31 March 2010

Café Bustelo

About a year ago, the New York Times did a piece on the newfound popularity of Café Bustelo. Apparently it's trendy with hipsters at the moment, in that hilarious way that something that's been been a staple of Latino kitchens for 150 years is suddenly "discovered" by bored young people wearing stupid hats. I've always associated it with Cuban restaurants, where that little shot of dark sweet coffee at the end of the meal is so perfect. Got a ton of rice, black beans, plantains, and pork on your stomach? Chase it with a little café cubano to aid digestion. It's the more socially acceptable and time efficient alternative to a cigar, while packing a similar flavor.

Aside from the dark roasted espresso-style flavor, the main attraction of Bustelo is the fact that it's cheap. As in, really cheap. The 10 oz. can in the photo ran me about $3. In fact, it's a good thing to just grab and keep in the pantry for emergencies, or when you've got a recipe that calls for a few ounces of espresso and you don't have a steam pressure machine.

How is it? On its own, the coffee is strong, bitter, black, almost burnt. I crave and adore bitter flavors, so obviously I'm a fan, but I wouldn't recommend drinking several large cups of it first thing in the morning. It's really meant to be enjoyed in small dozes, or as café con leche in a one-to-one ratio with milk, plus sugar to taste. The sweetness of the sugar and the creamy/savory milk balance out the powerful flavors, but do not completely mask them as would happen with plain coffee. This concept is why Starbucks has historically been so successful: not selling coffee, but selling burnt concentrated coffee flavor diluted with a dozen other ingredients.

One bit of advice: the fine grind of Bustelo can be a little muddy if you're using a French press. If this bothers you, just give it a quick strain through a filter, or avoid pouring the last dregs from the carafe. Otherwise, cowboy up and drink the stray grounds like a real man.

29 March 2010

2007 Michael David Petite Petit

I think I'm one of the last people to taste this wine--it was used for a local online tasting, I've seen dozens of reviews of it by fellow winebloggers, but I'm just getting around to it. The Roommate is terrified of clowns, so perhaps subconsciously I was concerned about bringing a circus-themed wine into the house.

The 2007 Michael David Petite Petit, $18, 14.5% abv, hails from Lodi in California and is comprised of 85% Petite Sirah and 15% Petit Verdot. Obviously a cute idea to pair two small, powerful grapes with similar names, but this wine isn't a gimmick. Paul and I sat down to a couple of big, well-marbled ribeyes and opened up this bottle.

Leather and bacon fat, deep stewed plum aroma. Full blackberry flavor with a touch of black pepper. Vibrant magenta-purple, the big berry juice lasts for a long time afterward.

Design-wise this label is something of a jumbled mess with too much going on, but if you tell somebody to pick up the circus wine with elephants on the front there's not going to be much confusion. Still, it reminds me of a MAD Magazine fold-in by Al Jaffee. Perhaps the sides of the elephants turn into the middle of a plum, with the title "PIT".

26 March 2010

2008 Rocca Sveva Soave

Soave is rapidly becoming one of my favorite wines. Like sparkling wines and rosés, a Soave will go along with practically anything.

The 2008 Rocca Sveva Soave comes from the Veneto region in northern Italy. $15, 12.5% abv, 100% Garganega. Initial floral and jasmine aroma with hints of Meyer lemon. There's a subtle citrus flavor profile that's not overwhelming like with a brassy Sauvignon Blanc. Medium tartness with a short finish.

I served this at a tasting with some friends where it performed well with a variety of cheeses and appetizers. However, I'd love to try it with cheese tortellini and braised rabbit. But as I said at the beginning, these wines will pair with pork, seafood, poultry--definitely something to keep on hand for those occasions when you're headed to a dinner party and don't know what's being served, or you just want an all-purpose wine at the house for any possible occasion.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

24 March 2010

Wychwood Beer

Publishing note: I've always maintained a backlog of several weeks' worth of entries, and they're set to automatically post to the blog even if I'm unable to get to a computer. Why do I do this? I like consistency, and it's not uncommon for people to stop following a site if it goes silent for a week or more. There are also times when I know if I force myself to write, the work will suffer.

