Hop High For Local & Sustainable Craft Beer

I met a beer whisperer at a party last week. She helps beer with real personality express the good times it’s had, the food it wants to pair with, and its place in the proletarian taste division of the local and sustainable food movement.

Her name is Tracy Phillippi, and she’s a high-level beer hound certified as a judge by the international Beer Judging Certificate Program. She works weekends as a taste educator and walking wikipedia of beer — “I help people throw beer parties,” is how she puts it — works weekdays as a local and sustainable food campaigner, and moonlights as a writer on her blog, Experience Craft Beer.

I asked her to co-host two dinner parties with me so I could watch the young hophead in action.

The first thing I learned – a mere 5000 years after ancient Sumerians invented brewing — is that beer is a terrific icebreaker. Phillippi starts each evening by asking people to share their fave beer stories.

James started it off with his “delicious childhood memory” of sitting on his late dad’s lap on the back porch of a summer evening, being initiated into male bonding with a spoonful of beer. David remembered his summer job, working in the hop fields of southern England. John remembered being a bartender during Kitchener’s famous beer fest and pukathon.

This taught me how easy it is for entertainers to get people to cry in their beer. Beer, after all, is a coming-of-age as well as a social and alcoholic comfort food, so casting back to special moments opens the tear ducts.

Phillippi is inspired by beer’s evocative powers. “Beer has power to connect people to history, water, farming, community, economy and friends,” she says, which is why this co-founder of the world’s first Youth Food Policy Council is in the beer education biz.

Our job as dinner guests is to drink five courses of different beers from among Ontario’s 30 craft breweries, with each course followed by a variety of breads and crackers, a range of local, sustainable, artisanal cheeses, and two Mexico-sourced chocolate pieces made by Toronto-based ChocoSol.

Philippi insists we sip from wide-mouthed wine glasses, the best way to assess beer for appearance, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. The big pint glasses at taverns cue people to knock back beer, while German-style mugs prevent spills when swaying to beerhall songs.

With few exceptions, craft beers follow the German “Reinheitsgebot” law of 1516, the oldest food regulation on any government’s books. It permits four ingredients: barley malt, yeast, water and hops. Some craft and traditional European beers are permitted to include wheat, spice and a little fruit.

By contrast, standard industrial or mass-produced beers include “adjuncts” such as rice or corn, which provide sweetness and fizz for less cost than malted barley. If the craft beer lobby had the power of the milk lobby, the law would require industrial beers to be marketed as corndrink, much as soydrink and Kraft slices are stopped from cashing in on any connection to genuine milk. It doesn’t take long for the carbonated Phillippi to present beer as the world’s quintessential food of geographic, technical as well as cultural “terroir.”

Wine grapes comes from warm climates while beer comes from colder climates where hardy barley grows, which explains, Mel and Maria explain, why southern Croatians drink wine and northern Croatians drink beer.

Some beers use soft water from the River Pilzen, where sweet and flowery pilsner beers originated, while stout beers come from hard water. Roasting the barley can produce light or dark beers. Hops are a natural preservative that can be hopped up or not. The preserving qualities of hops were especially valued in beers shipped on the sud-soaked voyage from England to India in the days of the British Empire, whence India Pale Ale.

For women in the pioneer era of North America, low-alcohol “table beer” concocted from reused barley was a more common drink than water.

Still other beer styles were preferred by working stiffs, such as the porters thought to be rich in iron, protein and B vitamins (why Guinness was marketed as a health drink to nursing mothers during World War 11). And of course, beer was part of a good time with friends in public spaces or pubs, commonly known as the “workingman’s club.”

My inner Michel Foucault tells me that prohibitionists were as much against pubs as beer, and hated pubs because they had too many nooks, crannies and dark hideaways – the opposite of bright-lit open spaces amendable to easy supervision in industrial design.

Before the rise of industrial beer — the beer equivalent of white bread in its homogenizing impact on quality and taste — lager (introduced by German immigrants) was the drink of Americans, while ale (introduced by Brits)was the drink of most Canucks, save for western Canada, where German-born brewer Fritz Sick introduced commercial lager during the late-1800s.

Just as beer belongs with wine in terms of terroir, it matches wine in foods it matches. Just as wine is paired with perfect foods by sommeliers, beer is paired by cicerones – a career of the future to plan for. The general rule, says Phillippi, is that the beer should be a bit more intense than the food it’s paired with – dark, bitter beer for dark bitter chocolate, or floral beer with herbal cheeses.

Beer fans have served as models for local and sustainable food campaigns since the Campaign for Real Ale was launched in the UK in 1971. In the US, craft beer hails mainly from Vermont and Oregon, two leading foodie states. In Ontario, brewers such as Beau’s and Mill Street are prominent funders of organic, environmental and sustainable causes.

Craft beer, fastest-rising category in the beer industry, occupies the front lines of small entrepreneurs fighting for retail space hogged by established corporations. Except for a few specialty hangouts in Toronto, it’s impossible to shop for the range of local craft beers in any one location. Ontario’s The Beer Store, granted a virtual monopoly by the government, is controlled by foreign multinationals — Coors (owners of Molson and Creemore), In Bev (owners of Labatt) and Sappora (owners of Sleeman’s). The Beer Store provides small local breweries with none of the display promotions offered small local wines in the publicly-owned LCBO. It appears that government-granted privileges of monopoly come with no responsibility to spread the beer education or opportunities around.

I harbor a wish that craft beer may lead the way with a critical theme of the future — Less is Beautiful. Welsh food analyst Kevin Morgan calls this the “coming quality revolution.”

Health researchers increasingly tell us that no-one should drink many beers or alcoholic drinks of any kind. The current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal reports that “there is no level of alcohol consumption for which cancer risk is null.” The association is preparing new guidelines on weekly maximums, considerably below today’s recommendations, which have not been developed with cancer risks in mind.

There’s an opportunity in this high-end diet — as there is for wine, wheat, coffee, meat, cheese and literally scores of everyday food products — to use the savings from reduced quantity to increase quality. Less Quantity but More Quality would benefit human health. Because less beer is flowing in less bottles and cans, it would also benefit the environment. Because more is brewed with local grains and hops in smaller labor-intensive breweries, local artisanal jobs with take a hop. Not exactly the toughest way to suck it up to improve personal and world health and well-being.

Fifth Town Cheese, interspersed with some of the beers we sampled, has adapted Michael Pollan’s famous haiku, urging customers to “Eat cheese, mostly artisanal, not too much.”

I’ll toast to that as the slogan for the future of beer.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, July 14-20, 2011)

Speak Your Mind