July 1, 2008

What’s on Tap: Beer on the Fourth of July

By William Brand, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jul. 1--BARBECUE AND BEER are as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. But this year, why not try something more profound than light lager?

Here are a couple of suggestions: Marin Brewing Albion Amber Ale HHH 1/2 , an excellent version of a very traditional craft beer style, and De Glazen Toren Saison d'Erpe-Mere HHHH, a modern re-creation of a very traditional Belgian style. Together, they're our Beers of the Week, and they can make your backyard barbecue sparkle.

They're both substantial beers that can stand up to just about anything you toss on the grill. The amber works well with chicken and steaks, ribs, even grilled portobello mushrooms. The saison's about a perfect match for seafood -- grilled, marinated shrimp to salmon filets -- or even chorizo. They can both be served quite cold, but don't serve them freezing cold and blunt the flavors. Save freezing for Amer-Euro light lagers, which are basically tasteless anyway.

The first amber ale I remember was Mendocino Brewing Red Tail Ale HHH 1/2 . At that point, I was mostly used to drinking stouts and porters and the occasional German lager. I was shocked and pleased by Red Tail's soft malt and the zip in the hoppy finish. In the last two decades, ambers have become ubiquitous in America. Every brewpub has one; even Anheuser-Busch makes Michelob AmberBock, and Miller is introducing an Amber Lit e -- can't wait for that one.


Amber has been a mainstay at Marin Brewing in Larkspur almost since it opened in 1989. But head brewer Arne Johnson has tinkered a lot with the original recipe created by craft brewing legend Grant Johnston.

"Almost everything in it has changed," Johnson explains. If you think you know craft beer ambers, Albion Amber will shock you. It's a beautiful copper color with a big, lively head of creamy tan foam and a spicy, mildly hoppy nose. Taste is full and mouth-filling, but not sweet. This beer is never sweet; it finishes dry, with the hops and malts dancing around each other. That's not hyperbole: I know hops can't dance, but there's a subtle, understated interplay between the several barley malts in the beer and the hops.

Johnson says Albion Amber is made with a portion of English Maris Otter pale malted barley; Munich -- the malt used in Oktoberfest beers; crystal, which provides some of that full taste; and a tiny bit of chocolate malt -- barley kilned to the color of chocolate. Yeast, which also provides some of the spice and complexity, is Marin's house yeast. Whew. A nice amber indeed.

Saison D'Erpe-Mere re-creates of a beer style once popular all across Belgium. Before refrigeration, saisons, French for "season," were the last beers brewed in spring before it was too warm to make beer. They were fairly high in alcohol, often served to farmhands at the end of a day in the fields.

De Glazen Toren means the glass tower in Flemish. The founders, a lawyer and a mathematician, began as homebrewers, then chucked their careers to enroll in a three-year brewing course in Ghent. They opened their brewery in Erpe-Mere in 2004, and have since made waves with a string of striking beers. Saison was their first.

I took one sip of this beer at the Trappist in downtown Oakland a couple of months ago and understood why they're becoming famous. It's just a beautiful beer: pale gold with a spicy nose. Taste is initially slighty sweet with delicious malt complexity and a long, dry finish with a most interesting rising, mild sourness. It's unusual; worth a desperate hunt to find it.

Can't find these beers? E-mail me and ask for our 2008 Retail Beer Store List.

CALENDAR: 1-5 p.m. July 12. Marin Brewing, Larkspur. More than 25 breweries. Benefits breast cancer research. Tickets $30 in advance, $35 at the door. 415-461-HOPS.

Reach William Brand at [email protected] or call 510-915-1180 and ask for his Retail Beer Store List or Good Pub List. Read more by Brand at www.ibabuzz.com/beer.

RATINGS HHHHH World classic. HHHH Don't miss it. HHH Very good. HH Good beer; no defects. H Demand a refund.

Summer reading -- "Good Beer Guide West Coast USA" -- This book by two English journalists, published by the English Campaign for Real Ale, provides an intriguing look at West Coast craft beer pubs from San Diego to Anchorage. They're puzzled by our love of uber-hopped and strong beers, boggled by the vast distances they had to cover and blown away by the wild variety of beer available here. It's a fun read, and their listings are bang-on. By Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham ($27.95, CAMRA Books, 322 pages). -- "Homebrewing for Dummies" -- This brand-new edition is an excellent primer for complete beginners to homebrewing. Even if you don't homebrew, it's an interesting read, with lots of background information on how beer is made. It's structured in simple, how-to steps. Author Marty Nachel, who lives in suburban Chicago, has been homebrewing for many years. He said the publishers asked him for this update because it was still selling steadily, a decade after the first one was published ($19.99, Wiley, 432 pages). -- "Grape vs. Grain" -- Author Charles Bamforth is chair of the Department of Food Science & Technology at UC Davis and a brewing scientist. He's written a number of scientific books on fermentation science. This book is for those of us who love beer like he does. He says he wrote the book because he's distressed about beer's lowly position in the hierarchy of alcoholic drinks, and he mostly blames the big brewers -- he calls them "the purveyors" -- "who push sales with outrageous (if hilarious) advertising regimes and spawn drinks (notably the malternatives) that are alarmingly variant to the beers we have enjoyed for generations. Compare if you will, the imagery associated with beer as opposed to that of wine." It's a great read, with enough statistics and facts to prove he is indeed a scientist. ($27, Cambridge University Press, 209 pages). --"Beer: Eyewitness Companions" -- Michael Jackson was an English journalist, whose guides to the beers of the world and the emerging craft beer movement introduced many of us to the wonders of great beer. He died last summer after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. This is his last book. With the help of a team of beer writers, "Eyewitness Companions" covers the world, country by country in Jackson's incisive, no-word-wasted style. It's the perfect book for a summer weekend ($20, DK Publishing, 288 pages).


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