Friday Froth: Hopstacle Course

James Gribbon

"Brain Blaster," huh? I crinkle the plastic bag in my fingers and stick my nose in once more to inhale the pungent aroma of the dried green buds it contains. "Its only sounds like 'Brain Blaster'," says Brendan Kingston. "There's no way anything with a name like that gets past the FDA." I drop the bag and pick up a small glass of brown beer. The beer's real name is An Braon, meaning "The Tasty Drop," which is appropriate. We're not here to discuss the forest here, though: we're looking at the trees. Well, vines, to be precise. I'm sitting at the first in a series of educational tasting classes conducted by B. United International, and hosted by Coalhouse Pizza in Stamford.

Every day, CTBites chronicles the myriad ways in which we're lucky to be living in Fairfield County during the current food (and beer) renaissance in America, and I'd like to suggest B. United of Oxford as another reason why. Started in 1994 by Matthias Neidhart, BU brings exemplary beer, mead, sake and cider to the U.S. from small scale producers in Europe, Asia and Africa. They also run the Zymatore Project, wherein BU takes small quantities of imported alcoholic beverages and uses barrel aging to create tiny batches of ultra-rare creations with unexpected tastes and aromas. Regular readers of Amuse Bouche may remember a mead they imported and then aged in Mourvèdre barrels, and they've just received another shipment of barrels from Spain. There is some cool stuff happening in the Constitution State, ladies and gents, which brings us to this week at Coalhouse.

Mr. Kingston, one of BU's sales reps, hosted the class in Coalhouse's brand new expansion, which roughly doubles the wood-fired pizza restaurant's capacity. He said the hop tasting class was meant to be a bit of a voyage, a mind-expansion on what hops could be, and what they add to beer. The class was peppered with asides on hops' role in beer throughout time, having first been cultivated circa 700A.D., and first used as a beer additive some 400 years later. "It was actually against the law to use hops in beer in England until about the 16th century," he noted. "It was something the Germans did, and thus: bad."

The English, to their credit, put aside such nonsense and later cultivated hops varieties like Kent Goldings and Fuggles, (which has always been my favorite hop name to say out loud), and this is where we began, with the aforementioned Tasty Drop. An Braon Blasta is a brown ale with the thick head cherished in Irish beers by drinkers and allegedly lamented in Irish people by Sigmund Freud. The aroma is mostly malt, but the herbaceous Fuggles lend it a satisfying funk. The ale itself is malty and balanced, with a slightly high ABV at 7%, and a sharp underlying bitterness from those Goldings followed by a slight caramel aftertaste. My table was populated by several home brewers, and we all agreed this was probably the most sessionable beer we sampled all night. 

Next up was Saphir, a Heller Bock from Hofstetten in Austria. Heller refers to the golden color of this beer, while an alcohol percentage between 6.5 and 7.5 makes this a bock, according to persnickety German rules. We were given several sheets of information about the beers and hops varieties, and Saphir hops were created at the Hop Research Center in Hull, Germany, according to them, by hybridizing German Hellertauer and American Cascade hops. The result was a more robust strain, which, when brought to the table on the wooden paddles of Coalhouse's flights, proven mind expanding, indeed. "What the hell? It smells like Smarties," said a tablemate. My brain was busy telling me I was in the presence of grape soda, despite the cloudy gold fluid before me. Hofstetten brewmaster Jens Luckart rests this lager on a bed of Saphir hops for an extravagant eight weeks (Ever heard of dry hopping? That's what it means.) before bottling, which leads to the overwhelming aroma.  The beer retains some of the grape flavor, but with distinct lemon/lime notes, and a very crisp finish due to the lager yeast. Both these first beers took me by surprise, but for different reasons. 

I was much more familiar with the third offering, Kipling South Pacific Pale Ale, by Thornbridge Hall Country House Brewing in England. Kipling is made with Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, a strain I've had occasion to mention before. You can read my initial impression of these hops at that link, but Kipling is an entirely different brew. There is that wonderfully enticing "green" aroma of the Nelsons, but Thornbridge starts with significantly fewer degrees Plato than Widmer's Nelson, reducing maltiness and allowing the white wine nose of the hops to reveal itself. This last characteristic is responsible for the "sauvin" in Nelson Sauvins, since they have been compared to a sauvignon blanc. This beer was my go-to for the first pint I had at the Ginger Man in SoNo earlier this summer. It's lighter in body and color than the similar Widmer beer, but very much full of the highly desirable Nelson hop flavors. 

Buzzing from table to table all night, delivering flights, hop samples and printed info was a young woman who turned out to be B. United's local distributor from Barrel Express, Jie Yu. "When most people ask for a 'hoppy beer', they mean 'give me the most bitter beer you can'," she told me. "What we'd like people to learn is how different hops can be in flavor apart from just the bitterness. Eventually when they say that we'd like to ask them 'What kind of hops do you like?' and have them be able to answer because they'll know."

Le Rulles  Estivale is a Belgian blonde ale by Brasserie Artisanale De Rulles which uses exclusively American hops from Washington state. Warrior and Amarillo hops were imported to create this beer for the brewery's fifth anniversary in 2005. The scents are subtle in the glass, with some citrus tickling the nose amongst the slight floral character of the Belgian yeasts. It's a very mild meeting of ingredients when compared to Belgian IPAs like Brewdog Punk or Houblon Chouffe, and there's a slight lime oil essence to the taste, again from the Amarillos. Estivale is likewise low on the sweetness scale, and positively bone dry for the usually sugar shocked Belgians.

Kiuchi Shuzou has been making sake in Japan since the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1823. Their history of brewing beer is significantly less lengthy at only about 15 years, but the Japanese obsession with perfection shines through in Hitachino Nest Ancient Nipponia. Having both the will and, more importantly, the means to do so, the brewers at Kiuchi resurrected the Kanego Golden variety of barley (a cross-breed of English barleys and local soba) from near extinction to malt this beer, and featured another local hybrid, the Sorachi Ace to create an effectively all-Japanese beer. This single malt, single hop brew has the familiar Sorachi Ace aroma, but its flavor blossoms with deep coconut esters. There is an exceptionally smooth character and mouth feel to Ancient Nipponia, and the coconut taste subsumes after a bit, and is replaced by the Sorachi's mellow, slightly citrusy hop flavor, and an enticing bitterness. The hand crafted nature here couldn't be more apparent. Get a bottle of Ancient Nipponia and you'll be in the presence of drinkable artistry. 

B. United's Educational Tasting Classes continue at the newly renovated Coalhouse on November 12, when Benjamin Neidhart will present "The Wild and Wacky World of Belgium Picobrouwerij," and information about how to sign up can be found at Coalhouse should have a bit more of a "pub" feeling by then, as the expansion will include room with bar games like darts and shuffleboard. B. United products can be found at Coalhouse, the Ginger Man in SoNo, and Harry's Wine and Liquors in Fairfield.