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Towards a Theological Reading of Garrett Oliver's "Brewmaster's Table"

Eitan Kensky, April 20, 2015 -   

Beer is the ultimate post-Passover food.

Beer is everything you can’t have -- barelys, wheats, oats, and unsupervised malts -- condensed into one glass. On Passover your family makes all its old recipes and uses ingredients it will never touch the rest of the year. Strange brands reappear in your life. Schick’s Bakery is a ubiquitous giant during Passover but otherwise a rumor. Passover’s flavors are inward-looking, craft beer’s outward. Brewers are always working to try new spices, different hop varietals, and to incorporate heritage strains of wheat. The Rabbis who set the rules of Passover exclude the unknown. They banish anything that could be called a grain, that could plausibly or implausibly be confused with wheat or rye or barley, any of the crops that cannot mix with water for more than 18 minutes, let alone ferment for weeks.

Passover really begins the morning of the First Seder, the ritual feast that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt by telling the story of a group of Rabbis in ancient Palestine who sat around and discussed the Exodus from Egypt. In ancient times, Passover was celebrated through sacrifice. A lamb was sacrificed on the afternoon on the 14th day of the month of Nisan, the eve of the Passover. (The Gospel of John dates Jesus’s crucifixion to the 14th, equating Jesus with the paschal lamb. The synoptic Gospels disagree. To them the Last Supper is a Passover meal.) The Sages take this to mean that the afternoon of the fourteenth is the true start of the holiday, and extended the ban on leaven into the day before Passover. Later Rabbis prohibited hametz after the late-morning in order to ward off its accidental consumption -- a decision that makes a lot more sense in a world before the standardization of time.

The end result is that two oddly linked things happen at my father’s house on the morning before the first Seder: he asks me if there is any beer I want to store for after the Holiday and I -- or we -- eat a bowl of Grape Nuts. As Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver, writes,

“If you really want to know what malt tastes like, get yourself a box of Grape Nuts breakfast cereal….There are no grapes in Grape Nuts. This cereal is made from barley malt and yeast. It’s practically beer in a box.”

My father doesn’t drink. He’ll either be amused or horrified by the fact that he created a devoted beer drinker by raising me on one of the oddest, most boring, least sugary breakfast cereals, I’m not sure which.  

2.

Before I say anything more, let me say this: Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table is a beautiful book. Everyone who cares about beer should own it. Let it live on your coffee table and thumb through it often. Treat it as a manifesto. Consider it a reference manual to a life with beer. Lose yourself in its pictures and descriptions. Or give Brewmaster’s Table the place of honor on your bookcase. Display it somewhere you can see it always. Then, every so often, take it down from the shelf and be inspired. Decide to seek out a new style of beer. Apologize for staying away from Brewmaster’s Table for so long and promise to be better.

The explicit subject of The Brewmaster’s Table is pairing beer with food, though cracks appear immediately. “Discovering the pleasures of real beer with real food,” goes the subtitle, but the accent should be place on “real” rather than “with.” All the things that give beer Realness -- its styles, ingredients, local histories, preeminent brewers, traditions and arcana -- are the book’s major obsessions. Real food and pairing, the “with” of the the subtitle, is a secondary, though prominent fixation. One could call its true subject flavor. One could also say that its true subjects are knowledge and self-discovery.

In Oliver’s book, knowledge and self-discovery exist in a tense, semi-oppositional relationship. Knowledge comes from learning more about yourself and taste, but knowledge also prevents self-discovery. The Brewmaster’s Table is mostly well-written text on the history of a style and its flavors, but Oliver also fills his book with captions, tables, and appendices to help you choose what beer to serve with what food.

Bananas (fried, or with dessert)

Weissbock, imperial stout.  

Biryani Weissbier, witbier, sweeter abbey ales and doppelbocks

The guides are here because Oliver wants the user to be able to check a food and find the style or check a style and find a food. They are are incredible and exhaustive, shorthand notes to the insights that Oliver develops in the texts.

But the guides are also reductive, less suggestions than the verdict of the brewmaster. They discourage thinking about flavor, which cuts against the book’s argument. The appendix says, x goes with y, but the narrative preaches discovery. Oliver is an evangelist for beer. Breweries are its holy sites all brewers its servants. There are quest narratives hidden in the book's pages. "I wasn't having much luck in my attempts to arrange a trip to Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sain-Remy, the monastery that brews the brilliant Rochefort Trappist ales. Frustration was setting in." The appendix distills the book to, “this is what you should know,” whereas learning how to know is generally its central lesson.

Oliver’s road to Damascus was a pub in London. Exhausted from travel, Oliver is served a traditional ale. “It wasn’t even cold--in fact, it was barely cool. Each sip seemed to reveal something new--a whiff of sea air, a different flower or fruit. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure. But it was so interesting that I couldn’t stop drinking it.”

The religious resonances that shrould “Reveal” here make its use perfect. Revelation can either be immediate or slowly unfolding. The Brewmaster’s Table is a conversion narrative of the slow kind. Oliver has the insight, then aims to uncover more. He drinks steadily for years and allows his knowledge and ability to seize on flavors to get better. Revelation, for him, was the awareness that he needed to open himself to continuous revelation.

The danger of reading an ersatz-religious text like The Brewmaster’s Table is the danger of secondhand experience. If we follow its instructions too precisely, we’ll end up reenacting events without any of the elements that made the experience meaningful. Someone else’s revelation will never be as mystical as my own.

Apologize for staying away from Brewmaster’s Table for so long -- but also stay away. Take breaks. Reflect on your experiences. Think about what you drink when you eat. The first thing I noticed once I started reading the book was that jalepenos washed out most of the flavors of wheat beers. This isn’t a surprise; it makes sense intellectually. It also would have been just as easy for me not to notice, to take the next sip or bite and uncritically move on, as I usually do.

