Sour Beer Face

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So if America’s contribution to the new Craft Beer Craze is the super hoppy Pale Ales with IBUs of over 100, then Cincinnati’s contribution is the Wild Sour Beers, that are purposely fermented with strains of bacteria to create sour flavor.

For many homebrewers, sour beers are counterintuitive.   We are schooled that the most important thing in brewing is cleanliness. That means sanitizing all equipment with bleach, but washing away all traces of bleach.     That’s important because bleach would harm the sensitive yeast, which is the organism digesting the malt sugars and creating alcohol and carbon dioxide.   And, the wort fermenter should be air tight to avoid wild bacteria from entering. Wild bacteria are uncontrollable and create unpredicatable sour flavors, that until recently weren’t popular in America.     For a homebrewer, the production of a sour beer was usually a mistake, made from unproperly sanitized equipment or a fermenter not totally air tight.

So what was once considered swill, is making a bit of a comeback, at least in the Queen City.

At one time in beer history, all beers were a bit sour, because pure yeast, without wild strains or bacteria was not available.   But for much of our modern brewing history, pure brewer’s yeast is available to the home and commercial brewers, so our palate is not as acceptable of sour beers.

There is a long legacy in Belgium of producing these sour beers. They have three very distinct types, lambics, gueze, and Flanders red ales.     Lambics are brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium and wort is cooled in containers open to the air to allow wild bacteria in. Gueze is a type of lambic that is a mix of 1 year old and 2-3 year old lambics mixed and allowed to ferment a second time.   Flanders red ales are again a mix of an older barrel aged beer with a younger ale to produce a sour version.

Germany also has a few examples of sour beers. One style, Gose, made in Goslar, Germany, is a top fermenting beer, characterized by salt and coriander addition, and uses lactobacillus as the souring bacteria.   Berliner Weisse was once the most popular beer in Berlin, and also uses lactobacillus as the souring agent. It’s a weak beer at about 3% alcohol.

It takes balls to embrace the production of these sour beers.   The fermentation process is very unpredictable.   So why even take the risk of making sour beer?   Well Cincinnati’s Rivertown, which produces Divergent, a Berliner Weisse style sour ale describes it this way:

“Flappers have always been a symbol of change and rebellion. Harkening to a time where challenging the norm was all the rage, this (sour) beer embraces and celebrates that vibrant, rebellious spirit.”

Urban Artifact, the new brewery in a century old Northside Irish Catholic Church, produces only wild sour ales. They produce three to be exact, a gose, which they describe as ‘Bready, with fruity esters, and a refreshing tartness”; a Berliner Pale Ale, which is a hybrid take on the sour Berliner Weisse, with a punch of hoppiness , and a Kentucky Common, with a “balance of sweet and tart, notes of cedar, and subtle fruitiness.”   Their take is that sour beers “create flavors that are tart and crisp, tropical and wild, and downright funky.”

While there is a measure of the bitterness imparted by hops to beer in the form of IBUs or International Bitterness units, there’s really no standard of measure for how sour a beer is.   Some of the Cincinnati sour beer producers have been quoting pH, which is a measure of acidity, but it’s not really a good way to relate to a beer’s sour taste.     So, that’s an S.O.S to all you brewing chemists out there – invent a good measure of sour for this growing category!

I have to admit, sour beers are refreshing in warm weather, and they’re very drinkable. I’ve had several of Bad Tom Brewery’s Fink Red Rye Sour, and I look forward this weekend to sampling the Taft Ale House’s new ‘Louisa – the Stavemother’ a Flanders red style sour ale fermented with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pedicoccus, but not Saccharomycin.   Oh, and it’s aged in Napa Valley chardonnay barrels for two months.    Named after Taft’s mother, Louisa, it’s kinda funny we’re taking my father there to celebrate Father’s Day.

While you don’t have to be a microbiologist to drink these new sour beers, there’s a lot to be learned to craft them correctly.   Kudos to the Cincinnati brewers taking these strides in the Brave Brew World of funky sour beers!

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Hush Up, It’s Hulushki Time!

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Food is wonderful. It’s the cultural equalizer. You can live in a city your whole life, even have the same ethnic background of a dish, and never come into contact with it.   But when you do find a new dish, it’s like a brave new world has opened.   Or, if you have moved away from your family beginnings and miss a dish, when you find it in the diaspora of a new city, it’s like you’ve found Nirvana or a food oasis.

Such was the experience of actress/model Sherri Moon, the wife of rocker and film producer, Rob Zombie, when she visited Park + Vine in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, recently, and discovered their lunch special, a dish called Hulushki or Halusky.   She was super stoked and mentioned the find on her food blog, “Eat Me,” giving Park + Vine a national shout-out and saying it would certainly bring her Polish mother back to her childhood.

What’s fantastic about hulushki is that it is another peasant dish that within its group of loyal eaters, it allows them, like our local goetta, to “eat back to their proud ancestry.”   It’s a simple Polish dish that consists of fried cabbage and onions, tossed with fried, sometimes carmelized, egg noodles, with a variety of spices like black pepper and caraway seeds.   And, it’s vegetarian, although some recipes call for a bit of salt pork or bacon to give it a meatier slant.

