Tasting With The Master

July 13, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Tom Keith


I first met Randy Mosher in the late 1980s. Yeah, we’re both old farts. I was working on marketing projects for Baskin-Robbins; he was the art director at the (now defunct) ad agency. We were on a flight to somewhere in the Southwest … maybe Albuquerque, maybe Lubbock … and he was telling me about a book he was going to write about brewing beer at home. I was cordial, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking “Sure, just another creative guy who says he’s going to write a book. Like that’ll ever happen.”

I’ve got to learn to stick with the front of my mind. He’s now released his third book.

Tasting Beer Book002

It’s called “Tasting Beer, an Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink.”, and it should be the instruction manual that comes packaged with every Miller Lite six-pack. Or maybe not. After even only a couple of pages into the book, Miller Lite drinkers would realize there’s a huge world of beers out there – flavors, smells, textures, appearances – that make Miller Lite seem like a slightly less sophisticated version of carbonated water. Although it’s targeted to the entire English-speaking world, the book has a clear Chicago orientation.

Frankly, it’s tough to write about Mosher. Where to start? He’s probably among the world’s foremost beer historians. His books aren’t just packed with information, they’re also fun and lively reads (and include his trademark myriad charts and graphs). It’s virtually impossible to walk down the craft beer aisle at your local Sam’s or Binny’s without seeing several labels he’s designed. And he doesn’t just do labels for those craft brewers – he uses his vast knowledge of the craft beer industry to counsel them on their business plans. He just got back from Brazil, advising brewers there about their burgeoning craft beer scene. He’s a major poo-bah with the influential Chicago Beer Society. He teaches brewers from around the world at Chicago’s Siebel Institute. His Buck-A-Pound brewery – in his basement – would put the pilot plants at many commercial breweries to shame.

So I used my minimal status with The Local Beet as an excuse to take a trip to his Rogers Park home – a beautiful, but not unusual, Victorian home on a quiet street. And I ambushed him.

“Tasting Beer” was released earlier this year. So I thought I’d challenge him to taste a beer he’d never had before and knew nothing about, and watch the process the master uses to evaluate a beer.

I didn’t want to make it easy. I picked a brew I’d made a couple of months ago, using some uncommon, but not completely weird ingredients. Certainly the brew wasn’t as bizarre as some of the beers Mosher writes about in his previous book, Radical Brewing. But it’s not a beer made in a traditional style, either.

I started by asking Randy if he had a beer glass. That was dumb. It’s tantamount to going to Hershey, Pennsylvania and asking “Hey, you guys got any chocolate here?” “Tasting Beers” has eight pages dedicated solely to the different glasses that are traditionally used to serve various varieties of beer.

He said he could probably find a beer glass. Then he pointed me to a large cabinet just behind me, which, through the glass window, displayed what might have been hundreds of different beer glasses, in every shape imaginable. He pulled out a glass that looked like a large red wine glass. “Yeah, it is like a large wine glass. For critical tastings I like it.” The tulip shape, which also resembles a brandy snifter, allows enough room for the foam, and the inward taper concentrates the aromas.

I popped the top on the bottle, and proceeded to pour about six or seven ounces of the beer into the glass. I knew enough to avoid the tilted-glass thing, so he’d get a decent head. I filled the glass about two-thirds full. But I still screwed up the pour. I asked if I had poured it poorly (no pun intended). “For critical evaluations, we would normally leave a little more headspace in there. Y’know, just seems to help to have that in there.” He wasn’t being critical, he wasn’t being snarky. It came across as a helpful comment.

Mosher looked at the glass intently. He held it up to the light. You could see his mind was going a million miles a second, but he was totally silent. He swirled it. Then he set the glass down, stuck his nose in as deeply as he could, and inhaled. It wasn’t just a sniff. It was an intense, profound lungful.

“Definitely want to smell first, before you do anything else. Kinda toasty, caramelly, fruity …”

“You know there’s malt in there, you know there’s hops in there, so you’re always trying to look for those; trying to get those vocabulary words, you know.”

“Got that kind of brown ale smell …”

Then he tasted (or, more accurately he vigorously slurped).

“Pretty toasty, pretty hoppy, like an American Brown sort of thing. There’s a little bit of a kind of a slightly, almost like a gamey kinda smell to it, animally …”

“It’s very sharply bitter.”

“Over-hopped, you think?” I asked, slightly nervously, but without appreciable sweat forming on my brow.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of brown hoppy beers, but people love ‘em, so that’s just like, you know …”

“It’s very austere. I don’t know if you’ve ever tasted a beer with wormwood or gentian or one of those kind of things, but that bitterness is really dry, very dry, woody dry kind of bitterness. Maybe it’s the yeast … Some of those English yeasts tend to accentuate hops, accentuate woody flavors, so to me it may be along those lines. Maybe one of the London ones. Maybe the Young’s strain – that one is particularly hop-accentuating and a little bit woody, so that would make sense. Their beers are always very hoppy there.”

“Doesn’t taste like it has a lot of crystal malt in it … doesn’t have a lot burnt sugar sort of quality about it. Very super crisp and dry on the palate – (slurps again) dry and fruity on the finish.”

“Almost tastes like it has some brown malt or one of those darker roast kinda malts.”

At this point, I went for the reveal. The uncommon ingredients in that beer included 12% crystal rye malt and 12% smoked malt. Sorry – neither of those were local. The crystal rye came from Simpson’s in Scotland. It’s a relatively dark version of a crystal malt (i.e. a malt that’s essentially stewed to develop caramel flavors, add body and add color to a beer). And it’s almost always made from malted barley, not rye.

The beechwood-smoked malt was from Weyermann, in Germany, and is used in greater quantities to make rauchbiers (aka “bacon-in-a-bottle). (Since I made that beer, one of the world’s finest maltsters, a relatively local company, Briess in Chilton, Wisconsin has released its own cherry-wood smoked malt.) I’m guessing the smoked malt contributed the gaminess that Mosher first identified.

“Yeah , maybe that’s some of the spiciness I’m kind of smelling – from the rye.”

So he had identified the hop levels, aspects of the malts used, and completely nailed the yeast.

At that point, Randy’s cat came over, threatening to see to it that the remainder of that well-poured glass of beer is converted into a puddle on the floor.

“Does the cat like beer?”

“Cats can’t taste sweetness, so they don’t like beer. Dogs like beer because they can taste the sweet aspect of it.”

And again I screwed up. I was so fascinated talking beer with him, I completely forgot to take pictures. But you can watch Randy in action – he’s scheduled to be a guest on Chicago Tonight, WTTW Ch. 11, Wednesday July 15 at 7 p.m.

“Hoping to be able to taste some beer on-air with them.”

Look for more beery insights from Randy Mosher in future editions of “Hoppin’ Around with Tom Keith”.