CVIndependent

Sun05272018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Brett Newton

I dislike IBUs. Allow me to explain.

Approximately a decade ago, hops were king in the craft-beer world. People could not get enough, and breweries were finding ways to jam more hops into beer (double dry-hopping, for example). This led to all sorts of excesses.

This is where IBUs enter into the more mainstream picture. IBUs (International Bittering Units—it sounds ridiculously over-important, but it’s indeed a thing), as you might have guessed, measure how bitter a beer is ... kind of. Hops contain compounds called alpha acids that make beer bitter during the boil through a process called isomerization. The longer the beer is boiled, the more bitter the beer is, given the same hop strain. (Some strains contain more alpha acids than others.) Hops are vitally important, as this bitterness can counterbalance the otherwise sweet wort that is to become beer later on. Hops also contribute flavors and aromas when added later in the process; they’re antiseptic, which helps keep bad bacteria out; and they are “cousins” to cannabis.

The brewer then dips in the IBU Detector and finds out the exact number. Actually … no, they don’t.

When an IBU is provided on a beer’s label or a brewery’s menu, that is a theoretical number, in all likelihood. One of the biggest misunderstandings about the IBU is that it somehow measures perceived bitterness. It actually measures the amount of iso-alpha acids in the beer. In order to do that accurately, spectrophotometry needs to be employed. This means chemistry and a lab and that is prohibitively expensive. Instead, brewers generally rely on a formula that is a rough approximation. If I typed out that formula here, it would make you feel like you were back in your high school algebra class.

Brewers use this calculation to help them with quality control—and that’s a good thing. However, at some point years ago, IBUs captured craft-beer fans’ imaginations. Some brewers then set about making beers with as many IBUs as they possibly could. Mikkeller Brewing (whose beers I have enjoyed for years) planted their flag in this trend with a 1,000 IBU beer. I tried it … and it wasn’t great. The thing is, anything over about 110 IBUs is not discernible by the human palate—so this was just pure wankery, and it really confused many beer-drinkers.

The biggest reason why this is all so inane is the aforementioned fact that IBUs only tangentially have to do with perceived bitterness. Some malts contain bitterness just from the malt itself—never mind roasted malts or any other potentially bitter additions (herbs, for example). A huge, malty imperial stout can have a high level of IBUs, but perceptually, the beer can be quite malty on balance. People come into the taproom where I work with the idea that they need to know which beer has the highest IBUs—and therefore will be the hoppiest. For one, what does “hoppiest beer” even mean? Secondly, that’s not at all how it works anyway.

All of this nonsense needs to end. I am not blaming consumers here; it is not their fault. They like hoppy beers, and they want to try more. They hear about this measurement (It’s gotta be accurate, too, right? I mean, it’s printed right there on the label!) so they go in search of the beer with the highest amount of these IBUs.

Free yourselves from the thought of IBUs, people. Stop torturing yourselves with math. Enjoy the beer in your glass at that moment. Much happiness and enjoyment will come to you.

And go away, IBU. You are not needed anymore.

I am a craft-beer lover who doesn’t just like hazy IPAs or pastry-inspired stouts, so I revel in being introduced to new flavors and flavor combinations when I can. However, this has both good and bad consequences.

Every so often, I try a beer that transcends all of its flavors and becomes a kind of liquid symphony. Then there are times when I can’t believe the brewery allowed the beer I’m tasting to ever leave its doors.

I need to be careful here and state the obvious: If you love a beer, that’s great. Continue doing so, and don’t let anything I say—or anything anyone says—rob you of that love. You might like it because of its flaws, or perhaps you didn’t perceive them as such.

However, if you would like to train your palate to be a more-reliable detector of off-flavors in beer, follow me, and see what you can pick up next time you’re at your local brewery. I’ll break down some common off-flavors by their descriptors and then explain why it might be there. I will attempt to do this without being too dry or pedantic. Wish me luck!

