Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who Has The Best Beer Selection in Buenos Aires?

Who has the best beer selection in Buenos Aires? I claim that the best beer fridge in the city does not belong to a bar, a pub or even a specialty shop. It belongs to Martín Boan and Carolina Pérez, heads of the Centro de Cata de Cerveza in San Telmo (located at Piedras 1318/1320).

When entering the Centro de Cata (Tasting Centre) you will see an impressive collection of beer books, bottles, and other memorabilia on the shelves that border the room. Inevitably, your eye will be drawn to the contents protected by two glass doors on the far wall. The two fridges are a densely packed library of styles from across the continent and around the world.

Amassing and replenishing their constantly revolving collection is all in a day’s work. Carolina and Martín are leading figures in developing the South American craft beer industry and their fridge is a testament to wide travels, influence and admiration. They are Argentina’s foremost beer educators, drawing students from across South America and colleagues from around the world to their classroom. They also have a hand in the malting industry and in founding the South Beer Cup, a beer competition and festival inaugurated last May in Buenos Aires.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a low-key meeting between Martín, some of his students, and Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) president Gordon Strong. Mr. Strong happens to be the BJCP’s most experienced judge and had passed through Brazil before lecturing and judging at a brewing competition in Santa Fe.

The stylistic variety and origins of the beers we shared and discussed was surprising. From out of the fridge came a Baltic Porter brewed in Scotland, a Brazilian Black India Pale Ale, an Argentine Pale Ale in the American style, and Argentine versions of Bock and Imperial Stout to name only a few.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the beers was a Brazilian ale inspired by the Belgian brewing tradition. Fermented using Brettanomyces (a unique strain of yeast that creates a distinct sour taste), it offered tart and refreshing sips. It would be at home in a Belgian café and is an ideal restorative on a hot day.

Mr. Strong had this to say when asked to characterize Martín and Carolina’s influence on educating hopeful beer judges: “The BJCP would not have a presence in South America if it were not for Martín and Carolina. They helped organize and proctor the first exams, and also helped start up the program in Brazil. They are exactly the right type of people to lead the judging community”. More judges means more beer competitions and more chances for brewers to be shaped by competent criticism and praise from their peers. Better beer is the inevitable outcome.
The beers in the Centro de Cata de Cerveza are for educational purposes. The Centro offers regular topical workshops for those looking to indulge their curiosity about beer appreciation, as well as technical talks for homebrewers. For the more serious student, several long-term courses are offered through the Centro (including distance education) and each involves many hours of sensory evaluation. Beer’s raw materials, brewing science and other key technical subjects are also on the syllabus.

In any case, signing up for a class means drinking beer will quite literally be your homework.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buenos Aires Beer Tastings

Argentinians tend to be an entrepreneurial bunch and the expats in Buenos Aires are no exception. Everyone is freelancing, wheeling and dealing and running some kind of business. I haven't met them yet but there are even two guys selling hot sauce.

I didn't start doing these beer tastings to pay the bills but I did hope to make a couple bucks, show people some of the awesome beers I have found here so far and meet people. So far it has worked out pretty well. Here are some photos and descriptions of the two events so far.

Beer Tasting I

El Bolson - Rubia (blonde)
Served with Pizza with Ham & Pineapple

I have had mixed experiences with El Bolson. I had to pour away their Negra and Negra Ahumada (smoked stout) for being un-drinkable metallic and oxidized. I had a great bottle of their Rubia (blonde) before and decided to use it for this pairing. It had a very cool sort of wood flavour to it that I thought would go well with the pizza (especially the ham and pineapple).

I knew in the back of my mind I was taking a bit of a risk using this brewery but I thought I would be safe with the blonde. Turns out the same tangy metal flavour was in this batch of bottles as well. The crowd liked the beer though, so not all was lost. If you are liking the beer I am not about to tell you to stop liking it.

