Beer in the News: Monastic Brews

As our Lager sits in the Lagering Refrigerator, here is a delightful short video post from the BBC.

Yorkshire Monks Return to Brewing

And here we offer a story reprinted from The Guardian.

Ampleforth monks mix history, religion and malts in unique new beer

Benedictine community in Yorkshire to sell Britain’s first monastic beer since the Reformation

The monks pace serenely in their long black habits, to a background of chanted psalms and obedient students from Ampleforth College swotting for exams.

But beneath the peaceful surface of Ampleforth Abbey, in a lovely North Yorkshire valley, lies a commercial operation that is about to pull off a coup – Britain’s first monastic beer since the Reformation, more than 450 years ago.

Tawny glasses of Ampleforth Abbey brew have circulated among testers for the past year and, following repeated tweaks of yeast and malt, the beer is to go to the market in July. The launch is eagerly awaited in drinking circles because of a heady mix of history, religion and the Benedictine order’s formidable reputation in the field.

“We think we’ve got the taste and texture right,” said Father Wulstan Peterburs, Ampleforth’s procurator, whose job is to oversee St Benedict’s rule that monks should be self-sufficient and busy in their worldly as well as spiritual lives. “The last time the order did this in a big way, in the 18th century, we were given a licence by Louis XIV to sell our beer everywhere in France. We’re not being that ambitious but we think we’ve got a success on our hands.”

The beer is strongly flavoured and limited to 330ml bottles because of its gutsy 7% alcohol by volume. It is being brewed after a decade of cider production by the monks, which has gone from a homemade press in a derelict farm to 22,500 litres a year, and was honoured, again, at last month’s International Cider Challenge.

The drink joined beekeeping and production of Father Hugh’s vanilla and fudge cheesecake as a pursuit after enthusiasts in the 70-strong brotherhood consulted the Rule of St Benedict, a book of precepts written about 1,500 years ago concerning what to do with surplus apples from the two-hectare (five-acre) orchard.

“The answer was pretty obvious,” said Peterburs, “and our decision to revive beer making happened in a similar way. We are always looking for things for monks to do, especially as some of the community are on the older side, and this was ideal. It also draws interestingly on our history.” said Peterburs.

Harried during Europe’s political and religious convulsions, the Benedictines took their classically English brewing skills to France after Henry VIII’s Reformation, then returned with a distinctly European type of beer when the French revolution made them homeless again in 1789. The process, unused since, apart from a brief 19th-century experiment outside the monastery, has given the brew an invaluable marketing tool: ancient documents referring to secret recipes.

Les matières qui la composent sont des grains, blés barbus et orges, des houblons et de l’eau,” says one relic from the exile in France, listing wheat, hops and other ingredients that made up what the writer called “le grand secret de fabrication des Benedictines Anglais”.

In the abbey’s thriving shop , the custodian, Father Jeremy Sierley, said the beer would fit nicely with the monks’ other lines, from peach brandy to asses’ milk soap, as well as with St Benedict’s rules on retailing.

“Just like the interest in sustainability which all sensible people have these days, we are guided to avoid avarice and practice fair dealing,” he said. “The Rule talks about asking ‘lower prices than the rest of the world so that God will be glorified’.”

The principle of rejecting excess profit, which also contributed to the success of Yorkshire Quaker businesses such as Rowntree’s in nearby York, is enshrined on every Ampleforth till receipt, which ends “ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus”.

Prices should be high enough to keep the brew away from the binge-drinking market or misuse by young people. Peterburs said: “We have given thought to this, and we teach our students here about responsible drinking.”

Staff at the college, who include a qualified sommelier, have helped test the beer, with tips including advice to marginally increase the frothy head, which is ever-popular on beer in northern England.

The drink is making its debut in a part of the UK with strong ties to the partnership of alcohol and religion. Just up the valley at Lastingham, an 18th-century vicar made ends meet by running the local pub through his wife, playing the fiddle in the bar and defeating a legal challenge by arguing that this was true service to his parishioners.

