Monday, April 29, 2013

Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks, Part III: Choesels.

It's been a quick five years or so since I posted a couple of entries in a hypothetical series called Mysterious Belgian Bar Snacks. Then this choesels thing came up. A long-delayed sequel, like the Color of Money and Wall Street II: Gecko's Revenge, or whatever that one was called.

A disclaimer, in the tradition of long-delayed sequels that are inconsistent with their predecessors: Choesels are not really a bar snack. I mean, they could be, but like many weird old peasant foods they're more easily found in upmarket restaurants that pay attention to local traditions. On the other hand, they would traditionally be accompanied by beer--lambic, most likely, because this is an ancient Brussels thing.

So, choesels! What are they?

I asked that very question some years ago at Restobières. And the waiter told me they were bull's balls. Well, how do you say no to that? Especially in the presence of friends and/or loved ones who (a) know you will eat pretty much anything and (b) heard the question and answer.

So, the other day: I'm scribbling something about Brussels food and come across choesels again. And I remember: bull's balls. Then my journalistic skepticism--a ponderous burden for anyone trying to make money by selling words--kicks in. And I think, really? Bull's balls? For real? Because journalistic skepticism sounds like that sometimes. So I spend more time than I should have googling around and learning that sometimes they could be pancreas or other bits and ends of the cow.

Not satisfied, I write to Chef Alain Fayt of Restobíères, known as one of the few chefs and restaurants still serving this local treat. And some days later I get a really fascinating answer, with historical context. Specific years and everything. He either knows the subject cold or spent some time researching; either way, I really appreciate it. Then I fix the spelling and typos just for you:

In fact, the choesels were the meal of poor people. It is an old custom. It was a mixture of different parts (breast of veal, oxtail, heifer sweetbreads, calf testes and pancreas) of beef. In fact, Gaston Clément (1879-1973) a famous Belgian chef ([royal] chef of the Belgian crown) published a recipe of the choesels in his book (1954) within included pancreas and testes. In 1899 and 1903, Jean de Gouy wrote in the 9th ed. of his book, La cuisine et la patisserie bourgeoise, that choesel is pancreas. Miss Lucas, a famous Brussels chef, has never used pancreas in the recipe of her Choesels. My opinion of this issue is that Choesels is a traditional meal and everybody can realize them with [their] personal touch. Personally, I do not put pancreas in my recipe, but [just] testes of veal.

I hope that it is now clearer for you.
A recent frustration: I had lunch at Restobières last summer without taking a single photo that was worth a damn. So instead you get an image of his cookbook, La Cuisine à la Bière, which is hugely entertaining if your French is up to it. Choesels are in there. Rocky mountain oysters, Belgian style, and Fayt typically does it with lambic from De Cam. You can buy the cookbook at his restaurant.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More Fancied Beer, Less Fancied Prices.

Beerpulse posted a brief item yesterday, citing an Under My Host podcast, about Stillwater Artisanal Ales preparing to increase production nearly fourfold. I can flesh things out a bit.

The report mentions that he plans to lower prices but doesn't get specific. Strumke told me in late March he expects a retail price of $11 for a four-pack of Cellar Door, his best-selling beer. "That's re-inventing my company," he said, by going with bigger volume. Lowering prices, "that's been my goal from Day One, just takes time."

I also asked him about how often he is going to Two Roads, his new contract brewery. "As much as I have to be," he said. "Brewing at that level is very automated. I've been up there re-designing it, because it doesn't scale up. Once it's dialed in, it's more efficient, it's better. But you can't just multiply things. It doesn't work like that. You have to re-create the beer."

He added that his goal, of course, is keep the product exactly the same as before.

Currently Stillwater beers are available in 35 states. He said that now they'll go to "pretty much every state" and also more countries.

He is clearly excited about the idea of making "regular beer" but of a very high quality. "I want to re-invent the way that people look at beer," he said. For example, with his Classique--which will be canned--"it’s our grandfathers new beer. What is it? It’s not a saison. It’s not a lager. It’s a fucking beer."

I tasted the Classique on draft. It's an austere thing, bone-dry and pale, with nowhere for its spicy-resin bitterness to hide--fine with me, as I didn't find it abrasive. At 4.5% strength it can be drunk in volume, not just made that way. Like his Premium, it's got corn and rice, a nod to American lager tradition.

If he makes enough of this stuff, with the Brewers Association still think him "traditional"?

"Why can’t you make a good beer with corn and rice? That’s bullshit."

