CVIndependent

Wed06032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

I know precious little about beer. Aside from some pedestrian lingo about lagers and IPAs and plebeian fermentation knowledge, I’m pretty clueless—and as someone who is an “expert” about wine, this is a sad and shameful fact.

The truth is, when I was a kid, everyone around me drank Budweiser or Kokanee out of a can. When I got into college, Sam Adams was the height of beer-drinking sophistication; wanting to be a “cool kid,” I did my best to choke it down. But I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about: It was bitter and ashy and gave me cottonmouth—not exactly what I wanted in a nice, cold beverage.

As time went on, and the craft-beer scene started to explode, I continued my efforts to drink “serious” beer and really did my damnedest to “get it” … but the more time passed, the worse the beer got. I really couldn’t figure out why beer stopped being refreshing and drinkable—as if brewers were in some kind of arms race to see who could create the most-bitter, hoppiest, most-marijuana-tasting brew in the land. Or as the kids today say, “that beer is dank.” Nowadays, “dank” means good. If you’re like me, and use terms like “nowadays” and refer to the next generation as “kids,” you might have thought that “dank” referred to a stinky, moldy cave. Nope. Apparently we’re hoping our beer is dank.

So here I am, a sommelier in Southern California, where I find myself surrounded by friends who are immersed in—and very prominent figures in—the SoCal beer culture. I no longer want to be a beer dummy. To this end, Brett Newton—the desert’s pre-eminent cicerone and the beer-writer extraordinaire for this newspaper—agreed to a little education exchange: I would select some wines for him to taste, and he’d describe how he felt about them; in return, he would choose a few beers for me to sip, and I’d offer my two cents.

Here’s how it went: We convened on a Sunday at a friend’s house—with wine and beer and plenty of greasy, alcohol-absorbing foods in tow.

The first beer I tasted is one of Brett’s personal favorites when he wants something easy-drinking and quaffable (although I’m pretty sure he’s never used the word “quaffable”; he’s too manly for that): the Allagash White Belgian-style wheat beer. As soon as I stuck my nose in the glass, I loved the aromas of coriander seeds, dried orange peel and cloves. There was this underlying scent of ripe bananas, a little pine resin, and licorice—and I loved the higher amount of carbonation. It’s a beer that’s savory and spicy, and it made my taste buds tingle, which is always fun. But after a few sips, I could sense my mouth was beginning to dry out. Oh god, it’s happening. Here comes the cottonmouth, and I’m only on beer one. I started wondering if anyone would notice if I went and got a Modelo out of the fridge.

We tasted the Effective Dreams by Modern Times next. This beer is double-dry-hopped, which terrified me. I could only assume that “double-dry-hopped” means “skunky weed in a glass.” Before I smelled it, I had visions of this beer reminding me of a bad high school party, and assumed it would taste like the day after. At first, all I could smell was sweaty armpits. Seriously, the beer was really stinky. But much to my surprise … I liked it. I liked it in the same way I like South African wine that smells like mangy animals and Band-Aids. I liked that it had layers of fresh and bright citrus fruit that reminded me of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Once I got past the initial sweet-sweat stench, there were loads of flavors of pineapple and mango—and much to my pleasure, it was thirst-quenching and even a little juicy. It didn’t strip my palate with its double dry hops at all. My name is Katie, and I like double-dry-hopped beer! Who knew?

