Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result.

It was … OK.

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

And that, of course, was entirely the point. The Re-brew project, which culminated in a tasting in Copenhagen last week, was a celebration of the unexceptional, a tribute to the work of the Carlsberg scientist Emil Christian Hansen, whose invention 133 years ago of pure yeast cultivation enabled brewers for the first time to produce guaranteed standardised beers, so that the buying public could be sure the pint they were about to open would be as good as yesterday’s, and the one the day before, and the one tomorrow, without exception. That the world’s beer drinkers appreciated this can be easily demonstrated by the wealth amassed by the Jacobsens, owners of Carlsberg, and the way Carlsberg became literally a name known in every household, not only in Denmark but around the world.

Standing in the huge pillared conservatory at JC Jacobsen’s former home in Valby, Copenhagen, sipping the re-brewed 1883-style beer, a clear, clean, bright, copper-coloured Vienna-style lager, slightly sweet, a tiny bit lacking in condition, made with a barley variety called Gammel Dansk, literally “Old Danish”, and lightly hopped with Hallertau Mittelfrüh (the records showed only that the hops game from the Hallertau region, so the variety was a guess) while Carlsberg’s chairman, Flemming Besenbacher, and CEO, Cees ’t Hart, made speeches and photographers bumped elbows trying to get shots of Eric Lund, head brewer at Carlsberg’s laboratories, filling glasses from a wooden cask (hence the lack of condition), it would be fair to wonder what the fuss was about. This was certainly not a beer to knock anyone’s socks off.

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Eric Lund pours the beer, with Flemming Besenbacher and Cees ’t Hart on the left, and a thirsty crowd on the right: the keen-eyed will spot Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, as well as beer writers Jeff Evans, Stephen Beaumont , Jay Brooks and Ron Pattinson (and, er, Pete Brown’s forehead, I believe …)

But sock-knocking potential was not what this beer was ever about. The aim of Hansen – and his boss – was to give Carlsberg drinkers value-for-money consistency, and that’s what they got. In isolating the pure strain of yeast that was then used to make the beer in the bottle from 1883, and every other bottle of Carlsberg lager since (more or less: today’s Carlsberg yeast has apparently changed only slightly, genetically), Hansen invented modern industrial brewing. If the phrase “industrial brewing” makes your lip curl like a wine drinker on first encountering a Belgian brown sour, I’m afraid you don’t really understand beer. Dismissing mass-market beers is like dismissing the Ford Focus and saying F1 racers are the only valid form of motor car. Some terrible crimes have been committed under the banner of industrial beer, that’s true. But overall, industrial beer has brought more happiness to the mass of humanity than craft beer ever will, and EC Hansen is a vastly more important person in the history of beer than Ken Grossman. (Not least because Hansen’s boss, JC Jacobsen, refused to keep the Carlsberg lab’s findings for the company’s sole profit, and made the science – and the pure Carlsberg yeast strain – available to any brewer who wanted it.)

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur's Etudes Sur La Bière

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur’s Etudes Sur La Bière

Even so, and accepting that bottle of 1883 lager’s importance in the history of beer, was it worth reproducing the beer inside it? It’s fun for geeks like me, as I told the Danish newspaper Politiken, to taste “hvad vores oldeforældre drak. Her kan jeg i så høj grad som muligt dele en oplevelse, de havde. Det er en forbindelse tilbage i tiden.” (except in English, of course.) It was fun for all those involved at Carlsberg, too: Birgitte Skadhauge, vice-president for research at Carlsberg, who was in overall charge of the project, told me that everybody at the company was very excited about it, and I’m sure that’s accurate. The level of detail in reproducing the old beer was fanatic: the brewing liquor, for example, was first purified and then mineral salts added to match the water from a 68-feet-deep well dug out in January 1883, that is, exactly contemporary with the yeast.

The excellent internal PR available from this sort of venture should never be underestimated. If, as a Carlsberger, you get fed up with sniping from the beer snobs who only rate (in all senses) brews from “craft” concerns, it’s great to get involved in something with history and heft, something no small brewery would have the resources to pull off, in time or money or technological expertise, something that underlines the history the company has, and its importance in the history of beer brewing as a whole. Carlsberg’s influence goes beyond its perfection of techniques to isolate and propagate pure yeast strains that even the tiniest craft brewer today benefits from. For example, plenty of craft brewers make their wackiest beers with Brettanomyces yeast, but Brettanomyces was first properly discovered, studied and named by someone working in the Carlsberg labs in Copenhagen.

