At this point in craft beer’s lively existence, many avid imbibers are aware that most beer should be consumed fresh. As in, as fresh as possible. There are some styles that fare well or even better with some age, and although that segment of the industry has grown exponentially in recent times, the vast majority of beer sold is designed to be consumed within a general rule of 90 days after packaging. Unfortunately, I frequently see bars, bottle shops and friends hang onto beer for far longer. I’m by no means trying to shame anyone who never knew or mistakenly shoved a lost can in the back of their fridge for x number of months, but it’s a point of respect to the brewery and all those who got their product to yours truly to know, understand, and consume within a peak timeline. Wouldn’t you always want to have the best you could have? Of course you do! So how do you make the most of beer? Let’s get to the gist of it, friends.
More classics. An old one and a new one. There are many schools of cornbread, but to me there’s one true winner: all-cornmeal buttermilk skillet cornbread with lard or bacon fat. The dusty, sweet, rich and tart flavors are real comfort food. You could certainly drink a lager or an amber with cornbread, but I’d like to make an argument for an IPA. Because IPA needs a voice, right? Joking. But really, IPAs do have a place at the table–and we can place them thoughtfully.
Malted barley has many forms. In brewing, we speak of two categories: base malts and specialty malts. A base malt is the main star: a nicely modified, malted grain that easily converts its starches to sugar in the right environment (the mash). Base malts absolutely have signature flavors and characters–but specialty malts are, for lack of better word–special. Typically used in a much smaller percentage within a recipe, they contribute stronger flavors: caramel, roast, nutty, smoky, bready or toasty characters, for example. The expression of these flavors depends greatly upon type. It’s good to note that specialty malts are not required to make a (good) beer–in fact, some notable beers are brewed with just one base malt (say, a SMASH, many English Barleywines, some pilsners, Märzens, etc.). But there are lots of great options to add additional flavors from said specialty malts. Who wouldn’t want more flavor to play with!
Since the weather’s been ridiculous and wintery lately I’ve been spending more of my time watching movies–and more recently, the Olympics! Obviously the best snack with screen time is popcorn, and I especially love homemade popcorn. It’s far fresher and you can customize the seasoning and add flavors of choice. A number of beers would go nicely with popcorn, but I really enjoy a crisp pilsner alongside.
Hops, barley, and coconut: one of these things is not quite like the others. Coconut obviously does not usually thrive in traditional barley and hop-growing regions, and is a fairly contemporary addition to beer profiles and recipes. And yet, it’s cropping up in quite a few places. I like coconut, and I like beer, so let’s take a look at why brewers might be interested in the combination, and why beer-drinkers are excited about the products.
Beer and nuts! A match made in heaven. You’re already quite familiar with the classic (dive bar) combination of shelled roasted peanuts and light lagers, so why don’t we branch out a little and incorporate more beer styles and more types of nuts? Today I have a nice Belgian Dubbel and roasted pistachios. Pistachios can be fairly sweet-oriented if left unroasted and unsalted–and are lovely for desserts or in bread, but to complement a slightly sweet beer I recommend a roasted and salted nut.
Willamette hops are a truly notable variety of American hops. Named after the river and major hop growing region in Oregon, the hop has been an important player in NW farming and American brewing since it was introduced to market in 1976. While Washington state grows the vast majority of commercial hops in the US (75% in 2017 compared to Oregon’s 11%), Washington devotes only 1.5% of total acreage to Willamettes. On the other hand, Oregon maintains 11% of its acreage as Willamette focused. Willamette hops remain a solid friend and staple ingredient to craft brewers mostly thanks to Oregon farmers.
Two of my favorite things are right here: potatoes and IPA. There are a lot of options here for pairings, though, so I hope you’re ready for some variety. First, you must decide: what kind of potato salad? Classic summer BBQ style loaded up with mayo, boiled eggs, pickles and onions? German style with bacon and a warm dressing? French-inspired with tons of fresh herbs and white wine vinegar? The world is your pomme de terre. I went with a more Eastern European-like set of flavors: capers, cultured sour cream, a hearty dash of pickle brine. For IPA options, I would shy away from anything hazy or juicy here and stick with our old classic IPA friends that highlight citrusy and piney hops like Amarillo, Cascade, or Centennial. An attenuated body is desired, but a bit of caramel malt goes great as well.
Strictly speaking, “winter beer” or “winter ale” isn’t a specific category of beer like stout, amber or gose. It isn’t a style that reaches back decades or centuries to Europe, and it hasn’t really become an emerging craft trend in the US either, although it’s a common seasonal lineup for most craft breweries. As a bartender and bottle shopkeep I hear requests for winter ales this time of year. I always wonder what exactly the customer is wanting–because the genre of beer is so vague, I’ve always got to prompt the customer for more information. There are some major recurring characteristics of a “winter beer,” however, and you are probably already thinking of them. Here in the northern hemisphere around the winter holidays it’s cold, dark, and either snowy or rainy and damp. These environmental factors change the way we eat, interact, feel, and yes, drink.
It’s winter here in Seattle, which means it’s time to enjoy all the sauerkraut (and drink all the beers, but that’s not limited to one season)! I love a good fermented vegetable, and I have a particular affinity for well-made German-style beers, and it turns out the two go great together. Of course, you would not really eat sauerkraut alone–it is usually a side or garnish to sausage, roasted meats, or other hearty fare, although I also enjoy it with a variety of other foods. Because meat is typically easier to pair with beer than a funky sour veggie, we’ll start with sauerkraut and go from there. I chose a lovely kölsch from Zoiglhaus Brewing in Portland because I recently discovered them (their beer is fantastic!), but you’re welcome to pick your favorite kölsch from elsewhere. Keep in mind that the majority of American-made kölsches are a little softer and less crisp than a traditional German style. As for the sauerkraut, live (unpasteurized) is best for flavor complexity. If you need a little more background on kölsch as a style, check out my style spotlight article here!