Next up was the Rodenbach “Alexander” sour from Flanders. To my knowledge, I’ve never had a Flemish beer—but at the recent Craft Beer Weekend at the Ace Hotel, I did experience a few sours, and I really loved them. As an acid hound with wine, I find the tart, vibrant flavors of sour beers to be right up my alley. This particular beer is a red ale fermented with macerated cherries and aged in oak foudres (read: really big barrels)—and it’s quite possibly the most perfect beer for a wine-lover. Right away, I noticed the carbonation was light, and the bubbles were fine, like those in a Champagne, due to the process of bottle conditioning: The bubbles are created from trapped carbon dioxide, just like they are in a bottle of your favorite high-end sparkling wine. I noticed pronounced aromas of bitter coffee and dark chocolate, and a touch of burnt milk. I’ve noticed that the initial aromas I get from these beers are a little … vomitous. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way (if it’s possible to not be pejorative while using the word “vomitous”). I’ve just realized that there is an introductory component on the nose of some of these beers that I need to get past before I can begin to appreciate the secondary flavors and aromas. At one point, Brett was describing the making of this beer as “gooey” and “stringy,” so I guess that solidifies my point.

We moved on to a beer that I was incredibly excited about: The Bruery Terreux Bourgogne Noir 2017 is hardly a beer at all! This is what they call an American wild ale, fermented with pinot noir grape must (juice) and aged in French oak puncheons. Intentionally, there is zero carbonation, which not only makes it look like a full-fledged pinot noir; to my delight, it makes it smell like one, too. On the palate, it offered up more beer flavors, but the overall wine components took over, with cola and Bing cherries dominating. I tasted the telltale bitter-coffee component that I associate with ales, but it was neither dominating nor overpowering. This definitely wasn’t wine, but I would be hard-pressed to call it a beer, either. It was the most unusual and thought-provoking beverage I’ve had in a long time.

Lastly, we tasted what I can only assume is the pinnacle of beer hedonism: a 2017 imperial stout called Black Tuesday from The Bruery. This bottle of brew comes in at a whopping 19.5 percent alcohol by volume. For a girl who relishes wine that comes in less than 13 percent ABV, this might as well be a glass of gasoline. Aged in bourbon barrels for 10 months, this beer resembles an oloroso sherry with its thick, burnt-caramel smell. There is a honey and hot-tar sensation on the palate, followed by a ton of Hershey’s milk chocolate. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if I liked it … there is definitely a dessert wine quality to it. I couldn’t drink a whole glass of Black Tuesday, but much to my surprise, a few sips are unexpectedly pleasant. I don’t care for the heat from the high alcohol that resonates out of the glass, but the flavors are harmonious, layered and balanced.

All in all, I have to give kudos to Brett, who curated a selection of beers that were perfect for a sommelier. I realized after this tasting that I had been painting some beers with a broad brush: I assumed that all IPAs and craft beers were plagued with a cannabis, pine-resin, skunky taste—just like people assume all chardonnay is oaky, buttery and laden with cloying caramel. The education I received from Brett was priceless, and I don’t feel like such a beer dummy anymore. Thank you, Brett, for tolerating my absurd descriptions and patiently answering all my questions.

I highly suggest you make your way to Coachella Valley Brewing and have a few pints with Brett. You might get drunk—but you’ll definitely learn something.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

When my wine counterpart in these pages, Katie Finn, suggested that we pull a beverage version of Trading Places—where she curated a list of wines for me to taste while I returned the favor with a list of beers—my first thought was, “I’m clearly the Eddie Murphy in this movie analogy, right?”

And then I thought it would be a wonderful way for me—a wine-eschewing philistine who thinks beer is far more exciting—to expand my horizons and sample a wine list curated by a sommelier. After months of trying to coordinate my weird schedule with hers, we finally got together at the house of a mutual friend. We also invited some of our friends to help (and in my case, unload some of their awesome beer cellars for the occasion)—and then we proceeded to try to impress each other.

When putting together my list for Katie, I wanted to showcase one of beer’s greatest strengths: its diversity of styles and flavors. This is trickier than it may seem to those who know how vast beer’s flavor spectrum can be. What I didn’t know is that she had the same thing in mind for me.

Trigger warning: What I’m about to do with these descriptions might make wine connoisseurs cringe. I ask for your forgiveness in advance.