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

I’m sure when the research guys went to the Carlsberg Foundation, which controls the company, and said: “We’ve found this old beer bottle from 1883, the year EC Hansen perfected pure yeast cultures, that still seems to have viable yeast cells in – wouldn’t it be a great idea to recreate an 1883-style lager with it, and can we have the cash to do so?”, the foundation immediately spotted the trumpet-blowing possibilities, both inside and outside Carlsberg’s walls, and happily opened the corporate wallet. The 140th anniversary of the foundation itself, in 2016, was approaching, and here was something that could be tied in with the anniversary, and used to make Carlsberg people feel good about Carlsberg, as well as, hopefully, make other people feel good about Carlsberg. They could make a film about it (warning – contains scenes of me in a pub), they could fly in loads of journos who would surely say nice thinks about how clever Carlsberg was, and they could round it off with an excellent meal for 140 people prepared by a man who used to work at Noma in Copenhagen, probably the best restaurant in the world, with the Crown Prince of Denmark turning up to sprinkle his royal blessing over us. (Strangely, the last and only other time I was in a room with the Crown Prince of Denmark was when he was promoting another Danish brewer entirely, Mikkeller, during a Danish Trade Week in Hong Kong.)

And so we have it. Loads of effort for, um, something that wierdo beer geeks like me, and plenty of people at Carlsberg, certainly enjoyed, but you can watch the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont and the Californian beer writer Jay Brooks struggle to be complimentary about the result here. I wonder what, say, the 15 or so journos flown in from Israel, or the guy from the paper in Malaysia, both places where Carlsberg is an increasingly big player (and wants to be bigger), thought when they tasted this new/old beer. “Is that all there is?”, I fear.

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Still, I’d like to thank Carlsberg very much for enabling me to have another great night in the Taphouse with what must be the finest line-up of beer writers ever gathered around a Copenhagen bar table, including not just Stephen Beaumont and Jay Brooks but Jeff “Beer Bible” Alworth and Stan Hieronymus, also from the US, Pete Brown from the UK, Evan Rail from Czechia and Ron Pattinson from the Netherlands. And I certainly found more challenging beers to drink in Copenhagen than Carlsberg’s Re-brew project. The next day I tried a lunch-time trip to Mikkeller’s new-ish Øl & Brød cafe, just up the street from the original Copenhagen Mikkeller bar in Viktoriagade, where I had an excellent karrysild smørrebrod –slightly spiced herring open sandwich on rye bread with a lightly poached egg – accompanied by a small glass of Hvedegoop, a fine wheat-based barley wine from Mikkeller and Three Floyds, followed by what was basically rhubarb crumble à la danoise, with a small glass of Mikkeller passionfruit Berliner Weisse, which went absolutely brilliantly together, the tartness of the rhubarb and the sourness of the beer complementing each other superbly, a marvellous example of a beer-and-food pairing where the sum was considerably greater than the two pretty-good-on-their-own parts. The one downer was that lunch for one, albeit a very tasty lunch for one, cost me 306 kroner – £32 for one small sandwich, a bowl of crumble and two small beers.

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Amber ale with – yes – real amber in it, and two other Ny Nordic Øl beers as well

To put that in context, my ticket to the Copenhagen Beer Festival later that afternoon, including 20 beer tokens, only cost me 325kr, and as a Camra member I was given more beer tokens for free: indeed, I had so many tokens in the end, I gave quite a few away to Stephen Beaumont, who was returning to the festival the next day. The Copenhagen fest is “American-style”, meaning you only get “tasters” of 10cl (for standard beers) or 5cl (for strong beers): that’s fine for some of the stuff on offer, but nothing like enough for the more drinkable beers. There were some 80-plus stalls, serving mostly Danish beers, and staffed, frequently, by the brewers themselves (something Camra still mostly doesn’t get right), though there was at least one Polish brewer represented, some Americans (Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Rogue, Widmer and others) at least two or three German (Schneider, Crew Republic, a microbrewery in Munich), quite a few British brewers’ beers (Fuller’s, BrewDog, Sam Smith’s, St Austell, Wychwood to namecheck four), some Belgians, including Westmalle and, to my personal amusement, Grimbergen (apparently Carlsberg now how the distribution rights outside Belgium for Grimbergen: big brewers from the days of Watney’s more than 30 years ago have been trying to promote Grimbergen’s abbey-style brews, with no success, for the excellent reason that they’re not very good); several from Italy, notably Baladin and Del Borgo; O’Hara’s from Carlow in Ireland; at least one Faroese brewery; Einstök from Iceland; and one stall each from the Taybeh brewery in Palestine and the Alexander brewery in Israel (these two were at the furthermost ends of the hall, a converted locomotive shed, from each other, though I was told that in fact the brewers are friends, and I believe it – beer accepts no boundaries).

