Thursday, February 05, 2009

Beer at the Grocery Store - Its About Time

I have lived in New York, New Jersey, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida and the United Kingdom. I have shopped on numerous occasions in many other states. With the possible exception of Pennsylvania there are few states with alcohol control laws as incomprehensible as those in the Garden State. One example is the manner in which New Jersey regulates microbreweries and brew pubs. The present laws prohibit having more than one brewery under common ownership. Consequently, the successful Triumph Brewery of Princeton had to locate its second brew-pub across the river in New Hope, Pennsylvania instead of Lambertville, New Brunswick or Red Bank. The laws for licensing for a micro-distillery are well nigh incomprehensible. Last but not least there is the whole morass of laws regarding the obtaining a permit to sell alcoholic beverages. One such component of these laws prohibits a person (or corporation which is a "legal" person for purposes of the law) from holding more than two permits statewide. In effect this allows only two stores in a Grocery chain to sell beer or wine. Grocers have sought to have this law overturned for decades. Their self interest aside such a change would benefit the consumer and the environment.

The present method of liquor distribution in our state involves chosen "distributors" who have "territories" and are the only ones that can legally buy from a Winery/Brewery/Distillery they then peddle their wares to retail outlets. This system limits the availability of some brands in some areas. Some distributors choose to flex their muscles and force retailers to sell certain brands at the expense of others. This can be done by various means such as by threatening to cut a retailers allocation of a brand that sells well if they do not buy a quota of slower selling brands. Other more subtle interference may involve product placement and in store promotions or declining to carry smaller producer's products without incentives. The current system limiting the number of outlets a permit holder can own reinforces the bargaining disparity between retailers and distributors by keeping retailers small. A chain of Grocery outlets could use its purchasing power to buy in bulk and pass the savings along - as happens outside the Garden State.

The distributors are not happy with this proposal, small surprise, they like the status quo, and they have enlisted the help of the retailers by warning of doom and gloom. The mom and pop liquor stores, the story goes, will be phased out if you allow the sale of beer and wine at grocery outlets. The analogy they point to is the alleged elimination of the mom and pop hardware stores where a Home Depot or Lowes has made an appearance. Now it does not take a rocket scientist to know that the level of service that a small local store can provide far exceeds what the Big Box stores have on offer. Successful local business owners have adapted emhasized personal service and are generally none the worse for appearance of their super-sized competition. Small liquor stores will continue to operate as they always have by providing exemplary personal service (including familiarity with their products and customers), readily accessible stock, short lines and wider varieties of brewed, fermented and distilled products. They can continue to special order products for their customers, deliver kegs and ice and differentiate themselves from a chain grocers at many turns. One thing the mom and pops may see is better service from their distributors who will continue to have a vested interest in having their retailers succeed.

As a consumer we will see lower prices, more convenience (less separate errands) and perhaps some more respectful treatment of beer. Beer being sold as a food accompaniment and not as an adornment for young lithe models. Imagine if you will someone selling beer without a cut-out of a bikini clad model. Beer and food pairings coming to the fore and included in store recommended recipes. Beer is, after all, just another food product why not treat it like one?

If you are wondering how this will work, just visit the Shop Rite in Middletown or our local whole Foods. Some Grocer's, like Trader Joe's, have their own craft beers bottled on their label. Imagine being able to swing by Costco and buy your ribs, veggies and salads as well as beer and wine in one stop. Less driving, less pollution less precious leisure time spent shopping.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cooking With Beer - Beef Short Ribs

Beer is food. It is Water, Grain, Yeast and some type of flavoring, usually hop flowers (which also happen to be a natural preservative). Through the miracle of fermentation wherein the yeast feeds on the sugars in the grain and converts them to alcohol this mixture becomes beer. With aging beer develops body, flavor and effervessence. Like wine and other alcoholic beverages beer can fit the bill as an ingredient in many dishes. For example, one might consider using beer as the acid component in a marinade. Beer also stars in batters and breads and sauces - more on this in another column.

Let's start with the most basic use of beer in cooking - marinades - marinades impart flavor to food, increase some foods ability to retain moisture during cooking and also tenderize certain foods. Often the use of a marinade is a means of taking a relatively modest cut of meat and making it more attractive as a main course - think Corned Beef.

As with all ingredients care must be taken to use the correct type of beer for the marinade. A delicate or mildly flavored dish such as most seafood would be overpowered by a coffee stout, on the other hand coffee stout might just be perfect with beef short ribs or chili rubbed flank steak. Conversely using a delicate pilsner in a highly spiced recipe may be next to pointless as the beer will be - quite literally - lost in the sauce. Here is a recipe for short ribs based on one used for Bison ribs in Bon Appetit Magazine. I have substituted coffe stout for some of the coffee and water in the original recipe. I have also reduced some of the other sugars as well to offset the malty sweetness found in many stouts.

Coffee Stout-Marinated Short Ribs

Adapted From Bon Appétit (February 2008)


Servings: Makes 6 servings


4 cups water
1 -12 ounce bottle Coffee Stout or Coffee Porter (Try Founder's Breakfast Stout or Goose Island's Coffee Stout)
1/2 cup coarse kosher salt*
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (packed) dark brown sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

4 pounds Beef short ribs, cut between ribs to separate into individual servings and to increase the surface area for the marinade to penetrate and browning.