Birichino Malvasia 2018 Bianca: This is a white from Monterey County. Once I got over my usual reaction to white wine (“uh, yeah ... smells like white wine!”), I started picking up on a mild spiced-pineapple aroma. Following that down the gullet (offended yet, wine people?) were floral aromas like rose and jasmine. What I really appreciated about the experience was the acidic, dry finish. I’m not a fan of sweeter wines or ciders; I always enjoy the ones that jump off the palate and don’t cloy in the aftertaste. The touch of warmth in the back of it all didn’t hurt, either. We were off to a decent start.

Forge Cellars 2015 Les Alliés Dry Riesling: I know Riesling is a German grape that makes a white wine, but my knowledge essentially ends there. What I learned from this one, out of the Finger Lakes in New York, was that wines from this grape can be very pleasant—with oak, citrus, orange blossom and another dry, acidic finish.

Sans Liege Groundwork Grenache Blanc: Paso Robles is no stranger to me, because of Firestone Walker’s magnificent brewery and invitational festival that I attend every year. (See my column about my trip last year for more on that.) But Paso Robles is primarily a wine region, even if I’ve successfully (and unconsciously) ignored any of its products until now. This had a floral, alcohol aroma up front with a warming, sweet vanilla finish. It was slightly acidic at the end. It was not my jam.

B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir: Now to the color of wine I’ve enjoyed the most when I’ve experienced wine: red. This South African pinot had aromas and flavors of oak and blackberry cheesecake, along with a slight smokiness, a dry finish and some tannic astringency (a drying sensation on the palate). I can only imagine this would pair very well with a cheesecake, but I will defer to Mrs. Finn on that.

Tommasi Rafael 2016 Valpolicella Classico Superiore: As a side note, if beer names ever get this protracted, I’m going to switch professions. As for the wine: This was an Italian dark fruit bomb, with prunes, plums, a hint of cherries—and a dry finish. It’s almost as if she deliberately picked drier wines in anticipation of my aversion to sweet drinks.

Bodegas Atalaya Alaya Tierra 2015: This was the show-stopper for me and my friend Jose. I’ll just show you what I wrote down as I tasted it, verbatim: “Jammy nose. Blackberry and currant. But the first taste is sweet. Then wood. Then hugely herbal. Big sage flavor. Tobacco. I would almost guess this was not oak, but some more exotic Brazilian wood instead.” I was floored—and kind of sad—that no one had showed me a wine with this much character and range before now. Katie generously gave me the remainder of the bottle to take home—and you’d better believe I finished it.

We also covered an “orange” wine, and I took notes regarding the reason it is called that. (It’s white wine, but the skins are kept in during fermentation, like with reds or rosés … but why have a beer guy explain this when you can read Katie’s illuminating column on this subject instead?) Unfortunately, I apparently neglected to make any notes of the bottle that she opened. Hey, I was drinking wine AND beer. What do you want from me? Professionalism?

My main takeaways from this experience were: If you ever get a chance to have a talented and thoughtful sommelier choose a wine flight for you, definitely step on board, even if you’re normally not a wine-drinker; and wine is not a restricted by its limited ingredients, as I mistakenly thought. The Alaya Tierra proved that to me, and I’ll be interested to see what more wine can accomplish as it strikes out into uncharted and nontraditional areas more and more. Who knows? One day, you may find me writing a wine column. But it won’t be this day.

Thanks, Katie! Let’s do this again.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

I walked into work at the beginning of a closing shift on the Friday of a hot, muggy week in the desert.

The past few Fridays had been slow, and my mood was already pensive with a side of rumination, because I’d just seen a woman whom I very much wanted to date at one time—but she was spoken for. I don't tend to walk around with this kind of feeling, but it comes a bit easier for me this time of year.

Summer is a strange time for me. Against all good sense, I wake as early as I can stomach, work out and hike the Bump and Grind trail in Palm Desert five or six days a week. In the summer, if you dislike gyms as much as I do, you simply have to get at it early, for the sake of your safety. For a night person like me, this leads to a mixed sleep schedule that is not exactly conducive to good mental health. I tend to languish and feel lonely. However, the view at the top of the trail, mindfulness meditation and a bit of beer help me at such times.

