This past spring, a young home brewer pal of mine messaged me and asked if I’d suggest a recipe for a beer; “the weirder the better”, he said, which piqued my interest immediately. So, I labored over it for several days, drawing on my 30 years as a chef, mentally (and literally; I did a few bizarre experiments with various household additives) and finally sent him this:
“Pineapple. Thai chiles. Chinese dill. Lemongrass. Saison style…with one stipulation: Please call it ‘The Fool’s Farmhouse’.”
What came back was genuinely astonishing. Evan (his real name) took some technical liberties with the idea, to resolve brewing issues. Used unsweetened, dried pineapple, regular dill, and some malts that have more of a place in German brewing than Belgian. But it was sublimely delicious. I was floored. It wasn’t my “recipe” (really just some vague guidelines) that made it work but the obvious skill with which Evan put my half-baked idea together.
And yet, thrilled as I was at the result, many of the people to whom I mentioned this ale had exactly the same reaction: “Wow…that’s a…lotta stuff! Really not my thing, those fruity, over-complicated beers“…this without ever tasting it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. In a state where 95% of all breweries specialize in the core British ales – Pale, Amber/Red, Stout, Porter, IPA (and all its iterations), the rare EBS, and the even rarer Barleywine – what did I think I’d hear? Those who got to actually taste the stuff really loved it but just getting them to try it was a Chore.
So it is that Deschutes’ collaboration with Master Chef José Ramón Andrés Puerta – known as José Andrés, for polysyllabically-challenged Americans – is probably going to be greeted with wariness and even outright suspicion by a lot of US craft beer fans. In my (rather too frequent) fantasies of What I’d Do If I Were God, right after “bring about world peace“, “cure cancer“, “delete the San Francisco Forty-Niners“, “eliminate poverty and homelessness“, “stop all domestic violence“, “erase all evidence of Pink Floyd“, and “get rid of all handguns“, would come “shut the &%@# up and try some different beers“. The most venomous tsunami of affronted anger ever evoked by this blog was when I suggested – gently, while kissing major Washington ass – that maybe my home state could support a brewery or two like Crooked Stave or Upright Brewing. It was seen as heresy that I presumed to say that there was something limiting about a steady diet of IPAs and Pales. But there is, damnit, and this ale from Deschutes – performed with their usual aplomb and unfailing Good Judgment – proves just how successful as simply Something Wonderful to Drink an ale can be while – Gasp! – adding in a few more ideas than just malts, yeast, hops, and water.
José Andrés is a chef; a major figure in the universe of Spanish cuisine, who has been friends with Deschutes owner Gary Fish for many years, now, and entered into this collabo with the idea in mind that this ale would be used as a food pairing, first, and maybe a sipper, second. That’s evident from the first sip to the last. One of the longest-held truisms about beer/food interaction is that, for versatility as a food match, Belgian-style ales have few peers. The fruit/spice character of the yeasts used, along with the body of an ale vs. a lager and a bit of residual sugar add up to a food enhancer that can support a far wider range of options than a watery Pilsner or adjunct lager, David Chang’s recent, idiotic comments not withstanding. When (tragically) I think of a different beer recipe, I think of a tapestry of flavors and a broad palette and José Andrés does, too. It’s natural to being a chef. The interplay of ingredients and flavors is our daily business and our brains make intuitive leaps that those of normal people simply do not. In this ale, Chef Andrés does what comes naturally and composes a gorgeous little symphony of complements and contrasts. Starting with the chassis of a light, pliable Farmhouse ale.
For all of you who are thinking, “Yeeeah, I dunno...”, TRY to get this: This beer is not either Deschutes or José Andrés being Artsy. This is what happens when a great chef tries to come up with a solid, logical concept for a great beverage…and this IS, absolutely, a great bottle of ale. The hallmarks of careful, intelligent composition are everywhere: the grassy, bright lemon verbena presents first, a vivid, lively sweetness that takes on the subtle bite of the papery peppercorns and the tart fruitiness of that miraculous Middle Eastern spice, sumac, made from the ground berries of the small shrubs of the genus Rhus that makes an aggressively aromatic, dark burgundy powder that is an essential ingredient in Lebanese dishes like lamb kefta and savory rice dishes. The odd harmony of the herbal/citrus verbena the and earthy, cinnamon-ish fruit tang of the sumac is startling and engrossing, even before the high note of dried lime rings in. The Saison yeasts add tropical fruit shadings and that wonderful cloves ‘n’ bananas character, while the whole is dragged back from any hints of cuteness by a surprisingly dry finish and the grip of the peppercorn as a light tingle on the tongue. Grace notes like anise and rosemary and lychi and mint pop up when you least expect them and not a single element is out of place or scale. Even with as many weird beers as I seek out in a year, this one took me about 30 seconds to figure out and adjust to…after which, I was completely fascinated by what a great chef and really intrepid brewers managed to do with a laundry list of additions of the types that horrify beer purists – something which, I think, should be done daily, all across this country.
YES, compared to the simplicity of an ale brewed with just malts, yeast, hops, and water, this can, if you lack imagination, seem like contrivance. I concede that. But a LOT of those same people who bitch and moan to me about “all these frou-frou beers” will eagerly sit down at the Herbfarm and eat dishes that contain 20 different ingredients that have gone through eight or nine steps in prep and cooking and three or four more in presentation and just grin like possums as they shovel in all that deliciousness! Where is that outside the box thinking as applied to beer?
This beer will probably get dumped on in the forums of the beer rating sites, where that rampaging notion that the people who participate are the only True Beer Anointed is the Fundamental Principle…but all you have to do is look at the numbers of astronomical scores slathered onto IPAs and Stouts to see that their assumed “expertise” really lies in a very narrow range. The ONLY key to enjoying Zarabanda is to forget all the stuff about brewery-chef collaboration and unfamiliar ingredients and the rather modest expectations that some people place on the Saison style and just taste…the…freakin’…beer. Forget your preconceptions, pour this gorgeous, aromatic ale into your piehole, and let it work its considerable charms upon your IPAed-to-Death taste buds. To quote a very questionable American… “shut the &%@# up and try some different beers”. Get outside the Brit-tradition box for a change and taste what’s possible when great minds get together to search for the Next Big Idea.