Across the Pennines, in Burnley, the Miners and Working Men’s social club is the world’s biggest single outlet for Benedictine liqueur, sold with boiling water as “Benny & Hot“, a mixture that kept the Lancashire fusiliers going in the trenches in France during the first world war.

A brewhouse alongside Ampleforth’s cider press is the long-term aim but initially the beer is being produced at Little Valley brewery in the upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Double-fermented and overseen by Little Valley’s Dutch co-founder, Wim van der Spek, a specialist in the monkish tradition of Trappist beers, it will sell at £36 for a 12-bottle case.

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The Summer of Brews, Part II: Helles Lager

Richard Wagner was an asshole.  There’s no other way to say it, really.

In addition to being vain, conceited, histrionic, self-serving, and an all-round Machiavellian, he was also a rampant anti-Semite.  His polemic 1850 essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) is an atrocity and without a doubt one of the great embarrassments of modern Western culture.  The adoption of his music by the National Socialists 50 years after his death sealed his fate as a problematic figure for posterity.

But the fact remains that he was a musical genius: without a doubt, he nearly single-handedly changed the course of western art music in general, and opera in particular.  To ignore Wagner because of his politics would be (somewhat) akin to ignoring Pablo Picasso because he was a womanizer, or Leonard Bernstein because he was a pædophile.  Wagner’s chromatic harmonic language, orchestral writing, and sense of the dramatic paved the way for both the post-tonal revolution of the early 20th century and the neo-Romantic style of the late 20th century.  He invented a new brass instrument.  He designed his own theatre and wrote his own opera librettos.


sequential unresolved diminished 7th chords…as delicious as a Munich lager…

Thus, even as we lament Wagner’s misguided philosophies and condemn his racism, we can nevertheless acknowledge his musical greatness: we’re all sinners, after all, and the St. Cecilia Brewery celebrates good composers, not necessarily Upstanding Human Beings.  As we brew up a Munich-style Helles (“Bright”) Lager, there’s no denying that one can’t get much more Bavarian than Wagner.

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Brewing Methods: All-Grain vs. Extract

The Great Brewing (Self-)Debate of 2012 here at St. Cecilia Brewery is whether or not (or when) to make the plunge into All-Grain Brewing.

Here’s a break-down of the pros and cons of each.

EXTRACT BREWING
Pros:
* Ease of method
* Less Equipment required
* Tried-and-true
* Takes less time.
* Shorter, fewer-steps process means less opportunity for contamination or screw-ups along the way
Cons:
* More expensive than All-Grain batch-by-batch, particularly when designing my own recipes and not staying with pre-designed packaged kits
* More stylistically limited
* Have to deal with %$¢´£ messy and hard-to-work-with jugs of liquid malt syrup and bags of DME
* Some styles harder to perfect: difficult to make light-coloured beers consistent.

ALL-GRAIN BREWING
Pros:
* More control and flexibility of product
* Access to a wider array of styles not possible with Extract Brewing
* More economical and cost-effective (at least in the long run), particularly when designing my own recipes
* More hands-on and from-scratch sense of pride and production. More authenticity to the brewing art.
* Don’t have to deal with %$¢´£ messy and hard-to-work-with jugs of liquid malt syrup and bags of DME
Cons:
* Longer, more involved process means longer brewing days
* Longer, more involved process means more opportunity for contamination or screw-ups along the way
* Up-front equipment costs (although there are options here, some homemade)
* Learning curve involved with new processes means my first couple batches will be shots in the dark.
* Have to pay more attention to nuances such as water temperature, pH, and chemical makeup not necessarily important to Extract brewing

At the end of the day, I know that All-Grain is going to win out. It’s mostly a matter of shoring up my courage to try something new, and my willingness to spend the extra time with the process.  Reading about the Brew-in-a-Bag method has also piqued my curiosity.