Respect to El Bolson for being one of the oldest craft brewers in Argentina, but they really need to do something about their quality. I really liked their blonde when it was spot-on, but I have now had bad experiences with three different beers of theirs and would advise you to steer clear unless you are visiting the brewery. This is probably the first negative thing ever published about a specific brewer on this blog.

The pineapple ended up taking the edge off quite a bit and we merrily marched on to the next beer.

El Buho - IPA
Served with Indian French Fries

I have loved El Buho since I first had their IPA at Prologo Bar. I was really excited to serve this beer, especially with this food pairing. For me, this was the match of the night and I am excited to do this again. Big round of applause to GiGi, the chef at Magdalena's Party, because these fries were seriously good: curry and other Indian spices with a bit of brown sugar. El Buho's IPA is more on the malty side and has a straight up bitterness without going crazy on the fmavour and aroma hops like the IPAs you'd typically see in North America. The brown sugar went really well with that and the spices had a great aroma to match the hops that you do find in El Buho.

I love El Buho. I just wanted to say that again.

Berlina - Foreign Stout
Served with Chocolate

Berlina is also a very nice brewery. I have already talked about them before in an article I wrote about Stout Day. One thing I love about them is the German heritage meets the willingness to brew other styles of beer. Something about a Stout brewed under the Bavarian purity law makes me smile.

Guinness is forever the yardstick for those exploring stouts. I find it incredibly useful to have a reference beer that everyone is familiar with for the style even if the point you have to make is about contrasts. Discussing the differences is fun and it is always encouraging when people are surprised at how much they like a beer with more body and flavour. This beer was a big hit and the chocolate was enjoyed by all.

One of the tasters bought a bottle of Guinness for comparison and shared with the table. It was good to have them side by side to make the differences clear. Working from memory can be tricky when dealing with tastes and textures. I think I will do this again in future tastings to make things more tangible.

Overall - this was a lot of fun but rain dampened the turnout. I was happy to be invited back. I think the crowd liked the Berlina best but the best pairing was for sure the IPA and sweet curry fries.

Beer Tasting II

Finn - Wheat Ale
Served with Pizza

This is a super interesting brewery run by a very nice guy named Andi who just won homebrewer of the year award. I am not sure exactly what sort of setup he is using or how big, but apparently he brews about 600L a month which is incredibly tiny. Whatever system/size he is using he knows what he is doing. He makes a damn good beer. I am a big fan of the American Pale Ale he makes, but the Wheat Ale was available in larger quantities so I chose that for this tasting.

This isn't remotely like a Wit or a Weiss. You won't find any haze, spices or fruit peels. This beer drinks more like a blonde ale with a bit more body, darker colour and a great wheat cracker aroma. It is perfectly clear. I really like the aroma of this beer and so did the table.

Grosa - Barrel-aged Tripel
Served with Gruyere, Honey and Almond snack plate

This beer had mixed results. Everyone said they liked it but not every glass was finished. I didn't expect everyone would enjoy this beer without reservation but I think the pairing helped people through. Everyone loved the cheese and the honey and almonds were a nice counterpoint for the dryness of the beer.

I am curious to try this beer's older brother (Re-grosa) that has been aged in barrels longer. This beer is pretty good and the only Tripel in regular production that I am currently aware of in Argentina. I think it could use some more time to smooth out, but doesn't necessarily need more time in the wood.

I would love to try an aged bottle of Grosa alongside Regrosa to test this theory out.

Beagle - Stout
Served with Ice Cream & Chocolate

Beagle is named after Darwin's boat and is also the name of the channel that Ushauaia (home city of the brewery) sits on. The boat features nicely on the label.

This is a very potent beer that had mixed reactions. Half the table thought it was the best beer of the night and the other half the worst. There were several bottles that got opened but went untouched after trying a sip of their neighbour's glass. This was not such a bad thing in the end as it was a great excuse to drink six stouts. This beer is at its absolute best at cellar temperature, even room temperature. There is a great dry cherry/chocolate note that pops out and all the dark malt bite settles right down.

