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Tasting

This summer we’ve mostly spent just south of Milwaukee, and with all my wife’s family in town for a wedding this week, everyone is feeling celebratory. This family has a long legacy in the Horn of Africa as missionaries. Grandma went off to the Horn in the late 40s and Grandpa arrived soon after, they met, got married and had my mother-in-law, aunt and uncle (who today is carrying on the legacy in Afar land in Ethiopia). Those kids grew up in between Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and their stories of British boarding school, Haile Selassie, and the Queen’s visit are a much more direct connection to colonial Africa than you encounter in any museum or movie.  

So of course with the family all together, Grandpa offered to take us out for injera and various wots at the Alem Ethiopian Village in Milwaukee. Back when my wife and I got married in Philadelphia five years ago this week, we held our “rehearsal dinner” at a tiny Ethiopian cafe next to Rittenhouse Square. It’s nice coda of sorts, upon reflection. 

I’d vowed to ask for T’ej–the famous spontaneously fermented Ethiopian honey wine–next time I could, and indeed they had it. Even Grandpa the teetotaler was in generous mood and ordered it for us anyway. (I’ve been working down his resistance so he’ll share his namesake Schneider Weiss by the end of summer.)

  Served cold in a wine glass, the T’ej was pleasantly sweet, spritzy like a Riesling, very honey-like and more refreshing than I expected. Although, the relatives who actually live in Ethiopia said I’d ordered the digestif too early. Rookie mistake on my part. 

 The menu lists it as Enat, which I think is a brand from California. Next time I’ll have  go at some of the Ethiopian beers on offer, including one on the bar shelf whose writing was completely in Amharic except for the words ‘Amber Beer.’ Sounds promising. 

All in all, a pleasant evening with fine food and good company. 

  

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Stier is owned and run by three expats from Chile, France, and Germany, who all married Cochabambinas and stayed. Splitting the difference between La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is a dominant city for trade and agriculture in the valleys region. Sometimes referred to as a “city of eternal spring,” it hosts many headquarters of various foreign organizations for the same reason. And as such, there’s a small critical mass of beer interest to provide a market.

I exchanged a few emails with Rodrigo Cadiz, the Chilean brewer in researching a magazine article and came out with a few tidbits that didn’t fit. Cadiz said, “We’re influenced by all schools–we try to take the styles that can be adapted to have the most impact in the Bolivian market. We estimate that half of our market is Bolivian and the other half foreign tourists in Bolivia.”

Currently producing 1500-2000 liters (13-17 bbl) a month (which comes out to around 200 bbl annually), they don’t modify their water. Their honey and strawberry beers have particularly eye-catching labels that are innovative for the Bolivian context: “We have two label designers; one who focuses on traditional styles that are more rigid, and on the other hand, we have another designer who works with the more novel beers without a defined style. For example, on our latest honey beer we worked with some Cochabambino artists associated with the Arte Urquidi Cultural Center.” The IPA label also was drawn up in collaboration with Arte Urquidi.

I picked up the first four of these bottles of Stier at the Spitting Llama in Cochabamba. They all spent some time on an overnight bus through the Chapare, so their clarity may have been somewhat affected. I’d previously tried the strong ale, honey beer and weizen, the latter two of which I’d probably say are Stier’s best offerings, especially the latter. I went through these in a few sessions. 

Session I:

Frutilla: This bottle wasn’t properly capped, so it leaked a bit in transit and probably screwed around with the final product. Apparently brewed with strawberry, it’s a turbid color of ruby red grapefruit flesh. Definitely a “girl beer.” Strong strawberry flavor, but feels like a Mineragua–i.e. a seltzer that evokes soda pop beer–and has a background of raw green beans. To be fair, that’s kind of what strawberries often taste like here. So, not great, and disturbingly pink. My wife loves the label, which oddly features no ingredient list. 6% ABV.

