Posted 31 March 2012 - 02:14 PM
Ale to Usher in Baseball Season
By ERIC ASIMOV
I’VE been a baseball fanatic most of my life. When I was a child I knew the starting lineup of every team in both leagues. Statistics slipped through my lips as easily as lies would through a politician’s.
Those were simpler times, of course. While opening day still excites me, nowadays sabermetric terms beyond my ken like WHIP and Pecota have supplanted the simpler E.R.A. and R.B.I. as meaningful discussion points. Rather than debase myself arguing with teenage stat wizards, I’ve shifted my concern to other important baseball-related issues, like beer.
The relationship between beer and baseball still recalls those easy days before personal computers and steroids, when players spent entire careers with one team and you could actually afford to take your family to the ballpark and sit in the good seats. The only smudge in this rosy vision of yore is the beer itself.
Back then, the beer served at ballparks was awful, because American beer in general was awful. The Yankees were sponsored by Ballantine and the Mets by Rheingold, but you wouldn’t actually want to drink either of those bygone beers. Then came the craft beer revolution. Today, world-class beers abound. You can buy them at your corner deli. But at the ballpark?
In New York, the situation has been dire. The selection has never been good at Yankee Stadium, where you were lucky to find a Guinness Stout among the mass-market brands sold at absurd prices. It was scarcely better at Citi Field, where the big breweries buried an initial effort to sell local craft beers.
That grim outlook is easily remedied at home, in front of the television set. No, it’s not ideal. Nothing beats baseball live. But the beer is so much better, and cheaper. So, I’ve happily considered the alternatives. A snappy, bracingly bitter pilsner seems perfect for a day game. I’d be overjoyed as well with a Kölsch, the extraordinarily pleasant German ale from Cologne, or a zesty American pale ale. Each of these styles is refreshing, with plenty of character but mild enough to permit several servings over the long nine-inning haul.
Yet most games are played at night, which puts me in mind of dark beers. As I was daydreaming about the coming season I found myself craving porter, the classic British dark ale, which had largely died out in Britain until North American craft brewers revived the style.
What could be better than porter and a night game? I love the roasted grain flavors, the mild, chug-worthy weight and reddish-black color of a good English porter, like those from Samuel Smith’s, Fuller’s and St. Peter’s. The beer world has a term for brews like that: sessionable, meaning they are generally low enough in alcohol, 4 to 6 percent, not to overpower you during a drinking session.
American versions are more varied, as inconsistent stylistically as a rookie pitcher. They range from close facsimiles of the English style to interpretations that anyone would be hard-pressed to identify as porter.
Still, it’s an American game, so the beer panel decided to focus on American porters, 20 in all, at a recent tasting. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Kirk Kelewae, the dining room manager at Eleven Madison Park, who oversees the restaurant’s beer list, and Hayley Jensen, the beer sommelier at Taproom No. 307 in Kips Bay.
Our tasting coordinator, Bernie Kirsch, was careful to seek out American porters that at least adhered to the spirit of the English style while avoiding American versions of Baltic and Imperial porters, powerful brews that, centuries ago, were strengthened to withstand shipping to the Baltic states and Russia. Because creative American brewers have latched onto that style, Bernie said it would have been easier to find 20 Baltic-style porters than the milder porters he assembled.
Nonetheless, one of the 20 beers was a little bit higher in alcohol, at 7.5 percent, than the others. And this, Speakeasy Payback Porter from San Francisco, turned out to be our favorite. It was the most complex, with roasted, smoky, spicy, grainy flavors. Yet it offered another order of power than the others; a delicious beer, though I would think twice before choosing it as my ballgame brew.
For that I would turn to our No. 2 beer, the Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter, which offered classic, perfectly balanced flavors of malt, coffee and chocolate at a mild 4.4 percent. It was as fresh and lively as if it had just been pulled from a brand-new keg.
Many of our favorites offered savory, roasted malt flavors, which Kirk called grain-driven and Hayley referred to as umami notes. American porters generally diverge from the classic formula by using American, rather than English, hops. Depending on a brewer’s choice, the American hops can add herbal nuances or can completely dominate.
For me, hop dominance was a deficit, blurring the distinction between porter and, regardless of the color differences, pale ales. Several beers didn’t make our top 10 because they were too hoppy. Others, like the Firestone Walker’s Reserve and the Southern Tier Porter, we ranked at 8 and 9 respectively, despite their hop dominance, because they were nonetheless so pleasing.
Still, we preferred beers where the hoppiness was less pronounced, like the Rogue Mocha Porter, with its dark roasted flavors and refreshing bitterness, and the Sierra Nevada Porter, in which the subtle use of West Coast hops emphasized the classic porter flavors. We also very much liked the earthy, smoky Steelhead Scotch Porter from Mad River, and the smooth, straightforward Silk Porter from Hoppin’ Frog.
Sadly, one of my favorite American porters, Black Butte from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon, is available only in selected parts of the country, not including the New York region. That’s too bad, because the Black Butte combination of roasted malt and delicate hop bitterness strikes me as a benchmark American porter. Guess I’ll have to save it for away games.
Speakeasy Payback Porter, $8.75, *** ½
San Francisco, 22 ounces
Lovely, savory flavors of roasted grain, smoke, spices and chocolate, but powerful at 7.5 percent alcohol.
Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter, $3, *** ½
Middlebury, Vt., 12 ounces
Fresh, lively and mild with smoky flavors of soy, coffee, chocolate and malt.
Rogue Mocha Porter, $3.50, ***
Newport, Ore., 12 ounces
Refreshing with meaty, dark roasted flavors and a pleasing bitterness.
Sierra Nevada Porter, $2.25, ***
Chico, Calif., 12 ounces
Classic rich flavors of roasted grains, coffee and chocolate.
Mad River Steelhead Scotch Porter, $2.80, ***
Blue Lake, Calif., 12 ounces
Earthy, grainy flavors with a mild hint of chocolate.
Hoppin' Frog Silk Porter, $12.50, ** ½
Akron, Ohio, 22 ounces
Straightforward, with smoky aromas and flavors of espresso and soy.
Founders Porter, $2.95, **
Grand Rapids, Mich., 12 ounces
Deep, smoky flavors of dark coffee and chocolate.
Firestone Walker's Reserve, $8, **
Paso Robles, Calif., 22 ounces
Pleasing, though aromas and flavors of American hops stand out.
Southern Tier Porter, $2, **
Lakewood, N.Y., 12 ounces
Rich coffee flavors, but American hop aromas dominate.
Eel River Porter, $7, **
Fortuna, Calif., 22 ounces
Balanced, with strong chocolate flavor and a touch of sweetness.
Posted 31 March 2012 - 08:23 PM
Edited by rx2man, 31 March 2012 - 08:27 PM.
Posted 01 April 2012 - 04:26 PM
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