Although most modern recipes use standard egg noodles, the dish harkens back to handmade variety of thick, soft noodles or dumplings, cooked in Central and Eastern European cuisines.   They are kind of like the Germanic spaetzli of Eastern Europe.

In addition to Poland, the dish is also eaten in varieties in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary. It’s popular apparently in Pittsburgh, and probably other cities with Eastern European immigrant groups.   It may also be found in Chicago, or other upper Midwestern cities with Polish immigrant groups. Sometimes the dish is even cooked with sauerkraut, rather than unpickled cabbage.     I think it’s a perfect dish to fit into our Cincinnati Germanic cuisine.

Upon seeing the dish, the ideas for variations blew up in my head – what about using rotkraut or purple cabbage, or adding a bit of heat with smoked paprika or chili flakes. Or what about a cheesy version like the German’s have done with their kasespaetzle to compete with the American mac + cheese?   What about feta cheese, with olives and sun dried tomatoes for a Mediterranean twist? Wow, the possibilities are endless.

I was surprised I had never been exposed to the dish in my family. My maternal grandmother was of Polish descent. But her ancestors came from northern, Germanic, Polish Prussia, not central Poland, near Slovak and Czech areas.   We did have a vegan buttered egg noodle dish in our family’s repetoire, but it was accented with cinnamon and small apple chunks and typically served as a side, along with warm pork and sauerkraut, almost like an unbaked noodle kuegel.

Well, kudos to Park + Vine for elevating and bringing back a great ancestral Polish peasant dish to add our cultural food psyche!

Celebrity Doughnut Mashup – the Long John vs. the Eclair

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What a joyous day is June 5 – Happy National Doughnut Day!! The doughnut or donut, as some spell it, is an American invention. Yes, the Germans, French, and Italians have their pastry, but our round shaped, iced, sprinkled, jimmied, glazed perfections we can claim as ours.   The Greeks and Italians have respectively their deep fried dough confections that resemble doughnuts, – the loukoumades and the bombolini – but we have perfected the doughnut.

Now the doughnut has had a bit of an ‘up-do’ recently with a craze that started at donut bakeries in New York City. We started seeing maple glazed donuts with chunks of real bacon on top, or white iced round doughnuts with pomegranate seeds, or rose petals.   Although some of these ingredients can get ridiculous, I do applaud the contemporary upgrade of the doughnut, trumping out the blight the Atkins diet created in the pastry and doughnut shop world for a bit. Now it seems American still want to have an outlet for their sweet indulgences, but with over-the-top gourmet ingredients.

And although there are disputed stories of the doughnut’s invention, they are generally credited to the Dutch immigrants.   The first written reference is in Washington Irving’s History of New York in 1809 Irving described “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or in Dutch olykoek.   These ‘nuts’ of fried dough today might be called doughnut holes.

So of all the types of doughnuts out there, the Long John may be the one whose identity is widely mistaken.     Sometime even doughnut proprietors daftly parade the Long John as something it’s not – an éclair.   An éclair is a French long pastry usually iced in chocolate and filled with white cream.    It’s made of a non-yeast leavened dough called in French – Pate a choux or ‘cabbage paste’.   It’s called this because it’s the same dough used to make small cream puffs which resemble small heads of cabbage.   The dough is made by making a rue, and turning it into a paste with eggs.   It’s then piped out on a sheet into a long shape.   It’s the water content of the eggs that steams off and causes the dough to puff, not a yeast leavening.   The dough is then baked, not fried, like our Long John.

The Long John, on the other hand, is a long doughnut made of yeast dough and fried.   It’s usually topped with chocolate and filled with white cream, or sometimes topped with maple icing.   The round version of the Long John iced in chocolate and filled with cream is the Bismark.   The jelly filled version, called the Berliner, which John F. Kennedy, comically claimed himself in a speech to the Germans of that city.

Who the first John was and when the name and shape of the Long John was introduced is somewhat lost to history. We do know that a John Blondell received the first patent for a doughnut cutter in 1872, so perhaps the Long John is a tribute to Mr. Blondell as a doughnut engineer.

So to masquerade a Long John as an éclair, in an attempt to uplift it, is a very unpatriotic, preposterous thing, and should be considered high treason.   It’s amazing that during our recent hyper-patriotic times that, like Freedom Fries, all eclairs weren’t converted into Long Johns or at least renamed.

There’s one clear way to reveal a fake éclair – and that’s the fry line.   All Long Johns will have, like any yeast-dough fried doughnuts a lighter line at the buoyant center of the doughnut where, it floats just above the oil level on each side when flipped.   Because an éclair isn’t fried it won’t have this light fry line running all around in its middle.

To me the taste and mouth feel of the Long John’s yeast dough is more appealing than the crunchy, less chewy éclair.     The éclair leaves a pasty coating in the mouth, while the smooth, fried Long John has a cleaner feel.   My grandfather and uncle, both of whom were bakers, produced Long Johns and eclairs in their bakeries, but my favorite as a kid was always the maple glazed Long Johns, sprinkled with chopped nuts.   I’d like to call that version of the Long John, the ‘Lumberjack,’ in defiance to the snobbery of the French éclair.