The crowd looked a proper cross-section of Danish society – much more so than you would see at the GBBF, with a fair number of smart older middle-aged couples, and a definite lack of large groups of men in their 30s. The beers were solidly “eurocraft” – almost 100 per cent keg or bottled (I saw only three handpumps), large numbers of imperial stouts and double IPAs – though with a Danish spin, thanks to the influence of the Ny Nordisk Øl movement and its emphasis on local ingredients, so that there were plenty of beers around with sea buckthorn, sweet gale and the like as their bitterers, rather than hops, and even one “amber ale” with real extract of (presumably Baltic) amber in it, Cold Hawaii (the name of a Danish surfing centre), from Thisted Bryghus: distinctly resiny, and not one I’ll rush back to.

Unlike Copenhagen, which I’d definitely rush back to: lovely city, friendly, welcoming people, great bars. And if Carlsberg decide their next revival will be the double brown stout they used to brew in the 19th century from a recipe JC Jacobsen’s son Carl apparently nicked off William Younger when he was apprenticed to the Edinburgh brewer, I’d even pay my own air fare …

For more of my take on the Re-brew project, go here

Baird beer and breakfast

Beer: so much motre thsn a breakfast drinkBeer’s not my usual breakfast tipple, though I’d agree with Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain in the UK, that Abbot Ale is an excellent accompaniment to the traditional Full English. But I couldn’t keep away from an invitation to “brunch” with Bryan Baird, the American founder of the eponymous brewery in Numazu, 80 or so miles west of Tokyo.

The event was organised by the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong and featured six different Baird beers, all paired with different dishes and introduced by Bryan Baird himself. Like all brewers, Bryan is hugely enthusiastic about his trade, and he was well served by the Globe, which delivered some excellent matches to his beers, to go with a six-course breakfast.

Single Take session beerWe kicked off with cured ocean trout, cream cheese and cucumber, served with Baird’s Single-Take Session Ale: a fine pairing, a little more classy than the traditional breakfast kipper, the only problem here being that I really, really wanted a whole pint of Single-Take, rather than a small glass. It’s a Belgian-style beer, according to Bryan, made with Belgian yeast, but “inverted” – low-alcohol, high-hop, rather than the other way round, 4.7 per cent abv and plenty of hop flavour from dry-hopping. The hops are whole-hop Tettnanger and New Zealand varieties, and the name and label are inspired by Neil “single take” Young: the label is meant to show young Mr Young performing “Rocking’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989. And if you look at that video, you can see the woman who designs Baird’s woodcut-style labels has indeed captured a clip from the show.

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Designed in Japan, brewed in Belgium, drunk in Hong Kong

Kagua Rouge bottleFor a young Japanese entrepreneur, Shiro Yamada has a perhaps unlikely-sounding hero: Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, lawyer, accountant, son of an Indian army general, and the first Parsi to sit in the British House of Lords. Bilimoria’s establishment credentials were enough to get him in the Royal Box at the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations last year. “He’s like Steve Jobs to me,” Yamada says.

Bilimoria earned Yamada’s admiration for being the man who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, to be the curry eater’s beer: designed specifically to complement food, with lower carbonation and a smoother taste. Yamada, who had worked as a venture capitalist, and been involved in dot-com start-ups in Japan, was studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, part of Cambridge University, around 2005 when Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge on the Cobra operation.

Yamada had already become interested in beer after going drinking with fellow students around Cambridge, and taken trips to Belgium and Munich to widen his beery knowledge. Listening to Bilimoria talk about his desire to brew a beer that would match up with Indian food, Yamada had a revelation. What about a beer specifically brewed to match up with Japanese food?

Kagua Blanc bottleThe Japanese have been brewing beer since the mid-1870s, after Seibei Nakagowa came back to the town of Sapporo having spent two years learning how to make lager at the Tivoli brewery in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Today, despite a reputation in the West for mass-produced blandobeers, Japan is the home of a thriving microbrewing scene with some excellent products – Yo-Ho Brewing’s SunSun lager was one of my personal beers of the year for 2012.

