Session #119: The Discomfort Of Burning Mouth Beer

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For our 119th Session, our host is Alec Latham, who writes Mostly About Beer …. For his topic, he’s chosen Discomfort Beer, by which he means a beer which initially tasted funny, or odd, or off, or something, but which later became a favorite. Or maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure if I’m explaining that very well, so I’ll just let Alec take over and describe what he means:

What was your first ever taste of beer like? For me, it was like chilled copper coins mixed with tonic water and was disgusting. This is a process us committed beer drinkers can revisit every time we try something new.

A few years ago, I visited a pub in Pimlico called the Cask and Kitchen. There was a beer called Wild Raven by Thornbridge Brewery. Making assumptions based on the title, I ordered a pint as I love stout. I remember opening the sluices and then seizing up. Something wasn’t right. It had the chocolatey flavour of a stout but there was an intruder – lemon rind hissed in my nostrils and tainted my palate. Citrus grappled with the roast malt. Was it supposed to taste like this? Was it infection? Detergent? I spent some time staring at the floor in a suspended double-take.

That was my first ever Black IPA and at the time I wasn’t sure. Initially, I didn’t like it but whilst deciding whether or not to return it to the bar I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt. The dislike diminished. The acceptance grew. The pint gradually drained.

Black IPA is now one of my favourite styles but it could have gone the other way.

And does a Black IPA still get me blinking at the floor in a state of disquiet? No. Neither does the astringent character of Brett nor the dry bite of Lambic. All styles have been comprehensively “locked in”. Ultimately, familiarity devours discomfort.

For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

I think this could be a good archive for people researching fads, the origins of styles and the dearths of others – but especially how new ones were initially perceived.

Over the past year I’ve had a black barley wine, a braggot, a rye wine, a seaweed and cloudberry Gose, a beer made with Saki yeast and several made with Champagne yeast. I’ve sipped stout with Tonka beans, drank mulled lager and many tea beers – some with the tea complementing the hops – others completely replacing them. This has also been a year where 9 ABV hop-forward beers have become standard (from the UK perspective).

Some of the above I loved, others I liked and some I hated. What remains to be seen is which will catch on and which are just brief social media cameos.

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The beer that brings me the most discomfort I first tried in the mid-1990s. It was Ed’s Cave Creek Chili. Every bottle has a whole chili pepper inside of it. Why? Besides being novel, and eye-catching, some people — many people — like hot and spicy food. I am not one of those people, which immediately puts me at a disadvantage. It came across my desk as the chain beer buyer for Beverages & more. And so I tried it, and instantly regretted it. And still do to this day. Besides the pain of the barrage of hot and spicy flavors, these beers completely ruin me for any other beer I might want to drink, or really anything I might to eat too. Basically, it makes me unable to taste anything else for a period of time, and not just a few seconds; more like minutes, sometimes well over an hour.

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Of course, we brought it in. Just because I don’t like something shouldn’t mean others wouldn’t want to try it. And there was some obvious appeal for people who like that sort of thing, and it sold reasonably well, probably to just the sort of person who loves four-alarm (or is it five-alarm now?) chili or ghost peppers. People who must go to the extremes, who never met a challenge they wouldn’t try.

The beer is still around, though it’s now called Cave Creek Chili Beer, and is brewed in Mexico. As far as I know, it was the first modern chili beer. It was certainly the first one I ever tried. And they appear to even be growing in popularity. Chili Beer was in a subgroup for GABF and World Beer Cup judging, but recently were broken out into their own category. That only happens if they’re getting a growing number of entries each year. I always bow out of judging that category.

To be fair, I don’t like hot or spices in anything, food or liquid. I am unabashedly a spice wuss. I grew up in rural Amish country Pennsylvania, and like to joke that my family only used two spices: salt and lard. But that’s not far off, as most of the dishes I remember eating were fairly bland; corn pie, meatloaf, casseroles, stews, potato soup, stuff with very few spices. Maybe it was just my Mom, but most of her recipes came from other family members, so I don’t think so. Anyway, to this day I don’t even eat mustard or mayonnaise, no pepper, never touch any Indian food, and will eat only the plainest Mexican fare. After over twenty years, my wife will still hand me something, saying it’s not too hot, and I’ll gag from the spiciness. Of course, this usually makes her laugh, so maybe she’s been doing it on purpose all this time.

