Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Ciders of Normandy: Brittany and Normandy Part II

Cider Apple Orchard at Famille Dupont in Cambremer
In the craft beer world, cider is still often considered a disruptive interloper at worst and a drink for people who don't like beer at best. If your only experience with cider are some of the mass produced, soda-pop, and one-dimensional ciders most often seen in the market, then I can understand that point of view. However, cider is an old tradition in other parts of the world where the product is complex and interesting and very tasty. It is a tradition that is slowly making its way to the U.S.

My first introduction to cider which drinks well on its own and pairs well with food ( outside of my own home brew) was in England when I tried cask ciders for the first time.  They tasted closer to the ones I made at home, and I knew that there were more like them. My second taste of well-crafted cider came at one of my local watering holes where I tried Etienne Dupont a product of Normandy, France. It is slightly sweet but with beautiful floral notes, earthy qualities, and a great balance of apple in the nose and in the aftertaste.

Normandy, France carries a strong tradition of cider-making that goes back centuries. Although, for most people, the WWII D-Day invasion is the first thing that come to mine when they think of Normandy and for good reason, there are other reasons to visit this area. After reliving history, marveling over the effort that went into saving the world from disaster, and shedding a tear or two over the individual sacrifices made, a person really could use a drink. What better than immersing yourself in a a piece of history that is also very tasty.

Cider maker at M.L.
Most of the cideries are on small working farms while others are much simpler operations. Every cidery we visited had a dry (brut) a semi-sweet (demi sec) or a sweet. They also all made Calvados (distilled apple juice) and Pommeau (Calvados mixed with apples juice consumed as a sweet apertif).

Although we tasted  many wonderful ciders, the family making some of the  most innovative and flavorful ciders is Famille Dupont which has been on the same site wince 1887. We had the the good fortune of having fourth generation owner, Jerome Dupont, give us a private tour and tasting.  According to Jerome, cider is still, for some, a peasant drink. Most French prefer the wine for which the country is very well known, but people are slowly discovering this craft tradition, and Dupont is delivering.

Dupont is one of the very few cider makers actually well-distributed in the U.S, so, yes, you should be able to find some of their products if the distributors in your area carry them, and the labels are a bit different in the U.S. Although, I believe they are in the process of making them all more uniform. They are imported by B. United International, Inc. With their importers encouragement, Dupont has expanded their line of ciders beyond the typical three.

Although most ciders are a blend of sweet, tart, and bitter apples, Dupont has worked on special blends and even using the tart and bitter apples on their own. One of my favorites, Cidre Triple, is made with only bitter apples. It mimics some of the flavors of a floral, hopped beer. Their classic cider, Cidre Buche, is sold under the label of Etienne Dupont in the U.S., and named after Jerome's father whom we were delighted to meet on our tour. Etienne still oversees the making of the Calvados since the distilling process is an art form in itself. Another favorite of mine was their Reserve which is aged for six months in Calvados barrels. These ciders are flavorful, complex with a range from dry to sweet. The care in the apple choices and flavors show in the final products.
Jerome Dupont teaching us the finer
points of cider making

Making cider requires as much agricultural knowledge as it is a brewing craft. We saw a new field of apples trees. They were ordered from the grower two years prior. Once the saplings reach two years they are delivered and planted, but it will be three more years before they produce apples. And although some cideries grown some and use outside sources for apples, Dupont grows acres of apple trees for their ciders.

The fermentation of the cider starts with the natural organisms in the fresh pressed juice (wild fermentation). Most cideries leave it at that. Dupont starts all of their ciders out this way, but have isolated certain strains in yeasts for the flavors that they want which are introduced later in the process depending on the cider. They also use epoxy fermenters with movable lids to control oxidation in the different stages of fermentation. They are dedicated and passionate about making a delicious product.

Much like the craft beer community, the cider makers work together, Dupont is part of an association of growers that share equipment from apple pickers to sorters due the cost being so high.