However, no one seems to have thought to do anything for Japanese food what Bilimoria did for curry: design a special beer to fit in with and enhance the different dishes. That, Yamada, decided, would be his task. “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK,” Yamada says, “beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.”

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An evening with Eric Toft, Reinheitsgebot iconoclast

Rod Jones and Eric Toft

Rod Jones, left, and Eric Toft at the Old Brewery, Greenwich

Eric Toft – middle-aged, handsome, seldom seen out of lederhosen despite being born in the United States, passionate about beer in all its varieties – is an American with a mission: to drag German brewing kicking and screaming out of the 16th century.

After a career that would be the envy of – well, me, certainly – Toft is currently brewmaster at the 232-year-old Schönram brewery in rural Bavaria, just a few miles from the border with Austria.

There he produces the usual run of beers you would expect from a rural Bavarian brewery run by the eighth generation of the same family: a Pils, a Hell, a Weissbier, a Dunkel. Alongside that, however, Toft, the first and currently the only American to run a Bavarian brewery, also makes beers in styles you might fear a rural Bavarian beer drinker would never even have heard of: an IPA, an imperial stout, a porter, even a Belgian pale ale.

The idea, Toft says, is to show that the Reinheitsgebot, or “purity law”, firmly limiting the ingredients that go into beer, to which all Schönram’s output sticks as strictly as any German brewery, need not be a straitjacket forcing brewers into making bland clone-beers.

His motto is “Reinheitsgebot, not Einheitsgebot”, which doesn’t sound quite as good translated into English, “purity decree, not sameness decree”, but the message still comes across. “The Reinheitsgebot should be an inspiration and a motivation to creativity,” Toft says. “It’s blamed for making German beers bland. But the main reason for blandness is that the purchasing of raw materials has been taken out of the hands of brewers and given to the accountants.”

I met Toft this week because he was the speaker at the latest of the regular beer and food matching evenings at Meantime’s Old Brewery on the Royal Naval Hospital site in Greenwich, and Rod Jones of Meantime had been kind enough to ask me along as a guest. It was fascinating listening to Toft describe his career: he was born in Colorado and studied at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, which is next door to Coors’ brewery. That proximity helped Toft become interested in home-brewing, and after graduating he decided he was much more keen on a career making beer than spending years in, eg, Saudi Arabia prospecting for oil.

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Cooking with Stella – no, no, come back …

George Reisch: hugely enthusiastic

Where I come from, if you suggested cooking with Stella Artois, you’d be comprehensively jeered, by both the many fans of what is probably the fourth or fifth best-selling beer in Britain, for being a pretentious twat, and by Stella’s many haters, for promoting a mega-lager seen as, at best, bland and pointless. But where I am right now is Hong Kong. Here, the entire concept of cooking with beer is still so novel, so unheard-of, so likely to send Cantonese eyebrows rocketing up Cantonese foreheads, that any attempt to promote beer cuisine has to be supported, no matter what brew is involved.

That’s why I was at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley, to watch George Reisch, fifth-generation brewer and “director of brewmaster outreach” for Anheuser-Busch InBev, preach on the joys of beer and food, and beer IN food, to an audience of Hong Kong bar owners, restaurateurs, food bloggers, magazine and newspaper journalists. Plus me, ostensibly representing the South China Morning Post, and bemusing the Hong Kong food blogging community, who had never met a beer blogger before, nor knew such a beast existed.

A-B InBev might be the Evil Empire to some, but its products are big sellers in Hong Kong. In particular Hoegaarden is hugely popular with Chinese beer drinkers, especially women. I was in a bar called the News Room in Quarry Bay drinking something pale, American and very hoppy a couple of weeks back, and of the seven nearest tables to me, six were occupied solely by Hoegaarden drinkers, all Chinese, male and female. (Of course, the theatre of the big glasses helps, but primarily they like the taste: spicy, not over-bitter.)

Stella is also in almost every bar in Hong Kong that is likely to attract expat customers, for sale to homesick Britons who react well to a familiar face met far away. If you are going to push the idea of beer with food, and beer in food, to people totally unused to the possibilities of such a pairing, it’s much better to do it (I think, and so, obviously does A-B Inbev) using beers they are familiar with. Since Hong Kong restaurateurs and bar people and beer drinkers know Hoegaarden and Stella very well, then Hoegaarden and Stella are good beers with which to introduce the concept of beery cuisine to them.

And George Reisch is a great guy to do the introducing: American beer enthusiasts know him well; he’s a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, among other high-profile activities in the North American beer world. It’s immediately clear he is hugely enthusiastic about beer and all its possibilities, which makes me like him at once. Brewing is obviously in the family DNA: his great-great grandfather founded Reisch’s brewery in Springfield, Illinois, closed 1966, and his son is currently learning the trade while working for Spaten (an A-B Inbev subsidiary) in Munich.

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Matching Chinese food and beer

One of the opportunities I was looking forward to in Hong Kong was the chance to match beer with Chinese food, a surprisingly under-explored area. I believe strongly that most beers go with most foods: but that doesn’t mean some pairings cannot be particularly felicitous, and that’s especially true with Chinese cuisine.

China is easily the biggest beer market in the world, almost twice as large as the US, the next largest, and in 2010 China drank very nearly a quarter of all the world’s beer. But annual consumption per head, at around 30 litres, while rising at some five per cent a year, is still almost a third of the US figure (81 litres). In addition, most of that consumption is of pale, undemanding lager.

What that means is that the Chinese DO drink beer with food, but it will be Tsingtao, or Blue Girl (from South Korea) or something equally bland and dull. Fortunately, Hong Kong takes advantage of its position as one of the biggest trading centres in Asia by importing good beer from all over the world: you won’t find Gale’s Prize Old Ale in Chiswick right now, for example (there’s none in stock in the Fuller’s brewery shop and I bought the last two bottles they had in the Mawson Arms next door back in October) but you WILL find it in stock in Hong Kong bars run by the El Grande group, such as the Happy Valley Bar and Grill – or at least you will until I buy up their complete current holding and the 2012 version gets shipped out. And, amazingly, Prize Old Ale is a beer that goes fantastically well with Chinese food, so well it could almost have been brewed for it.

There is probably a proper expression for this, but I don’t know it, so let’s call it “food imagination”, or “food intelligence”: the ability to summon up in the mind two different tastes and decide how they would go together, even if you have never actually matched or paired them in life. I’m sure it’s possible to test “FI”, with questions like: “what beer would you recommend with fennel?”* Good chefs need “FI”: good brewers, too. Great chefs (and brewers) have “food imagination” in wagons. You need to have at least a little “food imagination” to match beer with food, to even be able to write about beer and food matching: someone like Garrett Oliver obviously has “high FI”, and I think I have a reasonable “FI quotent”, or I wouldn’t dare write about beer and food together myself. So some of this is based on experience, some on speaking to Chinese beer lovers in Hong Kong, and some on “FI”. Continue reading

Roast beef, plum pudding and ale

I blame Charles Dickens. If he hadn’t ended A Christmas Carol with the by-then thoroughly reformed Scrooge ordering the prize turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits’ home in Camden, perhaps we wouldn’t now be persuaded in Britain that a tasteless, monstrous bird should be the centre of the December 25 dinner, and we would have stuck to the traditional yuletide treat – roast beef, lots of it, accompanied by plum pudding and strong ale.

If you search through 19th century newspapers, it quickly becomes clear that the trinity of beef, heavy dried-fruit-stuffed pudding and good ale was at the heart of the Christmas festivities everywhere in Britain, literally from palace to poorhouse. Here’s the Liverpool Weekly Mercury for Saturday September 29 1855: Continue reading

Sussex Steak with Port and Porter

When I started this blog I promised to give recipes with beer as one of the ingredients. There’s not been enough of that, so here’s a great dish for winter evenings – Sussex Steak.

K&B PorterPort and porter are an old combination, known in Ireland as a “corpse reviver”. In 2000 John O’Hanlon, born in Kerry, South West Ireland but now brewing on a farm in Devon, used this idea to produce a new style of bottled beer, containing two bottles of port to every 36 gallons of a “stout” that is really the strength of an old-time porter, to make O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout. The beer won a top prize in the Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer awards for 2002. This dish is also an old one, and why it is called Sussex Steak no one seems to know. However, the long, slow cooking makes for beautifully tender beef, and delicious gravy. To make it a bit more “Sussex” you could use Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout, from Lewes, the county town, as the “porter” bit, but any strong porter or stout will do.

This would never make it into a Delia Smith cookbook, because it’s too easy to get wrong: if the steam level inside the dish drops while cooking, you’ll end up with steak like boot leather, so as the instructions say, no peeking: trust your oven.

INGREDIENTS:
1kg (2lb) lean rump or chuck steak, sliced 2.5cm (1in) thick
Flour and seasoning
1 large onion, sliced
30ml (1fl oz) mushroom ketchup
100ml (3 fl oz) port
100ml (3 fl oz) porter
(or substitute 75ml port and 125ml O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout)

METHOD:
Season the flour, rub into the sliced steak. Lay the steak flat in an oven-proof dish.
Layer sliced onion on top, mix and pour in the ketchup, port and stout.
Cover as tightly as you can, using layers of and cooking foil tied round the dish with string.
Cook in oven at 135C (275F) for three hours. Do not be tempted to peek while the dish is cooking: it relies on the tight seal to keep in the steam from the port and porter, which tenderise the steak to perfection.

Serve with mashed potato, steamed green vegetables of your choice and field mushrooms baked for an hour with butter in a sealed dish.

Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer

Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer – well, it’s in New Scientist magazine, so it must be true.

Normally I’m deeply sceptical of “eating/drinking X gives you/prevents Y” stories but this one was so wonderful I had to repeat it.

A lady called Isabel Ferreira, an assistant professor at the Department of Bromatology* at the University of Porto in Portugal and her colleagues have been experimenting with marinating beer steaks in beer before pan-frying them.

The idea was to see if this would cut down on the levels of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HAs) that are created when the steaks were fried or grilled, with the heat of the cooking converting the sugars and amino acids in muscle tissue into HAs.

The trouble with HAs is that, while they probably help to make the cooked steak taste good, they do appear to be associated with an increased risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute in the United States says its researchers found that

those who ate their beef medium-well or well-done had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate their beef rare or medium-rare.

The old statistician’s caveat applies here: three times not very much is still not very much. But if you’re worried that your love of well-cooked T-bone is going to kill you, can marinating it in beer first help?

The answer, Ms Ferreira found, was yes, most definitely: six hours of marinating steaks in beer (or, to be fair, red wine) slashed levels of two types of HA by up to 90 per cent when those steaks were cooked  compared with cooked but unmarinated steak. Beer was more efficient at reducing levels of a third type of heterocyclic amine than wine, cutting levels significantly on cooking after four hours’ marinating, while wine took six.

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What ale will you be leaving out for Santa?

We don’t leave sherry out by the fireplace for Santa on December 24 in our house: not that I dislike an Oloroso or Amontillado myself under the right circumstances, but this is a beer-oriented home, and anyway I reckon the old boy would like something refreshingly hoppy after several tens of million glasses of sweet-and-sticky and around 5,000 tons of mince pie as he and the reindeer fly west dropping off the presents.

This year I thought, as he lives in the Far North, Father Christmas might like a beer from close to home: Haandbryggeriet’s excellent Norwegian Wood, a tribute to Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions, which is made with juniper berries and juniper twigs, and smoked malt along with Munich, chocolate and crystal malts.

Odd Nordland’s book on Norwegian home brewing, Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, is one of my all-time favourite beer books, with its incredibly detailed mapping of the different methods used by Norwegian farmers to make beer. Norwegian Wood is probably the closest most of us will get to sampling real Norwegian homebrew, but it’s a good introduction. Neither the juniper nor the smokiness are pushed too far forward: it’s a lovely, well-balanced dark ale with an attractive tang that almost insists on being drunk with tasty snacks such as smoked salmon or that strange brown Norwegian cheese, Gjetost. I’d probably better leave some of that out rather than the mince pie: if Santa doesn’t like it, Rudolph can have it with his carrot …

An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign

An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign

Christmas is a good time to be a beer drinker, since there’s no part of the traditional British celebration where you can’t enjoy a beer. I laugh myself silly reading articles by wine writers on what wines to have with Christmas dinner, as they struggle to find any sort of match to the turkey before sighing and admitting that sauvignon blanc is about the best you’ll do. Personally I think turkey is too often itself a waste of space, being frequently dry and tasteless, but I can name you at least three or four different beer styles that will leave you, after the dindon, merrily on high.

Strong porter is what I’ll be having this year: the chocolate/coffee flavours of a stout or porter will complement the roast bird, and the crunchy roast vegetables, and also the baked ham that is an essential pairing with the turkey. I’ll probably have a small glass of Gale’s Prize Old Ale as well, since its sourness is a good match to any good gravy-meat-and-veg meal: I’ve said this before: British beer and British food evolved alongside each other, and one naturally pairs up with the other. But if you can’t get POA, a Belgian geuze makes a similar match.

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