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Brewing is Back

As I mentioned in a previous post, graduate school is doing its best to take over my life.  Now that summer is here, though, I’m attempting to make the most of time and brew while I can, and hereby declare summer 2012 “The Summer of Brews.”

First up in the summer rotation, last month, was an English Best Bitter in the style of Oxfordshire’s Brakspear.  The recipe and ingredients were from Northern Brewer’s limited-release “Broken Spear” kit, to which I added 1/2 oz UK Pilgrim hops to the dry-hop bill.  In honor of Oxford’s finest, I named it Taverner’s Bitter.  Along with this brewing re-boot I’ve also given my labels something of a facelift as well.

Full disclosure: John Taverner is one of my favourite composers of all time.  It’s fitting, therefore, that he finally get his own label, and doubly fitting that it be for one of my favourite beer styles (and, fortuitously after the fact, one of my favourite homebrew recipes). And what an especially apt name for a beer.

Historical trivia:  Taverner, appointed by Wolsey as the first organist and master of the Choristers at Cardinal College (later renamed Christ Church), Oxford, was reprimanded in 1528 for heresy (consorting with Lutherans), but was spared punishment on account of his being “but a musician.”  He retired from musical life at the College in 1530, enjoying a comfortable 15-year retirement as a landowner in Lincolnshire.  An old legend states that he worked as a spy and agent for Thomas Cromwell, assisting in the dissolution of the monasteries, but this is most certainly not true.  He was, interestingly, one of the very first English composers to write for the viol consort, inventing and popularizing the form of the In nomine which was to remain a mainstay of English instrumental writing through the time of Henry Purcell.

While I’m still brewing extract (aside from the occasional partial-mash), I’m on the verge of moving to all-grain brewing. It’s a bit intimidating to ponder, but I know that in the long run it will be a good move, allowing not only cost savings but also more control and versatility.  Stay tuned for updates on this technique shift.

At the end of the day, after an 8-month hiatus in brewing, it’s good to know that I can still cook up a tasty brew.

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On Belgium

Here we repost, in full, a wonderful article from The Economist.

How a small, unremarkable country came to dominate the world of beermaking

Dec 17th 2011 | Leuven and Westvleteren | from the print edition

THE Trappist Abbey of St Sixtus of Westvleteren has little to offer those wishing to gawp at ecclesiastical architecture. The 19th-century buildings—squat, brick and functional—sit on a quiet country lane amid flat farmland, close to Belgium’s border with France. Yet the vast visitors’ car park is a clue that some people nevertheless consider the abbey worth a trip. For beer lovers, St Sixtus is a place of pilgrimage.

The abbey and its most famous brew, Westvleteren 12—a dark, strong ale—have taken first or second place in an annual poll of beer enthusiasts’ favourite tipples by RateBeer.com, a widely trusted reviewing website, for the whole decade that the survey has been running. Yet exactly how the American drinkers who predominate on the site get to knock back a Westvleteren 12 is something of a mystery.

Visit the abbey—no easy jaunt on public transport—and you can drink it to your heart’s content, or your head’s. But it is hard to buy elsewhere. The monks tightly ration takeaway sales of the tiny quantities they produce. The abbey’s website gives details of the brief windows when buyers may attempt to call with an order. If they are lucky and get through, they will be allotted a time to arrive at St Sixtus. They are then permitted to purchase two cases (four dozen 33cl bottles) in return for a solemn undertaking that the beer will not find its way to a third party.

Evidently some people are prepared to lie to a monk for the sake of beer. Cases of Westvleteren 12, on sale at €39 ($53) at the abbey, turn up on online beer-sellers for as much as $800. (In a rare easing of the rules, in November the monks released a batch of 93,000 six-packs for the Belgian market, to pay for repairs to the abbey. Next year 70,000 six-packs will go on sale worldwide.)

