Archive | August, 2011

The Art of Novelty: Rogue’s Bacon Maple Porter

The craft-beer world is an interesting place, with various brewmasters trying to find the next big thing. It seems that the scamps at Rogue ale are going to brand themselves with cult Doughnut-house Voodoo Doughnut, and release something called Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Porter.

At first the idea sounds comical, due to the paring with Voodoo Doughnut, and the name of the beer makes it sound as if the beer will taste of the breakfast pastry. And in looking at the ingredients it well might.

The ingredient list from their full label:

Great Western 2 Row,
Chocolate,
Black,
Biscuit
Maple syrup,
apple smoked bacon,
vanilla beans,
vanilla extract
Pacman yeast,
Free range coastal water.

(I can’t ignore the “Free range coastal” descriptors in front of the “water” entry, because…sheesh…it reeks of made-up marketing terms).

What’s difficult to tell is if this release is a novelty release, with them trying to leverage both Voodoo’s cult status and the(now two year passed due) Internet’s passion for all things bacon. Sure, sure, the folks at Rogue will tell you it’s a serious release, but I’m not sure if the world is ready for a bacon porter, at least not to the point where they buy it often enough to encourage Rogue to make enough supply to meet the demand. Add to the fact that this isn’t simple a maple bacon porter, it’s a maple porter with a hint of cupcake.

This is the thing about novelty releases – It’s difficult to take them that seriously.

It’s possible that I’m not reading the winds that correctly, and perhaps the beer will have demand enough for several runs over the course of the next year. This is why I’m a writer, and not in the business game. But I do want to celebrate the Rogue is doing this at all, even if it fails miserably. I adore the novel. I love companies that take risks, and introduce new and different flavors into the mainstream. This is how our collective palate changes over the course of a generation or so. Twenty years ago, Pumpkin Ales were novel as well, and now they are a season standby for many breweries. Perhaps in twenty years, cupcake beers will be all the rage. I doubt it, but who knows what the future might bring.

More than anything else, what novelty releases do is alert the rest of us of what is possible, from a product stand point. In the hands of a master brewer, bacon/maple/cupcake flavored beer let’s us know that brewing can do far more than what the BJCP recognizes. A chocolatier who makes a Marmite truffle does the same exact thing, as does a cheesemonger who adds jerk seasoning to its cheddar. It’s innovation for the fun of it. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it fails miserably. But success and failures are beside the point. In the end, if you pull aside the biases and salesmanship of these folks, I’m willing to bet that if you asked them why they initially made these products, you’ll get an answer similar to that of “To see if I could.”

Such curiosity needs to be lauded and encouraged, by trying out their creations and seeing if they work. I’m going to try to get my hands on this porter for exactly that reason.


Beer Reviews: Duvel Special Edition Tripel Hop

I am a fan of Duvel Golden Ale. So much so, in fact, that the Belgian Ale has now become my default choice at restaurants if I’m not in the mood to explore the many new and untried beers on my to-do list. This fanaticism of mine came to a head at the grocery store, when I saw this bottle for sale. “It’s Duvel!”, I argued to Tara, believing that alone gave me the right of purchasing this nearly $20 750 ml bottle of beer. “Look! It’s a Tripel Hop!”, I said with an authority that was completely baseless. She rolled her eyes and I placed the bottle in out grocery basket.

When I see the phrase “Tripel Hop”, my mind reaches to the American philosophy of hops, which boils down to “the more, the better!” I am not a fan of this approach, and hoped that Duvel had a different approach to the phrase.

They do. The name refers to the three different varieties of hops used in the brew: Saaz from the Czech Republic, Styrian Goldings from Slovenia and Amarillo from the United States. Additionally, the ale is dry-hopped, meaning that the hops primarily used for aroma are added after the wort has cooled but while the beer ferments. The result? A well balanced golden ale, perfect for those who like hops, but don’t want to be beat over the head with them.

Note that this is a special beer, one that is not always made available by the folks at Duvel. It is marketed on a per year basis, similar to that of wine. The version I had was brewed in the spring of 2010.

The review:

Appearance: Pours with a fluffy foam, nearly meringue-like, with the beer itself starting with a champagne coloring until some of the suds subside, leaving a hazy gold, close to, but with not quite the same intensity, as the coloring of a standard Duvel.

Aroma: A nice balance of the floral, yet spicy. Styrian Golding Hops mixed with the malty foundation that Duvel is known for. This isn’t an over-hopped IPA. Here the hops work with the rest of the beer, rather than dominating it.

Taste: Just a hint of initial bitterness, followed by a nice floral/green apple taste on top of the bready malt, and a bit of pepper. A nice, dry finish, not harsh at all. As with the aroma, there’s balance here.

Mouthfeel: It has the thickness of a golden ale, but it works okay here. The carbonation plays on the tongue nicely, and the flavor has enough character to make it feel full bodied.