Now just for fun, here is something I wrote for DRAFT in 2010, appearing in the March 2011 issue:

His Stillwater Artisanal Ales are generally found in 750mL bottles that sell for about $12 in a shop. Not everyday beers, then, but ones to carry to a dinner party. I have no problem with that. My worry is that, in shop after shop, bottles like these are crowding out more affordable options for those of us who want great beer anytime, not just for special occasions.

With mutual friends, I met Strumke in Baltimore at The Brewer’s Art. We lounged on sofas and sipped strong Belgian-style ales beneath a really impressive chandelier. With my tact eroded by alcohol, I whined about the price of his beer and he offered a sensible response. Damned if I could remember what it was. So I contacted him again and just asked.

“First off, I don’t see my beer as being overly expensive,” Strumke said. Yet making beer in small batches means there are no bulk deals for materials, and, “with that said, I have set out to make uncompromising beers with the best ingredients I can obtain. Price is not a deterrent as the goal is extreme quality.”

Basically, Strumke is making a small amount of beer for a group of people who can’t get enough of the stuff. “Craft brewing is, like it or not, part of the epicurean and artisan movement,” he said. “In my case, I make beer for the connoisseur, those who understand what I am trying to do and appreciate my efforts.”

I like Brian’s beer and respect his view. He takes real pride in his product, and after that, sales are the only metric that matters.

Yet his argument worries me a bit. Epicures and connoisseurs tend to have larger beer budgets than typical drinkers. I don’t like a line of thinking that leaves ordinary drinkers with lesser beers. We know from experience that great beer doesn’t have to cost much. There are a lot of price points out there, and room for all of them. But I want to see more of them on the lower end. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone. ...
Apologies for that photo, which is poor even by my standards. Late night, lots of events, yada yada. I even had a real camera on me and apparently chose not to use it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'All-Day' Beers and Usefulness as a Useful Standard.

Yesterday I spoke for a while with Mike Stevens, CEO of Founders Brewing, for an upcoming article in Draft.  While I had him on the horn, there was something else I wanted to know about: the All-Day IPA.

When I first met this beer in 2011 at the Great Taste of the Midwest, there was an iffy, experimental air about it.  It was a brewers' beer, one they had been tweaking and enjoying for a few years, and I don't think they knew if it would really take off with a public making noise for Kentucky Breakfast Stouts and the like.  On this blog I've banged the session-beer drum, mainly for selfish reasons (i.e., I want to see more of them).  But aside from a few cranky writers there has not been much evidence of any wider session beer trend.  Most of the buzz and attention has gone, and still goes, to stronger, more extreme beers or those with weird stuff in them.

Session beers are not sexy.  But maybe that's the point.

My argument has been that there appears to be money in lower-alcohol beers, if anyone cares to make it.  The country's best-selling beers are light lagers that hover around 4.2%.  Granted, they're devoid of character, but they do say something about what people find useful.  More to the point of flavorful beer--as session beers ought to be--is the popularity of wheat beers in North America.  Boulevard Wheat (4.4%) and Widmer Hefeweizen (4.7%) have paid a lot of bills.  Is it because they're made with wheat?  Or maybe it's the lemon!

Or maybe people are just, I don't know, fucking thirsty.

Now we're seeing more session-strength hoppy ales.  Founders All-Day IPA is one of the more visible ones. So, two years later, how is it doing?

"It's killing it," Steven said. "It honestly is. ... We knew we had something great there, we knew we'd have positive results, but we didn't expect the results we're seeing."

Partly by design, Founders goes for variety and lacks an obvious flagship.  Meanwhile All-Day IPA is on its way to becoming the brewery's top seller.

Not bad for a "seasonal." For now the beer is only available from March to September. It was the brewery's second-biggest seller in the year's first quarter... and it was only available in March.

"We can't make enough of it right now. It's crazy," Stevens said.  Canned 12-packs of it will arrive in July.

(And let's watch what happens with Schlafly's new IPA, available in cans and clocking in at 4.5%.  I bet it sells very well. Without lemons.)

All this happens while Founders is in the midst of a $25 million brewery expansion.  It sold 70,000 U.S. beer barrels last year and estimates 130,000 this year, as the brewery expands its distribution footprint.  A session beer is part of that success.

Funny how that seems to happen when brewers sell beers that they particularly like to drink.  People who work with beer tend to--shocking, I know--drink it often.  There is utility in reasonable strength.

"It gets more and more difficult to do these all-day promos, so a session beer was sounding really good," Stevens said.

My crazy-insane theory: a beer that is useful for a brewer tends to be useful to other working people too...  and those may be the drinkers who, aside from a few cranky writers, make the least noise.