Pour reputation

As well as having a good claim to brew the best beer in the world, Belgium is also home to the world’s biggest brewer. Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, based in Leuven, a small university town half an hour by train from Brussels, turns out one in five of every beer sold around the world. Across the road from head office, the ultra-modern Stella Artois brewery pumps out one of the firm’s best-known international brands.

If St Sixtus fails to match the splendour of a medieval cathedral, the main brewing hall at Stella Artois comes close. The quiet and cavernous interior is dominated by 15 immense stainless-steel brewing kettles, whose column-like spouts soar heavenwards. In different ways both St Sixtus and Stella Artois illustrate the reverence with which Belgians regard their beer.

Their country also makes a bigger range than any other—1,131 at the last count. Apart from six Trappist ales and other abbey beers, it churns out lagers such as Stella Artois and its stablemate Jupiler, the more popular brew in Belgium. Tipplers can also choose from an array of wheat beers, brown ales, red beers from West Flanders, golden ales, saison beers based on old farmhouse recipes, and any number of regional brews. Oddest are the austere, naturally fermented lambic beers of Brussels and the nearby Senne valley, a throwback to the days before yeast was tamed. These anachronisms have survived only in Belgium.

Some people are prepared to lie to a monk for the sake of beer

The country generously shares its creations with the rest of the world. It is one of the biggest exporters of beer in absolute terms and as a proportion of national production (statistics boosted by the worldwide thirst for Stella Artois). More than half the booze it makes is sent abroad.

How did a nation that, aside from its mussels and chips, renowned chocolate and reviled Eurocrats (the European Parliament is on the site of an old brewery), has made little impact on the world, come to dominate in beer? The answer lies in Belgium’s hybrid history and culture.

Beer is to Belgium as wine is to France. It is “ingrained in the culture”, says Marc Stroobandt, an expert on Belgian beer. Belgians have been at it for a long time: the Romans are said to have brought brewing to this part of Europe; many Belgian breweries have origins in the Middle Ages. Stella Artois traces its roots to the Den Hoorn brewery, founded in Leuven in 1366: the horn remains on the beer’s label to this day. Sebastian Artois brought his name to the brewery relatively late—in 1717.

Geography helped. A beer belt stretches across northern Europe, where it is too chilly to grow grapes that can be turned into half-decent wine. But the climate and the land are excellent for growing barley and hops, the basic ingredients of beer. Belgium is also known for its high-quality water, vital for turning out good beer. The town of Spa, whose name has become generic, is in eastern Belgium. As Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian Brewers’ Federation, points out, being at a crossroads of Latin and Germanic Europe allowed Belgium to soak up influences from both that can still be tasted in its beer.

Herbs such as coriander and liquorice, spices such as ginger, and fruits such as cherries and raspberries, once popular among French brewers, are all still in use in Belgium. This French tradition endured where that country’s influence is strongest, even after hops began to find a role in beermaking. Monastic brewers were disinclined or prevented from using that ingredient—the church deemed hops the “fruit of the devil”. One explanation for this attitude might be the monopolies granted to bishops over the gruyt (as the mixture of herbs and spices was known) that went into beer. An intense medieval PR campaign was waged in the battle between gruyt and secular hops. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, favoured gruyt, attacking hops for causing melancholy and the gentleman’s affliction of “brewers’ droop”.

Germany’s influence is still discernible, too. The Reinheitsgebot, a Bavarian beer-purity law dating back to 1516, banned anything but water, barley and hops. Where the Germanic tendency is more pronounced, hops have always been preferred. Elsewhere, Belgian brewers continued to try their luck with whatever they could find.

Only here for the beer

Thus the turbulence of the country’s history has stimulated its brewers. At one time or another most of Europe’s great powers have held sway over Belgium; many have left behind influences and flavours. The Dutch, the last outside power to occupy Belgium before the first world war, sent traders to scour the East Indies for new spices, many of which found their way into Belgian beer. (The Belgians kicked the Dutch out to gain independence in 1830 in part because they objected to heavy taxes on beer.)