Jerome and Owen, Brewtopia Events, in the Calvados barrel room
at Famille Dupont
In the restaurants around Normandy, you can usually find at least one cider on draft and in bottles, both small bottles and Champagne style at very affordable rates. The flavors pair incredibly well with food, and there is even cider cuisine. I have plans to recreate some of the dishes here at home. I will let you know how it goes.

Jerome in front of one of his orchards.

The countryside of France is spectacular, and the discoveries you can make are immense. If you can't make it France, look for some French ciders in your area. If you have a local cider maker, support them even if it is outside your comfort zone. You have only deliciousness in your future. As always, eat well and drink good...cider.

Our taste hostess at Gerard Desvoye cidery

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Burgeoning Beer Scene in France: Brittany and Normandy Part I

Beer flight at Ninkasi Brewing, a brewpub
with three locations in Lyon, France
People all over the world associate France with wine, and
France has earned this reputation. Wine remains currently the most popular beverage for many French citizens and travelers who visit the country; however, there is a craft beer revolution quietly making its mark. Years ago on a trip to Paris, the only beers we could find were some Bier de Gardes and Belgians. Times have changed.

I recently returned from a trip to Brittany and Normandy. We flew via Istanbul, Turkey into Lyon, France which began our
Owen Ogletree of Brewtopia Events
and Pierre of Brasserie Bouffay
beer journey. We found quite a few Belgium beers still, but at a cute little cellar bar, Les Fleurs du Malt, we found beers from a couple of craft breweries that are doing some interesting things including smoked porters and sours. The focus of the beer portion of our trip was actually Brittany, but before we hit our destination, we made a stop along the way at Brasserie Artisanale du Bouffay. We were charmed by Pierre, the owner, who is a former farmer and passionate brewer of beer. He started as a home brewer - not a unique tale - and moved on to commercial production. He believes in making beer that he loves to drink, and having tried his organic blond and tripel at the brewery, he is doing pretty well. According to Pierre, there are approximately 600 registered craft brewers in France. The trick here though, according to another source, if you want to brew beer (home brew or commercial) you have to register. So many of the registered brewers are not making a living at brewing; although many sell out of their garages and at markets. Pierre sells his beer at the brewery and through a distributor as well. He also has a contract with some Whole Foods in the U.S.

Having begun our journey into French beer, we moved to our first destination, Brittany. There is so much ground to cover that the best thing to do is find a central point to make home base and travel out from there. Of course, you need a rental car for this, but there are many things you could not see otherwise. We chose Huelgoat as our base of operations. Huelgoat is an adorable town with a large English population and tons of hiking trails for working off all the food and beer. We stayed at a cute little B&B called Laura's Chambres d'hotes.
Our home away from home in Brittany: Laura's Chambers d'hotes

The calm before the storm
Although we found many wonderful bars and pubs to sample French craft brews, the best beer part of this trip was a beer festival. Yep, you read it correctly. We found a beer festival in Brittany, France. It was hosted by Brasserie An Alarc'H and set up somewhat differently than our fests in the states. There was no entry fee. Breweries brought drafts and bottles. You paid 2 Euro for a a sample glass and could sample whatever the breweries at brought, but you could also pay for full pours and buy bottles of beer to take home. The variety was fairly impressive. The hosting brewery's beers, one of which was infused with ginger, were quite tasty, and there was even a real ale brewery serving beer out of casks, Les Fous Microbrasserie, which we actually visited the day before. It is on a farm in the middle of the Brittany countryside run by a husband and wife team, Don and Trisha. Another favorite brewery of mine had a bit of a heavy metal set up with a dry-hopped pale ale that was exceptional, Couille de Loup. Although, all of the breweries had some basic styles most of the did, including blondes, ambers, browns, etc, some did branch out with Belgian whites, alt beers, and fruit and spice flavors. The festival even included a food truck and the first organic toilette I have ever seen which used cedar mulch instead of chemicals.