Short Ribs:

1/4 cup chopped bacon (about 1 1/2 ounces)
2 cups chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped shallots
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small jalapeño chile, seeded, chopped
1 cup coffee stout
1 cup low-salt chicken broth
1/4 cup chili sauce (such as Heinz) or ketchup
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce


For marinade:

Stir 4 cups water, 1 bottle of stout, 1/2 cup kosher salt, and sugar in large bowl until salt and sugar dissolve. Add syrup and next 3 ingredients; stir. Add ribs. Place plate atop ribs to keep submerged. Cover and chill at least 4 to 6 hours. Drain ribs; discard marinade. DO AHEAD: Drained ribs can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.

For short ribs:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Sauté bacon in heavy large wide ovenproof pot over medium heat until beginning to brown. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to plate. Increase heat to medium-high. Sprinkle ribs with salt and pepper. Working in batches, cook ribs until browned on all sides, about 7 minutes per batch. Transfer to large plate. Add onions, shallots, garlic, and jalapeño to pot. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add coffee stout and broth; stir, scraping up browned bits. Add chili sauce and all remaining ingredients; bring to boil. Add bacon and ribs, cover, and transfer to oven. Braise until meat is tender, about 2 hours 15 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Rewarm in 325°F oven until heated through, about 20 minutes, before continuing.

Transfer ribs to plate; tent with foil to keep warm. Skim fat from surface of sauce. Boil sauce until reduced to 2 cups, about 5 minutes. Pour sauce over ribs.

Pair with more coffee stout - or a dry stout such as Guiness which is lighter bodied but very roasty. Now some of you may be alarmed by the amount of Salt this recipe calls for. Remember this is for the marinade which is discarded. Also the salt serves a purpose here. Salt's role is to pull the other flavors of the marinade into the meat. It does this by someting akin to osmsis. Osmosis is the natural process of of a soluble seeking equilibrium by moving from an area with a higher concentration to one with a lower concentration. Salt will move from the marinadeinto the meat (pulling the beer, water and sugars and other flavors with it, at the same time it increases the salt content in the meat which increases the meats ability to retain moisture. The salt also breaks down the celluar structure of the beef. Much like brining a turkey this will ensure a moister more tender meat. If you intend to marinate for more than 4-6 hours you will probably want to dial back on the amount of salt you use. If you do not have Kosher Salt you can use table salt but use a bit less.

What can be better than braised short ribs and mashed potoes or polenta on a cold January day. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The King of Beers...

…And other superlatives. We all recognize that self anointed appellation for a famous and iconic light American Lager. But that is not the topic for this week’s missive. I am referring to the increasing emergence of extreme beers. I am referring to beers with high alcohol by volume, tongue blistering quantities of hops and additives ranging from Muscat grapes to espresso. I am referring to the proliferation of Über/Imperial/Double/Triple (insert name here) "Style"Ale/Lagers.
In the beginning of the craft brewing movement there were always high gravity beers. Notably that Holy Grail of brewing the Russian Imperial Stout- a historic style that was first brewed in Burton-On-Trent at the request of the Tsar. This mighty brew was crafted to withstand the rigors of a sailing vessel Baltic Passage from Liverpool to Saint Petersburg thence overland to Moscow. High in alcohol and heavily hopped the style was the perfect accompaniment to a rich feast that might feature a whole Volga Sturgeon, Wooly Mammoth meat recovered from the Siberian permafrost and pies made from hundreds of songbirds. A mighty brew indeed to accompany such a rich repast. There are other traditional heavyweights: the so called "Old Ales", Barleywines, Doppelbocks, Eisbocks and Baltic Porters and of course the ever popular, despite being taste challenged, American Malt Liquor. But lately it seems every brewer is getting on the high gravity band wagon and it has morphed into other styles "Double White/Wit", Imperial or Double India Pale and Imperial Pilsner to name three.
The Wit and Pilsner styles were always brewed as a hot weather quencher with mild hop profiles, a balanced light malt presence, floral aromas and moderate alcohol levels. A refreshing and "genteel" brew well suited for a hot afternoon. Not content to leave well enough alone, some brewers have decided to push the envelope. Traditional styles have had there hop profiles dramatically increased and their malt levels doubled or tripled. The resulting concoctions bear little resemblance to their forbears. I often find the only indication of the brews "origin" is on the packaging. Somehow the idea of a 9% alcohol "Imperial Pilsner" is not appealing to me. I am all for taste calling but something an "Imperial Pilsner" simply because you amped up the ABV is somewhat disrespectful of the style. Southampton Brewing brews a Double White while flavorful in some regards it seems to be an attempt to brew stronger ale because you can.
Do I have an answer for this proliferation of "Über" styles and super brews? No, indeed I am all for the judicious application of individualism to a style to create a new standard of excellence- but do we always has to have more alcohol in there? What is wrong with quaffable session beers anyway? Take a "Double White" as an example. Why not stick with a solid white and use a locally grown grain bill? Age the hops before brewing, as was done on the original? Change the types of adjunct flavorings such as the type of dried orange peel used or another type of citrus rind? Or Kaffir Lime leaves? Cultivate a new yeast strain? In other words go ahead and try to make the brew your own but brew for more Flavor not more alcohol.
An interesting tidbit as respects River Horse Brewing, a Garden State brewer whose beers, in the past where generally unadventurous an underwhelming. The buyer at our local whole Foods advises that they have a new management and brewing team. This apparently has resulted in a new brewing philosophy and some darn fine brews. I recently enjoyed their Oatmeal Milk Stout and found it wonderfully rich and quite tasty. The Oatmeal gave it a very silky mouth feel and the hint of lactose was paired nicely with an appropriate hopping level. All in all a solid brew and I am hoping it is a harbinger of the great things to come form River Horse. I will have to re-try some of their standard brews and give them a fair chance. We all need to be mindful that in our fragile economy we need to support our local brewers or we risk sliding back into a an era where the only beer available is mass market beer.