Pilsener: Yellow, pale, a bit opaque (probably the fault of the transportation again), 5.8%, and is carbonated like the priming sugar didn’t get mixed in all that well. While the label says it has citric notes from the German hops, I get more herbal and a bit of tartness and again with the unexpected seltzer feeling. More interesting than your run-of-the-mill industrial pilsener, but I’m not sure I’d be able to differentiate this from a blonde ale.

Session II:

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

Strong Ale: Between dark copper and light brown, translucent, with a nice white head that lingers on a bit around the edges. Aroma is fruity, sweet and just a bit of malt. Sweet on the finish, some malt–not overbearing–is there a hint of meat in there? Better than the first time I tried this. A light body; I think I’ll let this warm a bit. Oomph, at 7.2% ABV, perhaps I should have had something to eat before, and it’s a hot afternoon. I feel like this Strong Ale illustrates a prime challenge for Bolivian brewers: the only malt commercially available here is pilsner malt from Sureña, and it lacks the character demanded by malty ales; crystal malts can contribute some character in there, but without a good base malt, you lose a layer of potential. I did find out from Ted’s Cerveceria recently that Potosina has their own internal malting operations, but that lack of a maltster is currently either a huge gap and/or opportunity in the growing artisanal beer market for Bolivia. Take heed, someone.

Warming helps. The malt comes out a bit more. That meatiness I thought I detected declines and is replaced by malt. The body is still light.

Wow, this is way better warmer. Still not a world-beater, but a nice entrant.

Session III:

Stout: 8.2% ABV means this is one of, if not the strongest beer brewed commercially in Bolivia at the moment. And at that strength, it seems fair think it might impose itself onto “Imperial” territory. I’ll just be honest that before I start this, my points of reference are memories of sipping Old Rasputin next to a big juicy hamburger. So, the framework of expectations calling for bitter and thick might color this a little bit. At the pour, Stier’s Stout smells of roast, coffee, and chocolate. Jet black, just the slightest bit translucent on the sides and a tan head. That’s a good start. I start drinking and It’s sweet and the body is medium. There’s some little bit of cherry and malt, and it’s more thin than I’d hoped. Ugh, my previous expectations aren’t helping this. I know that I was hoping for the perpection of about 40 more IBUs and a milkshake texture, but I should know better. Nobody’s going to buy or drink that profile here (just yet). But Bolivians will understand this, even appreciate it.

The IPA wasn’t ready when I happened to be in Cochabamba, but I was able to buy a few bottles from Stier once it was ready. Again, overnight bus delivery down the Andes = inevitable sloshing. 

Session IV:

IPA: Well, in the interest of keeping it constructive, I’ll say this is much more of an English golden ale or something like a cream ale. Pale, lightly carbonated, fruity, with a slight whiff of hops; I’m keeping in mind that a bitter IPA is not going get much traction at the moment in Bolivia. Still, it’s disappointing to crack it open and not even have much of a nose to greet you. I’d say this has some refining to go. To be honest, it’s a bit less hoppy (in terms of aroma, taste, etc.) than Kushaav’s Aleksandra golden ale.

Some acquaintances came through to visit and brought with them bottles from the Southern Cone. Some I’d tried, but others are new. Both Chile and Argentina have loads of old world European influence based on centuries of immigration, and while the former also draws a lot of influence from the poorer parts of the British Isles (case in point: O’Higgins was a naval hero and now a widely used name), the latter boasts some of the most progressive open immigration legislation in the world.

I was recently tasked with providing some other folks with some recommendations for a couple relatively obscure towns in Argentina. Even with minimal research, I was blown away by just how much variety there is, even in rural areas that mostly cater to outdoor expeditions of various sorts. I’m already relatively familiar with what Chile can offer based on travel there, but Argentina was and is a revelation. And that’s not even to mention the hop fields in El Bolson, Argentina. I only regret I haven’t had a chance to try the Mapuche hops of Argentina just yet. Some day, perhaps.

