Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Experimenting With Cacao.

What you see in the photo is the inside of a cacao fruit. To me it's a bit gross, like something from H.R. Giger. But it smells nice enough.

Here in Costa Rica you can buy this fruit in the supermarket, or local farmer's market, or pick them from the trees if you know where to look. Possibly you can find them in fancy big-city markets in the States or Europe these days, I'm not sure. I do know this: Through one of our favorite processes — fermentation — those seeds can become cocoa nibs. And those can be used to make chocolate. Or drinks that include chocolate. Including beer.

That's pretty much our project in this case. We plan to mature our own cocoa nibs to make chocolate, or steep them in a home-brewed stout — let's call it dry-nibbing.

Unfortunately it's not very clear how to conduct that fermentation process in your own home. There are plenty of sites like this one that advertise cocoa nibs — already fermented — which you can buy and use to make chocolate "from scratch." Except it's not really from scratch. A lot of the hard work was already done in the jungle.

Basically, farmers put the cacao seeds — sweet-smelling, fruity pulp and all — into wooden crates lined with banana leaves and leave them there for as long as a week. There may be some stirring involved. Meanwhile there are unseen, natural critters at work, transforming the seeds from something that tastes like potatoes (trust me on that one) into something that vaguely resembles dark, bitter chocolate.

Somehow — call it homebrewer's intuition — I think that the wooden crates and banana leaves are not exactly necessary. Unfortunately I can't seem to find a lot of information on this, and we're left with the opportunity to experiment on our own. Which is not all bad. Our first attempt resulted in sweet-smelling nibs that still tasted like potatoes. But there are more attempts to come.

Anyway: After we've done a bit more research, and toying around, look for a post titled "How to Ferment Cocoa Nibs at Home, and How Much to Drop Into Your Stout." Or something like that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of Middling Soccer and Great Thirst.

Nearly four years ago, I was in the nosebleeds in Gelsenkirchen watching the USA get shellacked by the Czech Republic, 3-0. I was shunning the Budweiser not for any high-minded principles, but because the line was too long. So much for the Germans boycotting the King of Beers as sponsor in their own homeland. Let's be honest: At a momentous event like the World Cup, you will drink whatever is handy. As long as it's handy.

Not too many beers are handy here in Costa Rica. But the San Jose suburb of Escazú, home to many well-heeled foreigners, seems to have more handy than the rest of the country. In particular, the best selection we have found — such as it is — is at a gringo-run sports pub called the Time Out Tavern. There one can find Duvel and Guinness among a wide variety of international lagers. And there one can also find Sam Adams. Which naturally we appreciate like never before.

Tonight we'll be at the Time Out, watching the USA play Czech Republic for the first time since my heart and many others were broken in Germany. It's just a friendly, but it's also a World Cup tune-up. And a chance for comeuppance. And Sam Adams, brewer and patriot, will be handy. So it's not meaningless.

There is no sign saying "Time Out" in front of the pub. The painted wall flags down knowing gringos in plain English. Want to find it? Look about 300 meters uphill from the Costa Rica Country Club. That's what passes for an address in these parts.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

We're All Waiting for the Malt.

I'm sitting here in the lobby of the Hotel Tilawa on scenic Lake Arenal.

There's a three-barrel brewing system here that needs some spit and polish, and a broom to knock out those spider webs, but otherwise it's ready to roll. The hops are in the cooler. So is the yeast. A brewer has joined the outfit and is trying to keep busy.

All they need is the malt.

At the moment there are about 5,000 pounds of the stuff sitting in Canada. It's several weeks late now. Through no fault of its own, customs officials have decided the malt's paperwork is not altogether complete. Which is not the same as explaining exactly what paperwork is required. Bureaucracy is fun. Two governments that make an art of it are Canada and Costa Rica.

Anyway, I just wanted to say hello. There's a lot more to tell about Volcano Brew, and about another upstart on the Pacific Coast. That one is waiting on the malt too. Until it shows up, there are exactly zero microbreweries in Costa Rica. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Machete Beer Project.

In Costa Rica there is no spring. We're on the tail-end of summer and expecting winter to begin any day now. Among the ticos, summer is the dry season and winter is the wet season and that's all. Unless you are from the North, and you have known real, slippery, debilitating winters in your life, and in that case the wet season is just like summer with added showers every afternoon.

Also: Why use a lawnmower when you can use a machete? And, why drink a lawnmower beer when you can drink a machete beer?

Sorry. Let's start over. From scratch. In Boston a couple of weeks ago there was something called Slowfest. Imagine a fest devoted to craft beers of less than 4.5% abv. Sounds beautiful. Too good to be true, right? Well, right. Too few breweries had products that law in alcohol, so they adjusted the standard to less than 5%, according to Lew Bryson. Still, their hearts are in the right spot.

One of the forces behind that event was Chris Lohring of Tremont Brewery in Boston. He's just launched a brand called Notch American Session Ales. If you're in the Boston area you might find them on draft in certain places. All of them will be 4.5% strength or less. (Meanwhile, if you can, you really ought to track down the April issue of Beer Advocate for Lohring's editorial, "It's Time for Session Beer.")