So far on this Friday, the first two had let me down. I was reserving the third option until later.

The taproom was relatively busy when I arrived, only to quickly clear out within the first 20 minutes of my shift. I thought I was in for a long night of crossword puzzles, finding new blends among the numerous beers on tap and—if my mindfulness wasn't on guard—lamenting the current state of my love life.

After about an hour, fellow “beertender” Kris decided it was probably best for him to call it a shift early and get on with his night. It was around this time I began to notice the temperature climbing in the taproom. My concern rose, because a series of triple-digit weather days combined with unseasonable humidity can overburden air conditioning systems.

But I could not dwell upon my fortune for long: The taproom saw a rush of people, and I found myself not only hustling to get people their beer flights (it's always flights when I'm alone!), but also relaying food orders to Marcel, who runs a very fine pop-up catering company called Gabino's Creperie that has been doing weekend stints at the taproom as of late. I'm always glad to do this, because his twist on crepes is unique and delicious—and most importantly, he hooks me up! But remembering multiple crepe orders along with beer orders is apparently a challenging task for this simple cicerone, and I soon fell behind.

Whenever rushes like this occur, I have a simple mantra: What's next? This is my best approximation of a Zen attitude: I want to just keep moving and slowly ticking things off of the constantly updating list of things I need to do. I also think of the tips. I wish I could say I was navigating around the taproom and the extra taps in the brewhouse with the mindset of a man tending a Japanese garden, but thinking of the extra pot of gold at the end of the sweaty rainbow helps me when "What's next?" fails.

When the little rush was over, I had time to think about the still-rising temperature. Maybe the A/C had just had it. The thermostat read 81. As I looked the thermostat, I heard a strange ambient noise down the hall: Our head brewer had left one of the doors to the brewhouse open, and all of the moisture-laden, oven-like air had been flowing freely into the taproom for two hours. I muttered a few general obscenities (which I also find helpful in stressful situations) and shut the door.

Also, I thought of poor Marcel: He was hustling to get his crepes made out there!

Throughout the evening, Marcel and I enjoyed the sweet, sweet refuge of one of the walk-in coolers in back. Despite all of the heat that comes with enduring the summers in our arid portion of Southern California, I would never trade it for the bitter, numbing cold that others in our country deal with in the winter. For a minute at a time, however, it is heaven and provides me with a welcome respite from my little whirlwind of a night.

Thirty minutes before closing time, and with the taproom climate beginning to return to something approaching comfortable, every customer had cleared out, leaving me to begin my closing duties. I realized that I hadn't thought for hours about the aforementioned woman (not counting that moment, of course). I took this as a victory.

Under the wire, a couple walked in and asked if it wasn't too late. I was in a relatively good mood, and they expressed how they’d raced in from Long Beach to enjoy our beer, so I couldn't deny them. I even gave them access to our exclusive “members only” taplist which includes an incredible non-barrel-aged version of our Black Widow Imperial Stout with vanilla and coconut, called "German Chocolate Cake." Yes, it is as good as it sounds. They were a lovely married couple, and we talked about the state of beer in Long Beach and the Coachella Valley. They thoroughly enjoyed their beer flights, picked up some special bottles to go, and graciously left a generous tip while thanking me profusely. Needless to say, it's hard to remain in your own shit mentally when this happens.

I finished my closing chores with the help of our English style pale ale, locked up and walked out to my car. It was close to midnight, and my car's thermometer read 98. I cursed the ridiculous amount of golf courses in the area for holding this heat in the valley this late at night. My car's climate control was quickly set to 65, and I drove home thinking about my miniature roller coaster ride of a night.

As soon as I peeled off my work clothes and threw water on my face, I went to my fridge and grab a Gravity Check Session IPA from Kern River Brewing to wash the whole day down.