Butterscotch or buttered popcorn: This is my old nemesis diacetyl. This is a byproduct of fermentation initially before it goes into a secondary phase where the yeast cleans it up. Certain English styles allow for low levels of this, and it can sometimes be pleasant (or so I’m told—I despise this off-flavor wherever I come across it), but for the most part, it means a full, healthy fermentation did not occur. Occasionally, this flavor can arise alongside a vinegar-like flavor to indicate a possible infection in the beer line. When at high levels, diacetyl will also cause the beer to have a slicker mouthfeel. As much as I dislike this flavor when I encounter it in beer, I have seen it put to good use in a beer by Southern Tier Brewing Company called Creme Brulee. This beer is a great example of the sum being more than the sum of the parts.

Green apple or rotting apple: Similar to diacetyl, acetaldehyde is a byproduct of primary fermentation and gets cleaned up as long as the yeast is given enough time. Can I interest you in a nice, dry cider instead?

Vegetal, cooked cabbage or cooked corn: Dimethyl sulfide (or DMS, because that is way easier to say) is as gross as the descriptors sound. Not that cabbage or corn is disgusting—but would you drink juice made from them? This can have a number of causes, but I find it most often in hoppy beers. It makes the beer an instant drain-pour for me.

Paint thinner or nail-polish remover: Oh, yes. Over-stressed yeast (usually at higher-than-normal fermentation temperatures combined with oxidation) can cause a beer to become solvent-like. There’s no getting around it, either; you can’t cover this one up. It just sits there like an 800-pound gorilla and dares you to drink more. Be wary of the gorilla, folks.

Skunk: The first sip of beer I can remember was of my Canadian dad’s Moosehead Lager. I remember it pretty clearly—because it tasted like fizzy skunk spray. For good reason, too; the compound causing that flavor is called mercaptan and is the chemical in skunk spray. Light is beer’s enemy; UV light rays react with compounds in the hops and create that distinctive off-flavor. If a beer is sitting on a shelf in clear, green or blue bottles … keep walking. Even with brown bottles, after a while, that beer is destined to become light-struck. This is one reason why the market is being flooded with canned craft beers, and I don’t see that trend slowing at all. At one point, international beer brands like the aforementioned Moosehead, Heineken and Amstel were bottling their beers in green bottles to the point where people thought mercaptan was just an acceptable beer flavor. It is not, and I implore you to discourage this by not buying any beer in a clear, blue or green bottle.

Oxidation: I use the term instead of the descriptor, because this one has a lot of range. Mostly, an oxidized beer will give off flavors and aromas of paper or wet cardboard—associated with stale beer. It can even resemble decaying vegetables. A well-aged beer, however, can have very pleasant oxidized notes of honey or sherry. Brewers go to great lengths to package their beer with as little free oxygen inside as possible, but it’s always there, and you run the risk of it overtaking your bottled or canned beer the longer you take to enjoy it. Lower temperatures and darkness slow this process down, so age your beer accordingly.

Medicinal, smoky or plastic: Yeast is such an interesting life form. It’s ubiquitous in our environment and is highly survivable and adaptable. Brewing yeast strains are no different. Whole dissertations have been written on fermentation. Some of the more enjoyable compounds that emerge in varying degrees from fermentation are esters and phenols. If you’ve had Belgian ales or perhaps a German hefeweizen, you are already familiar with them. Esters can produce a wide range of fruity flavors such as banana, bubblegum, citrus or pomegranate. Phenols have their own range that includes clove and white pepper—but this is the light side of phenols. The dark side can come out when the yeast is in a more-stressful environment and throws out highly medicinal (think “bandage”), smoky or plasticky aromas and flavors. They are definitely unpleasant.

Astringency: This is a sensation more than a flavor, but it’s often indicative of a flawed process. Overly steeped or milled grains are a common culprit, as is over-hopping. If you’ve ever had a red wine or tea that was steeped too long, and it seemed to suck all the moisture out of your tongue as it passed over, you’ve experienced astringency. Tannins (usually from the husks of grain) and polyphenols (usually from hops) should be mitigated as much as possible so that your beer is refreshing and doesn’t require you to alternate sips of water to compensate.

There are more off-flavors (grassy, yeasty and sulfuric being among them), but you can search for yourself and dive deep.

Lest you think these don’t show up very often, I’ve experienced each one of these at least once in the past three months. Here’s a tip for tasting that can help you discern subtle flavors in anything: After you swallow the beer, exhale through your nose with your mouth closed. You have a separate olfactory sense called the retronasal system, and it can pick up things your orthonasal system (your nostrils and mouth) might have missed.