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Cervecería Austral Lager: Brewed in Patagonia of Chile, this is very golden, and tastes a bit of vanilla and honey spread over toasted whole wheat bread. Crisp, but quite filling and I’m done after one. 4.6% ABV.

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Kuntsmann Lager: Brewed in Valdivia, Chile, this is more copper-colored to match the caramel malts, but unfortunately it’s less dynamic of a taste. More caramel in the aroma and some to match in the taste, along with some woody hops, but not quite as interesting to drink as the former. Lighter, though. And at 4.3% ABV I could drink three of these before getting bored. Eminently crushable, as they say.

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Kuntsmann Torobayo Pale Ale: [Somehow I lost the notes on this. If for whatever reason you really care that much, you can read my comments on it from last year. I mean if you think of it as the Blue Moon of Chile, it’s pretty good.]

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Cerveza Cape Horn Pilsener: 4.8% ABV and certainly one of the better pilseners I’ve had in South America. Golden and a little turbid, it tastes of honey on toast chased by a really nice woody bitterness.  A really floral bouquet in the nose, maybe even some banana? Brewed with wheat and (surprisingly?) sugar in the very southerly city of Ushuaia on the Argentine part of Tierra del Fuego. (Looking at the place of sugar in the ingredients list, I wonder if that was for priming since this is bottle conditioned.) Tasty.

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Cerveza Artesanal Antares Altbier: A bit past its drink-by date. Smells of slightly stale bread and maybe some peaches? Tastes of caramel, whole wheat bread, balanced, and leaves a nice lingering bitterness. A pretty reddish copper. Somewhat thin, however, and a bit watery. I tell you what, though, I think most Bolivians would enjoy this 5.5% beer.

These last two were the real treat, though, brought all the way from Easter Island, technically a Chilean possession, but really quite distinct culturally speaking. So, I suppose this isn’t Southern Cone beer either, except on the basis of nationality. Oh well. These were shared among friends, hence the small pours.

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Cerveceria Rapa Nui Mahina Pale Ale: Tastes of delicious bread, and chewy to boot. Drinking this is an exercise in understanding how much your base malt can influence the outcome of a beer, and this clearly was not made with pilsner malt. There’s some banana aroma, it’s snappy and soft all at once, with a background hint of something meaty or savory. I enjoyed this at 4.8%; almost disappointed to share it.

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Cerveceria Rapa Nui Mahina Porter: Red highlights on a dark brown body and tan head. It’s 6.8% and smells of fresh cut wood and whipped cream. It tastes very clearly of a sweet, light chocolate, a bit of roasted barley, and then creamy at the end. Everyone liked this one.

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog had a post today called, “The color of your coffee mug can change the way your coffee tastes”. It notes:

The color of a coffee mug can alter the way coffee tastes, according to a recent study, which was conducted in Australia, and tested the influence that three different colored mugs—one white, one blue, and one clear glass—had on the perception of different flavor points. The researchers served 18 participants the same cup of coffee, in one of the three similarly shaped but differently colored vessels, and then asked them to rate their sweetness, aroma, bitterness, quality, and acceptability.

 

Going on:

“The color of the mug really does seem to have an impact,” said Charles Spence, head of the crossmodal research laboratory at Oxford University and one of the study’s authors. “We found a particularly significant difference between the white mug and the clear one.”

Specifically, the white mug was associated with a more “intense” (or bitter) tasting cup of coffee, and the clear glass mug was not. The blue mug, meanwhile, proved to be “kind of an intermediate.”

And finally:

In the case of coffee, specifically, the researchers have a hunch. The color brown, they believe, might be something people associate with bitterness. “The white mug may have influenced the perceived brownness of the coffee and this, in turn, may have influenced the perceived intensity (and sweetness) of the coffee,” the researchers wrote. That would help explain why clear, glass coffee mugs, which dilute the color, tended to have the opposite effect.

So obviously I want to know, has anyone tried this with beer? Will white-colored IPA glasses show up on next year’s must-have Christmas lists for brewers and beer drinkers?