This brewery had tons of variety - including
gluten free beer and one with chestmuts
Don't fear the wolf

Brittany itself is a beautiful region with coastal towns and inland farms. The people are friendly, and the food is delicious! In fact, some of the best seafood I have ever had, I found on this trip. If you are interested on more details or want to plan a trip yourself, contact me with questions. I could write pages on this region alone. Part II of this article will focus on the ciders of Normandy! In the meantime, remember to eat well and drink good beer.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Beer in the Garden of Good and Evil

Moon River Brewing Company brewer,
Aaron Deist showing off the barrel room.
What comes to mind when you think of Savannah, Georgia? Do you envision beautiful trees filled with Spanish moss, amazing architecture, River Street, or a certain book/movie set in one of the most gorgeous cities in the state? To be honest, I see all of those things and more. I love strolling through Bonaventure Cemetery, people watching as I walk through the squares, eating steamed oysters, listening to music at Kevin Barry's, and enjoying some local craft beer. Yes, that's right. The craft beer scene in Savannah gives you one more reason to visit that magical town on the river.

A friend of mine and I recently took a girls' trip to start off the summer and visit some of the awesome breweries in town. We started the beer portion of our trip at Moon River Brewing Company. Moon River opened its doors in 1999, so it is the original craft beer destination in Savannah. Still brewing fun and tasty beverages, this brewpub is a great place to grab a bite to eat and soak in some local flavor. With great brews like Swamp Fox IPA, Da Bomb dry Irish stout, and Wild Wacky Wit, you can not go wrong. We had the luck to run into one of the owners, John Pinkerton, and head brewer, Aaron Deist who honored us by taking us on a tour of their barrel room and giving us samples of a few new beers in the making. I do declare, it was the tastiest start to a great trip. Get down there soon, as a marvelous Berliner Weiss will be going on in a couple of weeks.

With a beer to go, we bid the folks at Moon River a thankful farewell and headed for our next adventure. About three miles out of town (and totally worth the Uber fare), sits Coastal Empire Beer Company. Spearheaded by brothers, Kevin and Chris Haborak, Coastal Empire is the epitome of a local, small craft brewery. Because the facility is tucked away in an industrial park, you may think you have gone to the wrong place, but don't turn away. Inside their brewing space, these guys have plenty of room to grow and a tasting room for you to sate your thirst while learning about their brews. There is literally something for everyone from their Tybee Blond to the red wine barrel-aged Midnight in the Garden. You will enjoy choosing your next taste. Thank you Kevin for introducing me to "Pink, Fluffy Unicorn." Next time you are in town, go show these guys some love. After closing down the tasting room, we decided dinner was in order as well as a round or two of Irish music.
Kevin and Chris give the Beer Wench a tour of their magic making facility. Cheers, guys!

Blackhawk on duty
In our wanderings, we found a few surprises not totally beer related. At the Savannah Bee Company, you can taste a flight of mead, the oldest fermented beverage in the world. If you are more into wine than beer, you can taste a flight of Georgia wines in the cellar of The Salt Table. We also enjoyed barley's other incarnation with a tasting flight of single malt Scotch at Molly McPherson's which also boasts a good craft beer list as well.

After a day of sightseeing and various other tastings, we wandered down River Street to Service Brewing Company which was a perfect spot to check out on Memorial Day weekend. Owners, Kevin Ryan and Meredith Sutton hold a special place in their hearts and brewery for our service men and women. Their pride shows in the brewery's American flag painted as a back drop for to the music stage and the service patch art installations. The names of the brews also show the respect and love given to those who serve. My two favorites were Battlewagon (an imperial IPA) and Old Guard (a bier de garde using Savannah Bee Company honey).

Art installation that allows guests to participate
Meredith gave us an incredible tour, introducing us to her bees which provide honey for some of their brews. We also met brewery cats Blackhawk and Chinook, who keep watch over the entire operation. This is a couple who believe in hard work, community, putting out quality products, and honoring those who work to allow us to enjoy a good brew with friends.

When you think that the end is near, do a double take. There is yet another brewery on the mission to keep Savannah from being thirsty for good beer. Southbound's theme is music, and they use hop head Kokopelli figures as their logo and beer names that honor songs and musicians like Hoplin, an homage to the late Janis Joplin, and Roxanne, a sour cherry ale. She may not need to put on her red dress but she does wear it well. Food truck outside...good beer inside...what else do you need? Thanks to out to Carly for setting us up and to Natalie for being such a great hostess.

