As American as apple … cider

Last week in the Café we had a “Second” and a “First,” with the same beverage at the same time.  Due to its popularity on its debut night in the Café, we featured Bantam Wunderkind Cider for the second time.  For the first time, co-founders Dana Masterpolo (Co-founder and Head Storyteller) and Michelle da Silva (Co-founder and Head Taster) joined our session to share their story of how they created their very American small business and their very Massachusetts “Modern American Cider.”

With day jobs in insurance and architecture, the co-founders spent about 18 months experimenting with batches of home crafted ciders and enlisting their friends and families as tasters.  Insisting on blind tastings, they compared different recipes of their own as well as other ciders on the market.

Their end product is a dry, crisp cider, with a focus on local ingredients and local production.  They chose to use a blend of four varieties of apples, each adding a different element to the cider: McIntosh (aroma), Cortland (body), Empire (spice), and Green (tartness).  The apples are grown at five farms across Western Massachusetts, and then pressed at Carver Hill Orchard in Stow, Massachusetts.  The fermentation and blending process takes place at Westport Rivers Winery in Westport, Massachusetts.  Westport Rivers Winery is specially suited to produce cider – which some drinkers consider the middle ground between beer and wine – because these wine makers also operate Buzzards Bay Brewing, a brewery focused on local agriculture and farm fresh ales.

In addition to apples, Bantam incorporates into the mix a sparkling wine yeast and organic flower blossom honey to create a dry, balanced taste and mouthfeel.  These characteristics make the cider pair especially well with cheeses and spicy foods, including Indian and Thai dishes.  The co-founders also encourage cooking with the cider, particularly in marinades and with pork.

The Bantam Wunderkind Cider will be on tap at the beginning of the Café session this Thursday.  Please stop by and give it a try. You can rest assured that it will be tasty, locally sourced in Massachusetts, and quintessentially American.

What makes Belgian beers so Belgiany?

Whenever we serve a Belgian-style beer at Venture Cafe, I very helpfully use the term “Belgiany” to respond to inquires regarding the taste of the offering.  While my descriptor is often met with skeptical (or annoyed) expressions, invariably guests will smile after that first sip, cock their heads to the side with a purse of the lips, and agree, “Yeah, that is Belgiany.”

This oft-repeated exchange raises the question: what makes a Belgian beer Belgiany?  It’s a tough question, because there are so many types of Belgian beer, and no one style in which Belgian beer is brewed. Compared to their peers, Belgian beers tend to have higher alcohol content, and are more often bottle-conditioned, or re-fermented in the bottle, which results in an almost champagne-like effervescence when the beer is poured.  However, these characteristics are not what create that signature “Belgiany” taste.

The credit for the unique taste of Belgian beers goes to the wild card of beer ingredients: the yeast.  Yeast are the micro-organisms that transform sugar (the malt) into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  They also create phenols and esters, chemical compounds that produce the flavors and aromas that contribute to the character of a beer.  While yeasts for some beer styles, like lagers, are cultivated to reduce these phenol and ester by-products, ale yeasts are often selected for their characteristic output.  Esters commonly have a fruity aroma (like berry, banana, or orange), while phenols produce more spicy elements (like pepper, cloves, or herbs).  Brewers choose specific strains of yeast for their aroma and flavor offerings, and even highlight them by raising fermentation temperatures.  One popular strain of yeast for Belgian brewers is called Brettanomyces bruxellensis, which may lend hints of fruitiness, spiciness, or earthiness to a beer depending on conditions.

To understand this particular quality in beer, try some Allagash White this week at the Cafe.  It’s a wheat beer, spiced with orange and coriander, with a refreshing finish … but if you ask, I will just tell you that it’s “Belgiany.”

Hey Stout. Got Milk?

On tap at Venture Café is the delicious Blue Hills 3 Peak Holiday Stout.  Brewed in the milk stout style, it boasts strong flavors of vanilla, oak, and sweet lactose.  A few months ago, we served Opa Opa Milk Stout, which tasted of roasted malts, coffee, and chocolate.  Whenever the Café pours a milk stout,  the most common question at the bar is: “Hey – got any milk in that stout?”

It turns out that the “milk stout” style is a modern day misnomer.  Drinkers in the UK in the 1800s did indeed pour whole milk into their porters and stouts, and brewers at the time added milk to their fermentation processes.  However, the modern recipe does not call for milk, but instead requires lactose sugar, which is the sugar that is found in milk and gives it that creamy texture and taste.

Lactose sugar differs from other sugars in how it is affected by yeast.  In normal “non-milk” brewing, the yeast ferments most of the sugar in the brew into alcohol.  The leftover sugar that the yeast does not process imparts a sweet flavor to the beer, so brewmasters control this fermentation process to manage the sweetness of the final product.  Unlike other sugars, however, lactose sugar cannot be fermented by the yeast, so it all remains in the beer to create a fuller-bodied product with more rounded mouthfeel and added sweetness.  It also can balance the hoppiness and bitterness of some drier stouts.

These qualities make the milk stout an excellent introduction to darker beer styles – a gateway stout, if you will.  So, the next time you get the chance, try a milk stout.  I hear it does a body good.