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    Understanding Belgian Beer

    Let me work with a simple premise – A country’s beer culture is a reflection of that country’s history. It may not be a full reflection, but it does show enough to illuminate some important aspect of that country.

    So why is it, that a country that’s the size of the state of Maryland, holds the rapt attention of most beer aficionados?  It’s not as if Belgium is a major European tourist destination – at least not in comparison to England, France, Italy, and Spain.  It’s certainly not a primary player in the history of Europe, having not even been a country until the 1830′s. So, why is Belgium so keen on beer?

    The answer lies in its history. It’s a gross simplification, but the basis of the Belgian brewing industry lies in the fact that during industrial brewing’s formative years 1850-1920 , Belgium had other primary concerns than figuring out the level of regulations that dictated limited styles of beer. This lack of oversight actually made imports into Belgium cheaper than what they could brew in 1900.  The Belgian brewing scene was poor at this time.

    Then, occupation in World War I set back the industry even further.  It wasn’t until the Belgian government banned genever from cafes and taverns that the industry started to take off.  The marketplace, demanding some level of inebriates, welcomed local beers into the fold.  New things were tried in order to differentiate one beer from another. Never having a Reinheitsgebot helped, and as well as a lack of a brewing “tradition”. Brewers were able to try different spices and herbs, even adding sugar to their drinks.  Add in the unique yeasts of the region, and a predilection for the taste of malt over that of hops, and the resulting melange of beers available to Belgians increased.

    As breweries in England and the United States consolidated, and the industry shrank (in terms of breweries, not in sales), and as the Belgians rejected German beers (for obvious reasons) Belgium breweries soared with variety.  Yes, pilsners ended up on top as they did in other countries (Belgium’s most popular beer is a pilsner called Jupiler), but the marketplace was diverse, enough so that it became a source of pride for the region, quickly evolving into its state today.

    Belgium’s brewing traditions are truly only about a century old, rather recent in the grand scheme of things. But this has worked in their favor, making them a “must visit” for any fan of beer.

     

     

    The Reader’s Choice Finals – Hendrick’s Gin versus No. 209 Gin

    This is it – the finals. Out of the initial sixteen gins selected, these were the two that you deemed best. Your final task here is to pick one over the other. Will be be the lesser known No. 209 gin from San Francisco? Or will it be the popular Scottish Gin, Hendrick’s?

    The choice is yours.  You have one week to vote.

    [poll id="18"]

    Video – The Pre-Raphaelites

    A nice intro to the Pre-Raphaelites from the BBC.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 byWilliam Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I’ll discuss in further detail soon. Video’s are below the jump.
    Read More…

    The History of the Martini

    Picture courtesy of Wikimedia

     (As with any post or book dealing with Food History, the typical caveats, dealing with regionalism and incomplete records, apply.)

    For such a classic cocktail, the history of the Martini is murky, with various stories being thrown about as truths, when in fact most of these are half-truths at best, out and out fabrications at worst.  The most common story out there is that “Professor”  Jerry Thomas invented the drink in San Francisco, and documented it in one of the first book of cocktail recipes called How to Mix Drinks. While the historical aspect of this book should not be undervalued, the fact remains that it has little, if anything to do with the history of the martini.

    There is no indication of the martini in the first edition of his book. The closest we get to the recipe is one called Gin Punch. The recipe is as follows:

    11. Gin Punch
    (From a recipe by Soyer.)
    1/2 Pint of old gin.
    1 gill of maraschino
    The juice of two lemons.
    The rind of half of a lemon.
    Four ounces of syrup.
    1 quart bottle of German Seltzer Water.
    Ice Well.

    This is the basis of what we know of today as a Tom Collins, but it’s no where close to a Martini.

    He does add a recipe called the Martinez in his 1887 edition of The Bar-tender’s Guide or How to mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks

    Martinez Cocktail.
    (Use small bar-glass.)
    Take 1 dash of Boker’s bitters.
    2 dashes of Maraschino.
    1 pony of Old Tom gin.
    1 wine-glass of Vermouth.
    2 small lumps of ice.

    Shake up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail
    glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass, and serve. If the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup.

    This is a little closer, but the maraschino makes it a little further away than what I’d like.  But due to the nebulous nature of recipes back then, it is a start. As far as the first documented use of the name “martini,” that comes from Harry Johnson’s The New and Improved Illustrated Bartenders’ Manual; circa 1888.

    57 Martini Cocktail

    (Use a large bar glass)

    Fill the glass up with ice;
    2 or 3 dashes of Gum Syrup;
    2 or 3 dashes of Bitters; (Boker’s genuine only)
    1 dash of Curaçoa;
    1/2 wine glassful of Old Tom Gin;
    1/2 wine glassful of Vermouth;

    stir up well with a psoon, strain it into a fancy cocktail glass, squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top, and serve. (See Illustration, Plate No. 13.)

    However, I came across this recipe for a Turf Club Cocktail, from book/pamphlet called How to mix drinks. Bar keepers’ handbook published in 1884. The recipe is straight-forward:

    Turf Club Cocktail

    Two or three dases of Peruvian Bitters;
    One-half wine glass of Tom Gin;
    One-half wine glass of Italian Vermouth;
    Fill glass three-quarters full of fine ice, stir well with spoon and strain in fancy cocktail glass, then serve.