If you do all the brewery tours and are still thirsty for good brews, there are several great venues for local, national and international beer including Crystal Beer Parlor, The Distillery, Savannah Taphouse and more. I have to count this girls' trip an absolute success and can not wait to go back to one of my favorite beer-cation spots.

On a final note, I had planned to write this article as a counter to the recent piece about a brewery brewing beer for women, but as I talked to everyone including women, like myself, enjoying good beer, I realized that there was no point. If you make good beer, people will drink it - male or female. Most beer industry folks know this. To condescend that women have to have special beer made for them or marketed to them is ridiculous. This beer woman has been enjoying craft beer since 1993 when I was introduced to beer with flavor and different styles. Whether you are man or woman or somewhere in between, you can find great beer. The beer community is as diverse and flavorful as the multitude of styles brewers can imagine. Cheers to all the ladies that I met in the research for this article and the breweries who welcomed us with open arms to share their hard work and dedication. Remember, eat well and drink good beer.

Sunset on the river

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Athens' Beer Week Commences: Starting New Traditions

Athens has long been known for putting out great musicians, intense love of Dawg's football, and more recently we are on the map for craft beer. Athens also maintains an incredible foodie scene with several locally owned restaurants which happens to pair nicely with our brewpub and three breweries (with more on the way).

Street view of Five and Ten
Out of the food scene a star has shone in the form of Hugh Acheson. Owner of Five and Ten, The National, Empire State South, and The Florence, Hugh has made a national and international name for himself with television appearances on Top Chef, Master Chef and many more accomplishments. On Monday, April 4, 2016 which marked the official start to Athens beer week, beer brewers, brewery owners, writers, judges, and general beer lovers broke bread together at what, I hope is a new beer week tradition. At Hugh's first Athens' restaurant, Five and Ten (new location) we enjoyed a dinner designed by Hugh himself and paired with beer from our three local breweries, Terrapin, Creature Comforts, and Southern Brewing Company (SBC).

Beer Wench hangs with the famous Chef  Hugh Acheson
We started on the very traditionally southern front porch enjoying Southern Brewing Company's Oak Aged Wild Southern Ale. Made with raspberries and a plethora of funk inducing organisms, this beer spent time in SBC's foedor (pronounced food-er) which is a large wooden vat originally designed for aging wine but now being used by several breweries for their wild fermented beers. This beer was followed by five courses of mouth watering food and beer pairings from  grilled spring onions and asparagus partnered with Terrapin's Sound Czech Pils, a lobster and chickpea salad with Creature Comforts Cosmik Debris, Quail stuffed with Chicken Farce with Creature Comforts Paradiso, Grilled Dekle Steak (I had duck leg comfit - can't eat the mammals.) with Terrapin Poivre Potion Saison, and finally a brown butter rhubarb tart with SBC's Southern Sour Stout. We could not have had a better example of local foodie talent than this!

We learned how the different brews came to life, discussed the many pairings, and  many kudos were given to local celebrity, Owen Ogletree, founder of Classic City Brew Fest, as being one of the people who has help to boost the craft beer scene in Athens. Athens' beer week is relatively new. The culminating event is Classic City Brew Fest on Sunday, April 10th (21st year running and the oldest festival in Georgia). The week long celebration of beer began building around the festival as we gained breweries and craft beer bars. All good things must come to an end but we left the dinner sated, old friendships renewed, new friendships kindled, and excited for the many other events happening in our town this week. We are hoping that this dinner, a great start for the week, will become a tradition for future Athens beer weeks.

I will be covering many events this week. Like me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter to find  where the action is. So if you are in town, or close by, come celebrate beer week with us. We would be glad to have you. If you have never been to Classic City Brew Fest, it is a must do! According to Owen, tickets are still on sale. If you can't join us, raise a glass of your favorite brew and let's toast to beer weeks everywhere.  Remember eat well and drink good beer.

