem of variation from year to year, bottle to bottle as well as tons of labels. DRC makes a vanishingly small amount of wine each year. Best rep, but what are the odds theirs is the best given all the producers in Burgundy? But we don't have (reliable) information available to find the $30 wine that rivals the $3000 one.

Jeff said...

No, I've never had the Girardin, although perhaps I'll track it down. I started drinking "good" beer before wine...so I really like beer too. Sounds interesting. Have you ever had a red beer? They're interesting because they're very similar to vinegar, and a little sour. Duchesse de Bourgogne is the one I've had most often, and is pretty interesting and different. That's worth trying at least once. Super weird.

I'm sure there are Burgundy producers that rival DRC but are cheaper...I was using it as an example of something that is extremely expensive that is considered the best. Piraat, by comparison, is cheap. If you haven't had Piraat, you should try it. It's very well balanced; great with food...

CabFrancoPhile said...

Duchesse de Bourgogne was another recommended to me as Bretty under the red ale category. But I haven't tried it yet. I'll have to seek it out.

As well as Piraat. I've seen that around, for sure.

Jeff said...

Interesting that the Duchesse de Bourgogne would be mentioned as Bretty. It's been a long while since I've had it...as in before I knew what Brett was. Maybe I'll check it out again. Then again, every time I've had it, I've had it from a keg at the Stumbling Monk in Seattle. Maybe it's different in keg than bottle?

Definitely check out Piraat. It's super good. World class.