Rating: An outstanding beer, and one worth seeking out again. It’s a complex beer, flavor-wise, but it’s balanced so well that it seems as the effort to go into this beer was effortless. However, at $20 for a 750ml bottle, it can be pricey. I would buy again, if I had two other people to share the bottle with. At 9.5% ABV, it can pack a punch to the unwary.


What is a “Serious Diner”?

Someone in the comments of my recent post on Rogue 24 brought an interesting term into the discussion on foods and restaurants. He said:

No one has to eat (at Rogue 24) if they do not want to, and U.S. citizens are notoriously lazy diners and bad customers. Bravo to these folks for placing value on their offerings and inviting interested and serious diners to engage with them. Don’t like it? Eat elsewhere, simple as that.

The term that caught my attention? Serious diners.

Setting aside the gross generalization that U.S. citizens are notoriously lazy diners and bad customers, I’m curious as to what defines a “serious diner”? My next question is, unless you’re a chef or restaurateur, why is there a need to be serious about dining? Isn’t eating out supposed to be about, almost by definition, having a good time?

While I get (and practice) the desire to find good places to eat in order to enhance the experiences shared with friends and loved ones, at no point would I deign an evening ruined if the food or service was unmemorable, but the company and conversation wonderful. By my standards, a dining experience has less to do with the food you eat than it is the company you keep. The food can be important, yes, but is it the most important thing in regard to a dining experience? Good lord, I hope not.

Frank Bruni (of all people) brought forth a phrase yesterday which I think needs to be part of our every day lexicon – Unsavory Culinary Elitism. Bruni used it in a piece to lambaste Anthony Bourdain and his recent tirade against Paula Deen, but it fits here in this discussion as well. For the phrase “Serious diner” implies un-serious diners, and that these un-serious diners have some characteristic that makes them unworthy (or less worthy) to go to places such as Rogue 24.

This is hogwash. The only criteria to get into most any restaurant is the ability to pay for the meal and the desire to do so. What motivates that desire is inconsequential, regardless of whether one is a serious diner or not. Anyone who claims otherwise is walking dangerously close to the Unsavory Culinary Elitism line.

And when the end of the evening comes, regardless of whether you’ve spent $5 or $500 for your meal, if you’ve had a good time and can walk away without guilt or annoyance, it was money well spent.


Science Says: Most Vegetarians are A-Okay!

It’s only a small percentage of vegetarians that are jack-asses about it. The problem is that we omnivores are SO completely annoyed with those in that small percentage, that we let it cloud our perception. It’s called anticipated reproach, and Josh Rothman recently wrote about it on Boston.com.

Once you know how to spot it, “anticipated reproach” is everywhere, and it bedevils people who want to lead morally. Argue on behalf of an environmental cause, and non-environmentalists, anticipating your moral reproach, will think you’re stuck-up and self-righteous. Often, the anticipated reproach — driven, as it is, by fear — is exaggerated and caricatured: vegetarians, Monin finds, aren’t nearly as judgmental of meat-eaters as meat-eaters think they are. Unfortunately, one or two genuinely judgmental do-gooders can put everyone else on a hair-trigger, twisting discussion about moral issues into a vicious circle, in which both parties anticipate reproaches from one another, and put each other down in advance.

What’s to be done? Monin argues that we need to keep in mind one of the classic lessons of social psychology: Our moral views are all tangled up in our social lives. If we’re going to talk with one another about moral issues, we need to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which social hierarchies and interpersonal tensions cloud our judgments.

This also works with those who advocate for organic standards, locavorism, lower-costs for food, repeal of corn subsidies, better judgement by the food media, etc., etc. It’s also the primary reason why I’m getting invited to less and less parties.

I kid, I kid. I don’t get invited to parties for far more legitimate reasons.

(h/t to The Dish)


More Food Porn: Buffalo Chicken Sandwich

This one’s for Matthew, who has forgotten more about restaurants than I will ever know. Thanks for the company last night!


What $8 Per Dozen Eggs Tells Us

Jane Black, a food writer over at The Atlantic, discusses a recent run in with a farmer who was selling eggs at $8 per dozen.

My first instinct was that the egg guy was gouging people, like me, who have enthusiastically embraced efforts to build an alternative to our industrial food system. But it turns out that’s what it costs him to produce his eggs. The farm, Grazin’ Angus Acres, follows the gold standard of environmental practices: each morning, the chickens are fed organic grain, then moved to fresh pasture in a specially made chicken mobile. Owner Dan Gibson says the process is so labor-intensive that bringing down the price would be near impossible—and he’s not interested in trying. “At eight dollars a dozen, you pay 67 cents an egg,” he told me. “If your priorities are in the right place, that’s a bargain.”