Yeah, you’re right, I just got dry and pedantic. How to fix that?

WHO WANTS TO SHOTGUN A BEER?!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Picture it: North Park. San Diego. 2018.

(Sorry, I’ve been watching The Golden Girls lately. Actually, I’m not sorry; that show is brilliant.)

The Coachella Valley, while a wonderful place, is a little short on craft-beer experiences—although some of us are working to make that less true. In the meantime, thirsty desert-dwellers have some great options within a few driving hours—including a neighborhood in San Diego called North Park.

Located off Interstate 805 just south of the 8, North Park is bursting with places to ingest and imbibe all sorts of delicious food and drink. One of my all-time favorite places to have a beer (or four) is Toronado San Diego. I tagged along with my friend Justin, who got more epic tattoo work done by Adam Hathorn at Big Trouble Tattoo (conveniently located next door to and upstairs from the bar). Toronado is a satellite bar of its namesake in San Francisco; the SF location has been open 30 years and is classified by LocalWiki’s site as “a dive bar for beer snobs.” I sadly have never been, but fortunately, the North Park location—which opened almost 10 years ago—is much more accessible to me. I wouldn’t call it a dive, but it’s definitely no-frills: You have a board above the bar teeming with breweries and beer names, and very knowledgeable staffers (such as the lovely Laura) to guide you through your beer experience. Don’t know what you might like? Let her know what you desire, and she will set you up with something to make your taste buds tingle. One of my favorite things about the bar is its devotion to local breweries: If a brewer is right in their neighborhood, they usually don’t bother, but if the brewer is elsewhere in the larger San Diego area, and that brewer produces quality stuff, Toronado will welcome it.

Beyond San Diego, Toronado offers classic beers from Belgium, like the beautiful Rodenbach Grand Cru, in all its blended-vintage, tart, malty glory. Yes, the bar also often carries the infamous Pliny the Elder Double IPA, from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa. I love Russian River, but take my advice, and try some San Diegan hoppy beers—and you might find that Pliny isn’t as good as you thought. For instance, on my most recent visit, the Hop Swingers IPA—a hazy IPA collaboration from Carlsbad’s Burgeon Beer Company and San Clemente-based Artifex Brewing—blew my mind with its richly tropical and resinous aroma and flavor. On that same trip, I was happy to be joined by and have a great conversation with my good friend James, who lives within walking distance of the bar. (I am deeply jealous yet also relieved that I don’t live that close, for fear that I might end up there too much.) He had a Dark Strong Ale from Belgium called Affligem Noël—a Christmas-spiced abbey-style ale full of flavor.

Enough of my romance with Toronado: There are other places to explore if you’re not as inclined as I am to plant your butt on a bar stool for an entire afternoon. You could go a little down the street and hit the Rip Current Brewing tasting room, and try one of many diverse beers. Belching Beaver Brewery also has a satellite tasting room, and around the corner from that, Tiger!Tiger! is a wonderful place to get a craft beer or two on tap, alongside some inventive bar food. I mean, sausage poutine fries? Come on!

A really fun place to kill time is the Coin-Op Game Room. Play your way through dozens of arcade games—with the help of a great craft-beer selection! A personal favorite is a small bottle shop/tap room franchise called Bottle Craft. The store’s tap list is unique, and you can sip on tasters and nosh charcuterie while perusing bottles and cans of (what for desert residents would be) very hard to find beer. I picked up a bottle of insanely good beer from Brouwerij Boon called Mariage Parfait. This “gueuze” lambic is one of the best: It is a blend of 95 percent 3-year barrel-aged beer, with 5 percent young (less than a year old) lambic. There is also a cherry version of this called a Kriek. Don’t be fooled by the strange Flemish language; these beers are delicacies, pure and simple. I also was able to try the “Forged Series” of four coffee imperial stouts on which Bottle Craft and Mason Ale Works collaborated. Conveniently, they carried a four-pack of cans of each variant. (As good as this place is, the Little Italy location is even better.)