I make a point of showing the effects of beer temperature in the presentation, but even I was surprised at how much I loved the last beers of the night that had been sitting out for almost an hour. Temperature effects are something I will make a better point of demonstrating in future talks, making it as tangible as possible.

Funny story - after the tasting, a girl who had not sat through it tried some of the leftover Beagle from the bottle. I told her it was better from the glass and she tried a sip. She thought they were two different beers. Funny how glassware works, eh?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Equity for Punks Part II – Interview with James Watt

I had been aware of Equity for Punks since its announcement but hadn't read all the details closely until recently. I knew, more or less, that they were selling shares but a closer read piqued my interest about them all over again. (Read about what first piqued my interest in BrewDog here: an interview with BrewDog intern Brett Taylor and also a beer dinner with James Watt at Gambrinus Bistro, London, Ontario).

The best breweries tend to have great beer but are also well run businesses and this is a great example of that. No sense bothering to brew good beer if you can't sell it or get people interested in drinking it. We published a breakdown of BrewDog's Equity for Punks share offering about 5 minutes ago. Here is part II where I ask James Watt some questions about Equity for Punks and the future for BrewDog.

BrewDog Equity for Punks Part I -- Want to Own a Brewery?

BrewDog is at it again. Or, more accurately, BrewDog is at it all the time and this is the latest thing they are up to: raising capital for a new expansion and an eco-friendly brewery.

Perhaps readers will roll their eyes at this move. You might argue that the punks are now wearing suits and quite literally selling out. Isn’t all this against their stick-it-to-the-man punk ethos? Not so fast. Knowing BrewDog you can bet that they will do things their way and this is confirmed just by reading the title of their pitch: “Equity for Punks”. Few could use such a phrase while sounding credible but they pull it off.

Despite BrewDog’s spunky, fly by the seat of your pants attitude, the reality is that they are a shrewd and well planned operation. They have cultivated ire and media coverage as well as they have cultivated fandom for their beers. They are astute business people and their beers  have made incredible inroads since their humble beginnings back in 2006 in Fraserburgh, Scotland. The punk attitude is genuine, but so is their boardroom chops. James shared some great war stories from their early during a beer dinner I attended and happened to record most of.

The share offering comes with a serious bit of legalease to read but nobody is stopping you from skimming it all and sending your pounds off to James and Martin. Depending on your view of the investment the fine print might be worth a closer look, though I doubt that many day trader types are keeping watch on this. I suspect most people are like Sjoerd De Haan, a Dutch whiskey blogger and beer fan I spoke with. He bought in because he was moved by the project. Here is what he said when I asked him why he participated in Equity for Punks:

“I love their beers, and although not all of their brews appeal to me, I like the way they give the big breweries a good ass kicking every now and then. Their marketing appeals to me and since it goes accompanied by some terrific brews, I love the company.

The Equity for Punks shares come with quite some benefits, which I doubt I will use often. I got 4 shares mostly because I like to be part of something cool. I feel almost like it is charity to help them get enough cash to get their new eco brewery running.”

Thinking with his heart. I like this guy! Go read his blog.

Let’s talk about those benefits Sjored mentioned. They are most easily summarized in list form and a list was conveniently sent to me in an email from James Watt. I will copy and paste it here for you now:

·   Benefit financially from our future growth through dividends and also an increase in the value of your shareholding.
·   Lifetime discount in all of our BrewDog Bars
·   Lifetime discount on our online shop
·   Exclusive first options on all our special and limited edition beers
·   Invites to our (soon to be legendary) AGMs
·   Being able to participate in our annual by shareholders, for shareholders beer.
·   Having your say in how the company is run
·   Owning your very own part of BrewDog
·   Sell and trade your shares on www.equitypunks.com or at a potential later listing
·   A welcome pack with some killer, shareholder only BrewDog merchandise including your awesome shareholder ID card.
·   Literally become richer with every BrewDog beer you drink

That is pretty sweet. Assume the worst: even if BrewDog went bankrupt you’d get some exclusive merchandise out of it! The discount on beer orders and in their pubs will tide you over until the dividend kicks in.

