ICYMI, That NY Times Story

It came up a few times recently, so those of you just tuning into the narrative, here’s that NY Times story, a story about me rather than by me, but happily a story about writing that I’ve done, albeit on cheese signs.

This is the story, http://nyti.ms/WfyzRv.  Jeff Gordinier did a fine job encapsulating the phenomenon.

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ICYMI, Three Wall Street Journal stories on the NYC beer scene

Two of them are outside the firewall.

This one is on the brewing renaissance.


This one is on local gypsy brewers


This one on barrel aging is inside the firewall so….

Barrel-Aged Beer Is Making a Comeback

A growing cadre of brew masters is aging beer in casks that once held bourbon, brandy or wine.


Martin Johnson
Aug. 18, 2014 4:45 p.m. ET

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds a glass of Zymatore beer and a glass of the beer in its original format. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

With its barn, greenhouse and bucolic fields of camomile and berries, B United International Inc., from the outside, doesn’t look like a typical warehouse beer distributorship.

And inside the Oxford, Conn., facility, there is another anomaly: a room where beer is being aged not in huge industrial steel tanks, but in hundreds of hand-me-down wooden barrels. That is where B United, which distributes aficionado brands like Germany’s Schneider Weisse and Japan’s Hitachino, is giving some of its clients’ brew a secondary round of aging—in containers that formerly held wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.

The Zymatore room at B.United International. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

“Select beers can actually soak up the flavors and aromas of the spirit previously housed in the wooden barrel in a way that…makes it highly interesting,” said Matthias Neidhart, founder and owner of B United.

Mr. Neidhart is among a small, but growing cadre of respected artisan brewers using pre-used wooden barrels, in the belief that the residual flavors and lingering microflora from whatever liquid they previously held can enhance a beer’s aroma and taste.

Those elements don’t transfer from wood to beer automatically, brewers said, but are teased out during a secondary fermentation process involving wild yeast.

“Barrels that once stored a Syrah or Chardonnay to maturity can bring out so many more complexities in flavor,” said Zach Mack, co-owner of the Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village bar that offers more than 350 varieties of craft brew.

The enthusiasm for barrel aging was first rekindled nearly a decade ago, when brewers discovered that aging beer in bourbon barrels could add tasty vanilla overtones to their porters and stouts. More recently, some have begun expanding their container repertoire, using barrels that have held everything from Sauternes and Scotch to brandy and rum, seeking flavor notes that range from sour to tannic.

New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.

Garrett Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” said he is partial to bourbon barrels, which are typically made of virgin American oak and used only once before being sold. His brewery’s facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard currently houses more than 2,000 wooden barrels for aging beer.

“Bourbon wood is quintessentially American, and that’s a big appeal for me,” said Mr. Oliver.

Brewmaster Ben Neidhart in the Zymatore room with barrels used to age beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

Matt Monahan, co-owner of Other Half Brewing Co., which opened in January in Gowanus, prefers wine barrels. “If you age a beer in a bourbon barrel, it tastes like bourbon,” he said. Other Half is currently using barrels that once housed Zinfandel, Sauternes and even the cult California Cabernet Opus One.

Wooden barrels aren’t exactly new; for centuries, beer was stored and aged in them. But after Prohibition, the American brewery industry dramatically consolidated, and growing companies seeking larger-capacity storage with greater sterility turned to massive stainless steel tanks.

The return to wood-barrel use comes at a time of greater experimentation among craft brewers with more traditional, less industrialized materials and techniques. Some Pale Ale makers, for example, are using techniques like “dry hopping,” popular in the 19th century as a way to stabilize beer and enhance its flavor, by adding hops during the beer’s secondary fermentation.

Wooden barrels usually slow down the aging process. Basil Lee, co-owner of Finback Brewery, which opened in January in Queens, said his company ages beer in both bourbon and wine barrels and chose its 13,000-square-foot space because it had room for longer-term brewing projects.

“I have tasted beers where you wished that they had aged more,” he said. “We sought out a space that would enable us the freedom to age beers for a year or two if necessary.”