Oliver suggests serving American pale and brown ales with burritos. I could have followed that suggestion -- and I often will. But ignoring suggestions and prescribed courses are paths into serendipity, and I’m not sure if you can develop any kind of personal aesthetic or taste without accident. Order things you’ve never heard of, things that don’t sound good. Try a combination like Pumking and lamb Biryani because maybe it’s terrible but maybe there’s a spice there, beneath the flavors, that oddly makes it work in combination. Think about what you like and follow those leads. Learn more about the nuances of style because maybe connoisseurship will help you to determine who you are as a person, or maybe you’ll decide that connoisseurship is overrated, and that your path is more innocent, based on the immediate experience of the drink in front of you. Take everything as a suggestion and follow your own path into revelation. Then promise to be better at reading Brewmaster’s Table.

3.

It’s a weekday night in early Fall and I’m at home in Cambridge waiting for my friend, a yeast biologist, to make the nine minute walk (seven if the lights are with you) from the commuter rail to my apartment. Other people are already here. Dinner is Grape Nuts and beer.

Entertaining with food and drink is the book’s second great subject. Oliver always writes with an eye toward sharing beer and food with others, and the communal experience of discovering flavor together.

The idea to pair beer with Grape Nuts came from the line I quoted above. My logic, probably faulty, went like this: to know what pairs well with different beer, start with a food that tastes like beer and then mix up the flavors. And since we were also pairing beer with breakfast cereal, it only made sense to buy beer from the grocery store. Nothing we served was obscure: Anchor Steam Beer, Lindeman’s Strawberry Lambic, Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale, and Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier. Most of the beers are discussed in the book. Some of the breweries rhapsodized.

Notes: We started with the Strawberry Lambic. Oliver is a defender of sweetened lambics. “Don’t forget that some people always sweetened their beers...While the traditional versions can be excellent aperitifs and very nice with savory dishes, no dessert wine can hope to rival sweetened kriek and framboise with desserts.”

First observation: do not pour the lambic over the Grape Nuts. It, uh, does not go well.

Second observation: do not pour milk over the Grape Nuts -- at least not when serving with a lambic.

Third observation: should you run out of party snacks, dry Grape Nuts are a surprisingly tasty treat.

Fourth observation, and more to the point: the lambic paired with Grape Nuts really did seem aggressively sweet, sweeter than usual. The contrast emphasized the maltiness of Grape Nuts and made the lambic seem less like beer. Perhaps Oliver is right: pair with sweet dishes, not savory. Fruity pebbles, not Grape Nuts or Cream of Wheat.

Next we moved to the Hefe Weissbier. In America, wheat beers connote summer, and sunshine, and being outside. Bavarians drink wheat beers for breakfast. Weissbiers, Oliver argues, ought to replace the mimosa as America’s official drink of brunch. “A cheese omelette presents two mouth-coating ingredients--eggs and cheese--but carbonation and a touch of acidity cut right through, and fruity flavors seal the deal.” Weihenstephaner and Grape Nuts, then, are destined to go together, star crossed lovers waiting to dance their moonlit dance.

Verdict: it was fine. Banana notes from the yeast are a poor substitute for bananas sliced into cereal.

I chose Anchor Steam because of its maltiness. It was the beer that seemed closest to Grape Nuts, thereby answering the question: does beer pair well with beer? It pairs...ok.

Last was the Dogfish Head Punkin’ ale. Whether it was the Grape Nuts or the season or the fact that all we’d had that night was Grape Nuts, we all loved this beer. We flipped for it. We wanted to drink more and more of it.

None of the beers were as good as the night. None of the mixtures of food and drink as rich as the mixture of people. Food scholars use the term “commensality” to highlight the cultural significance of who we eat with and where. Those with whom you share a table are those who you marry, make business with, and form community.

But from the religious perspective, the how of eating and drinking is as important as the with. A wine or beer tasting is dinner and drink made ritual. A tasting transfigures the objects in front of you, injects the normal with meaning. Dinner with The Brewmaster’s Table is a moveable feast, an ever-shifting event that replaces overt religion with secularized versions of sacred actions: a table shared with others, a meal illuminated by writ, the conscious coordination of food and drink, and the discussion of all aspects of what you’ve just experienced.

And thank God it did. I’d never thought of curating a pairing or tasting before I read The Brewmaster’s Table. Now I think about it often, mostly as a way to escape the mundane. Holidays exist to divide time and to mark some as special. In Judaism, we claim to consecrate time for God, but the end results is that we consecrate time for ourselves. We break from our routines. My job involves sitting around libraries for long stretches of a time and disappearing into trains of thought. I’m much happier when I get to see people and talk to them. But that often requires effort and who has the energy and time to host a dinner party? Who has the energy and time to go to a dinner party midweek?

But call it instead a pairing or tasting. Endow it instead with secular meaning and possibilities open. You’ve had that Chinese take-out dozens of times, but have you tried serving it with 4 or 5 different types of beer? My friend the yeast biologist came straight from his work because I promised him something new, a combination of flavors and beers that he hadn’t had before. It was enough to push him to break his mundane.

Without the ritual of tasting beer we would have been a bunch of sad men having Grape Nuts for dinner. Or rather we wouldn’t have been sad men having Grape Nuts for dinner. We would have been alone, or with our partners, but not together, not talking, not dividing time into the usual and the meaningful. With the beer we saw each other, revisited some classics, and had a great night. We entered the fellowship of The Brewmaster’s Table.

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