As the gruyt wars suggest, the institutions of Catholicism played a part, too. Monasteries traditionally brewed beer to sell to support their abbeys, to offer to travellers staying as guests and as “liquid bread”, a source of nourishment during Lent. Until the end of the 19th century, even when laymen ran breweries it was often educated monks who were at the forefront of the art and technology of beermaking.

All these factors encouraged experimentation. Aside from herbs, spices and hops, other stranger substances such as mustard, coffee and chocolate have found their way into the country’s beer. Pete Brown, a British beer writer, is only half joking when he sees a common thread between the “strange and mad” brews that are the country’s hallmark and another of Belgium’s relatively few gifts to the world—surrealism.

The number of breweries in Belgium peaked at the turn of the 20th century. By 1907 the country boasted nearly 3,400 commercial beermakers (compared with only around 100 today, or 12 per million people—still pretty generous compared with five per million in America). Belgians could and did enjoy a huge range of beers.

These brewers had considerable advantages over their counterparts in other countries. In Britain beer was a drink of the lower orders: no such snobbishness obtained in Belgium. Heavy import duties discouraged Belgians from buying French wine. Competition from spirits was blunted by the temperance movement, explains Mr Brown. In Belgium it led to hefty duties on genever, a gin-like drink consumed by the Dutch, hitting its popularity. Brewers, some of whom were also politicians, managed to escape attack. Belgium’s strong beers owe something to this period: many brewers upped the alcohol content to console drinkers forced to give up genever.

This lack of alternatives guaranteed brewers a large and thirsty market. In 1900 Belgians drank 200 litres per head, roughly double what Britons and Germans were putting away. Today thirsts have dried up a little: a typical Belgian now quaffs just 84 litres a year.

The rise of AB InBev began in the halcyon years of the early 20th century. Before the first world war Belgian brewing was still highly fragmented. Start-up costs were low and transport expensive, so local, family-owned firms tended to predominate.

Technological advance led to rapid consolidation. Belgian beers (strictly speaking, ales) were top fermented: the yeasty foam produced in the brewing process sat atop the liquid. But by the end of the 19th century a technique invented in Bavaria and developed in Bohemia arrived in Belgium. Lager, where the fermentation takes place at the bottom of the brewing vessel at a much lower temperature, required much more investment for artificial chilling and longer maturing times. But the clear, golden beer that resulted quickly caught on with consumers. One such was developed by Artois, by then Belgium’s second-largest brewer. Its special Christmas brew of 1926 was decorated with a festive star: Stella Artois.

After dominating Belgian brewing for much of the century, at the end of it the firm embarked on an international consolidation before the world’s other main brewers caught on. Interbrew, as Belgium’s biggest brewer was then known, bought Canada’s Labatts in 1995 and merged with Brazil’s AmBev to forge the world’s largest outfit in 2004. The merged firm, InBev, snapped up Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, in 2008.

These days, as America’s microbrewing boom shows, discerning drinkers are keen to try new and unusual brews. Belgium’s smaller breweries, with their niche beers, have benefited.

Still golden

On the Grand Place in Brussels stand the ornate guild houses of the city’s ancient trades. The bakers’ and butchers’ houses are now restaurants. Another has become a bank. Yet the brewers’ house is still home to the Brewers’ Federation.

The ceremony with which Belgian beer is poured and drunk betokens a love of beer that no other country can match. Arguments in a Belgian bar will not revolve around anything so trivial as politics or football. Fierce debate might centre on the correct glass in which to serve a Stella. In its hometown of Leuven it is a flat-sided tumbler; elsewhere only one with diamond mouldings near the base will do. A barman who neglects to inquire whether you prefer your bottle of Duvel shaken slightly to mix in the yeasty lees shouldn’t expect a tip.

Though its brewers have much to celebrate, Belgium as a whole is troubled. Among the most pressing problems is the bitter Wallonian-Flemish political divide that left the country without a permanent government for much for 2010 and 2011. A dissolution of the nation no longer looks impossible. Still, Belgians intending to drown their sorrows at least have an excellent variety of beers with which to do the job.