The problem, as the $8/dozen eggs tell us is that, if a farmer does everything in their power to ensure caring, sustainable practices, the cost for production becomes enormous. But what do we get in return for this cost? Tom Philpott, over at Mother Jones, spells it out:

Meanwhile, at my local Walmart in Boone, North Carolina, a dozen eggs will set you back just $1.18. Those 10-cent eggs, of course, are produced in vast, fetid factories, sucking in huge amounts of environmentally ruinous corn and concentrating much more manure than can properly be absorbed into surrounding farmland.

What we get is farmland (that we never see) that is sustainable, a product (which is consumed almost immediately) that tastes marginally better, and the positive feelings of supporting a local farmer (who we barely know, if we know them at all) and not supporting factory- produced eggs (whose factories we also have never seen).

There’s quite a bit of abstraction in the benefit of purchasing those eggs.

As we sit in our restaurants and visit our farmers markets, the first rule of consumerism is as follows – when seeing two alike products whose only difference appears to be cost, people, collectively, will always migrate towards the cheaper one. People, when it comes to their food purchases, tend to stay within their cash-on-hand budget (meaning, most people don’t go into debt for grocery purchases). $8 per dozen eggs falls squarely into the luxury department. For people working to a budget, convincing them of the value of the $8/dozen eggs is asking too much. Value has to come with tangible benefits to the consumer.

I admit, the argument is a bit black and white here, although not much. While most supermarkets don’t sell $8/dozen eggs, they do sell anywhere between three to ten different types of eggs in their stores. Variations of cage-free, grain-fed, and hormone-free eggs all dot the shelves, each at a different cost point. And none of these types of eggs have diminished the demand for the $1.18 per dozen eggs.

Now, take this example for eggs, and expand upon it. Because this same dilemma of abstract benefit versus tangible value is being played out with milk, pork, beef, bread, tomatoes, soy beans, corn, and so-on and so-on. If we believe that good food (defined here as better tasting, less cruel to the animals, and more sustainable to the environment) is to be made available to all, rather than just the privileged, then we have to make the benefits of such purchases tangible to the consumers. More often than not, that means reducing their costs, or, more likely, remove the government subsidies and increase the financial penalties for unethical business practices that would increase the costs of cheap food. Because, more than any other lesson I have learned in the food industry, I have learned this: cheap food comes at a cost. It’s just that the cost is just another abstraction for too many of us.


Questions and Food Culture: Mine, Yours, and Ours

Trying to communicate to people my full on perspective regarding food is a difficult balance of personal and anecdotal interpretations of life experiences mixed with the empirical data that comes from those who gather such things. All of which provides evidence that helps answer the question of “Why do we eat what we eat?”.

The question is far more difficult than one might imagine. It would be far easier for me to ask “Why do I eat what I eat?”. But, as seven plus years of food blogging can demonstrate, I’m a bit of an outlier. My activities over the past seven years are not typically those of most people. These activities leave me questioning my own motives, and wondering why I give care what the average person from Skokie, Illinois had for dinner and what motivated them to buy that particular brand of potato chips, or sit down at that particular restaurant.

More than any other question, the one that sticks in my head is thus: since my own experiences had led me to several wonderful discoveries that are often easily obtainable, what is it that leads people to purchase crappier versions of my discoveries. Why do people buy Lipton Tea, Budweiser, or Kraft Singles? What made them purchase these items in the first place, and what motivated them to keep on buying them throughout their lifetime?

As I pulled back from looking for an answer from an individual perspective, I found that the answers to these questions often led to bigger questions. How did Budweiser get so big as to influence the beer market in the United States, putting them in the position to influence purchasing habits? What is there culturally that encourages us to over-sweetening our tea? Why, in God’s name, is Kraft cheese such an unnatural color of yellow-orange?

(A quick side note: It’s interesting, at least to me, on how my mind works. Because my intent when staring this post, was to discuss how much my family, particularly my parents, shaped my worldview on food. This isn’t an uncommon approach to food writing. But exploring that avenue seems pointless to me, irrelevant to most, except for myself. I already know how I came to appreciate food and drink, and what influences my parents had in that. What makes me curious is why my father felt the need to buy cake mixes, when his mother was a near genius in the baking department. But I digress.)

Food writing is such an odd vocation, especially at this point and time in American history. Our food culture is a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas and ideals, with different people being motivated to succeed in it for reasons as diverse as trying to do the right thing, to trying to be a celebrity, to out-and-out greed. Then there are the folks who participate in the food culture who don’t even realize they are doing so.

We all eat. Many of us simply want to eat well (with a slightly smaller subset acknowledging that there are different definitions of what “well” means). The ultimate question, to me, is thus: How do we eat well without having to dig through the white noise of marketing campaigns, products that appeal to the lowest common denominator of the consumer base, and processes that sacrifice quality in the name of quantity?

I don’t have an answer, yet. But I’m sure going to have fun trying to get one.