In the past I've already told you about Bryson's Session Beer Project. Now I'm telling you again. And I'll also tell you that Ken Weaver at RateBeer's Hop Press site has been getting involved, featuring craft beers that meet the session standard.

Now: Back to Costa Rica and all the other countries that beer forgot, awash in bland, quasi-monopolistically manufactured lagers — and never forget that most of the world's drinkers still live in such places, and that even you, Mr. or Ms. Discerning Aficionado, drink them when on vacation. Because you're on vacation and it's hot. And we make excuses, like "it's perfect for the climate," when we should know better. Really, we should. Because we've had plenty of thirst-quenching beers that also happen to have great character, and naturally those are among our favorite beers of all time. (If I saw a man walking down the street with a Taras Boulba right now, I might kill him for it.)

Craft breweries are popping up in places like this, usually with mixed success. Many come, and many go. It just strikes me that success would be more likely if such breweries offered a product that met Bryson's definition, which is as good as you'll find: 4.5% strength or less, flavorful, balanced, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced.

I keep thinking a beer like that would look mighty good, sitting here, sweating all over this table. Then I might use that moisture to polish off this here grass-stained machete.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Information Asymmetry from the Craft Beer Frontier. And, Patagonia.

After some delay my magazine subscriptions are starting to find me in Central America. Thus we're well into May and I'm sinking my teeth into the April 2010 issue of Beer Advocate.

In particular I want to point out Tim Webb's feature on Patagonia, where there are many more cervecerias pequeñas than most of us would have guessed. That's the good news. The bad news is that they're spread across a sprawling region and it would take weeks to visit them all on a single trip.

Sadly for the rest of us, he didn't have time to document them. He only had a few days in the lake district around San Carlos de Bariloche: "I had expected to see a couple of micros and brewpubs... Nobody warned me there might be nearly 30 of the damn things producing 100 beers in innumerable styles, or that the landscape has no intention of just sitting there playing support act to a glorified pub crawl." Poor Tim.

But how could he have known? Most of us thirsty pilgrims rely heavily on beer-oriented guidebooks when possible, or otherwise sites like Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate. Obviously there is no beer guide to Patagonia — or anywhere else in Latin America — and even those popular U.S.-based geek sites, inevitably, have large information gaps outside the handful of well-trafficked beer countries.

More to the point, there are large gaps if we are lucky. Because — as with Patagonia — that means things are happening just a little faster than the rest of us can blab about it. The trick now is to do a better job of sharing news from the frontier.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bruxellensis Festival Returns in 2010... To Tokyo.

After a two-year hiatus, beer lovers can once again attend one of Belgium's best festivals. However, unless you live in Asia, it will be slightly more expensive to be there.

While Bernard Leboucq and Yvan De Baets are busy finishing their new brewery in Brussels — and I'll have a report on that for you very soon — they've taken a break from organizing the Bruxellensis festival. The last one was in 2008, and the next one (as Yvan promised me) will be in 2011.

This was a favorite event among aficionados because the organizing team maintained a very high standard for participation. Breweries not only had to be small, they also had to be good (in the minds of the organizers). Even those who disagreed with the standard had to admit that there was nary a bad beer to be found in that St-Gilles warehouse on that September weekend. No fake stuff, no sweet stuff, no spiced soups. No boring beers.

We've all been anxiously awaiting the next one — but someone decided they couldn't wait any longer. Specifically, the Japanese importer for Brasserie de la Senne is organizing the event with permission and guidance from Bernard and Yvan.

Want to go? It will be from July 17 to 19 at Sugaya, a Tokyo shop that specializes in craft beer (among other things). Jaunty hat tip to What's On in Japan for Craft Beer Lovers, possibly the most accurately named blog in the world.

So: I know I have a few readers in Japan and Asia. Will any of you go? Will any of you relatively wealthy fanatics make the trip? More to the point: Will any of you pay for my ticket?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What To Do If You Only Have One Day in Bamberg.

My fantasy is to spend a week in that town, someday. So far I've been lucky enough to go there twice, and unlucky enough that each time was a day trip only. Still, a day trip is enough to make an impact. It's enough to permanently etch some seriously fond and wistful memories into your personal history, ready to be recalled at need. That need may come when you sip a certain beer, when you seek inspiration, or when you simply want to brag. Bamberg is a moveable session, you might say.

And so: If you only have an hour in Bamberg, go to Schlenkerla and have two smoked Märzens. If you only have three hours, add Mahr's and (at least) two Ungespundets. If you only have five hours, add a hearty meal and another Märzen at Spezial. If you really have a whole day, use the hike to Café Abseits to clear your head a little between Mahr's and Spezial. (And if you are more interested in sampling a variety of regional beers than local atmosphere, absolutely move Abseits to the top of your list.) Throw in a Schwärzle at Klosterbräu, one more Märzen at Schlenkerla, and stand proudly. If you can.

But no, seriously: You're going to need a week.

Others might add Fässla, or one of the kellers up on the hill, on which you can perch and quaff and look over the town center. All arguments welcome. However, do yourself a favor and skip Ambräusianum. It's simply not in the same league as its neighbors, poor thing.