Click ahead and we'll break down the offer some more. There's even a sweet video!

Beer in Argentina - Beagle Fuegian Stout and La Loggia Imperial Stout

Beagle Stout 7.8%
A beer to make Darwin proud!

I had a blasty blast on Stout Day. What a perfect excuse to go to the store, make friends with the owner, talk about beer and buy beers I have never tried before. Sorry for buying all this beer, honey. It was Stout Day. What could I do?

I had no such statutory excuse this time around. I just wanted to try these beers. I know I very much enjoy the Berlina Foreign Stout, but what will I think of these other black beauties? Only one way to find out. By the way, all these beers came from Bodega Cervecero, (Thames 1716, Palermo Soho)

Beagle seems to be one of the owner's favourite breweries and La Loggia is the winner of the South Beer Cup gold medal. Ever hear that expression “someone ought to give that guy a medal”? Sometimes it really happens!

BEAGLE, Ushuaia, Patagonia
Fuegian Stout

First off, tip of the hat to a great brewery name. I have nothing against naming the beer after your town, province, or mother but that hardly requires imagination.

The Beagle is the name of Sir Charles Darwin’s boat. It may not be the most famous boat name ever, but Darwin ranks as having one of the most famous boat trips of all time. As it happens, Darwin spent some time in Patagonia on his way to the Galapagos. The boat features prominently on the beer label and a t shirt my mother-in-law gave me. This beer is just one more thing we can thank Charles Darwin for.*

I also like how they named their beer a Fuegian Stout. This is a nod to their location in Tierra Del Fuego which is pretty much the end of the earth.

This beer is bottle conditioned. It has a very nice, glass-clinging head. The aroma is a cross between caramel and sugary burnt toast. The body is very smooth, has a nice density to it that quickly parts and hits you with a roasty/burnt flavour. As I go I get a very interesting roast chili pepper flavour. No, not a gross cooked vegetable character. This is a roasted, spicy, vaguely woody flavour like an extremely mild version of flavour I've come across in better examples of chili beers and roasted peppers on the parilla.

I rate this beer as Very Nice, verging on Awesome. I actually liked it better then the next beer, though both were excellent.

South Beer Cup Medal Winner
LA LOGGIATortuguitas, Zona Norte de Buenos Aires*
Imperial Stout 11%

Much blacker than Beagle and a much darker head -- sort of a very deep copper/brown colour that wasn't picked up will in the photo. Has a mocha, chocolate, burnt coffee aroma. Body is surprisingly not so heavy. It has a nice amount of vicousness but nothing too heavy or intense. Perhaps the high alcohol content is lightening things up a bit. You get cutting bit of alcohol, burnt malt and a slow, drawn out ashy finish. Finish is a bit astringent and dries the mouth.

A bit of the yeast sediment breaks off into the bottle despite pouring carefully. There is a fair bit of yeast, but it mostly stays stuck.

This beer is extremely well balanced for an 11% brew. You would suspect…put you’d never quite know!

I also rate this beer as Very Nice, verging on Awesome. It really was great, but I just couldn't pull the trigger on Awesome this time. This beer is more complex and potent, and certainly more interesting than the Beagle.  It really is a touch call to say what one is better. I based my choice on the fact that I wanted a second Beagle when I was done. Drinking the Loggia the next day I was quite fine with having one. Chalk that up to the fact it is more potent, but if I am forced to choose I side on "more-ishness" and choose Beagle.

How can you look at this and not smile?
Tasting notes on the Back Label
* Unfortunately, this beer is not enough to entirely counterblance the unfortunate side-effect of Darwin's legacy that is Social Darwinism also known as heartlessness.
**La Loggia used to be called Montecristo. The name change must have been fairly recent because I still see Montecristo bottles floating around at some bars.