Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beer Me, Sommelier

Why beer deserves the same kind of expertise as wine.

"Cicerones" and other beer experts are helping diners discover more sophisticated beers               
Photograph by Mario Pusic/Thinkstock.
It’s a busy night at the D.C. restaurant Birch & Barley, as well as its casual upstairs sister joint, ChurchKey. Greg Engert is guiding me through his beverage list with all the knowledge, talent, and grace one would expect from an award-winning sommelier. With a couple crisp queries, he learned enough to make some intriguing recommendations. He didn’t flaunt his knowledge about food and drink, but when I had questions, he gave precise answers about the flavor, aroma, producer, pairing potential, and even the history of the available beverages. Fortunately, there was no attempt at upselling, the odious sin far too many sommeliers commit, a big reason why many diners are suspicious of the entire profession.
The drink he led me to was a perfect choice in that it was not only delicious, but also previously unknown to me. In one recommendation, he delivered the basic services I want from a sommelier: excellent advice and teaching without pedantry. And in my glass? Not wine, but rather an Arcobraeu Zwicklbier, an unfiltered lager from southern Germany.
Engert knows wine, but he specializes in beer. He’s a leading light of a new generation of beer professionals that are working to raise the art and science of selecting and serving beer to the level of wine service. Engert and his peers are rapidly gaining notice from the fine dining establishment. Last year, he was the first ever beer professional to make Food & Wine’s list of top sommeliers. For craft beer to continue growing and improving, there will need to be many more like him.
Well, maybe not quite like him, since he’s got an inimitable manner. He left a Georgetown graduate literature program to dive into the beer world full-time, and he approaches it partly as a humanities professor might, if such professors were young, unpretentious, boundlessly energetic, fast-talking, and decked out in quietly stylish clothes. Get him going and out come elaborate, colorful tales about the evolution and history of a particular beer. It’s beer as narrative, and he’s an entertaining, passionate storyteller. Engert also displays a scientist’s pride as he shows off the elaborate system of climate control and piping, custom-built to guarantee every drop is served through clean lines at the temperature appropriate for each style.
Engert is a character one rarely finds in the wine landscape. One of the joys of good beer is that it’s far more accessible than the sometimes elitist and expensive wine world. Before I explored the new movement in beer service, I was a bit worried that it might be taking the beverage in the direction of wine’s worst excesses. But I don’t worry about that any longer. The people who are working on upgrading service knowledge do want beer to be as respected as fine wine and spirits are. But they are also deeply committed to preserving the affordability and unpretentiousness that set beer apart and to celebrating the breathtaking range of flavors and styles that make it special.
There may be agreement in the industry that great beer deserves top-notch service, but there’s not yet a consensus on what that means. In fact, there’s not even agreement on what to call a well-trained beer server. Engert’s job title is beer director, but he doesn’t mind being called a beer sommelier. (He has put some thought into this.) Some in the beer community find this term problematic, since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a professional certification that doesn’t exist.
No one is working harder to coin a new title, and certification, than beer author and educator Ray Daniels. His ideal beer server is called a Cicerone (sis-uh-ROHN), a term he trademarked for the beer training program he started in 2007. The name comes from the word that can mean guide or mentor.
The program’s website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now “the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers.” So Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers credential does for wine.
The industry has responded positively. A growing number of brewers, bartenders, and servers have signed up and tested to earn the ascending titles of Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone.
There are thousands qualified at the lowest level, who must pass a detailed multiple-choice test of beer styles, service, storage, and science. (Try to answer some sample test questions here.) Then they’re eligible to try the test for Certified Cicerone designation. Here the exam includes tougher short-answer and essay questions, and naturally, taste tests. There are 300 Certified Cicerones and counting. Less than half of those who take that exam pass. Those who make it can attempt the toughest test, and so far only three people have ever passed the Master Cicerone exam. (The elite three are Rich Higgins, brewmaster at San Francisco’s Social Kitchen & Brewery, Dave Kahle, a Chicago beer consultant and judge, and Andrew Van Til, who works for a Michigan beer distributor. You can find Cicerones in your area online.)
The capitalized names make it all sound awfully precious and formal, but Daniels says that’s not what he’s going for. “The intent of this program is to improve the quality of beer available to consumers in every respect, without changing the accessibility of it,” he explains. “We want Cicerones to be guides, not gods.” The Cicerone program is well respected by many beer professionals, but has a weakness in its singular focus on beer. This approach is enough for beer establishments, but a server working in a restaurant with good beer and wine should be knowledgeable enough to offer smart selections from both.
This is especially important for expanding the audience for excellent beer. If a server is to steer a beer skeptic away from wine to a surprising new experience, that server needs a strong grasp of wine to make the case. I remain grateful to the Roman waiter who pointed my wife and me away from the wine list toward a special bottle from Italy’s excellent brewer Baladin. The beer was a far better match than wine for our spicy dishes, raising the dinner from good to fantastic.
There are new signs all the time of beer’s increasing quality and culinary esteem. With the recent publication of the weighty Oxford Companion to Beer, it finally gets the same encyclopedic treatment Oxford has long afforded wine. A restaurant festooned with Michelin stars now looks outmoded if it doesn’t have substantial beer selections on its wine list. And even average bars and restaurants without a craft beer focus will typically offer at least a couple interesting beers. But all this is of little use to drinkers if the beer isn’t carefully stored, chosen, and served.
Like great wine, great beer deserves well-trained people who can build a strong collection of barrels and bottles, and know how pair them well. Many restaurants and bars have a long way to go, but the example of people like Engert and Daniels points the way to an auspicious future. A well-chosen and expertly-paired beer can be a revelation, so it’s time for more establishments to get their people in the revealing business.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Grand opening Merry Monk

Grand opening at the Merry Monk Good turn out. Free Ommegang until 6:00 and wild boar ribs.  Did anyone about this?

