As I was retrieving an array of domestic and imported beers from the fridge and setting the bottles down next to a stack of pizzas, the words of comedy essayist Dave Barry came to mind:
"The greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."
We had gathered to assess a wide variety of beers in a blind tasting I devised to give a new import and some new domestic products a true trial by fire -- up against established mega-brands as well as against cheese, mushroom and pepperoni pizzas.
In my view, how well a beer fares against others of its kind is strictly a matter of personal taste. But, if a beer can't hold its own against pizza, it has no business being sold in these United States.
The process was straightforward. A four-person panel was served a series of unlabeled 2-ounce tasting glasses of beers and ales -- large enough to allow them to assess the carbonation, color and consistency of the brews before tasting them, and not so large as to taint the palate for what came afterward.
What three of our quartet did not know was that I was only interested in their views of four of the seven brews. The others -- American beers Budweiser and Coors Light and the luscious Belgian lager Stella Artois -- were there to vary the field and provide contrast.
The reactions I wanted were to Toña, a Nicaraguan beer that began being distributed in five states in the U.S. last summer and now is found in more than a dozen states as its network grows, and a line of gluten-free beers and ales being developed in Arkansas by Dark Hills Brewery, which I wrote about in mid-December. They are scheduled to go on sale in the fall.
The two American and one Belgian beer were identified rather quickly by the most beer-savvy member of our quartet. The Toña was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the panel as a whole, but they were puzzled by its origin.
Our tasting notes: "It's much smoother than the Budweiser, and with a bolder flavor. ... I'd drink this beer all night ... It's very rich and creamy. ... Plenty of taste but doesn't overdo the carbonation so it goes down easy. ... This is easy to evaluate: It's an excellent beer!"
Toña is a lager brewed by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua (CCN), made with German yeast and malt, North American hops and Nicaraguan deep-well water. The chief brewer is Rudiger Adelmann, who formerly worked for Steinecker GmbH, a German company that designs and produces brewing and filter technologies for the beverage production industry.
Dark Hills' rice-based brews avoid barley or any other grains containing gluten. The idea is to cater to a market niche made up of people who are gluten intolerant, a digestive ailment known as celiac disease. Leigh Nogy, who is co-founder/brewmaster, notes that her entire brewery is gluten free which avoids contamination.
She and co-founder/president Connie Rieper-Estes were able to supply us with a trio of prospective brews -- an "Ayla's amber ale," a sweet stout and something with the working title "Loki's Lemon Ale." In tasting all three, our entire panel noticed a difference between traditional brews and the rice-based concoction, yet found at least two of them rather pleasing.
Our tasting notes: (Sweet Stout) "A caramel nose, something like burnt brown sugar. ... Really full-bodied. ... I don't know if I'd drink a lot of it, but I can see how it would be a substitute if you have a celiac problem." (Amber Ale) "Reminds me of some good ciders I've had. ... Lingering aftertaste instead of just disappearing, which I like. ... I could have a few of these. ... Goes really well with food." (Lemon Ale) "This one makes me think of summer -- like a lemonade-style drink, but a little more syrupy. .... Limoncello, that's what it's like. ... I could drink this over ice like a liqueur."
Nogy notes that Dark Hills, located near Fayetteville, AR, still is negotiating with the state government agency that regulates what you can call various brews since such words as "lager," "stout," "ale" and "porter" have long-established crtieria as far as ingredients are concerned. It's something she needs to get worked out since one brew, with the working title "Iron Age Lager," is her lone lager, the rest of the brews falling into the ale category.
"Gluten-free beer has been my greatest challenge to date," Nogy told me. "In fact, it's had my attention for at least six years now developing recipes.
"Our beers are enjoyable, but I have yet to 'stick the landing' on the categorical definition of any particular style using the gluten-free ingredients available to us, but that's what we are aiming for ... and we'll keep working on it."
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