There are some other places I should mention that are just a short Lyft ride away; unfortunately, I don’t have the room to go too deeply into them all:

Modern Times Brewing has two locations: the brewery taproom (complete with a coffee bar serving their delicious coffee), and a North Park tasting room. The beer is great all around—and the décor offers an interesting hipster aesthetic (including chandeliers made from tumbleweeds containing interwoven Christmas tree lights). Both locations can get quite busy.

North Park Beer Co. is located right across the street from Bottle Craft and offers great beer and food from the Mastiff Kitchen, which is an offshoot of the Mastiff Sausage food trucks. They expand out from just serving sausage here, but trust me: The sausage is legit. What’s better with beer than meat in tube form?

Blind Lady Ale House in the nearby Normal Heights neighborhood has a lot—beer, pizza, charcuterie … OK, that’s not a lot, but within those confines, a whole world of flavors are contained. Try some of their own Automatic Brewing beers—made in an impossibly small space at that location.

Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park (yes, friendly faces everywhere) is another classic beer bar in San Diego that rivals Toronado. Indeed, it is a dive bar for beer snobs. The last time I visited, Melvin Brewing from Alpine, Wyo., was holding one of the 2x4 Days—celebrating the release of its incredible 2x4 Double IPA by taking over many taps, showing nothing but martial-arts movies on the TVs, and giving out swag like logo bandannas and ninja star-shaped coasters. The bartender dressed as a ninja really sold it for me, as did the showing of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.

If I’m in the North Park area, you’ll likely find me parked at Toronado, planning my next move from there ... if there is one. Happy hunting!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Rhythm, Wine and Brews Experience is coming up on Saturday, March 3. It seems to grow each year; the 2018 edition will feature the addition of the Stone Temple Pilots and a tiki bar.

I’ll take “How to Get People Very Drunk” for $200, Alex.

Now seems like a good time to share with you some tips and etiquette for beer festivals in general—especially how to get through them without making an absolute mess of yourself.

Before I get to specific survival tips, I want to take you on a trip back in time—20 years ago, to be exact. I was a young lad taking his first overseas trip. I had been studying both the German language and German beer, and wanted to immerse myself in both.

I got a job with a family just south of Munich helping them out with household and horse-stable chores. I ended up staying two months and learned much in that time. I learned how to drive a crazy Citroen 2CV with a gear shift that came out of the dashboard. I learned how to argue a point during an Uno card game in German. Most importantly, though, I learned how to drink. When I first got there, I went to a neighborhood event called a Stadlfest where they cleared out a barn and threw an extremely stereotypical German party, with kegs of delicious local beer, dimpled liter mugs, and people standing on benches, swaying back and forth to polka and drinking songs. I couldn’t believe this actually existed.

While drinking my first liter there, I noticed a group farther down my table eyeing me and commenting. I asked, in my best German, what was wrong. They said I was drinking too fast. I let them know (as if my accent didn’t already give me away) that I was American, and that my pace was normal in the U.S. They then laid on me the single best piece of alcohol advice I have ever received: Start slow, and slowly ramp up over the course of the night—and by the end, you can be gulping. (The wonderful word for this in their language is “schlucken.”) By the end of my stay, I had found those same people again—and was able to last much longer, with far lighter consequences.

I tell you all that for the obvious corollary with beer festivals: Start slow, and by the end, you can enjoy much more, all while being upright and at much less of a risk of making a fool of yourself. I’ve seen far too many people get excited at the beginning of a festival, going wild trying every strong beer they can—and ending up puking or passed out somewhere halfway through. DON’T BE THAT PERSON.

Armed with this advice, you already have an advantage. But there is definitely more you can do. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but one never knows …

Eat before and during the festival. It’s a fact that alcohol absorption can be slowed with food in your gut. Something as simple as yogurt with granola, salmon, chicken or spaghetti can do that for you. This does NOT mean you can drink the same amount without getting as drunk as you would with an empty stomach. Food just delays the buzz; your liver will have to process all that alcohol regardless. Most festivals have a food component which makes it easy to take a little break, refuel and …

Drink some water. This is the one tip that is the most obvious, but the easiest to forget while in the middle of your festival fun. Every festival I have ever attended has a drinking-water station. Alcohol dehydrates you. I don’t care how many times you have to pee; you will be a lot better off after the dust has settled if you regularly drink water. If you can carry around a bottle, do that. Water also has the nice bonus of serving as a palate cleanser between beers.