But that aside, I don’t think that beer should compete with my food, or even my tongue, for attention. It can wash down and compliment or even contrast my food, but if it renders me unable to taste the next bite, then to my way of thinking it’s not doing its job. It should also be pleasant and ultimately enjoyable. And burning the inside of my mouth has never accomplished that, even though I realize that is actually a goal for some people.

But using any more than the barest amount of chili peppers usually results in it overpowering whatever the base style of beer is, effectively removing its beeriness. I have the same issue with many barrel-aged beers, when they take on so much of the barrel character, or whatever had been in the barrel previously, that its essence is gone, having lost its beeriness in the process. If I want bourbon, I’ll just drink bourbon. In any flavored beer, the adjunct or wood should add to the beer, but not mask, remove or overpower its essential beeriness, otherwise it becomes something else entirely. And for almost every chili pepper beer that’s what happens. I have had one or two examples where it was subtle enough that it did just add to the flavors and not overwhelm your senses, but that’s rare enough that it’s an exception rather than a degree of that type of beer. The majority, I feel, want to hurt me, and wear that goal like a badge of honor, daring me to try it. I don’t think of drinking beer as an endurance test, something to make it through, or a challenge to meet.

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So unlike Alec’s experience with Black IPAs, or many people, including myself, warming to a new type of beer, chili beer seems like a love it or hate it kind of beer, with little ground in the middle. And you won’t be surprised to learn I hate them. How could there be any middle ground? Maybe your tolerance for spiciness increases over time, but that has not been my personal experience. My wife has been trying for over twenty years, as did many girlfriends before that. And while I do, believe it or not, eat many more foods today than I did when I was a child and in the intervening years, many people are still shocked at how picky I am and usually chuckle at what I consider to be too spicy. C’est la vie.

So maybe I could, through a concerted effort, patent sampling, building up a tolerance over time, learn to better appreciate chili beers. Then what? They’d still be too much for everyday consumption. I can’t imagine a scenario or situation where that’s a beer I’d ever reach for willingly. What occasion would be appropriate to drink something that will burn my mouth and cause me to be unable to taste anything else? Maybe it’s pure hedonism on my part, but I don’t want to have to work at enjoying a beer. A good beer should, at the very least, just be enjoyable on its own, part and parcel of its beeriness. That is, and rightly should be what beeriness means: something delicious that you want to drink, and is enjoyable during and afterwards, or something that does not cause any discomfort.

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Beer Birthday: Nancy Johnson

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Today is Nancy Johnson’s birthday. Nancy is the Events Director for the Brewers Association, which includes being the director of the Great American Beer Festival, among others. She’s been doing that thankless job for a lot of years now and always manages to keep a smile on her face. Join me in wishing Nancy a very happy birthday.

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George Wendt, Nancy, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper at the 2009 GABF Awards Ceremony.

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Nancy with Chris Black, the owner of Falling Rock, at GABF in 2006.

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With Tom McCormick, from the CSBA, at the Roadhouse in Boston, Mass.

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Tom Nickel (owner of O’Brien’s in San Diego), Nancy and the late Danny Williams, at Slow Food Nation 2008 in San Francisco.

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With Matt Brynildson and Sean Paxton after the World Cup Beer Dinner in Chicago in 2010.