And this is where I found you, dear reader.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

I am a craft-beer lover who doesn’t just like hazy IPAs or pastry-inspired stouts, so I revel in being introduced to new flavors and flavor combinations when I can. However, this has both good and bad consequences.

Every so often, I try a beer that transcends all of its flavors and becomes a kind of liquid symphony. Then there are times when I can’t believe the brewery allowed the beer I’m tasting to ever leave its doors.

I need to be careful here and state the obvious: If you love a beer, that’s great. Continue doing so, and don’t let anything I say—or anything anyone says—rob you of that love. You might like it because of its flaws, or perhaps you didn’t perceive them as such.

However, if you would like to train your palate to be a more-reliable detector of off-flavors in beer, follow me, and see what you can pick up next time you’re at your local brewery. I’ll break down some common off-flavors by their descriptors and then explain why it might be there. I will attempt to do this without being too dry or pedantic. Wish me luck!

Butterscotch or buttered popcorn: This is my old nemesis diacetyl. This is a byproduct of fermentation initially before it goes into a secondary phase where the yeast cleans it up. Certain English styles allow for low levels of this, and it can sometimes be pleasant (or so I’m told—I despise this off-flavor wherever I come across it), but for the most part, it means a full, healthy fermentation did not occur. Occasionally, this flavor can arise alongside a vinegar-like flavor to indicate a possible infection in the beer line. When at high levels, diacetyl will also cause the beer to have a slicker mouthfeel. As much as I dislike this flavor when I encounter it in beer, I have seen it put to good use in a beer by Southern Tier Brewing Company called Creme Brulee. This beer is a great example of the sum being more than the sum of the parts.

Green apple or rotting apple: Similar to diacetyl, acetaldehyde is a byproduct of primary fermentation and gets cleaned up as long as the yeast is given enough time. Can I interest you in a nice, dry cider instead?

Vegetal, cooked cabbage or cooked corn: Dimethyl sulfide (or DMS, because that is way easier to say) is as gross as the descriptors sound. Not that cabbage or corn is disgusting—but would you drink juice made from them? This can have a number of causes, but I find it most often in hoppy beers. It makes the beer an instant drain-pour for me.

Paint thinner or nail-polish remover: Oh, yes. Over-stressed yeast (usually at higher-than-normal fermentation temperatures combined with oxidation) can cause a beer to become solvent-like. There’s no getting around it, either; you can’t cover this one up. It just sits there like an 800-pound gorilla and dares you to drink more. Be wary of the gorilla, folks.

Skunk: The first sip of beer I can remember was of my Canadian dad’s Moosehead Lager. I remember it pretty clearly—because it tasted like fizzy skunk spray. For good reason, too; the compound causing that flavor is called mercaptan and is the chemical in skunk spray. Light is beer’s enemy; UV light rays react with compounds in the hops and create that distinctive off-flavor. If a beer is sitting on a shelf in clear, green or blue bottles … keep walking. Even with brown bottles, after a while, that beer is destined to become light-struck. This is one reason why the market is being flooded with canned craft beers, and I don’t see that trend slowing at all. At one point, international beer brands like the aforementioned Moosehead, Heineken and Amstel were bottling their beers in green bottles to the point where people thought mercaptan was just an acceptable beer flavor. It is not, and I implore you to discourage this by not buying any beer in a clear, blue or green bottle.

Oxidation: I use the term instead of the descriptor, because this one has a lot of range. Mostly, an oxidized beer will give off flavors and aromas of paper or wet cardboard—associated with stale beer. It can even resemble decaying vegetables. A well-aged beer, however, can have very pleasant oxidized notes of honey or sherry. Brewers go to great lengths to package their beer with as little free oxygen inside as possible, but it’s always there, and you run the risk of it overtaking your bottled or canned beer the longer you take to enjoy it. Lower temperatures and darkness slow this process down, so age your beer accordingly.