Dump that beer. Well, drink a little first … but if it’s no good, dump it. This is easy at outdoor festivals like the above-mentioned RWB. If you’re indoors, there will be places for you to pour out what you don’t want—often with water for you to rinse your glass. Even if you enjoyed a certain beer, but maybe got a little too much of it, dump it. (If the brewer is staring at you, you might want to wait it out and dump it elsewhere furtively.)

Be friendly and meet people. This can be hard for some people who are more introverted (it sure is for me sometimes), but at these festivals, you can meet brewing-industry people, knowledgeable drinkers and people who are downright nice and interesting, from many walks of life. It is one thing that makes craft beer beautiful—the people you meet while drinking. Beer also helps greatly to lubricate social situations.

This also has a flip side: Don’t be a dick. Do your best to watch your glass and prevent spillage; apologize to people you bump into (while trying your level best to avoid doing so); and freely share your experience with the beers you’ve tried so far. By doing so, other people will talk about beers you might want to try—while giving you a break when you can eat or hydrate.

Plan ahead: Festivals will post a list of the breweries attending—and sometimes even the beers being served. Make a road map of the things you must try that might go quickly, and follow that as closely as possible. Try not to make this your bible, though: I have often planned out the first hour of a festival only to be blissfully waylaid by friends or other interesting beers. Festivals are about having fun, after all.

I don’t think I need to add that you should arrange for someone sober to drive you to and from the festival … do I?  I guess I just did. See the advice above about not being a dick.

Go forth to that beer festival confidently, and make my German friends and drinking mentors proud! Prost!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Writing a column about the history of beer is a much more daunting task than one might expect.

As I stated in my last column, beer is the oldest alcoholic beverage recorded in history. In fact,The Hymn to Ninkasi,"circa 1800 B.C., a tribute to the Sumerian women whose responsibility it was to brew beer, is one of the earliest writings that we still have today. They brewed beer by baking bappir (a honey bread), crumbling it in water, and allowing it to ferment, with the addition of honey and/or dates. The unfiltered beer then had to be drunk through a straw with a filter—much like the South American yerba mate tea.

Allow me to digress here and offer a plausible theory of how the first beer came to be discovered. I say "discovered," because brewers are stewards of the yeast or bacteria that make sugary wort (the fermentable, hoppy brew at the end of the brewing process) into glorious beer; they do their best to make a suitable environment for the yeast to do their business. I submit that the first "brewers" (circa 5,000 B.C.) probably didn't brew at all, but instead carelessly left a bowl of grains out in the open, allowing rainwater to collect inside. Or perhaps they prepared a hot cereal of some kind, and the same thing happened. After a period of a couple of weeks or so, someone was brave—or desperately thirsty—enough to stick in a straw and take a hit. (My hunch is that, knowing humans, it was on a dare.) The result was a slightly euphoric feeling, and eventually, someone figured out how to improve the process.

You may laugh, but animals and insects were in on the act long before homo sapiens was. Certain species either have a high tolerance for alcohol in overly ripe fruit, or eat said fruit and enjoy a good buzz.

Let us move to ancient Greece and Rome. As wine grew to prominence, beer remained the alcoholic drink of the lower classes. In northern Europe, beer reigned—mostly due to climate. Without refrigeration, hot weather sours beer quickly, while in cooler climates, beer can be fermented for much of the year. Therefore, you can imagine a sort of "grape/grain" line dividing Europe latitudinally. This largely remains true today, with some notable exceptions. Beer also afforded people a safe beverage in places where the water source might have been "compromised."

Our friend humulus lupulus, aka the hop, comes into the picture around the 9th century A.D. in writing, but it would take another 200-300 years before it became the preferred bittering and antiseptic agent in beer. Keep in mind, bacteria and yeast were not known about until Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Brewers just knew that, with hops, their beer was less likely to be undrinkable. Climate also shows its influence here: Hops thrive between the 35th and 55th latitudes in both hemispheres. This plays out in history, with places like Scotland and Ireland having much more malt-forward beers (though in the case of Scotland, this was as a slight to England, where most of the hops were grown), and places like the Czech Republic and Germany having more crisp, hoppy lagers. The makeup of the water in every region played a big part as well.

