Written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/12/23/forget-champagne-look-these-beers-new-years/95681506/
It’s that time of year for celebrations! And if you’re like me, that means gathering up bottles of rare goodies with plenty of bubbles inside.
Champagne is the classic way to ring in the New Year. And if you follow my writing, you know that I love Champagne: true Champagne! (But more on that in a moment.)
But if you’re reading this column, my guess is that you’re more of a beer person than a wine person. Enter the “Champagne” of beers. (No, not Miller “High Life,” despite what their advertising slogan would have you believe.) There are some rare gems in the beer world which fall into the category of “Bière de Champagne,” or “Bière Brut,” and share a lot in common with classic French sparklers despite being made from grains instead of grapes.
But before we get to these special beers, it’s important to understand how Champagne is made.
The classic sparkling wine is often copied, but true Champagne only comes from one place in the world: The Champagne region in France. Grapes are pressed and fermented just like for regular table wines. After fermentation and aging are complete, these base wines are put into special bottles that can hold extreme pressures (i.e. the Champagne bottle). At this point, a blend of yeast and fermentable sugars, known as the “liqueur de tirage,” is added to kickstart a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The bottle is capped with a crown cap (think beer bottle cap) and left to ferment. CO2 is a byproduct of fermentation and since the bottle is capped, the carbonation stays in solution, naturally carbonating the wine.
While the Champagne is aging, cellar workers turn and tilt the bottles in special racks, slowly tilting the neck of the bottle downward. When the wine is ready to be released, the neck of the bottle is frozen, which creates a plug of wine and yeast. During a process know as “dégorgment,” the cap is knocked off the bottle and the pressure inside expels the yeast-plug, therefore clarifying the wine. A “liqueur d’expedition,” wine mixed with sugar, is added to determine the final sweetness/dryness level of the wine, and then a cork and cage is put into place.
The following beers are great options for New Year’s Eve celebrations if you’re going to skip the sparkling wine. They are decidedly rare, and a little pricey, but if you find a bottle to share with close friends, you’ll be an instant holiday hero!
Malheur (Belgium) “Bière Brut” — Brouwerij Malheur, formerly known as De Landtsheer, claims to be the first to adapt the méthode champenoise to beer brewing. “Bière Brut” is refermented up to three times in the bottle. When the bottle-conditioning is complete, the cellar hands carefully maneuver the bottles so that the neck of the bottle is titled downward, encouraging the yeast to settle in the neck of the bottle. Dégorgement occurs just like in Champagne production and the cork and cage are used to seal up the bottle. At 11 percent alcohol, this beer is just shy of the alcohol percentage found in most Champagnes. To serve the beer, the brewery recommends chilling the bottle down to between 39 and 42 degrees. Then swirl an ice cube around in a beer goblet for a short time – the ice chills the glass and also wets it, which will prevent over-foaming. Open the bottle just as you would a fine Champagne by loosening the cage, holding the bottle at a 45-degree angle (away from you and your guests!) and slowly twisting the bottle away from the cork. A small fizz is what you want, not a loud POP! (This prevents the bottle from foaming over.) Slowly pour the bottle into the chilled goblets and you’re all set for a toast!
Bosteels (Belgium) “DeuS Brut des Flanders” — From the brewers of “Tripel Karmeliet” and “Kwak” comes this Bière de Champagne, of which the late beer writer Michael Jackson said, “Other great beers might approach, but not quite match the delicacy of DeuS.” That’s a huge compliment from “The Beer Hunter,” and this writer is inclined to agree based on my own tasting experiences. Primary and secondary fermentations occur in stainless steel tanks in Belgium, but when the beer is bottled and ready for aging, it is shipped off to the Champagne region. There the bottles age gracefully in caves, undergoing the same riddling (remuage), dégorgment, and corking that bottles of Champagne experience. At 11.5 percent alcohol, this pale colored brew pours with a huge crackling white head. With floral aromas, minerals, tea — this very well could be a bottle of France’s finest. If you’re a fan of oysters, there’s no better pairing that with a bottle of DeuS.
Mikkeller (Denmark) “Nelson Sauvignon Brut” Like many of Mikkel Borg Bjergsø’s products, this beer has many iterations. “Nelson Sauvin Brut,” “Nelson Sauvignon Brut,” etc., the latter being the current one available in Vermont. At 9 percent alcohol, it’s a touch lower than the others, but it merges the wine and beer worlds more truly in that it is aged in wine barrels before bottling. Brettanomyces adds another layer of funky, earthy complexity and a higher-than-typical level of carbonation to this Bière Brut-style brew. Notes of white wine, earthy hay and crisp grapes dance on the palate.
No matter how you choose to celebrate the holidays, please do so responsibly. Happy New Year!
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf. Jeff co-hosts the “It’s the Beer Talking” podcast found on iTunes and Soundcloud. More info at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/news/podcasts