Medicinal, smoky or plastic: Yeast is such an interesting life form. It’s ubiquitous in our environment and is highly survivable and adaptable. Brewing yeast strains are no different. Whole dissertations have been written on fermentation. Some of the more enjoyable compounds that emerge in varying degrees from fermentation are esters and phenols. If you’ve had Belgian ales or perhaps a German hefeweizen, you are already familiar with them. Esters can produce a wide range of fruity flavors such as banana, bubblegum, citrus or pomegranate. Phenols have their own range that includes clove and white pepper—but this is the light side of phenols. The dark side can come out when the yeast is in a more-stressful environment and throws out highly medicinal (think “bandage”), smoky or plasticky aromas and flavors. They are definitely unpleasant.

Astringency: This is a sensation more than a flavor, but it’s often indicative of a flawed process. Overly steeped or milled grains are a common culprit, as is over-hopping. If you’ve ever had a red wine or tea that was steeped too long, and it seemed to suck all the moisture out of your tongue as it passed over, you’ve experienced astringency. Tannins (usually from the husks of grain) and polyphenols (usually from hops) should be mitigated as much as possible so that your beer is refreshing and doesn’t require you to alternate sips of water to compensate.

There are more off-flavors (grassy, yeasty and sulfuric being among them), but you can search for yourself and dive deep.

Lest you think these don’t show up very often, I’ve experienced each one of these at least once in the past three months. Here’s a tip for tasting that can help you discern subtle flavors in anything: After you swallow the beer, exhale through your nose with your mouth closed. You have a separate olfactory sense called the retronasal system, and it can pick up things your orthonasal system (your nostrils and mouth) might have missed.

Yeah, you’re right, I just got dry and pedantic. How to fix that?

WHO WANTS TO SHOTGUN A BEER?!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

One of the skills I had to acquire before becoming a certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a sommelier, more or less) was pairing beer with food. In other words, the IPA I was ordering with my hamburger was research! Works for me.

You may be familiar with the idea of wine dinners, but you might not know that when it comes to pairing foods with beverages, beer wipes the floor with wine. Yeah, I included that sentence to provoke a reaction with wine-lovers. The thing is … it happens to be true!

Just think about how beer is made for a moment: The grains are prepared in various ways (malting, kilning and/or roasting), then steeped in the mashing process (much like hot cereal); the sugars are then boiled, with ingredients added at any number of points during the end of the boil and fermentation.

With wine? There are grapes. Maybe some will be blended together. Ergo beer > wine.

I know I'm short-changing wine here, but I bristle at the assumed superiority of wine to beer. Wine struggles where beer breezes in and amazes. Spicy foods, desserts, complex or simple entrées, among all cultures and preparations—beer has it covered, usually from multiple angles. Do you think wine and cheese is dreamy? Beer and cheese will wake you up and make you praise the day. The Belgians have known this for a long time, and has Cuisine à la Biere, which uses the country's delicious beers in the preparation of dishes such as mussels sautéed in a tripel or gueuze, or carbonnade flamande, a beef and onion stew using Flanders red ale instead of water or broth.

Yes, you, too, can pair beer and food. There are a few principles to keep in mind when planning an individual pairing or a multi-course beer dinner:

Match intensities: This is a fairly simple idea: If you have a pairing in which either the beer or the food overwhelms, you might as well have had water rather than beer with your food. When a meal has numerous courses, this is even more important. If you can raise the intensity of the pairings along the way, you can leave your dinner guests blissfully sated. Keep in mind the beer’s strength, as well as how hoppy, roasty, smoky, bitter, etc., it is, and then arrange the dinner courses accordingly.

Complement, contrast and combine: These are the three ways you can approach a pairing. Finding a beer that resembles or includes ingredients contained within the food should be obvious—a citrusy, herbal American pale ale with tacos, for example, or a toasty, nutty English Brown ale with a sharp cheddar. (You will think you're having a grilled cheese sandwich!)