Many large-production commercial beers typically age for one month; some lagers take up to four, experts say.

Mr. Neidhart of B United said slower barrel aging allows natural processes to take their course, rather than artificially helping them along with, say, rigorous climate control.

“Conventional brewing is all about controlling the process,” said Mr. Neidhart. “We are trying to return the control to nature.” He ages some of his clients’ beers for two or three years.

“Clients ask us when their beer will be ready and we tell them we don’t know,” he said.

Owner Matthias Neidhart holds two bottles of Zymatore beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal

For all the effort, Mr. Neidhart said his barrel-aging program accounts for just 2% of his business, moving over 400,000 case-equivalents of beer annually.

And to be sure, barrel-aged beers are still a niche part of the $14.3 billion annual U.S. craft beer market. But their influence is spreading nationally. California craft breweries like The Bruery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., for example, have recently launched extensive barrel-aging programs.

In New York, drinkers can find them in beer bars like Proletariat, Terroir and Owl Farm.

And some are beginning to show up in local restaurants. Other Half, for example, is brewing several barrel-aged beers exclusively for Roberta’s, a popular Williamsburg eatery. That is because barrel aging not only adds to overall complexity, said Mr. Monahan, but also tends to soften a beer’s finish over time, helping raise its food-friendly quotient.

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Recent Beer and Cheese Pairing Highlights September 13-18

Slyboro Hidden Star

Yes, I was away. I went to Chicago for a long Labor Day weekend to cover a jazz festival and drink lots of beer; I also introduced my family to two wonderful goat’s milk cheeses, Kunik and Pantaleo. Upon my return to Westside Market East Village, the beer and cheese pairings felt kinda similar to what I had been doing before I left, then last Sunday, my cheese department colleague, took on a new tack. Rather than give me one piece each of three different cheeses to work with, he gave me three pieces of the same cheese. That created a new range of possibilities and focused the narrative somewhat.

On Sunday, he gave me three pieces of an Italian Asiago Fresco. Most Americans know Asiago as a aged cheese that’s a little more blunt and less sweet than Parmigiano Reggiano, a good cheese to grate into a mac and cheese with some mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. Asiago Fresco is different; it has a supple, creamy texture and lots of herbal notes ranging from basil to anise. I knew that I would need to explain the cheese to a lot of the clientele so I paired it with beers that were easily discussed. I went with India Pale Ales, hoping that the texture of the cheese would pair well with the florals overtones and resinous finish of the beer. It worked for Cambridge’s The Audacity of Hops and Singlecutt’s Does Anyone Remember Laughter.

Both pairings resulted in memorable comments from the clientele. NYU is back in session, so I’m cautious about sampling to anyone I think is under 23. But two of the people I judged to be just legal enough not to card, had amazing beer bonafides. One was a young man who is not only a homebrewer but has begun to grow hops on the roof of his apartment building. The other was a young German woman. After she and her boyfriend tried the Singlecutt, thrilled at sampling some NYC brewed beer, they began examining the Becks/St. Pauli Girl section of the case. I pointed them to the single bottles where we have Weihanstephaner, Schneider-Weisse and Mahr’s. When she saw the Mahr’s, she smiled broadly and told me she had interned there. She was the assistant brewmaster for a new brewery in Germany. That was a cool way to end the day.

Monday’s cheese was the Ford Farm Traditional English Cheddar, another cheese with significant talking points as it’s much more complex, grassy and earthy than conventional North American cheddars. I paired it with the Slyboro Hidden Star cider, a classic pairing that always goes over well.

I don’t remember Wednesday’s cheese but the beer itself was remarkable. It was the Stone Stochasticity Project Hi-Fi/Lo-Fi Mixtape, a beer from the Southern California based brewery that blends barrel aged ale with newly brewed ale. The result is a beer that has some of the bright hoppiness of a new ale and some of the depth, roundness and richness of a barrel aged beer. I assumed that they are using new American oak since the bottle offers no other information on the barrel. Anyway, that’s a mouthful and a half, and I’d avoided sampling the beer because of that. The store manager, my partner in crime on the beer program, asked me to sample it. Voluminous talking points or no, the beer is tasty and boom! 90 minutes of sampling moved ten 22oz bottles of the stuff.