And then there's Belgium. Since this is a "brief" history, I must restrain myself from heaping effusive praise on Belgian beers and their histories. What I will mention is that it all began in the 12th century with monks in abbeys seeking to brew something potable. What then ensued was the creation of some of the most elegant, subtle and exciting beers in the world. If you have any interest in learning more about Belgian beer history, ignore the books (for now); get to the nearest beer store; and start making your way through the country's beers. Just avoid the fake beers like Stella Artois and Leffe. They are corporate black parodies of Belgian beer.

England and Germany also deserve mention. Germany is responsible for the invention of lagering (cold storage during a slower fermentation period than an ale, with a different type of yeast), as well as Noble hops. England invented the porter, stout and pale ale, among others—and amassed a huge empire that helped make beer well-known.

From these two brewing cultures, we move to America. Native American tribes were making a form of beer before Europeans arrived that used maize and birch sap. Once settlers came, brewers often had to make do with native ingredients—like a different type of malt, grains like maize, and hop varietals such as Cluster hops. The result was a much drier, lighter-bodied beer. German immigrants eventually used these ingredients to their advantage to create what is now known as the Pre-Prohibition Pilsner. After Prohibition, a few of the surviving breweries took this style and used even more corn and other lower-protein adjuncts to create a more-diluted version. Then they added marketing to sell this as the working man's drink.

Several ghastly decades later, some breweries began to appear and make beer that, well, tasted good. A man who is widely considered to be the godfather of craft beer is Fritz Maytag. He purchased the Anchor Brewing Co. in 1965 and quietly began brewing tastier beer. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law making homebrewing legal. Not long after, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. introduced the world to its Pale Ale. It was its day's "hop bomb." Piney, citrusy, bitter and vastly different from everything else on the shelves, it spurred more creativity. Around the same time, Jim Koch and his Boston Beer Company began to brew Samuel Adams and introduce drinkers to forgotten styles in America.

The leak in the dam became a deluge; new styles evolved; and the United States became the most exciting country in which to be a beer drinker. As of this writing, there are more than 5,300 breweries in the United States. This is up from 89 in 1978. And the end doesn't seem to be anywhere in sight.

One could look at all of this history and conclude that this is the best time and place for a beer-drinker to be alive. One could also pour a beer and raise a glass to celebrate this fact.

Cheers!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

One of the skills I had to acquire before becoming a certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a sommelier, more or less) was pairing beer with food. In other words, the IPA I was ordering with my hamburger was research! Works for me.

You may be familiar with the idea of wine dinners, but you might not know that when it comes to pairing foods with beverages, beer wipes the floor with wine. Yeah, I included that sentence to provoke a reaction with wine-lovers. The thing is … it happens to be true!

Just think about how beer is made for a moment: The grains are prepared in various ways (malting, kilning and/or roasting), then steeped in the mashing process (much like hot cereal); the sugars are then boiled, with ingredients added at any number of points during the end of the boil and fermentation.

With wine? There are grapes. Maybe some will be blended together. Ergo beer > wine.

I know I'm short-changing wine here, but I bristle at the assumed superiority of wine to beer. Wine struggles where beer breezes in and amazes. Spicy foods, desserts, complex or simple entrées, among all cultures and preparations—beer has it covered, usually from multiple angles. Do you think wine and cheese is dreamy? Beer and cheese will wake you up and make you praise the day. The Belgians have known this for a long time, and has Cuisine à la Biere, which uses the country's delicious beers in the preparation of dishes such as mussels sautéed in a tripel or gueuze, or carbonnade flamande, a beef and onion stew using Flanders red ale instead of water or broth.

Yes, you, too, can pair beer and food. There are a few principles to keep in mind when planning an individual pairing or a multi-course beer dinner:

Match intensities: This is a fairly simple idea: If you have a pairing in which either the beer or the food overwhelms, you might as well have had water rather than beer with your food. When a meal has numerous courses, this is even more important. If you can raise the intensity of the pairings along the way, you can leave your dinner guests blissfully sated. Keep in mind the beer’s strength, as well as how hoppy, roasty, smoky, bitter, etc., it is, and then arrange the dinner courses accordingly.