Contrast is another way of approaching a pairing. This is a little more difficult, but a simple way of doing it is using a beer's carbonation and bitterness to "cut" through the food and refresh the palate when necessary. Contrasting flavors can also be done in so many ways that it would be impossible for me to convey even the basics without boring you to death. This is where playing around with pairings is very fun and educational. Good examples of this are pairing a fruited lambic (Belgian sour ale) with a chocolate cake, where the sour, fruity and spritzy beer contrasts with the rich and sweet flavors of the cake. A roasty, creamy stout like Guinness with oysters is a classic pairing. I've had much success combining hoppy beers with chocolates as well (although one could say that eating chocolate and drinking beer simultaneously is a success in and of itself, regardless of how they pair up).

Finally, combining flavors in beer and food to leave the impression of something else altogether can be a great way to conduct whole beer dinners. Themes are another good idea: You can use a single beer style with different courses, or pair beers with a particular cuisine, or develop any kind of theme that unites both.

Pitfalls: I've mentioned some "home run" combinations, but there are also potential duds. For example, hoppy beers make oily fish (sardines, anchovies, etc.) taste harshly metallic. Gross. Hops and alcohol accentuate capsaicin in spicy foods. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're a spice junkie like me. Malt-ier beers will soothe that heat, alternately.

I've paired food from the highly talented Jeshua Garza of Kuma Catering with then-head brewer Chris Anderson's beers at Coachella Valley Brewing for some private dinners. Here is the menu from one of my favorites.

Amuse bouche: Crab arancini with shaved parmesan, paired with Oasis Apple Ale, an American wheat ale with fresh-pressed McIntosh apples. The carbonation in the beer cuts through the fried rice ball and lifts it off the palate, while the slightly tart apple notes contrast the savory crab and cheese.

First Course: Citrus-cured salmon puntarelle, anchovy dressing, radish, lemon aioli, grapefruit and breadcrumbs, paired with Desert Swarm, a Belgian-style honey double witbier with kumquats and coriander. Again, carbonation helps clear the palate for the next bite, while the citrus in the beer and in the food complement each other. The banana yeast esters and coriander in the beer add an extra dimension.

Second course: Sous vide herb chicken, curried sun-choke puree, crispy Brussels sprouts and orange almond pistou, paired with Big Cat Tart Farmhouse Style Ale, containing desert sage, rosemary and grains of paradise. This was the highlight of the dinner: Tartness meets tartness, and citrus in the food plays well off of the curried puree and Brussels sprouts. Then the herbs and spices in the beer cling to the tender chicken perfectly.

Third course: Lamb leg, smoked yogurt, chili baby turnips, roasted persimmons and pork jus, paired with Dubbel Date, a Belgian dubbel with dates. This is a great example of both types of contrast mentioned previously. Belgian beers are typically highly carbonated and dry, and contain fruity, sweet (but not cloying) flavors. This helps the savory, smoky, roasty, fatty goodness of the lamb slide on down and adds sweetness to get you reaching for that next bite.

Fourth course: Caramelized pear tart, toasted coriander ice cream, mint and meyer lemon syrup, paired with Super Swarm on Brett, a variation of a stronger version of Desert Swarm aged in whiskey barrels with pomegranate molasses. This has complement (sweetness, breadiness, citrus and coriander), contrast (a higher alcohol by volume and carbonation against buttery, sweet flavors) and combination (it tasted like having Froot Loops cereal with some banana added alongside a nip of bourbon), all in one dish. I was lucky that this beer was on tap for this dinner, as only a limited amount was produced. 

I hope this whets your appetite. If in doubt … just go for it, and see what happens. If you find some interesting, delicious and/or unexpected pairings, please send them my way and share them so that we may all enjoy them.

One last thing: Make sure you don’t take this too seriously. One of the best things about beer is its accessibility. We don't need the level of snobbery that some wine enthusiasts can manage anywhere near the greatest and oldest alcoholic beverage in the world—beer. Cheers!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

Today, we’re going to go over some tips on how to buy beer.