I was also asked to sample the Stone Farking Wheaton Woot Stout, a collaborative beer that checks in at 13% ABV. It has very rich dark chocolaty overtones and it paired wonderfully with the nutty, grassy Schweizer Berggunuss from Caroline Hostetler. I was initially wary of sampling a high ABV stout on a warm Friday afternoon, but it worked out great. It’s a beer savvy neighborhood. No sense in underestimating the clientele.

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ICYMI: Some Posts for Beer Geeks TV Blog

On Craft Beer in Chicago


On Saisons


On Beer Lists, or at least ones that are not generated by Paste.


On the Big Apple Beer Renaissance


On Diversity in the Craft Beer World


On The Grimm’s, everyone’s favorite husband wife duo Award Winning Gypsy Brewers

http://www.ora.tv/beergeeks/article/2015/8/7/great-beer-youve-probably-never-heard-ofCrooked Stave Hop Savant

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At Beer Geeks on Lists and NYC’s Craft Beer Rise

Most lists are ridiculous.  http://www.ora.tv/beergeeks/article/2015/8/28/lose-the-lists

NYC is on the rise  http://www.ora.tv/beergeeks/article/2015/8/21/the-big-apple-plays-catchup

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Beer and Cheese Pairings August 23 and 24


I used to think that the hardest transition in offering downtown New Yorkers top flight beer and cheese was from Sunday, when the vibe was typically chill, to Monday when the hustle bustle often came just short of violent.

I’ve changed my mind as “summer” (in other words, Memorial Day to Labor Day not the season the calendar defines) winds down, the hardest transition is Friday, when the vibe is chill and Westside Market East Village customers are game to experiment with the goodies on a big wooden board from a stranger to Sunday when the reactions are mixed.

For instance some encounters on Sunday were so amiable that I felt bad about not exchanging information and planning to get a flight of beers and a cheese plate sometime soon. Others, not so much; a German woman began scolding me. She told me that I didn’t know what real beer was and was escalating until I told her that the IPA with wild yeast that I was sampling probably didn’t adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity laws. She shut up and walked away. Another woman a short time later tried that particular beer and zigzagged. “Oh this is really good,” she opined initially. Then she blurted out “oh wait, ew, I don’t like beer,” she said which prompted me to offer to take the sample cup back. “Oh no, I’ll finish this, I like it,” she responded and walked away leaving me equally relieved to be done with her, and ruing the missed opportunity to parse her ambivalence. Maybe she doesn’t like pilsners, lagers and India pale ales, but beers with wild yeast (btw: the beer in question is Evil Twin Femme Fatale Kabosu) or saisons might be a different story. The cheese, Ossau Iraty, a distinctive but subtle sheep cheese from France’s Pays Basque, was nowhere near as controversial. In fact, it was universally adored.

The other pairing went much more smoothly. I sampled Pretty Things brand new beer, American Darling with Etorki, another buttery, gently herbal Basque sheep. Yes, Basque sheep cheeses were having a moment on the board as we have a lot of them, and they are looking sad and neglected these days. These cheeses are always underrated by all but the hardcore cheesemonger crowd; yet one taste and people light up. The American Darling was sold to me as an India Pale Lager, an emerging genre that I still haven’t warmed up to, but it isn’t, nor does it try to be. It’s a straightforward lager. Lagers lag behind IPA’s, Saisons and Imperial anything in cachet, so I guess folks were trying really hard to make it hip. It makes me wonder what’s next: India Pale Potato Chips, India Pale Barbecue, India Pale Hip Hop? American Darling doesn’t need hype, it just needs to be tasted; it’s lean and crisp with a perfect balance of sweet and bitter overtones. Pretty Things is a husband/wife duo of gypsy brewers in New England and their Jack D’Or (a saison), Baby Trees (a quadruple) and Meadowlark (an IPA) are worth going well out of your way for some. American Darling is that good too.