This week I'm down with a hideous cold and have just been alerted to a death in the family. So posting will continue with or without me, but I may not be responsive to comments or e-mail. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

* * *

"The Wychwood Brewery is tucked away behind the main street of the market town of Witney, in the heart of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds." This description could be applied to a producer of industrial insecticide and it would still sound twee and quaint. Establishing a wildlife hospital to care for wounded animals? It needs to be named St Tiggywinkles!

Both bottles are an even 500mL. Hurrah for the metric system! A traditional British pint is 568 mL and a traditional American pint is 473 mL. And things get even weirder when measuring by ounces, the worst Imperial unit in common usage. On the other hand, a half litre is exactly the same all over the planet.

Wychcraft Blonde Beer, $4, 4.5% abv. Light amber in color, soft and refreshing with a touch of citrus and a slightly bitter finish. Very mild flavors though not watery. I don't think I've ever had an English beer that really wowed me, but I've encountered many like this that were plenty enjoyable. However, if I had to pick between the two, my preference would be for the...

Scarecrow Pale Ale, $4, 4.7% abv. This one is USDA Certified Organic if you're interested in keeping an all-organic kitchen. The Scarecrow is very similar in every respect to the Blonde Beer except that it's more bitter and has some ginger elements. If you're looking to make the leap into Pale Ales, this would be a great place to start--not overly hopped, and you can work your way up to Imperial Stouts and serious hop bombs.

Both were served with griddled burgers and steak-cut fries. While neither beer really blew me away, they were enjoyable and easy drinking, and should be available in major grocery stores across the country.

P.S. The name of this brewery reminds me of the disturbing real-life mystery best known by the phrase "Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?"

22 March 2010

Michel Cluizel Chocolates

When I was a child, I really didn't get excited about chocolate. I didn't hate it, but when it came to candy I preferred caramel/butterscotch and when it came to ice cream I'd typically grab something odd. (Let's hear it for the authentic banana ice cream at the Freeze-Way in Whitehaven, circa 1984! They also made a great Purple Cow.) Sampler trays of chocolates did nothing for me, and I remember one brand that was described as "containing enough paraffin that you could insert a wick and use it as a candle".

A chocophile girlfriend in the mid-90s introduced me to Godiva, and I learned to appreciate different types of chocolate and a wide assortment of truffles. A trip to the Netherlands introduced me to the sublime, buttery joy of Belgian chocolates like Leonidas. For the next decade, I went back to ignoring chocolate except occasionally using cocoa powder in a South American recipe or making a dessert for a friend.

I lucked out with losing my sweet tooth around the same time that artisanal, high percentage cacao chocolates became widely available, and I discovered a wide range of delightful bitter and savory flavors that aren't present in your standard Hershey bar. Even better, such dark chocolates could be enjoyed aside great cheeses, dessert/fortified wines, and even regular wines like high-powered California Zinfandel.

I'm far from a chocolate expert or connoisseur, but I've tried enough varieties to have an idea about what's going on. So I jumped at the opportunity to try a set of chocolates made from specific plantations around the world. The parent company is Michel Cluizel, based out of France.

I had 9 samples here, but I'm going to focus on five from specific countries. After all, this collection is referred to as the 1ers Crus de Plantation, a name that piqued my wine lover interest.

The chocolate from Sao Tome (an island off the west coast of Africa right on the Equator) was 67% cacao and had a tangy flavor without any noticeable bitterness. A solid dark chocolate.

The chocolate from New Guinea was a lighter milk chocolate formulation, 47% cacao. Very creamy, rich, and smooth, with an earthy undertone that you wouldn't get from a cheap mass production milk chocolate.

Venezuela's submission was by far the favorite of the tasters, at 66% cacao and an enchanting spice profile. The only one not from an island, by the way. A honey-like muskiness combined with cinnamon and allspice. This was really fascinating.

The sample from the Dominican Republic was brittle but had a tangy, molasses-like character. 67% cacao, sharp and bold.