Landman eats Boar Ribs

So how about that, after all the scheming I turn out to be the only one that goes to the Monk yesterday.  I mean that pretty literally, when we got there at around 7:00 they were closing up the shop due to the total lack of customers.  Jeremy agreed to stay open for us though and we had the place to ourselves.  I had a fleeting worry before we got there that we might need to struggle for a table, I sure got that wrong.  Anyway, they treated us great.  The chef had just taken a rack of boar ribs from the oven and man were they good.  They were slathered in some kind of beer glaze, crispy and tender, just awesome.  I had mussels in blue cheese and bacon, a healthy and light snack.  The kids both had steak and frites.  The steaks have some sort of beer based sauce that the kids loved – maybe I ought to worry about that.  We mentioned that we enjoyed the waffles from our last visit and the next thing we knew a plate of steaming waffles, one row spread with a beer and pear reduction and the other a beer and raspberry reduction appeared at our table.  Of course there were some damn fine beers along with all that gluttony.

We rolled out of there and all we could say was Wow.  Hope no one else finds out about Sunday nights at the Monk

Thursday, December 15, 2011

City Beer Hall

Table Hopping

Table Hopping

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By Steve Barnes | E-mail | About Table Hopping

Search for: city beer hall

Brooklyn, Wandering Star beer events at City Beer Hall

The City Beer Hall in Albany is hosting two upcoming brewery events:
  • Thursday (12/15): Brooklyn Bonfire Party, featuring $4 per pint of six Brooklyn Brewery beers, chili, s’mores, roasted wienies and a bonfire. From 9 p.m.
  • Thursday, Dec. 22: Wild Game Dinner, featuring four beers from Wandering Star Brewery in Pittsfield, Mass., paired with a wild-game tasting menu (details TBA). $50 per person; advance reservations required and available at City Beer Hall or online.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lunch at the City Beer Hall

The City Beer Hall has a small but very nice menu.  No pub grub here. There are only 8
items with 2 specials.  The Turducken sandwich with cider bacon mayo is
just great.  When 7 out of a table of  8 order the turducken its enough to get the
chef to your table.  Chef said the turdcken is made in their kitchen.
He pounds the breasts of each bird flat and seasons each one and rolls
them up and puts the duck skin on the outside of the roll.  Then the
whole roll is poached.  He then slices the turducken, puts it on a roll
with cider bacon mayo and serves a side of fries for under $10.00.

You also get a free 8" pizza with every pint ordered at the bar.  You
might think this a cheapo Sysco frozen pizza but its just a nice little
thin crust with sauce and cheese.

The burger, a smallish grass fed beef burger cooked right w/fries, was
reported as very good.

I will be back to try the Mac & Chesse w/ Truffle oil 

The Beer.
A good draft list of ever changing craft beer.
Where else in Albany can you get a four glass sampler that you can do a
Biggie Smalls vs Tupac IPA challenge?

Merry Monk Closer Look

The Club was able to muster 16 for a visit to the Merry Monk on Friday.  With 16 Belgian or Belgian-style craft beers on draft and not a Coors Lite onsite how can you go wrong?  The room is bright--more of a European-cafe look than the dark, American-speakeasy look. The bar is big with lots of room for the staff to work behind.  There are booths and high top tables. There is also a sitting area with leather chairs and a gas fireplace/stove. We had a nice chat with Jerriam who is one of the owners.  He seemed to be happy with the response so far.  He liked the idea of having a MAS meeting there in the near future. The menu looked good.  Mussels and other Belgian-cafe fare.  We only had the frites. The dipping sauces are good but the fries were a little too much like standard pub fries and not Pommes Frites. Garden Bistro 24 and Ommagang have the real frites.  We ate all of them anyway.  The cheese plate was very nice and of a good size.  In conclusion I want to be a regular.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

First Look Merry Monk by Landman

Couldn’t resist, had to stop by for a quickie.  Mighty awesome beer. Food seemed ok, kind of average.  The surroundings are simple and pleasant.  Not much of a crowd at 8:30 on opening night.   No bad taps, great bottles too.  They’re really going to need support to keep up with the costs of having such high end beers.  The owners are very friendly, but seem a little worried about whether it will work out.  I’ll do my part.  KJo’s are planning to go tomorrow @4:30



Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Barnes Says Merry Monk to Wednesday

Table Hopping

Table Hopping

Eat, drink and be candid
By Steve Barnes | E-mail | About Table Hopping

Merry Monk to open Wednesday

The Merry Monk, a Belgian-themed bar and restaurant at the corner of North Pearl Street and Sheridan Avenue in downtown Albany, will open with lunch service on Wednesday (12/7).
Projected hours are 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Draft beers: Ommegang Abbe, Ommegang Witte, Ommegang Adoration, Ommegang BPA, Ommegang Rare Vos, Liefmans Cuvee Brut, Palm, Maredsous Brune, LaChouffe, Lindemans Frambois, Duvel Single, Unibroue Ephemere Cassis, Chimay triple, Saison Dupont, Monk’s Stout by Dupont and Corsendonk Christmas.
The menu looks good: six kinds of mussels for $8.99 for a pound, $15.99 for 2 pounds, plus frites with a dozen mayo-based dipping sauces, steak frites for $15.99, a few fish and chicken entrĂ©es, and a page with apps, salads, sandwiches and burgers.