By contrast Monday’s pairings offered less drama. Off Color Scurry, a variation on a German alt beer, lean, dark and brewed with honey, molasses and oats, was an ideal foil for Lou Bergier, a buttery grassy Italian cheese. We finished the night with Evil Twin Ryan and Beaster Bunny, a saison paired with Ossau Iraty. Absence of drama is good; we sold two four packs of each beer and a decent amount of cheese. The rest of Monday was strikingly pleasant too. Twice I told customers on the beer aisle the origin stories of saisons and IPAs and on the cheese aisle I introduced a woman to Beaufort and Beemster. I left feeling like I’d earned my stripes.

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Beer and Cheese Pairings August 16-21

oude-gueuzeThere hasn’t been much time for either pairing or blogging this week. At the store, Westside Market East Village, we’re without our stock guy, who quit after calling out for two weeks. This means my boss and I have to do the job. This has two positives: for one the job gets done right and for another I slept soundly regardless of the ABV% of my post retail refreshment. Also, I was working on a rather lengthy piece profiling 20 Black winemakers for one of my regular outlets, so even when I did get home with energy, there was other writing to do.

Somewhere in the midst of it all I did organize some pairings of interest. We currently have the awesome amazing Marcel Petite Comte on special at the lowest price I’ve ever seen. On Sunday I decided to keep pairing it with beers until I got tired of saying Franco-Swiss border. That took awhile. First up to the pairing board was the Mikkeller Keeper, a beer with great talking points since its brewed by the twin brother of brewer behind Evil Twin (there was a great NY Times Magazine piece on them about eighteen months ago). Keeper is his American Pilsner; it’s maltier than a Bohemian or a German variety. I figured the maltiness would pair nicely with the nutty overtones from the cheese. It went quickly (I think the clintele is finally figuring out that I’m offering really great food and beverages; fewer folks treat me like a nuisance) and led to several sales of each.

The warm reception at the outset emboldened me. I’m accustommed to pouring out some of the opening beer on a Sunday afternoon, but both boards of Keeper disappeared in less than five minutes. So, I chose the Crooked Stave Vielle Saison, a farmhouse ale brewed with wild yeast, next. I figured its complexity and funky blend of fruity and grassy flavors would be offset by the gentle balance of the Comte. I also like to showcase an unusual beer or two on Sunday just to expand people’s conceptions. I think I blew some minds, which led to going further out with the next beer, Tilquin Geueze. The cherished blend of Lambics really got conversation going on the back aisle. It’s tart then sour then plummy then the cycle starts all over again. People were texting their friends to come and try it. And of course, I enjoyed a bit of it too. If you’re into sour beers and willing to dig a little deep financially, there’s simply no greater reward than Geueze. We didn’t sell any on the spot, but now it’s moving slowly but steadily.

The other noteworthy pairing came on Friday. I took a piece of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from the pile of cheeses my coworker was cleaning to rewrap. The Clothbound Cheddar is a crowd pleaser with great talking points about its production and flavor. There’s a sweet, nutty flavor in the middle of the usual cheddar sequence and I decided to draw on that to pair with a Berliner Weisse made with wild yeast, the Weizen Bam from Jolly Pumpkin (though I refrained from using the brewery name in my introduction for fear that people would expect an entirely different flavor). The beer is lean herbal and sour. The first person to sample it thought it was a sparkling Jura Chardonnay, an intriguing concept. In general people grasped the sour/sweet pairing, but toward 7:15, business was slowing down and my last board looked like a loser. I have only about seven minutes per board before the beer starts going flat. My time was almost up, when I spied a group of young people in the beer aisle so I approached them and announced that I had samples of the most unusual beer they had tasted this year. They jumped on the samples and one of the guys immediately said, “wow, this is just like a geuze.”

It turns out that they were recent college grads and four members of the group spent their summer on a beer drinking tour of Belgium. Yeah, if they hadn’t been shopping for beer, I would have carded them. But to have eight people chattering away about wild yeast and buying rare artisan beers was the latest data point that the craft beer rise is far from over.

Oh yeah, they liked the cheese a lot too.

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