Beer In Ads #2151: Jascha Heifetz For Pabst


Monday’s ad is for Pabst Blue Ribbon, from 1949. In the later 1940s, Pabst embarked on a series of ads with celebrity endorsements, photographing star actors, athletes, musicians and other famous people in their homes, enjoying Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. This one features Mr. and Mrs. Jascha Heifetz. He “was a Lithuanian born violinist, who is considered by many to be the greatest violinist of all time. Born in Wilno, Russian Empire (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania), he moved as a teenager to the United States, where his Carnegie Hall debut was rapturously received. He was a virtuoso since childhood. Fritz Kreisler, another leading violinist of the twentieth century, said on hearing Heifetz’s debut, “We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees.” He had a long and successful performing and recording career; after an injury to his right (bowing) arm, he focused on teaching.”

In the ad, he’s with his second wife, Frances Spielberger Spiegelberg, in their private studio. Along the only wall we can see bookshelves and a large bouquet of flowers. There’s also a stern-looking bust — is that Beethoven? — on one of the shelves. He’s holding a sheet of music and there’s a tray of Pabst bottles and glasses between them.

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And while the ad below is clipped and not complete, it does show the picture a little more clearly with less aging discoloration.

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Beer Birthday: Mark Dorber

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Today is the 59th birthday of Mark Dorber, publican extraordinaire. When I first met Mark he was the publican at the White Horse in Parsons Green and we’ve judged together at both GABF and the World Beer Cup. More recently, he’s opened a new place a bit further northeast of London in Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast. His new pub is The Anchor. Mark is a terrific champion of cask beer and especially American beer in the UK. Join me in wishing Mark a very happy birthday.

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Pulling a pint at the White Hose Strong Ale Festival in 2007.

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On the floor at GABF in 2007, with Bob Pease, Ray Daniels, and John Mallet, from Bell’s Brewery.

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Toshi Ishi, then from Yo-Ho Brewing in Japan, and Mark Dorber at GABF in 2008.

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Just before taking the stage during GABF 2007, from left, Glenn Payne, Charlie Papazian, Mark, Garrett Oliver, Steve Hindy, Dave Alexander, and Tom Dalldorf.

Beer In Ads #2150: Rosalind Russell For Pabst


Sunday’s ad is for Pabst Blue Ribbon, from 1949. In the later 1940s, Pabst embarked on a series of ads with celebrity endorsements, photographing star actors, athletes, musicians and other famous people in their homes, enjoying Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. This one features Miss Rosalind Russell and her husband Mr. Frederick Brisson. She “was an American actress of stage and screen, known for her role as fast-talking newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), as well as for her portrayals of Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame (1958) and Rose in Gypsy (1962). A noted comedian, she won all five Golden Globes for which she was nominated and was tied with Meryl Streep for most wins until Streep won her sixth award in 2007. Russell won a Tony Award in 1953 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Ruth in the Broadway show Wonderful Town (a musical based on the film My Sister Eileen, in which she also starred). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress four times throughout her career.”

In the ad, she’s with her husband, Frederick Brisson, who was a Danish-American producer and the son of actor Carl Brisson. Cary Grant introduced the pair, and was best man at their wedding. They’re not in their home, which is common for this series of ads, but instead are at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, California. He’s chivalrously poured his wife her beer, and is in the process of opening his beer. But look closely behind the Hollywood couple. There’s a woman rowing a boat in the swimming pool behind them. That seems just a little bit odd, doesn’t it?

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Beer Birthday: Rich Norgrove

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Today is the 48th birthday of Rich Norgrove, the owner and brewer at Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, California. Rich won big several years ago at GABF, winning the award for Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year, amounting to validation that he’s been making some great beer for many years. Red Rocket and Racer 5 were some of my first favorite hoppy beers back in the 1990s, when few brewers were making the big, hoppy beers that are nearly ubiquitous nowadays. Did I mention that Rich is also one of the coolest, nicest people in the beer business? Join me in wishing Rich a very happy birthday.

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At an unknown beer festival with his daughter several years ago.

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Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River and Rich at Drake’s Summit Hop Festival several summers ago.

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Jeremy Cowan (He’Brew) and Rich at Falling Rock in Denver.

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Rich and the Team from Healdsburg, California won four awards and the big award for Small Brewery Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year in 2006.

