Spring is a time of renewal. I know that sounds painfully obvious. But to stay grounded in this hyperspeed workaday world in which I dwell (and tend to dwell on), every once in a while I have to stop and remind myself of such simplicitudes.
Fortunately, I don’t have to look very far for evidence — no farther than the dooryard, in fact, where the lilac and azalea bushes, which were splayed and crushed under the weight of nearly three feet of snow barely two months ago, are now bursting with blossoms in colors so vibrant they defy nature (and hurt the eyes).
And for me, renewal in the landscape begets a renewed interest in the culinary arts. In other words, it’s once again time to sweep off the porch (or patio or deck), fire up the grill, and invite a few friends and neighbors over for an outdoor dinner party.
Spring is a season of uncertainty too, weather-wise at least, here in the middling Mid-Atlantic. Some days start out surprisingly cool and grow gradually warmer, for instance, while others display a more contrariwise behavior. Same goes for the nights, too. In fact, it’s a rare evening right now that doesn’t dip to a setting on the Fahrenheit that’s fully half of what it reached in the daytime. And do I need to remind you of the rain? (Apparently, nobody should trust or fool Mother Nature.)
So, with so much barometric instability, it’s important to remain flexible. That might mean having a fire pit or two loaded and ready for lighting, should the evening air suddenly make everyone think “sweater!”, or being prepared to serve a mix of hot and cold dishes, just in case.
Such versatility is what you should seek in a beer selection, as well. Or, at least, it’s wise to have a variety of options on hand. For example, a cold pilsner is fine to pair with light fare on a hot afternoon, but if the the temp drops as the light fades, your guests may want a drink that is a bit more bracing.
Following are three very different beers, all relatively new to the tasters at Scribbleskiff, that are designed to suit a variety of purposes and pairings. Enjoy!
Stateside Saison, Stillwater Artisanal Ales. The saison style, which means “season” in French, is a traditional Belgian pale ale originally brewed in small batches and served as a summer refresher for the men working the fields in rural Belgium. Now available year-round, from a large number of breweries (Saison Dupont is one of the best-known), this style is popular both for its complex flavor and its flexibility.
Like a typical traditional, Stateside Saison is golden straw in color and greets the glass with an earthy, farm-funky mix of aromas and tastes, from fruit (predominantly oranges and bananas) to lemongrass, honey, and wheat. It’s dry and tangy, like a sharp Chardonnay, but with lots of pleasing bubbles, and it’s plenty zesty and creamy on the palate. Also, like its Belgian siblings, this beer is brewed in small, artisanal batches and bottle-conditioned, which provides for some variation between batches and an extended shelf life.
Such multiplicity leads to its multifariousness, however, creating an adaptable potable with plenty of body to handle just about any dish — citrusy and spicy enough for BBQ, for instance, but also feisty enough for fiery Asian cuisine, and still light enough for light fare, such as seafood or appetizers. I thought Stateside was the ideal companion to a diverse spread of “locavorous” delicacies, including steamed shrimp and grilled lamb, that were served at a recent book-signing party for a beautiful new cookbook, Dishing Up Maryland.
The best part about the beer is that, up until 6 months ago, its creator Brian Strumke was a homebrewer. (Here’s a peek at his Cinderella story. I had the pleasure of tasting one of Strumke’s pre-startup concoctions and wrote about my experience here). Not surprising, he’s become a local hero and inspiration for a lot of Baltimore-based beer enthusiasts who hope, Charlie Brown-like, to get a contract some day, too.
Gubna, Oskar Blues Brewing Co. The crafty brewers at Oskar Blues continue to amaze me by finding new and surprising ways to expand their line of high-quality beer in a can. (I smile quietly to myself every time I write that last phrase.) In fact, of all their beers I’ve tried (the most notable encounter was discussed here), this new “rotating seasonal” may be the whiz-banger.
Although light amber in color, with very little fizz and a subtly floral aroma, Gubna is a powder keg of flavor. It’s overtly hoppy, even for an Imperial India pale ale (IPA), a Yankee-bred hybrid style of beer that’s designed to go to 11. As a result, this brew blasts the tastebuds with juicy-sour citrus notes that luckily don’t overwhelm the beer’s mildly spicy malt-sweetness. Oddly, the brewery used only one kind of hops (Summit) — a typical IPA consists of 2-3 varieties — but used it generously, including a secondary dry-hopping stage, post-fermentation. This deliberate hop-stuffing contributes to the beer’s brisk, resiny bitterness, which I enjoy, and its high alcohol content (10%), which relegates it to sipper status.
Not surprising, it’s delicious with full-bodied foods. For instance, I enjoyed a can of Gubna with chicken shwarma, a smoky, savory Mediterranean takeout dish. It was well-equipped to embrace the garlicky brine, and it went “harumpf” in the face of the peppery tahini sauce. As such, I imagine it would also be hard to beat with grilled bratwurst smothered in onions, green peppers, and Dijon mustard. Best of all, because aluminum cans don’t break and use less energy to recycle than glass, any member of Oskar’s gang is a natural for outdoor party-going.
Anchor Bock, Anchor Brewing Company. As is typical with bock beer, Anchor’s entrant in this category is dark and alluring. But that’s where the similarities end, for the most part — and that’s a good thing.
Bock beer is a traditional Bavarian lager originally brewed and consumed by Roman Catholic monks in Germany. Rich in nutrients and sugar content, bock was intended to provide sustenance for the monastery’s members during the Lenten period of fasting. Nowadays, bock is available year-round — Shiner Bock is a popular native varietal — though I think it’s still best enjoyed around Easter.
A relatively new seasonal offering from the makers of Anchor Steam (one of my faves), Anchor Bock features the style’s expected coppery color and roasted malt flavors, like toffee and caramel. But it offers a distinct and somewhat untypical bitter-coffee aftertaste more typical of a stout. And that’s a refreshing touch that cuts the often cloying sugariness. And, with a modest hops-fruity aroma and flavor, and a relatively moderate alcohol content (about 5%), Anchor Bock is very drinkable with a variety of flush foodstuffs. For instance, I’ve poured it before meals, as a cheery mate to a plate of creamy cheeses, and afterward, as a cozy chum for some homemade chocolate chip cookies. Now that’s a beer for all seasons!
So there you have it, three new excuses to pour a glass of cheer with friends and family this spring — despite how Mother Nature, invited or otherwise, decides to behave.
As always, tell us what you think. Have you tried any of these beers yet? If so, which was your favorite — and what food made the best pairing? Or are there other new releases that you think everyone should be trying? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.