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Archive for October, 2010

It’s October! And my favorite month is already off to a wonderful start. Friday, the 1st of October, may have been a dark and stormy night, but lucky for us, the majority of it we spent cozily ensconced in the Boston Wine School.

After fighting through sheets of rain, howling winds, and Boston traffic, I finally arrived at the Brookline-based hideaway for an excursion through Oktoberfest beers, shepherded by our amazing host and teacher, Jonathon Alsop. Upon entering (and taking a brief moment to collect my wits, dump my soaking wet rain jacket, and fix my face in the bathroom), Jonathon directed me towards a poured glass of Weihenstephaner Festbier on the bar.

I should point out now that I’m not a big beer drinker. I usually prefer wine, mostly for the taste but also because I tend to have a problem with the, um, er, bubbles in beer. Bubbles bubbles bubbles. If I drink beer too quickly (i.e. at a normal pace), I end up feeling like Charlie and his grandfather when they get lost at the Willy Wonka Factory and discover the Fizzy Lifting Drink, which tastes delightful but eventually forces them to burp their way out of certain death. That’s me and most beers 🙂 When I do drink beer, I tend towards dark , rich, heavy beers, like Guiness or my fave, Brooklyn Brewing Company’s Dark Matter. I also love all things fall/harvest/pumpkin-y, and have recently launched an exploration of all pumpkin beers, to find the one that (I think) is best. Cause a girl has to have goals, right?

Okay, back to Friday, back to the Boston Wine School, back to the Weihenstephaner Festbier. This beer was GOOD. Light and refreshing, but with different layers of flavor, this beer reminded me much of wine. It was a fantastic way to get introduced to the Oktoberfest and other beers we would be trying that evening, and also to erase many of the preconceptions I had about beer beforehand. This was a beer to be sipped and spoken of, and we did just that as we nibbled on a delicious selection of hor d’hoeuvres and waited on a few more classmates (yay! I wasn’t the latest one!). We also learned that this is the Official Beer of Oktoberfest, so it was a great way to start.

Once the others had arrived, Jonathon invited us to sit down at the U-shaped dining table. The first floor of the Boston Wine School, in which our class was held, is one large, generously proportioned room facing Commonwealth Ave. With exposed brick walls, a humongous bar and cheese case, chalkboard-decorated walls, and large windows facing the street, it’s both spacious and an intimate space to taste and dine in. The table was simply decorated with a white tablecloth and place settings, large bins of good, mixed variety bread, and decanters of water for rinsing or sipping. And small plates of cheese, plums, soppresatta and prosciutto-wrapped figs at each setting.

Jonathon poured us a glass of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen and asked us to introduce ourselves, share what we knew about beer, and what brought us to the Boston Wine School that night. Since there were only 10 participants, immediately a casual rapport was established, and conversation remained easy throughout the evening. After introducing ourselves, Jonathon then shared a bit about his own (extensive) background, and apologized that the original class leader for the evening, Eric Dietz, was unable to make it. He promised to share all he knew, and to seek to fill any gaps in his own knowledge of beer with a few tomes on the topic beside him. It was actually wonderful to have a wine perspective on the tasting of beers, and to have a leader that was tasting some of the beers for the first time with us, as we were all embarking on the journey together. Jonathon also assured us that tasting wine or beer is really not a matter of “taste” as everyone says it is, but rather instead a truly unique venture in which each person may taste (and therefore like or dislike) different flavors and notes in each beer. He reiterated that the point of the class was not to teach us what beers were better or even best, but for each one of us to discern and explore our own preferences.

The Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen was very different from the first Oktoberfest beer, as it had a strong caramel flavor and was very smooth. Just as delightful, it paired amazingly with the goat’s milk gouda from Holland and ridder from Norway on our plates. The third cheese was a kashkaval from Bulgaria that I found intriguing – the only thing I can liken it to is string cheese, which might sound pedestrian but which I quite love, and indeed I loved this cheese as well. In fact this cheese plate was one of the highlights of the meal, and I was struck by how lovely the cheeses paired with the beers. Must try at home!

We tried three other beers while munching on the cheese, fruit, and dried meats: Paulaner Oktoberfest (not my favorite, I found it quite plain), Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar (oh be still my heart – with my first sip I loudly declared that “This is a beer to have for breakfast!”), and Southern Tier Iniquity Imperial Black Ale (instructions: swoon, swig, swoon, repeat).  During this time I learned that the higher the alcohol content in a beer, such as we were finding in this selection, the more esters there were. And the more esters, the more fruity, flowery, or spicy flavor compounds there are. Esters are naturally created in fermentation, and the higher the temperatures of fermentation, the more esters. Forgive me if I’m getting any of this wrong, but what I took away is that more esters = more yummy, and most beers at higher alcoholic content levels have more esters. Therefore the higher the alcohol content, the more esters, the more yummy! It’s a beer logic model. However, not all people like esters, but wine lovers tend to be drawn to esters and therefore enjoy beers with higher alcoholic contents. So. Interesting!

Now I was downright excited at my new knowledge of beer/esters/fermentation, and eager to try more. By this time we were ready for our first course of several varieties of potatos simply roasted with whole cumin seeds, olive oil, salt and pepper. This was a surprisingly delicious dish, and made me want to stop and get cumin seeds on the way home from class to put on everything. Next came churrasco, or brazilian barbecued pork sausage, sauteed okra, and marinated cabbage, followed by a simple green salad dressed in vinaigrette. All of these paired extraordinarily well with the Troegs Dead Reckoning Porter that was poured (and poured again) throughout the dinner portion of the meal. A deep, dark, hearty beer, this was really not a drink to wash down the meal with, but rather part of the meal itself, just as rich and supplementary in flavor as another foodstuff.

By this time the rain had abated somewhat outside, and while cars splashed by outside on the rainy streets of Brookline, platters of cheese were presented to us along with pours of Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Bock. These cheeses were not as complex as those we started with, but rather simple palette cleansers. A jakerkase, emmenthal, and beurre bleu graced our plates along with more brown and white bread. This was not my favorite beer, cheese plate, or pairing, but was valuable in that I learned what, exactly, beurre bleu is. It’s basically blue cheese mixed with butter, half of each, to make a creamy, sharp, tangy, and downright decadent spread. It is now also my condiment of choice. Because anything mixed with butter is a condiment, no? And can be used as such? I think so.

Not unexpectedly, dessert did not disappoint. My love for sweets is nearly as strong as my love of cheese, and a pear streusel, fresh from Clear Flour Bakery, paired with a pour of Affligem Tripel, was a showstopper of an ending to a wonderful meal. The Allfigem Triple, from northern Belgium, was another wine-like beer, with sweet whispery aromas complimented by a delicate, flavorful, but not-as-sweet sip. This is a perfect beer to serve on special occasions that fall on wintery evenings, when one finds oneself in good company, after a good meal, and in front of a roaring fireplace. This is a beverage for Christmas Eve, or for those dark nights of February and March when New England winters seem to drag on forever, and one must be reminded of why we all live here – if only to sip this beer, inside a cozy home, on a frosty winter’s night.

And on that note, we all bid our ado to Jonathon and the Boston Wine School. This Oktoberfest class was truly wonderful, and I’m looking forward to taking more classes with Jonathon and the other expert educators at the Boston Wine School. The majority of Boston Wine School classes focus on wine, but there are ventures into other arenas such as beer, sake, and bourbon, as audiences demand. A warm, inviting, and casual atmosphere, this is a wonderful place to come and learn more about oneself and one’s own tastes, and is perfect for both Boston locals and those just visiting our city.

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