Finally, Madagascar produced the second favorite chocolate, with a very ripe fruity flavor similar to apricots or dried fruit. 65% cacao yet more bitter than the other selections.

The remaining four samples included various milk and dark chocolates made from blends. Tasty, but I was mostly interested in the difference in terroir among the various countries.

If you're interested in trying the chocolates of Michel Cluizel, you can contact Noble Ingredients. In addition to the tasting squares shown above, there are a number of bars, bonbons, and other chocolate products to order.

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A quick note on luxury products and geography. I've drawn a simplified map here, in very broad strokes, to illustrate a point I don't think many people get. The angle at which the sun strikes the earth, and with that the changes in seasons and length of day and everything else, determines which kind of plants thrive in which environment. Roughly speaking, the north and south purple belts are where you can grow grapes and the brown belt in the middle is where you grow coffee, tobacco, and chocolate. Yes, there are exceptions based on ocean currents, deserts, mountains, etc., but understanding the general principle will explain a lot about world trade, imperialism, and agriculture over the past 500 years.

Note: These chocolates were received as a sample from Noble Ingredients.

19 March 2010

Honduran Dinner

A friend of mine is headed to Honduras on a church trip, and I was inspired to fix her a Honduran meal. Of course, I knew nothing of Honduran cuisine, so it was mostly an excuse for me to do some research and play around in the kitchen.

I don't really know that there's a distinct Honduran culinary tradition, rather it's more a point on a general Central American/Caribbean continuum. That is in no way a criticism of Honduran food. It's more like talking about Southern food here in the United States. There are subtle variations as you travel from Tennessee to Mississippi to Alabama to Georgia, but most of the native cuisine is fundamentally similar.

My reading didn't deliver any unique dishes or ingredients, but rather a few exceptions and caveats: tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and tend to have bones in them; don't serve rice and beans if you're serving plantains; use white corn instead of yellow corn for tortillas and other applications. (I'm sure someone will come along to point out that all three of these are wrong, and I welcome the clarification.)

But I did find a couple of recipes that were written by Hondurans, and gave them a shot. For starters, I made a salsa with mangos, avocados, red onion, ancho chiles, and tomatoes. Nothing particularly special here, though you can juggle the proportions around to produce a guacamole or a pico de gallo or even a garnish. (If I'd had it on hand, some fresh cilantro would have been very nice).

For the main dish, I made a batch of chicken thighs. I cooked them the night before and then for lunch made a sofrito and added the poultry to the Dutch oven. Then it was time for a can of unsweetened coconut milk, and I let everything stew for about half an hour before serving. While the aroma is amazing, the finished product has little in the way of coconut flavor. It tastes great, but it's a surprisingly subtle seasoning. It's an interesting yet equally viscous substitute to the can of "Cream of Chicken" or "Cream of Mushroom" soup used in so many shortcut recipes. To go along with it all I made a pot of short-grain rice and red kidney beans flavored with chorizo. It was tempting to turn the gallo pinto into something like New Orleans red beans and rice, but I tried to keep things vaguely authentic.

Overall a success. The salsa was amazing, and the main course, while simple, was pretty tasty and made for delicious leftovers. I've done stewed pork in coconut milk before (I even shaved and boiled the coconut meat myself), but I think I'll be experimenting with this ingredient some more and might even tackle a Thai curry. What about the wine? I served the Hay Shed Hill Chardonnay mentioned last week, though part of me was craving an ice cold Red Stripe with a sliver of lime jammed down the neck.

17 March 2010

Wine Past Its Prime

In the immortal words of Norm from Cheers, "Some days you're the puppy, and some days you're the newspaper."

It happens to all of us, though I've had a pretty good track record. In fact, I haven't met a corked wine in over a year. I don't know if that's luck or the fact that I've been drinking a lot of wines with screwcaps/synthetic corks/Zorks. But we all get burned occasionally. I did recently help a friend identify a wine that had a horrible brett infection, and I've come across one or two bearing that petroleum tinge that comes from processing in the wrong kind of plastic.

