Read This Book: The Brewmaster’s Table

24 01 2010

The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food
By Garret Oliver
Published by: Ecco Books of Houghton Mifflin New York, NY 2003
Available in paperback at most bookstores and on Amazon

Garret Oliver, Brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery, and I are cut from the same cloth. We love good beer. We love good food. And we love talking about good beer and good food. So it should come to no surprise that when I read The Brewmaster’s Table by Mr. Oliver, I contemplated quitting my blog. “There is no way,” I thought, “that I could write something that Garret hasn’t already written and better!” But then I thought, we need more people in this world writing about the merits of slow food and good beer. And so, I gained courage and I continue to write today. Even though I know The Brewmaster’s Table exists.

Photo Credit: Ecco Books

Mr. Oliver’s book begins the exact same way my blog began, by asking: “What is beer?” He shows his years of brewing great beer by explaining in depth, but with a welcoming touch, all that goes into beer. His writing is fun and funny. He throws in some personal anecdotes. It is one of the best descriptions of beer and brewing I have ever seen.

Chapter 2 is entitled “A Brief History of Beer” where he goes into about 10,000 years of human art, culture, development, and innovation in about 13 pages. There are some interesting facts. And some points (mostly around race and gender) where I am sure people have written books upon books. It is a fascinating look on the development and complexity of beer.

He then goes briefly into the principles of pairing food and beer. First, he shatters the old myth that wine is the best drink to pair with food:

…I’ve never enjoyed wine with all the types of food I actually eat everyday…Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Middle Easter, Indian and Cajun cuisine and American Barbecue…I don’t want wine with it. Yes, I’ve had all the wines that will supposedly match these foods. Guess what? They are a poor substitute for for traditional beer. Why? Because spices distort wine flavors., turning white wines hot and red wines bitter. Because wine doesn’t refresh the palate the way beer does. Because wine has no caramelized or roasted flavors to match those in our favorite dishes. And because, even according to wine experts, there are many foods that are simply no good with wine. (Page 41)

In the introduction, Mr. Oliver has already promised that beer jumps in boldly where wine fears to tread.

Real beer can do everything…even with traditionally wine-friendly foods, beer often shows superior versatility and flavor compatibility. The range of flavors and aromas in beer is vast–it’s deep and wide and tall, and it easily surpasses that of wine. Beer has bitterness to slice through fat, carbonation to refresh the palette, caramelized flavors to match those in your food, and sweetness to quench the fire of chilies. (Page xi)

He then goes in depth about aroma, flavor, appearance. How we look for the subtle clues that allow a beer to zing, cleanse, mirror, accentuate, and match our foods. We look for a balance of bright or dark flavors, bitterness, carbonation, and aromas to bring out subtleties or wash away big flavors. He pairs a porterhouse steak and mushroom gravy with an English porter in order to accentuate the earthy flavors. A freshly grilled burger gets an American pale ale to first match the caramalization of the fire roasted fat and then the astringent hops to cleanse the palette. And a turkey brie sandwich gets a light, crisp, and refreshing German hefeweizen to brighten the cheese, bread and turkey.

For most of the rest of the book, it is a global tour of the best beer from the best breweries matched with the best food. Mr. Oliver begins in Belgium with lambics. We travel from century old caves filled with 12 foot tall oak barrel fermenters to pastoral meadows where open fementers catch the wild terroir of of the Flemmish country side. Next we move to wheat beers from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. We learn all about the difference between a hefeweizen and a witte. Next, we are off to England, Scotland and Ireland to learn about Real Ale, conditioned in casks and pumped by hand; bitters, brown ales, porters and stouts. British pale ales and India pale ales are dissected with intricate tasting notes. Then, it is back to Belgian to learn about abbey ales and farmhouse ales. Doubles, Triples, and the formidable QUAD! Saisons and sour Flanders reds and browns. Next we learn about lagers from Czech pilsners to Vienna lagers, bocks, dopplebocks. And then back home to America to find out how the Yanks made everything bigger, bolder and brasher. And for each style a mention of notable breweries and in depth pairing suggestions.

At this point, I have to admit something. When I first started this blog, I had the rather embarrassng intention of becoming the “Robert Parker of Beer”. It should come to no great surprise that Garret Oliver was already bestowed that honor by Danny Meyer of The Union Square Cafe. Mr. Oliver’s tasting notes are spot on and his pairings are a stroke of genius. While I breezed through the first section of the book, the second section–with all its beer notes, pairing suggestions and wistful reminiscing of beer-related globe trotting–made me hungry, thirsty, struck with the most profound feelings of wanderlust or a combination of all three. Needless to say, read this book only after a satisfying meal.

The final section is a series of helpful hints on glass wear, storage and service of beer along with a handy “cheat sheet” of beer and food pairings. Not sure what to serve with BBQ ribs? How about a Belgian double? Grabbing some Carribbean food from the take-out down the street? Don’t forget to swing by the corner store and pick up an American pale ale, pilsner, or and Irish stout!

This is a must have for any foodie, beer lover, and globe trotter in your life. This book has become my bible recently and has pulled me out of some tough jams when some one at work asks for a pairing suggestion for dinner.

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