Complement, contrast and combine: These are the three ways you can approach a pairing. Finding a beer that resembles or includes ingredients contained within the food should be obvious—a citrusy, herbal American pale ale with tacos, for example, or a toasty, nutty English Brown ale with a sharp cheddar. (You will think you're having a grilled cheese sandwich!)

Contrast is another way of approaching a pairing. This is a little more difficult, but a simple way of doing it is using a beer's carbonation and bitterness to "cut" through the food and refresh the palate when necessary. Contrasting flavors can also be done in so many ways that it would be impossible for me to convey even the basics without boring you to death. This is where playing around with pairings is very fun and educational. Good examples of this are pairing a fruited lambic (Belgian sour ale) with a chocolate cake, where the sour, fruity and spritzy beer contrasts with the rich and sweet flavors of the cake. A roasty, creamy stout like Guinness with oysters is a classic pairing. I've had much success combining hoppy beers with chocolates as well (although one could say that eating chocolate and drinking beer simultaneously is a success in and of itself, regardless of how they pair up).

Finally, combining flavors in beer and food to leave the impression of something else altogether can be a great way to conduct whole beer dinners. Themes are another good idea: You can use a single beer style with different courses, or pair beers with a particular cuisine, or develop any kind of theme that unites both.

Pitfalls: I've mentioned some "home run" combinations, but there are also potential duds. For example, hoppy beers make oily fish (sardines, anchovies, etc.) taste harshly metallic. Gross. Hops and alcohol accentuate capsaicin in spicy foods. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're a spice junkie like me. Malt-ier beers will soothe that heat, alternately.

I've paired food from the highly talented Jeshua Garza of Kuma Catering with then-head brewer Chris Anderson's beers at Coachella Valley Brewing for some private dinners. Here is the menu from one of my favorites.

Amuse bouche: Crab arancini with shaved parmesan, paired with Oasis Apple Ale, an American wheat ale with fresh-pressed McIntosh apples. The carbonation in the beer cuts through the fried rice ball and lifts it off the palate, while the slightly tart apple notes contrast the savory crab and cheese.

First Course: Citrus-cured salmon puntarelle, anchovy dressing, radish, lemon aioli, grapefruit and breadcrumbs, paired with Desert Swarm, a Belgian-style honey double witbier with kumquats and coriander. Again, carbonation helps clear the palate for the next bite, while the citrus in the beer and in the food complement each other. The banana yeast esters and coriander in the beer add an extra dimension.

Second course: Sous vide herb chicken, curried sun-choke puree, crispy Brussels sprouts and orange almond pistou, paired with Big Cat Tart Farmhouse Style Ale, containing desert sage, rosemary and grains of paradise. This was the highlight of the dinner: Tartness meets tartness, and citrus in the food plays well off of the curried puree and Brussels sprouts. Then the herbs and spices in the beer cling to the tender chicken perfectly.

Third course: Lamb leg, smoked yogurt, chili baby turnips, roasted persimmons and pork jus, paired with Dubbel Date, a Belgian dubbel with dates. This is a great example of both types of contrast mentioned previously. Belgian beers are typically highly carbonated and dry, and contain fruity, sweet (but not cloying) flavors. This helps the savory, smoky, roasty, fatty goodness of the lamb slide on down and adds sweetness to get you reaching for that next bite.

Fourth course: Caramelized pear tart, toasted coriander ice cream, mint and meyer lemon syrup, paired with Super Swarm on Brett, a variation of a stronger version of Desert Swarm aged in whiskey barrels with pomegranate molasses. This has complement (sweetness, breadiness, citrus and coriander), contrast (a higher alcohol by volume and carbonation against buttery, sweet flavors) and combination (it tasted like having Froot Loops cereal with some banana added alongside a nip of bourbon), all in one dish. I was lucky that this beer was on tap for this dinner, as only a limited amount was produced. 

I hope this whets your appetite. If in doubt … just go for it, and see what happens. If you find some interesting, delicious and/or unexpected pairings, please send them my way and share them so that we may all enjoy them.