But the most common flaw you're likely to encounter is simple oxidation. Maybe a bad cork, maybe improper storage, or maybe it was just a wine that wasn't meant to age. The wine turns brown, becomes sour, and it's more like drinking vinegar than wine. The 2000 Georges Dubœuf Moulin-à-Vent Prestige pictured here wasn't quite oxidized, but with another year or two it would have gotten there.

As of 2010 it was merely dead. Drinkable, but a ghost of its former self. An ex-wine, not even pining for the fjords. I could pick up a little cherry structure, a light and balanced body that would have been great five years ago, and the vintage charts claim this was a good year for Beaujolais. However, there's no reason to be angry or upset. Wine is sometimes a gamble, and I've had many more wins than losses.

15 March 2010

HobNob Wines

Receiving a big box of HobNob Wines was an interesting experience. I pulled out the Merlot, thought, "Hmm, California." Then pulled out a Shiraz and thought, "Australia!" And finally I looked on the back of the Chardonnay and saw that it was from France. In fact, all five wines are from the south of France, in the Languedoc region that produces a lot of bulk wine. The classification here is vin de table, or table wine. It's the lowest rank of French wines, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it--over 50% of the wine made in France falls in this category. It's what people drink at lunch and at casual dinners. Even in France, it's not all premier cru all the time.

Marketing these wines in the US has been tricky. At such low prices, the profit margins are lower as well, and there's not the name recognition you get with the AOC regions. Red Bicyclette has been a clever success by Gallo at selling a line of French table wine (technically Vin de Pays d'Oc, but the principle is the same), using simple, uncomplicated labels that evoke idealized American images of France from the 1950s. And on the subject of the recent scandal, Gallo was the victim. My point stands that they have successfully moved a lot of basic French wine in America with this strategy.

HobNob seems to take a different approach, branding itself as conspicuously non-French. The country of origin is on the back in small letters, but everything on the front screams California or Australia. From the labeling by grape variety rather than region to the general design, to the synthetic black corks, to the use of Shiraz instead of Syrah (the former common only in Australia and South Africa). I'm not accusing them of being misleading. Like I said, marketing bargain French wines can be difficult, since many wine novices might find French wines intimidating and more experienced wine fans are going to be looking for higher grade wines. It's sort of like when your mom would sneak vegetables into your macaroni and cheese. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's just confusing.

Here's the notes on the five wines:

2006 HobNob Shiraz
$9, 13% abv
Tart cherry with a little bit of pepper. Overripe berry flavors. Very light tannins.

2006 HobNob Merlot
$9, 13% abv
Big jammy wine with lots of blackberries and a spicy finish. Firm tannins.

2007 HobNob Cabernet Sauvignon
$9, 13% abv
Black cherry and brambles, rough on the start but it smooths out over time.

2008 HobNob Pinot Noir
$9, 13% abv
Strawberry jam, kind of a crisp and tart mouthfeel. Still the smoothest of the reds.

2007 HobNob Chardonnay
$9, 13% abv
Very light banana and floral aroma, with a hint of roasted nuts on the finish. Medium acidity, crisper on the start than on the finish. Definitely my favorite out of the bunch.

Like YellowTail or Crane Lake, these are the kind of bargain wines you'd pick up for a party, art exhibit, theatre reception, or similar event. Grab a case of the Chardonnay and a mixed case of the reds and you've got a set of grapes that a big crowd will recognize. Sometimes a friend will ask my advice on such an event. "Benito--I need to get 48 bottles of wine for a wedding reception. Any suggestions?" And I immediately think about 48 individual bottles of wine that would be fun, unique, and distinctive. Of course, that would require hitting up half a dozen shops around town. Not to mention the poor waitress or bartender that's stuck with 48 different bottles in ten different languages and no information on what they're like beyond red or white. There are times when it helps to keep things simple.

Available from Amazon.com:
2010 Hob Nob Pinot Noir 750ml
Hob Nob Cabernet Sauvignon 750ML
2010 Hob Nob Chardonnay 750ml
Hob Nob Merlot 2006 750ML
2007 Hob Nob Shiraz France 750ml

Note: These wines were received as samples from Hob Nob.

