Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beer Snobbery or It's About Time?

Being a generally "Blue Collar" guy, I have always had a bit of a schizophrenic association with my "tastes". What I mean by "tastes" are the sensory qualifications and quantifications that result in what I like (e.g., I enjoy this type of food for this reason or, I like this type of beer/wine because of this taste or other factor). There is no doubt that some items taste better or provide better examples of what makes them "good" than other examples. For instance, there are few people who have trouble deciding between a good filet mignon or a round steak. These are two very different cuts of meat. Leaving aside the price, who would take the latter over the former? The same applies to any other discriminatory exercise.

Over the years I have determined that my tastes run to the expensive. By that I mean I enjoy the best of all experiences and they are usually the more expensive of each variety of "experience". I like good bourbon, good cheeses, good food and good beer. One of the reasons that I am a homebrewer is that I can make good beer that would otherwise cost me a fortune! This elitist attitude runs counter to my upbringing and my generally populist attitude to what most people would regard as "snobbery".

Which brings me to discuss a new wrinkle on beer snobbery: the Cicerone. This program is the brainchild of Ray Daniels, well-known beer writer and former Executive Director of the American Homebrewers Association. Ray has been a leader in the craft brewing revolution in America and, like many of the people who love great beer and want to see it properly appreciated, saw a great divide between the way people think and talk about wine/food pairings and the way they don't think and talk about beer/food pairings. Ray thought-correctly, I believe-that beer should hold as high a place on this food-pairing issue as wine, if not higher. After all, there are many, many more flavor combination possibilities to beer than could possibly be wrung from wine. The culmination of Ray's ruminations and discussion of this topic is his Cicerone program.

A Cicerone, then, is the beer equivalent of a sommelier. A sommelier, or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service. A Cicerone, then does the same job with beer. Is such a profession necessary? Well, just ask yourself if you have ever wanted a more knowledgeable waitperson when trying to decide on an appropriate beer at a restaurant. How many times have you asked a waitperson if they have any craft beers, and they offer you Heineken or Beck's? Ask for something specific and you get an answer like, "Oh, we have some of the dark, heavy stuff like Guinness but I really don't like dark beer..." Obviously many waitresses and waiters know very little about beer, which can be frustrating at times. But does that necessitate a highfalutin idea such as the Cicerone?

On the one hand, I would actually pay a bit more for my food and beer, and tip a bit more for my service, if the server had the knowledge and experience guaranteed by the Cicerone program. It would be a welcome relief from the normal, "Sam Adams is our most popular import"-type waiter. On the other hand, beer is the common man's beverage. The very idea of sniffing a beer and worrying about whether it would go well with a nice smoked Gouda seems a bit snooty, doesn't it? We don't need no stinkin' Cicerones!

Finally, there is another angle that makes me a bit apprehensive about the program. The money angle. Ray Daniels has trademarked the term Cicerone (at least as it applies to a beer server) and is selling certifications. Now, this is a free country and free markets rule-believe me I love the entrepreneurial spirit, here. But, there's a little something self-serving about inventing a term for a beer sommelier, using your beer author status and standing to promote it, and then cashing in on it as a profession. Am I off base, here?

I took Ray's sample test and scored 8 of ten (got confused over Scottish/Scotch Ales, yaargh!). If the test is representative of the certification process, I would probably pass without studying at all. Does that make it an elite program? Probably not. Does the certification mean that your server at the pub/restaurant is much more knowledgeable than most? Almost certainly.

I guess the beer world is open to all new twists and certainly beer servers could use more education. In the end, I am of two minds on this subject. How about you?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Hoppy Birthday, America!

I decided to grow my own hops for homebrewing back in 2001. I grew Fuggles back then. Unfortunately a few years into the project, I found I needed a new septic field and the old hop plants did not survive. In 2004, I planted four new varieties: US Goldings, Cascade, Hallertau and Nugget. These are doing very well, now. In the picture above and to the right, the plants are just beginning their new lives. The picture was taken on May 19, 2008.

I have been using my own hops for beer for several years but this year, due to the hop shortage, I have decided to use my own hops exclusively. It will save me a bunch of dough! I have made several ten gallon batches this year, using only my own hops!

Next year I plan on extending the trellis by adding a central pole and running the hops up that to a height of near twenty feet. It may make it easier to keep the different hop varieties from getting tangled up together. I should also divide some of the roots. If I do, I will have them available for others interested in the hobby (stay tuned!).

The second picture shows the hops as they look today. The flowers are fuzzy little things at the moment but will morph into hops cones in the next week or so. In August they will ripen and I will pick and dry them for freezing. I will record the process this year for the blog. Each variety ripens at a different time, just to make things interesting!

So sometime in September I will be able to celebrate Hop Independence Day!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, America!

On this anniversary of the founding of our nation, the birth of self-rule and the creation of the Hope-there's that word again!- of the world, it is essential that we reflect on what made this experiment work and why we need to return to those principles before the experiment fails...miserably.

"That government is best which governs least." This quote by Thomas Paine really sums it all up for me. Individual freedom and restrictions on governmental power are what made this country the astounding success of the enlightenment and the bright and shining example towards which all free-thinking peoples have aimed over the past 232 years. Those principles are threatened today by an attitude and ignorance that would have astounded the Founders and made them question the sacrifices they made to create this system of governance.

Think in terms of the finishing words of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers pledged to each other, "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence", their lives, fortunes and scared honor. These words were not written or pledged in a hollow fashion. This political rhetoric is wholly different from that of our current crop of political functionaries. These men actually risked their lives, their families lives, all of their possessions and their "scared honor" in pledging to overthrow the rule of Great Britain and create a new nation and form of government. Many lost some or even all of these during the course of the war. But the cause prevailed.

Examining that cause today is somewhat disappointing. We seem to have gotten so far afield of our founding principles that the resulting colossus is almost unrecognizable. With full-time professional legislatures, the near elimination of "state's rights", an imperial presidency, taxation beyond any sensible measure and a budget and fiscal attitude that can only be described as ridiculous, does anyone think the Founders would recognize their creation in our current condition?

Every day, all around this country, full-time, professional tax-spenders are creating laws. And with each new law there is a new tax, a new criminal or a new deficit. Why is this the norm? Why do we now shrug and say, "Oh well. That's just the way it is"? These kinds of tyranny would have resulted in open rebellion two-hundred years ago!

We as a citizenry are at fault. We have taken to settling for unprincipled and unethical politicians that appeal to our basest instincts in order to gain office and retain their power. Most often these people count on our collective ignorance or our prejudices and differences to maintain and expand their power. The ignorance of the population regarding the incredible brilliance of our form of government and what trials and tribulations went into creating it is perhaps why these attitudes are so prevalent.

We have accepted schools and colleges that teach social diversity and politically correct rewrites of history, rather than the Truth. My children, who graduated over the past five years, did not have a Government or a Civics class. In place of this, the system offered a class called, "American Democratic Institutions", taught by teachers that couldn't pass the simplest test on the Constitution. We have accepted cults of personality, rather than good public servants. We have accepted an intolerance of religion rather than a tolerance of all faiths (including no faith). We accept hyper-sensitivity to all of our differences, rather than celebration of our much more considerable similarities.

Everyone should take the time to expand their knowledge of our Founding at this time of the year, if not at other times. Teach your children what they will not learn in our public schools. Talk about freedom and the principles of small, effective government and elect people who are principled and ethical, from the local dogcatcher to the President of the United States. If that movement ever catches on, the Founders might think the experiment was worthwhile after all.