    This recipe is closer to the martini, and was published three years prior to Thomas’ Martinez.

    From The Hostess of To-day, by Linda- Hull Larned in 1899

    Martini:

    1/2 c Tom gin,

    1/2 c Italian Vermouth,

    1 tsp orange bitters,

    serve with a curled lemon peel in each glass or rub rim of glass with lemon zest then dip in powdered sugar .

    A magazine called The Bachelor book, released in September1900, has a similar sweetened recipe for the martini in an article called The Soothing Syrup:

    Martini Cocktail

    A mixing glass half full of fine ice, three dashes of orange bitters, one half jigger Tom gin, one half jigger Italian vermouth, a piece of lemon peel.  Mix well and strain into a cocktail glass. Many persons add a half teaspoonful of sherry but this is a matter of individual taste

    In the May 15, 1903 release The Mixer and Server, Official Journal of the Hotel and Restuarant Employee’s International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America, Volume XII No.5, page 64, there was printed this tidbit:

    “Golf Cocktail”

    Extra Dry

    There is always something new under the sun in an up to the minute cafe. New drinks are constantly being launched upon the sea of popularit,y and the palates of the vast army of lovers of well compounded and refreshing beverages do not suffer as a consequence. Jake Didier, author of the “Reminder” has unfolded another drink, which he calls “Golf Cocktail.” A feature of the concoction is that it is “Extra Dry.” People who have delighted in imbibing in extra dry champagne have now turned to the extra dry cocktail. Competent critics declare the cocktail to be one of the best in Jake’s extensive repertoire.

    A goblet 2/3 full of cracked ice, 3 dashes of Hostetter’s bitters, 1/3 drink of French Vermouth, 2/3 drink of Gordon gin;  stir well, strain into cocktail glass put in olive, and serve.

    That, my friends, is a recipe for a dry martini. it is the missing link between the Sweetened Martini recipes of the nineteenth century and the dry recipe of today.

    By 1913, we see advertisements in various magazines differentiating between a martini and a dry martini. Somewhere in the previous ten years, the golf cocktail takes off, but is defined as a drier derivation of the more traditional sweet martini. But up until prohibition, the traditional martini used Tom Gin, rather than a London dry. The proliferation of faux “London Dry” gins during prohibition sounded the death knell for the sweetened martini, and its popularity waned. The dry version become the defacto defintion of “martini”.

    So, the history of the martini in a nutshell? It started off as a sweetened cocktail in the late 1800′s, roughly around 1880, give or take. A dry version was introduced around 1900, and took off in popularity. Prohibition saw the end of production of Tom Gin, but the bathtub gins led to the popularity of the dry version of the drink, so much so, that when America came out of Prohibition, the martini was thought of as first, foremost, and only as a dry cocktail.

    The Reader’s Best Gin Semi-Final #2: Bombay Sapphire vs. No. 209

    Vote!

    [poll id="17"]

    The Reader’s Best Gin Semi-Final #1: Hendrick’s vs. Leopold’s

    Vote!

    [poll id="16"]

    The Lambics

     

    Out of the entire catalog of Belgian Beers, there is one category that mystifies me. And being born and bred in the United States, where beer ignorance is part of a national DNA, I hadn’t even heard of this style of beer until I was way past my thirties. I am speaking the Lambics, of course; a style of beer noted for its ties to beers historical roots, what with its emphasis on open-air, spontaneous fermentation, as well as the wacky notion that beer tastes better after it ages in a cask.  As we come from a culture where mega-breweries harp on the idea of “freshness dating”, the fact that there are good to great beers out there that requires 1-3 years of aging before it gets its optimal taste is unique in the worlds where Budweiser and Coor’s reign supreme.

    What the lambics are, in my opinion, is evidence that the marketing arms of industrial breweries are full of it.  For every claim of freshness, for every claim of precision in brewing, lambics demonstrate an exception.

    Their are several varieties of lambics out there, from the pure lambic and the fruit lambics, to krieks, and something called gueuze, an oddity so different from what one thinks of beer, that the folks at the Good Beer Guide to Belgium describes it thusly:

    Your first encounter…(with oude gueze)…can be astonishingly awful. It may make you want to send it back immediately, but then persuades you to hold on for just another mouthful. Having soldiered through the bottle and awarded  yourself a gold rosette for adding painfully to your knowledge of  brewing history, it should make you vow neer to try it again. Then order another just in case you got it wrong….After your third you will never think about beer in the same way again.

    It’s this sort of talk that gets me all hot and bothered about how it tastes and what it represents.  A well-made gueuze is seen as the apex of brewing; the golden fleece; the beer that’s kept in hiding until that one special moment in one’s life that calls for something  both wonderful and unique.

    The beers are not just unique to the beer world, they’re unique to Belgium, with most coming from an area just to the west/south-west of Brussels, in an area called The Pajottenland, in a region of land that’s only a little larger than the size of Brussels itself. This is a theme we’ll run into again and again with Belgian Beers – namely, how can an area so small (Belgium is comparible in size to the state of Maryland) do so much with beer?