12 March 2010

Hay Shed Hill Wines

Hay Shed Hill is a winery in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, way down there in the bottom left corner of the country. Click on the map I drew and look for the tiny sliver of red next to the big star. This vineyard was originally a dairy farm that was home to returning veterans of WWI (remember the Diggers on ANZAC Day). Vines were first planted in 1973. The land has changed hands several times since then and it's currently run by winemaker Michael Kerrigan.

As I've said before, most wine in Australia comes from the big producers of South Australia, but it's worth checking out the other regions. Western Australia has always fascinated me because I think it's about as far as you can get from the United States without leaving the planet, but the folks there speak English and the area was settled by British emigrants in the 1800s, just like my ancestors. And when it comes to wine, Western Australia makes me think of Washington and Oregon: a bit off the beaten path, a little lighter and more restrained, but certainly individual and interesting.

Here's four wines from Hay Shed Hill, all enclosed with convenient screwcaps:

2007 Hay Shed Hill Shiraz
86% Shiraz, 14% Tempranillo
$16, 13.5% abv
Touch of black cherry and licorice, a bold start with a light lingering finish. Very ripe and almost tart towards the end. The Tempranillo is a delightful addition, and gives this wine more of a Spanish feel than your typical giant Shiraz fruit bomb.

2008 Hay Shed Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
$19, 14.5% abv
Nice green pepper aroma at first, giving way to rich dark plum flavors and hints of leather and smoke. Very Bordeaux-like in its profile, and while higher in alcohol than the Shiraz it's nowhere near hot. I would love to see this one with a few more years of cellaring. Good now, could be spectacular in about five years.

2008 Hay Shed Hill Chardonnay
$19, 12.5% abv.
Aromas of pear and ginger. Initially tart with a bold green apple and ripe pear flavor, that gives way to a long and more mellow finish. A little cream and vanilla from the 11 months in French oak, but it's not buttery or over-oaked.

2008 Hay Shed Hill Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon
$16, 12.5% abv
51% Sauvignon Blanc, 49% Semillon
Another Bordeaux blend, this fun little white has a grassy, earthy nose with aromas of lemongrass and a touch of honey. Lime curd flavors, tart and fairly acidic, with a quick, clean finish. This made me crave crab cakes so much I almost capped the bottle and ran to the store. I would recommend it with something like a salade niçoise or lobster roll, where you want something cold and crisp to cut through the savory mayo-seafood combination.

These wines were received as samples from The Country Vintner.

10 March 2010

2007 Bad Boy Red

In the past ten years there have been a lot of cowboy or western-themed wines. Typically these are big red blends, priced between $10-15, and aimed at convincing Joe Sixpack that wine can be manly too. Some examples: Frontier Red, Rustler's Red, The Show, Purple Cowboy, and Three Thieves. I don't know how successful this marketing strategy has been, but I know a few guys who might bristle at purchasing a bottle covered in flowers and French calligraphy. Comforting labels featuring cute animals helped move a lot of Australian juice--love it or hate it, introductory wine buyers can get scared by more traditional designs.

But just because a wine has a cowboy on it doesn't mean that it's a cheap wine made of random grapes picked throughout California. Bucking that trend is the 2007 Bad Boy Red made by Rocca Family Vineyard in Napa. $32, 14.5% abv.

This is a classic Bordeaux blend--thanks to the TTB we can't call it claret anymore. 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot. From two vineyards in Napa: 78% from Collinetta Vineyard in Coombeville and 22% from Grigsby Vineyard in Yountville. 563 cases produced.

This is definitely a serious wine, not a marketing gimmick, and I love the heavy percentage of Cabernet Franc. Leather and roasted green pepper aroma, touch of cigar, hint of blueberries. On the palate it's smooth with medium tannins showing up on the finish. Blackberries and black cherries are present but there's a vegetal edge that keeps things serious. The Petit Verdot gives it a tiny floral element that's nice as well. I served it with smoked beef brisket, which seemed appropriate.