One last thing: Make sure you don’t take this too seriously. One of the best things about beer is its accessibility. We don't need the level of snobbery that some wine enthusiasts can manage anywhere near the greatest and oldest alcoholic beverage in the world—beer. Cheers!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Today, we’re going to go over some tips on how to buy beer.

Before you throw up your hands and say, “Please … what is there to know about buying beer?! You enter a store that sells it, and you buy it!”—let me explain.

If you drink mass-produced lager and are perfectly happy with that, you don’t need this advice. The one thing the “big boys” in the brewing industry are good at is making their beer exactly the same, every time, and getting it to you as fresh as possible, as often as possible. But if you are like me and love craft beer—in other words, you look forward to having your taste buds challenged and your mind blown—this advice will help.

I have some good and bad news for you. First, the bad: There is bad beer everywhere. The good news: There is excellent beer almost everywhere, and if you follow a few rules, you can greatly increase your chances of finding some great beer.

How am I qualified to tell you, the wise consumer, about this? I am what is called a certified cicerone. Think of it as the equivalent of a sommelier (a wine “expert”) for beer. I spent a year studying (after 23 years of exploring and learning on my own) for a 4 1/2-hour exam that only 33 percent of all test-takers pass. (This is only the second level of a four-level system of certifications, by the way.) In other words, when it comes to the subject of beer, you can go very deep.

Anyway, enough about my bona fides; let’s jump into the rabbit hole.

1. Beer goes bad at varying rates. A can or keg is ideal for protecting beer, because light, oxygen and heat are beer’s worst enemies. The brown bottle offers the next-best protection, followed by green and clear bottles, which provide almost no protection. Also, refrigerated beer is the best to buy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that beer stored in cold, dark places is preferable.

2. Check the dates. Many craft breweries stamp or print the bottling date somewhere on the packaging.

Hoppy beers are the first to go bad. This is due to the breakdown of the various hop compounds in the beer, as well as possible exposure to UV rays (Ever had skunky beer, anyone?) If that IPA is more than three months old, it probably isn’t what the brewer wanted you to taste—especially if it was not refrigerated or protected from light.

Three to six months is good for most other styles. There are major exceptions to this—for example, many Belgian trappist styles and sour ales last longer, as do stronger ales such as barley wines and imperial stouts—but a good way to look at it is this: The brewer would not have packaged and released the beer if he or she didn’t think it was ready to drink. I have saved enough bottles—and been subsequently disappointed—often enough to now seriously limit the number of beers I cellar.

3. Crowd-sourcing sites like BeerAdvocate are your friends. BeerAdvocate is a website that allows users to add, rate and review beers, as well as breweries and craft-beer bars. If you have any questions or are wondering what the beer you’re looking at in the store is, you can look it up there and get some generally thoughtful reviews.

Many places sell or serve craft with employees who can’t offer you much help—but luckily, you are armed with a powerful pocket computer that can access the vast information resource that is the Internet. Remember to consider the source, however.

4. Don’t be afraid to send that beer back. You might feel odd doing this—but a beer you’ve been served may be flawed. It may be the beer itself is no good and suffers from off-flavors; the keg may be old; or the lines that bring the beer to the tap may need cleaning. You don’t need to pay for a bad drink, and while a truly great beer bar will rarely, if ever, make these mistakes, they’ll gladly make up for it if they do.

And if a business reacts poorly when you send a beer back … be glad: You now know where not to drink in the future.

5. Take a chance. Many of the best beers I’ve ever purchased have been dice rolls when it came down to it. This does not need to happen as much as it did in the 1990s and 2000s—yes, I’m that old—because today, there are so many resources discussing so much beer from so many breweries. However, in some ways, this wealth information can be daunting, and even discouraging. If you’re afraid of looking ignorant … don’t be afraid. We’re all dreadfully ignorant about some things—so much so that there are things that we don’t even know that we don’t know. Do you know what I mean?

Anyway … if you are a curious person with a thirst for knowledge, you can dive in and become less and less ignorant, no matter your interest level in craft beer. Now, start getting that fresh, beautiful beer from that store or bar into your mouth.

Happy hunting!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..