Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Beer Tasting Runs Gamut, With Pizza

As I was retrieving an array of domestic and imported beers from the fridge and setting the bottles down next to a stack of pizzas, the words of comedy essayist Dave Barry came to mind:

"The greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."

We had gathered to assess a wide variety of beers in a blind tasting I devised to give a new import and some new domestic products — a true trial by fire against established mega-brands as well as against cheese, mushroom and pepperoni pizzas.

In my view, how well a beer fares against others of its kind is strictly a matter of personal taste. But, if a beer can’t hold its own against pizza, it has no business being sold in these United States.

The process was straightforward. A four-person panel was served a series of unlabeled 2-ounce tasting glasses of beers and ales — large enough to allow them to assess the carbonation, color and consistency of the brews before tasting them, and not so large as to taint the palate for what came afterward.

What three of our quartet did not know was that I was only interested in their views of four of the seven brews. The others — American beers Budweiser and Coors Light and the luscious Belgian lager Stella Artois — were there to vary the field and provide contrast.

The reactions I wanted were to Tona, a Nicaraguan beer that began being distributed in five states in the U.S. last summer and now is found in more than a dozen states as its network grows, and a line of gluten-free beers and ales being developed in the Fayetteville, Ark., area by Dark Hills Brewery.

Its products are tentatively scheduled to go on sale in late fall.

The two American and one Belgian beers were identified rather quickly by the most beer-savvy members of our quartet.

Although the Tona was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the panel as a whole, they were puzzled by its origin.

Our tasting notes:

"It’s much smoother than the Budweiser, and with a bolder flavor. … I’d drink this beer all night. … It’s very rich and creamy. … Plenty of taste but doesn’t overdo the carbonation so it goes down easy. … This is easy to evaluate: It’s an excellent beer!"

Dark Hills’ rice-based brews avoid barley or any other grains containing gluten. The idea is to cater to a surprisingly wide market niche made up of people who are gluten intolerant, a digestive ailment known as celiac disease. Leigh Nogy, co-founder of the Dark Hills operation, notes that her entire brewery is gluten free, which avoids contamination.

She had supplied me with a trio of prospective brews — an amber ale, a sweet stout and something with the working title "Loki’s Lemon Ale."

In tasting all three, our entire panel noticed a distinct difference between traditional brews and the rice-based concoction, yet found at least two of them rather pleasing.

Our tasting notes:

(Sweet Stout) "A caramel nose, something like burnt brown sugar. … Really full-bodied. … I don’t know if I’d drink a lot of it, but I can see how it would be a substitute if you have a celiac problem."

 (Amber Ale) "Reminds me of some good ciders I’ve had. … Lingering aftertaste instead of just disappearing, which I like. … I could have a few of these. … Goes really well with food."

 (Lemon Ale) "This one makes me think of summer . . . Like a lemonade-style drink, but a little more syrupy. …. Limoncello, that’s what it’s like. … I could drink this over ice like a liqueur."

"Gluten-free beer has been my greatest challenge to date," Nogy told me. "In fact, it’s had my attention for at least six years now developing recipes.

"Our beers are enjoyable, but I have yet to ‘stick the landing’ on the categorical definition of any particular style using the gluten-free ingredients available to us, but that’s what we are aiming for — and we’ll keep working on it."


              (William M. Dowd covers the beverage world at Contact him there to purchase a photo to accompany this column.)


  c.2007 Albany Times Union