Monday, March 21, 2016

I Feel the Need, the Need for MEAD

The Beer Wench collected some impressive bottles of mead and gathered fellow beer lovers Owen Ogletree, Sachin Patel, Ian Meents, Ashton Smith, Dean Graves, Mark Hall and Lizz Berstein to sample and comment on ten different brands. Meads are a type of wine made from fermented honey, and they offer a surprising range of aroma and flavor components...
1. Fox Hill Meadery Special Reserve
Marshall, NC
Off-dry with buckwheat honey, 16% ABV
- Offering a deep amber, bourbon-like color, this mead provides hints of cereal, spicy rye, honeycomb, alcohol, golden raisins and toast with butter and honey. With a rich, honey flavor with hints of cinnamon, sherry and apricot jam, this selection comes across as warming but not extremely complex.

2. Monks Mead
Avondale Estates, GA
Carbonated mead with wildflower honey, 12.9% ABV
This local mead contains a hint of CO2 sparkle and is a bit reminiscent of a light sparkling wine in the aroma. Notes of cane syrup, muscat grapes, demi-sec champagne and slight spices give way to a somewhat bitter, but pleasant, finish. Color is golden, and the mead is quite clear.

3. St. Ambrose Meadery Rosé Ambrosia
Beulah, MI
Medium-dry with 33% grapes, 67% honey, 12% ABV
This mead pours a deep ruby red color with aromas of Pinot grapes, butter and grape jam on toast. Sweet red wine notes on the palate lead into an overall character of mixed berries, jam, red currants and pomegranate.
4. Redstone Meadery Pumpkin Nectar
Boulder, CO
Melomel with pumpkin, 8% ABV
The nose picks up French vanilla, clove, plastic, higher alcohols and light solvents. Flavor notes of nori seaweed and phenolic honey produce a unique profile in this clear, light straw colored mead.

5. Preissl Neuburger Met Extra Spezial
Imkermeister Preissl - Neuburger, Austria
Mead with cherries, 13.5% ABV
Chosen as SECOND PLACE (tie) by our panel.
This mead offers deep, dark amber/copper hues that are almost brown. Aroma and flavor tones of oak, wood, brown sugar, sorghum, vanilla, sweet port, dark cherries, nuts and papaya make for an extremely complex, satisfying dessert mead.

6. Nectar Creek Honeycone 
Corvallis, OR
Hop session Mead, 6.9% ABV
There's a definite hoppy note and resiny hop profile to this slightly earthy, medium-sweet mead with flavors of floral hops, kiwi, light tropical fruit and mild hop bitterness. Quite quaff-able and refreshing. It sports a pale straw color with a hint of fizz.

7. B. Nektar Dwarf Invasion
Ferndale, MI
Cherries and hops, 6% ABV
Chosen as SECOND PLACE (tie) by our panel.
Slight sour cherries and hops highlight the rustic fruit wine character of this mead, along with notes of strawberries and a clean, lactic acidity. Hops come through more in the aroma than the flavor in this dark red honey wine.

8. Alaska Meadery Batch #73
Anchorage, AK
Clover honey mead, off-dry, aged in bourbon barrels for nine months, 15% ABV
Chosen as THIRD PLACE by our panel.
This mead is packed with flavors of honey, vanilla, oak, alcohol, butter, clove, nutmeg, biscuit crust, rum and clover flowers. The appearance is clear, golden and attractive, and the overall impressive seems like a vanilla butter cookie dipped in honey.

9. B. Nektar Necromangocon
Ferndale, MI
Mango, black pepper, 6% ABV
Chosen as FIRST PLACE by our panel.
Mango, black pepper, cantaloupe, peppercorns and honeysuckle nuances highlight the lingering, pleasant pepper zing of this light golden mead with just a hint of carbonation. Also look for notes of blood orange zest and pine turpentine. 

10. B. Nektar Black Fang
Ferndale, MI
Blackberry, clove, orange zest, 6% ABV 
Notes of clove, ozone, sulfur and fruit mingle in the earthy aroma. Flavors of sangria, blackberries, gunpowder and rose hips are balanced by hints of black cherries, smoke and light citrus. This warming mead offers ruby/garnet hues and is brilliantly clear.