Before you throw up your hands and say, “Please … what is there to know about buying beer?! You enter a store that sells it, and you buy it!”—let me explain.

If you drink mass-produced lager and are perfectly happy with that, you don’t need this advice. The one thing the “big boys” in the brewing industry are good at is making their beer exactly the same, every time, and getting it to you as fresh as possible, as often as possible. But if you are like me and love craft beer—in other words, you look forward to having your taste buds challenged and your mind blown—this advice will help.

I have some good and bad news for you. First, the bad: There is bad beer everywhere. The good news: There is excellent beer almost everywhere, and if you follow a few rules, you can greatly increase your chances of finding some great beer.

How am I qualified to tell you, the wise consumer, about this? I am what is called a certified cicerone. Think of it as the equivalent of a sommelier (a wine “expert”) for beer. I spent a year studying (after 23 years of exploring and learning on my own) for a 4 1/2-hour exam that only 33 percent of all test-takers pass. (This is only the second level of a four-level system of certifications, by the way.) In other words, when it comes to the subject of beer, you can go very deep.

Anyway, enough about my bona fides; let’s jump into the rabbit hole.

1. Beer goes bad at varying rates. A can or keg is ideal for protecting beer, because light, oxygen and heat are beer’s worst enemies. The brown bottle offers the next-best protection, followed by green and clear bottles, which provide almost no protection. Also, refrigerated beer is the best to buy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that beer stored in cold, dark places is preferable.

2. Check the dates. Many craft breweries stamp or print the bottling date somewhere on the packaging.

Hoppy beers are the first to go bad. This is due to the breakdown of the various hop compounds in the beer, as well as possible exposure to UV rays (Ever had skunky beer, anyone?) If that IPA is more than three months old, it probably isn’t what the brewer wanted you to taste—especially if it was not refrigerated or protected from light.

Three to six months is good for most other styles. There are major exceptions to this—for example, many Belgian trappist styles and sour ales last longer, as do stronger ales such as barley wines and imperial stouts—but a good way to look at it is this: The brewer would not have packaged and released the beer if he or she didn’t think it was ready to drink. I have saved enough bottles—and been subsequently disappointed—often enough to now seriously limit the number of beers I cellar.

3. Crowd-sourcing sites like BeerAdvocate are your friends. BeerAdvocate is a website that allows users to add, rate and review beers, as well as breweries and craft-beer bars. If you have any questions or are wondering what the beer you’re looking at in the store is, you can look it up there and get some generally thoughtful reviews.

Many places sell or serve craft with employees who can’t offer you much help—but luckily, you are armed with a powerful pocket computer that can access the vast information resource that is the Internet. Remember to consider the source, however.

4. Don’t be afraid to send that beer back. You might feel odd doing this—but a beer you’ve been served may be flawed. It may be the beer itself is no good and suffers from off-flavors; the keg may be old; or the lines that bring the beer to the tap may need cleaning. You don’t need to pay for a bad drink, and while a truly great beer bar will rarely, if ever, make these mistakes, they’ll gladly make up for it if they do.

And if a business reacts poorly when you send a beer back … be glad: You now know where not to drink in the future.

5. Take a chance. Many of the best beers I’ve ever purchased have been dice rolls when it came down to it. This does not need to happen as much as it did in the 1990s and 2000s—yes, I’m that old—because today, there are so many resources discussing so much beer from so many breweries. However, in some ways, this wealth information can be daunting, and even discouraging. If you’re afraid of looking ignorant … don’t be afraid. We’re all dreadfully ignorant about some things—so much so that there are things that we don’t even know that we don’t know. Do you know what I mean?

Anyway … if you are a curious person with a thirst for knowledge, you can dive in and become less and less ignorant, no matter your interest level in craft beer. Now, start getting that fresh, beautiful beer from that store or bar into your mouth.

Happy hunting!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer