Saturday, May 31, 2008

Budweiser, we hardly knew ya.

So there's talk that Belgian super brewer InBev is considering buying Anheuser-Busch. I was initially stunned by the idea that the biggest brewer in the United States -- by far -- could end up in foreign hands.
Love it or hate it, no beer is more quintessentially America than Budweiser. It may be the nationalist in me, but it's a little unsettling to think that our King of Beers might develop a Flemish accent and start eating mayonnaise with his french fries (Actually, I like mayo on my fries, so I suppose that would be a bonus. I digress).

And then it hit me: who the hell cares? Anheuser-Busch is a multi-million dollar corporation that brews beer, runs amusement parks and is traded daily on the New York Stock Exchange. Sure, it all began with Budweiser, but today our American company has a battery of foreign labels in its stable. Lookin' for something a little different? Maybe an English ale? How about Bass? It's brought to you by Anheuser-Busch. How about something from the East? Try Singapore's Tiger lager, brought to you by Anheuser-Busch. Oh, you're one of those beer snobs that doesn't like the mass-produced milquetoast brews that Anheuser-Busch produces. Try Red Hook, Stone Mill or the new Shock Top Belgian White beer, all brought to you by Anheuser-Busch. (By the way, is Shock Top a nod to the new owners?)

And the list goes on and on. The point is, Anheuser-Busch is not so much a brewer today as it is a multinational corporation. Beer happens to be the primary widget it produces. InBev is also a multinational corporation that brews its widgets.

So what will happen if InBev buys Anheuser-Busch? Nothing as far as most of us are concerned.

We can still head down to Piggly Wiggly and pick up a cold six of Bud, which will taste the same as it always has. Admittedly, it will be strange to think that the number one selling beer in America is made by Belgians, but Anheuser-Busch doesn't love us, it just wants us to buy its products. When we've shown interest in other beers, it bought the breweries that make those beers ... much the same way InBev is looking to buy them.

This is why I love craft beer so much. When I buy a sixer of Abita, I know it was produced by a group of nice folks in Abita Springs, La. The brewery (which I've visited) is little more than a fair sized metal warehouse with a half-dozen or so tanks and equipment inside. The inside of Anheuser-Busch's main brewing facility in Missouri looks like NASA: highly sophisticated and incredibly cold. One guy can run the entire operation from a computerized control room. Ain't that great?!

But if you're bummed by the prospect of a bunch of foreigners buying America's biggest brewer, rest assured you can always turn to Miller, our second largest brewer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Beer gets gussied up

Take a look at these two pictures. Two beer events, one brewery, two very different scenes.
The brewery, of course, is Brooklyn Brewery. The events are Savor (above, with brewmaster Garrett Oliver) and the recent World Beer Festival in Raleigh, N.C.
There's a move afoot lately in the craft beer scene to try and bring a bit of respectability, class maybe, to the famously working man's beverage. The inaugural Savor event in D.C. was the Brewers Association's latest effort to put a white tablecloth under the beer coaster.
Julie Johnson, editor of All About Beer magazine (which hosts the World Beer Festival) made mention of this trend in her review of Savor. Greg Kitsock said much the same in the Savor review he wrote for the Washington Post.
Why is the association and so many breweries, including Brooklyn and the Boston Beer Company, making the effort? Does beer need to be classed up? Would putting beer in the same rare air as wine harm beer in the long run?
In the short term, at least, I think a lot of this has to do with respect -- and a seat at the nicer table. Whether good or bad, wine is often treated like a precious indulgence. Any and all good fine dining restaurants have a wine list longer than your arm. And why not? Most folks going out for a special occasion or at least planning to drop a C-note on a couple lamb chops expects to enjoy a nice bottle of Medoc with it.
Going out for barbecue? Grab a sixer.
These common paradigms lock beer and wine into unfair stereotypes. There are many times when dinner from the frier calls for a good zinfandel. And there are times braised beef cheeks and foie gras would go as well or better with a bitter ale than the best of what Napa has to offer.
So I don't begrudge the folks behind Savor or the efforts of Garrett Oliver to show the world that beer plays as well in the dining room as on the back porch. In fact, I applaud them and would love to see more fine dining establishments put as much effort into their tap selection as they do their wine cellars.
I only hope that we don't forget that the back porch is a great place to drink a beer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Savor? I sure did.

The Brewers Association held their inaugural beer and food event, Savor, in D.C. a couple weeks back. Note that I said -- rather they said -- beer and food event. Also, let me say that this was an incredible event. Having gone to a number of beer festivals only to have an army of slack-jawed volunteers indifferently pouring beers, the fact that I got to spend the entire evening with the brewers and staff of such breweries as Boston Beer Company (I told Jim Koch he was the Kingfish of craft beer. I was also drunk.), Brooklyn Brewery, Foothills, Abita and New Belgium, was an absolute delight. I left the event elated. Mind you, the beer helped, but the experience put me over the edge.

That being said, I want to point out a few flaws that will hopefully be addressed before next year. Like I said, Savor was a beer and food event. Because of the equal billing, I expected the food to play as big a role as the beer, both in terms of quality and quantity. It didn't. Not even close. The appetizer-size portions of mediocre food (catered by the sumptuously named Federal City Caterers) didn't hold a candle to the beer brought in by the 48 breweries. After a while, I stopped bothering with the samples. A good move for my palate. A terrible move for my sobriety. I didn't eat much beforehand -- something I do before every beer/wine festival. It's a must. A cardinal rule. If you don't, you end up down the rabbit hole before the event is over.

I was down the rabbit hole.

My buddy also noticed the only places to dump unfinished samples were the garbage cans scattered around the hall. In wine tasting, it's common to have a small bucket or pitcher next to the sample for easy disposal and would have been nice at Savor.

The other real flaw was the classes. The first night I went, there were two classes available on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you didn't get in and get a seat, you were out of luck. And because there were far fewer seats than beer lovers, the classes filled fast. We planned to check out the first class -- or salon -- hosted by Garrett Oliver, author and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, so we stationed ourselves by the door leading into the classroom. As we waited for the seating to begin, we hung out and tried a couple beers -- Foothills -- but unbeknownst to us a sea of humanity snuck in behind us and filled the room. The best I got was a shot of Garrett discussing the beer and food I wouldn't be enjoying (until later, see the photo above). The second class filled just as quickly. We weren't as eager to hear Dave Lieberman discuss beer and dips. No offense to the Food Network Star, but we just were more interested in drinking craft beer than hearing a discourse on dips.
OK, enough with the complaining.

Again, these are minor critiques of an otherwise outstanding event. I cannot wait until Savor 2 roles around. Next time though, I'll tuck into a sandwich beforehand.

Now, the beer. Man, nary a weak one in the bunch. Were some better than others? Absolutely. Were there surprises? Many. But beer is a subjective thing, especially when you're dealing with an event that drew some of the best brewers from across the United States. So for what it's worth, here were some of my favorites:

Foothills Brewing (Winston-Salem, N.C.)
Blackfoot River Brewing Company (Helena, Mt.)
Heiner Brau Microbrewery (Covington, La.)
Pelican Pub & Brewery (Pacific City, Ore.)
Rogue Ales (Newport, Ore.)
Williamsburg Alewerks (Williamsburg, Va.)
New Belgium Brewing Company (Ft. Collins, Colo.)

There were many other great breweries, of course, but having had their beers several other times (Troegs, Abita, Harpoon, Dogfish Head) I steered my attention more toward the folks I hadn't seen before or the breweries who brought something I hadn't tried before. (OK, I've had Foothills before, but it was good to try them next to all the big guys in the craft beer market. Their beers -- Hoppyum IPA and Sexual Chocolate -- stood up, an assessment made by my buddy who never had their beer before.)

I can't say it enough, though: not a bad beer -- or brewer -- in the room. Because I'm so used to the doll-eyed volunteers common at beer festivals, to actually be able to talk to the person who brewed the beer and hear the enthusiasm for their craft was awesome.

Should the Brewers Association decide to hold a Savor 2, go. Well, unless you hate beer. And if you hate beer, why have you read this far down?


Monday, May 26, 2008

Do blogs have mission statements? I don't know, but this one will. I write about food and drink for the Times-News in Burlington, N.C. (every third Wednesday of the month) Unfortunately, newspapers only have so much room and I have a lot to talk about. So this blog will serve as a catch basin for all the thoughts, recipes and photos that don't make it into the paper. It's also a place that I can tackle other topics, like craft beer -- which is thankfully on the rise across the country -- and hopefully open a dialog about food and kick things around a bit.

Right, so here's my most recent (and first) food column and photos:

An obsessed amateur's guide to gastronomy
May 19, 2008

Gastronomy: the art or science of good eating

As the old cliché goes, there are people who eat to live and people who live to eat.

I live to eat.

If I were to be honest, I'd say that I not only fall into the live to eat category, but I'm way out on the fringe side of the crowd. Thinking about what I'm going to eat, where I'm going to eat it and when it's going to happen next is an ongoing activity with me.

In fact, I obsess about the whole experience. I love to cook. I love to eat. I'm fascinated by cooking techniques and kitchen gadgets. I own a small library of cookbooks and pore over the latest offerings of the food media regularly.

I've slow-smoked pork butts through the wee hours of the night until the meat was so soft and succulent that it collapsed around the bone. I've also slow-cooked a pot of chili so long that it reduced into an evil-looking inedible paste. The chili was meant to feed a hungry Super Bowl crowd. It didn't and my friends have neither forgotten nor allowed me to forget the incident.

What I have not done is work a day in a professional kitchen. Everything I know about gastronomy is self-taught through need and interest.

Sure, I slung drinks and made sandwiches in college, but it's not the same as working the line in a professional kitchen or catering an event for an army of hungry souls. Not even close.

But that's what's important here.

I'm an amateur cook fascinated with all things gastronomic. And if I can figure out how to cook something or cook something better, so can you. That is the mission of this food column. I plan to focus not only on food, but how to cook it, when to cook it and why. I believe that good technique is as important to the home cook as it is to the professional.

I will delve into culinary trends and occasionally discuss spirits and the art of cocktail making, itself a resurgent trend.

Alas, I will also venture into baking.

I hate baking. Baking is difficult and unforgiving. I cook by the force. Yah, that force. Anyone who has cooked for a long enough time knows what I mean. After a while, you develop a sense of how long something should cook for, what doneness looks like, what flavors can go with other flavors. If you screw something up, it's easy enough to fix.

In short, cooking is forgiving. Baking is Nurse Ratched: ridged and demanding.

There's precious little room for error in baking. Forget the baking powder and your bread won't rise. Fail to add enough sugar to your cake and no amount of frosting will make it taste right.

It's an intimidating art. But if the idea of the column is if I can do it, you can do it, then I will attempt to bake. And when I fail, I'll let you know. I will also tell you how I fixed it.

I will also show you what I've done. Every column will include a recipe and photographs depicting what I went through to put the dish together. Photos that don't accompany the column in the print edition of the Times-News will be available on the Web site.

Finally, I want to hear from you. Is there a recipe that you've wanted to try or failed to get right? Let me know, I'll take a crack at it. Is there a dish or cooking technique that you've wondered about? Let me know, I'll try to find it or explain it.

Ideally, cooking is about nourishment and sharing. Ideally, the same principles will apply to this column.

Perfect baked chicken with asparagus

Using this broiling technique produces perfectly crisp chicken skin. It's also dead simple and requires no more than 22 minutes of cooking time. The keys to this technique are to move the rack to the center of the oven, preheat to 350 degrees and use chicken parts rather than an intact whole bird. Once you're ready to put the chicken in, switch the oven from bake to broil and you're good to go. The ambient temperature of the over bakes the inside of the chicken, while the broiler cooks the exterior. In no time at all, you will have perfect baked chicken from the broiler.

1 chicken (2 bone-in, skin-on thighs, 2 bone-in, skin-on drumsticks, two boneless, skin-on breasts)

1 pound asparagus (I chose asparagus because it's in season now. Feel free to use a different vegetable, I won't be checking.)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons garlic powder

2 tablespoons paprika (I use paprika to add color to the chicken. Such a relatively small amount will not affect the flavor, so if you don't have any paprika on hand, don't worry about it.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Chives to garnish (completely optional)

Pull the chicken and asparagus out of the fridge, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and move the rack to the middle of the oven.

Prepare the chicken by trimming off any excess fat. But don't go crazy, you want some fat on the pieces to add flavor. Cover the chicken pieces with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and apply the garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper to both sides. Makes sure you rub the oil and seasonings into the skin. (Tip: Rub some of the oil and seasonings under the skin. This will ensure the meat is also seasoned.)

Next, prepare the asparagus by snapping off the hard, bitter ends. This should be the last inch or so of the asparagus, which will snap off naturally if you grab the end and middle of the stalk and bend it until it breaks.

When the oven has preheated and the chicken has lost most of the chill from the fridge, switch the controls from bake to broil. Place it on a baking sheet skin side down and cook for 10 minutes. Flip the chicken over so the skin is exposed to the broiler and cook for another 12 minutes. When the time is up, pull the chicken out and let it rest for 7 to 10 minutes (go with 10 minutes unless you can't wait). The skin should be crisp and the meat should be perfectly moist.

When it comes to asparagus, I prefer to steam it for about 7 to 10 minutes (7 minutes for about a half pound, 10 minutes for a pound). This allows the vegetable to retain most of its flavor and color. However, if you don't have a steamer, boiling the asparagus works nearly as well. You can also bake it along with the chicken.

Steaming asparagus: Prep the steamer by adding the water, making sure it's not so full that it will touch the asparagus, and set it to boil. Once the water is boiling and the steamer is steaming, add the asparagus, making sure not to pile it in a big clump, and reduce the temperature to simmer. Again, a half pound of asparagus should require about 7 minutes of steaming, a full pound requires about 10 minutes. The important thing is to keep an eye on it. After about 5 (or 7) minutes, check it. If the asparagus has softened a bit, but retains its rich green color, its done. If it's still firm, give it another two minutes or so. Once you've plated the asparagus, drizzle the final tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.

Boiling asparagus: The rules for steaming asparagus more or less apply to boiling it. Bring a good size pot of water to a boil (The pot has to be big enough to fit the asparagus). Once the water has come to a boil, add a good bit of salt (about a tablespoon) and drop in the asparagus. As with steaming, a half pound should take about 7 minutes (check it at 5 minutes, though) and a pound will take about 10 minutes (check it after 7 minutes). Once the asparagus is al dente (cooked, but with a slight firmness and crunch) it's done. Pull the asparagus out and let it drain. Once you've plated the asparagus, drizzle the final tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.

Baking asparagus: Spread the asparagus out on a baking sheet, cover it in the last tablespoon of olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. When you flip the chicken over for the final 12 minute stretch, stick the pan of asparagus in underneath it. Remember, you've preheated the oven to 350 degrees F., so it is plenty hot to cook the asparagus even though the vegetables are not directly exposed to the broiler. When you pull the chicken out, the asparagus can come out too.

I threw on some wild chives at the end for a garnish. If you don't have any chives or don't want to add them, don't worry about it.

Makes 4 servings.