This wine was received as a sample from Rocca Family Vineyard.

08 March 2010

Wine Guerrilla Zinfandels

Wine Guerrilla is a company that produces Zinfandel with grapes sourced from various vineyards throughout Sonoma County. There are eight different bottles in the current range, priced from $12-35. Why make eight different Zinfandels? There's a surprising amount of variety within a relatively small area and with the judicious blending of Petite Sirah or other red grapes, a good winemaker can make a unique wine. When I visited Sonoma last year I was amazed to taste, say three Zinfandels at one winery, drive a mile, and try three very different Zinfandels at the neighboring winery.

If you're interested in how these little subregions of Sonoma differ from one another, it would be worthwhile to work through these wines. You'll get a little tour of the region under the direction of a single winemaking philosophy. I got to try two:

The 2008 Russian River Valley, $18, 16.5% abv. 86% Zinfandel from MacMurray Ranch and 14% Petite Sirah from Forchini's Russian River Ranch. A big, bold red with strong black cherry aromas and a Port-like character. Tart with lots of overripe berry flavors. As it breathes and opens up over the course of a few hours, it softens and has a rounder mouthfeel.

The 2008 Adel's Vineyard Dry Creek Valley is a smaller run with 210 cases made. $30, 16.3% abv. 100% Zinfandel. Much more complex with vegetal notes, a touch of chocolate, and a brambly aspect. On the palate are wild strawberries, more chocolate, and just a slightly bitter finish with mouth-drying tannins.

For higher alcohol, fruit-forward wines like these I'd recommend roast lamb, venison, or another strongly-flavored meat with a rich sauce.

Note: These wines were received as samples from Wine Guerrilla.

05 March 2010

2007 Wine by Joe Pinot Gris

A lot of foodbloggers are attempting to do a better job of eating fresh foods and leftovers before they go bad, getting to the frozen Ziploc containers before the contents become unidentifiable, and deliberately reaching into the back of the pantry to clean out those old cans, boxes, and bags. For instance, I recently had a late night snack made from two gifts that had been rattling around for far too long: TUC paprika crackers from Germany and a tin of sardines in mustard sauce. Sardines are kind of trendy these days (pretty healthy, lower in mercury than tuna, etc.), and mashed up with the mustard sauce in the tin the spread was great on the spicy, salty, buttery crackers that taste like Ritz plus paprika. Granted, you don't often encounter a spinal column wrapped in fish skin sticking out of your cracker spread, but hey, it's a good source of calcium.

In a similar desire to knock out some old stuff, I grabbed another fistful of angel hair pasta (why do I have so much of this?) and a can of minced clams. I figured it was a good excuse to make a simple spaghetti alla vongole. Yes, I could have read my Marcella Hazan books, translated a recipe from La Cucina Italiana, or even utilized Gwenyth Paltrow's recipe because when it comes to authentic Italian cuisine, you really want to trust a Hollywood actress who isn't Italian. But I mostly freestyled it with fresh garlic, red pepper flakes (also from the pantry!) and a good bit of olive oil.

The end result was good, but obviously fresh clams would make for a better and more attractive dish. I don't mind cleaning and tending to live clams for a day or two, but for some reason I have a hard time convincing my friends that they're worth eating. Also, next time I'll use regular spaghetti or linguine; angel hair just makes a mess here.

Anyway, I paired this dish with the 2007 Wine by Joe Pinot Gris from Oregon, $14, 13.5% abv. Light pear aroma with floral notes, smooth and round with a rich pear flavor. Dry but surprisingly fruit-forward and medium-bodied, with a short finish and low acidity. I might have been a little aggressive with the garlic and red pepper flakes, but this wine held up admirably. A few years ago after trying a few dozen Pinot Grigios I got tired of the whole style, thinking of it as boring and flavorless. But recent experience with amazing Pinot Gris from the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand is leading me to reconsider this grape. It doesn't have to be watery and thin, it can be rich yet delicate and have a lot of character.