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A Treat From the Cellar

Hello, Beer Blog!

My recent absenteeism, I will explain in one sentence:

I’m back in graduate school, pursuing a doctorate (DMA) degree.

Deal with it.  The blog is still here. The blog will be here when I’m officially Dr. Perm.

Being in school does present opportunities for celebration, such as finishing one’s first semester; getting an “A” on a major research paper, getting a 105% on one’s first final exam in 6 1/2 years (and, I believe, first 105% on a final exam EVER); getting straight A’s.

Thus, we search the cellar for an appropriate celebratory brew.  And this is what we find: a true gem.

Nørrebro Bryghus Old Odense Ale, brewed as a one-offer in 2007 in collaboration with Dogfish Head brewmaster Sam Calagione.  It’s based on a 15th-century recipe, in the tradition of gruit beers, and is brewed with oats, dark malt, fir bark and branches, hyssop, wood sage, woodruff, star anise, blackthorn berries, and maple syrup from the Calagione family farm.  Here’s a news release from 2008.  I purchased two bottles in 2008 upon its release; drank the first within 6 months of purchase and cellared the second.  Perm is sometimes a negligent Perm: in this case, I took no notes upon tasting the first bottle, remembering only that it was Good.

Here is what the Dogfish Head website has to say about the brew:

The beer has a bright copper color with a very sparse and fragile head. The aroma is extremely complex and spicy, with notes of anise, tobacco, brettanomyces, leather and dried fruits. The body is rich and with a delicate sweetness that balances the sour tartness, making it far more accessible than a Belgian lambic, which would be the only well known style to which one could possible remotely compare Old Odense Ale.

I would concur; my 3-year plus cellared bottled exhibited the following characteristics:

Pours (into an Allagash footed goblet) a rich solera-sherry colour; thin antique white foam rings the glass. Nose is rich in herbs and floral notes; roses predominate, along with sour cherry and maple sugar. The taste is pleasantly and complexly sour with a sweet twist. Figs, plums, rose oil, and biscuits with dark molasses or treacle come to mind.

Impossibly smooth and almost smoky, this is a great winter brew and I’m sad that I don’t have any more in my cellar. Great with tapas/antipasti and would work well with fruit desserts also.

Appearance: 5
Smell: 5
Taste: 4.5
Mouthfeel: 5
Overall: 4.5

If you ever come across any of these, snatch them up! Perm will pay you good money for a bottle.

Highly recommended, IF you can find it!  Obviously, cellars well indefinitely.

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Good things

This just opened in my neighborhood.


Bavaria Returns to the Upper East Side

By FLORENCE FABRICANT

Friends whose short memories did not register that the Yorkville section of Manhattan was once home to numerous German and Eastern European beer halls tried to discourage Pamela and Alan Rice from opening a beer store there. “They said that the Upper East Side is too upscale for beer, and people drink wine,” Ms. Rice said.

The Rices, both career-changers, went ahead anyway, with happy results. Since opening about two weeks ago, their shop and bar, City Swiggers, has been a magnet for beer-lovers — many of them locals, to be sure. “We have people coming in with strollers,” Mr. Rice said.

The growing inventory offers close to 400 choices. Refrigerated cases line one wall, shelves of domestic beers are opposite and imports reside in the back. A bar with 14 taps (including one for cider) is in the middle and provides growler service for those who bring in a jug.

They also sell empty 32-ounce growlers ($3) and empty 64-ounce growlers ($5) to take home and keep. There is a small selection of vegan snacks (the law requires that places serving alcoholic drinks offer food as well) and sandwiches made by the V Spot Cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

City Swiggers, 320 East 86th Street (Second Avenue), (212) 570-2000; open 1 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 1 to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Prices range from about $2 to just under $30 (for a 750-milliliter bottle of ice cider from Normandy).


From The New York Times.

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