Rich Norgrove, from Bear Republic, and Vic Krajl, co-owner of the Bistro
Rich and Vic Krajl at the Bistro IPA Festival in 2010.

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At a Giants game a few years back, Porter and I joined Rich and his son for a game, where we ran into Steve and Gail, from Beer By Bart, before the game began.

Beer In Ads #2149: Sid Luckman For Pabst


Saturday’s ad is for Pabst Blue Ribbon, from 1949. In the later 1940s, Pabst embarked on a series of ads with celebrity endorsements, photographing star actors, athletes, musicians and other famous people in their homes, enjoying Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. This one features Sid Luckman. He “was an American football quarterback for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL) from 1939 through 1950. During his twelve seasons with the Bears he led them to four NFL championships. Luckman was the first modern T-formation quarterback and is considered the greatest long range passer of his time.”

In the ad, done when was still an active player, though he would retire the following year, Sid sits in his home, surrounded by a few of his trophies. He holds a glass of beer, but there are two bottles of Pabst in the tray next to him. Either he was a prodigious drinker, or perhaps there’s someone else there in the room with him.

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Historic Beer Birthday: Matthew Nunan

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Today is actually the day that Matthew Nunan passed away, January 7, 1916, and was born in 1834, or possibly 1836, or maybe even 1828, but the exact date or even month is unknown. There are even some sources that give his date of death as January 13. He was born in Limerick, Ireland, and emigrated to the U.S. when he was fourteen, settling in California in 1855. Lured there by dreams of striking it rich in the goldmines, he soon tried of mining, and first opened a grocery store in San Francisco, but eventually bought the Mission Street Brewery. When they moved the brewery and built a larger one, they renamed it the Hibernia Brewery. Matthew Nunan also served two terms as Sheriff of San Francisco, 1876-1877 and 1878-1879.

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Gary Flynn has a more thorough Biography of Matthew J. Numan at her terrific Brewery Gems website. He also has a lengthy history of the Mission Street Brewery (1860-1867) and [its] successor The Hibernia Brewery (1867-1920).

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Historic Beer Birthday: John G. Schemm

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Today is the birthday of John G. Schemm (January 7, 1834-March 1899). He was born in Germany, but when he was 22, in 1852, he and his father moved to the U.S., settling on a farm near Detroit. Unfortunately, after a short time, John’s Dad passed away, and he moved to Saginaw, Michigan in 1864. With business partner Christian Grueler, he started a brewery, the Schemm & Gruhler Brewery, in 1866. Three years later, Gruhler passed away and he brought on another partner, renaming the brewery the Schemm & Schoenheit Brewery in 1874. But by 1881, he bought him out, and it became the John G. Schemm Brewery. When he passed away, his son George C. Schemm took over, and incorporated it in 1899 as the J. G. Schemm Brewing Co. Inc. It closed in 1919 due to prohibition, and was sold to another business who tried reopening it as the Schemm Brewing Co. Inc., but it closed for good in 1938. While I found some information on the brewery, there was very little about Schemm himself, not even a picture of him.

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This account of the brewery is from the “Industries of the Saginaws: Historical, Descriptive and Statistical,” by John W. Leonard, published in 1887.

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This short account is from “100 Years of Brewing,” published in 1903.

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Beer Birthday: Harry Schuhmacher

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Today is Harry Schuhmacher’s 48th birthday. Harry covers the business side of beer news at his wonderful Beer Business Daily. Our paths cross only occasionally, but I had the pleasure of getting to know Harry better during a press junket to Bavaria several years ago, and he’s one of the warmest, thoughtful and funniest people I’ve met. And he’s a beertard, too. You can also read his occasional personal ramblings at Thanks For Drinking Beer, essays from which is also available as a book, too. Join me in wishing Harry a very happy birthday.

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With fellow beer writer Horst Dornbusch in Bamberg.

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Harry and me enjoying a meal in the Hallertau region of Bavaria.

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Harry with a server at his favorite sushi restaurant, presumably in his native San Antonio, Texas, who apparently bought and enjoyed his collection of essays.