Tip of the hat here to Joe from Suburban Wino. He didn't recommend it, but with a name like "Wine by Joe" I had to mention him. Joe has suggested some great blogs for WITS and has been helpful in promoting this blog via Twitter and Facebook. Thanks Joe, and I hope you get to try this wine at some point.

03 March 2010

2007 Nobilo Pinot Gris

I love keeping a couple of light white wines around, and will occasionally move one to the fridge if I think it might go well with dinner. Recently I dug out the 2007 Nobilo Pinot Gris from Marlborough. $15, 14% abv. Light citrus aroma with some of that classic New Zealand grapefruit peel. Grapefruit and melon flavors follow through, with a creamy finish. Not too tart, very food friendly.

I served it with a roasted chicken thigh and a little angel hair pasta tossed with sautéed mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and spinach. Pretty easy to make--start with the mushrooms, eventually add the other vegetables. Deglaze with a bit of the wine, crush the tomatoes, and then add the barely-cooked angel hair to the skillet with a half cup or so of the starchy pasta water. Mix thoroughly with tongs, add grated hard cheese, and enjoy. Although it was cold and rainy outside a meal like this helps you look forward to spring.

UPDATE: This post originally identified this wine as a Sauvignon Blanc. Thanks to commenter Anonymous for the correction!

01 March 2010

Anchor Small Beer

An American expat living in Amsterdam told me that real Heineken could only be found in the Netherlands. After the tanks were emptied, they would be rinsed out and this waste water was shipped to the US under the Heineken label. I've got nothing against Heineken here or in the Netherlands (Grolsch is better!), but the first time I saw a green tanker truck pull up to a pub on the Damstraat, attach a hose and pump in hundreds of litres of beer... let's just say the exotic import magic died a little.

There are similar jokes about Corona, but it's somewhat related to the real production of small beer. You make a strong, powerful beer, then add more water to the mash and brew a weak, inexpensive, low-alcohol beer with those leftovers. Similar to modern "light bitter" in England. If you're interested in detailed tables of official British beer classifications from the 1700s to the present day, someone else has taken care of that for you.

You don't see this style often, so when I first spotted a bottle of the Anchor Small Beer from San Francisco I had to try it. $3, 3.3% abv, 22 oz. bottle. It's pretty weak compared to a lot of the beer I've had recently. Very light in flavor and body, though there is a bitter finish that's nice. Gigantic soap-like bubbles. They died down after a while, but just look at the bottle and glass. I wouldn't mind this as a draft beer, particularly to go with lunch--not too heavy, not filling at all, and no need for a nap afterward.

My first exposure to the term was in literature, particularly from Victorian England. I don't have an exact quote here, but I recall multiple instances of children drinking it. The first time I saw "small beer" I thought it was a reference to the size of the glass or bottle, like a "small Coke". Later a helpful footnote explained the difference. And of course you often see it in the metaphorical sense of meaning trifling objects of no importance, similar to "small potatoes".

Some literary references:

It's mentioned in James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson: an acquaintance named Foote tried to make money by partnering with a small beer brewer: "Fitzherbert was one who took his small-beer; but it was so bad that the servants resolved not to drink it."

Charles Dickens included it as part of the background details of the era in various works. From Little Dorrit: "He resumed this occupation when he was replete with beef, had sucked up all the gravy in the baking-dish with the flat of his knife, and had drawn liberally on a barrel of small beer in the scullery."

William Shakespeare made several references to it. In Othello, Iago details the duties of a woman including "To suckle fools and chronicle small beer", used here in the figurative sense to keep track of minor kitchen stuff. In Henry IV, Part 2, the future Henry V asks, "Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?" as he's not quite ready to grow up. In Henry VI Part 2, right before the famous and oft-misunderstood desire to kill all the lawyers, Cade promises "I will make it felony to drink small beer". It should be noted that Shakespeare really loved unhopped ale made in England, and at the time hoppy beer from continental Europe was considered a separate beverage. Great to see that beer snobbery has a grand literary tradition.