Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sly Fox versus The World

Few things in life are as disappointing as stale beer. Luckily, the only thing running the risk of becoming stale in the context of the recent Sly Fox dinner at Chick’s Café is this here write-up, which is finally seeing the light of day over two weeks after the fact. In this case, I’d like to think of it more as aged and considered.

Sly Fox brewmaster, Brian O'Reilly.

Jonny Medlinsky, beer meister and event coordinator at Chick’s, has been putting on a really swell series of beer and beverage tastings over the last year. The latest rendition, held on Tuesday, June 24, featured guest speaker Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Phoenixville, PA’s Sly Fox Brewery. Brian’s initial take when approached with Jonny’s idea for the class was one of trepidation. Sly Fox versus the world? A daunting proposal to be sure, one that he eventually embraced in coming up with his final presentation – “Inspirations and Interpretations of Sly Fox” – in which his own brews were matched up with their old world forebears.

The great thing about comparative tastings like this, at least when the urge to make it a competitive tasting is repressed, is the educational opportunity afforded to the attendees. Call it palate training, if you will. Of course, when the brewer behind one of the lineups is at the helm, there’s always the possibility of a favorable showing. As an added bonus, each round was paired with a dish prepared by Chick’s Chef, Jim Piano. Here’s what was served.

  • Aperitif: Sly Fox Grisette
    Poured solo. This is O’Reilly’s take on a rather obscure style of French farmhouse ale brewed especially as an end of day refresher for the miners (as opposed to the farmers) in France’s Hainaut Province. Peppery, lightly spicy, bright and refreshing.

  • Round One: Sly Fox Saison Vos and Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont (Belgium)
    If you read this blog with any frequency, you already know that I tend to be and old world guy, so it’s not meant lightly when I say that this was the only match up of the evening where I felt that the old world wine came out on top. When it comes to farmhouse ales, I want there to be a little wild, funky character, something that Dupont’s Saison delivers along with citrusy, lively flavors and a spicy yeast influence. Sly Fox Vos was tasty but just a little too squeaky clean in the context of Saison. These were matched up with a selection of cheeses and a few slices of salami from Agrumi Artisan Meats (made by Mario Batali’s father). One of the most successful food pairings of the night.

    Adam Gertler, former co-owner of Philly's The Smoked Joint (now defunct) and cast member of The Next Food Network Star, made a guest appearance to demonstrate his recipe for smoked beef short ribs.

  • Round Two: Sly Fox Pikeland Pils and Jever Pils (Germany)
    Both true to type and both delicious, the Sly Fox entry was light and assertively dry, Jever’s more assertively hoppy with a resulting bitter snap on the finish. I’d put this one in the draw category, adding only that I really enjoyed the Pikeland Pils. (Now to go shopping for a case.) Sly Fox is one of the craft brewing world’s current first and foremost adopters of the lined aluminum can; their Pils was poured from 12 ounce cans. Neither was quite up to the task of marrying with the assertive, Omega-3 driven flavors of pan-seared mackerel, though I’d give the edge to Jever Pils in the context of the food pairing.

  • Round Three: Sly Fox Royal Weisse and Schneider Weisse Original (Germany)
    Because of the importance of wheat to baking and bread making, it was once illegal for anyone in Germany, aside from members of the royal family, to brew wheat bear. Sly Fox’s Royal Weisse is named in homage to that thankfully distant memory. Both it and the Schneider Weisse are brewed in a traditional style, with sweeter, darker malts relative to today’s more common trend toward pale, light, add-a-lemon wheat beers. Both very complete beers, surprisingly fruity in aroma. Solid pairing with a duck confit salad.

    Gertler did a little guest cheffing as well. Adam's ribs, served with the Irish stouts in Round Four, were parched but intensely smoky.

  • Round Four: Sly Fox O’Reilly Stout and Guinness Stout (Ireland)
    Dry Irish Stout – Guinness is certainly the banner example – is one of those beverages that often leads one’s eyes to fool one’s palate. People have been conditioned to automatically think sweet when they see rosé wine. Likewise, people see black stout and expect richness and heaviness. That power of suggestion makes many continue to believe what their eyes told them even after tasting. The thing is, stouts done in this style, though dark in color and flavor, are actually quite light in body and, counter-intuitively, low in alcohol. (Ever wonder why you can drink Guinness all night?) As pleasing as a properly poured pint of Guinness can be, O’Reilly Stout delivered a more complex and compelling nose, driven by roasted barley, and finished on a crisper, higher note. Good stuff. Regrettably, both were way under-matched to the powerful flavor of smoked beef short ribs, where a porter or India brown ale would have been a better choice.

  • Round Five: Sly Fox Ichor (2005 & 2007) and St. Bernardus 12 (Belgium)
    Sly Fox’s Ichor is an Abbot style Quadruple ale. The 2005, the first year in which Ichor was bottled, had developed very winy, port-like aromas along with a sweetness and depth which made for pretty hedonistic enjoyment. As good as it was, the 2007 was more finely attenuated and better balanced. The 2007 may not age as well as the 2005, as it lacks the preserving sweetness of it its older sibling, but it was the best of the three beers. Absolutely dead-on with a chocolate banana ganache tart with caramelized bananas. For me, it was the match of the night. The St. Bernardus was jaundiced in comparison, though I’m not sure it was a pristine bottle.

Suzie Woods, brand ambassador for Sly Fox and Beer Lass blogger, poured Sly Fox's Renard d'Or, a Belgian style golden ale, from Jeroboam. Only 200 bottles were produced.

If you’re in the Philly area and up for a taste, Sly Fox operates brewpubs in both Phoenixville and Royersford, PA. If you’d like to be informed of future tastings at Chick’s, just send an e-mail to chickscafe (at) gmail dot com and let them know you learned about them here.


Tom Hudson said...

David - nice write up.

One of the things on my Bucket List is to become more informed on artisanal beer.

Quick question(s) for you:

When you find beer/wine pairings that may be out of balance with the foods served, or when comparison tasting, you like the "other" product better (i.e. some of these in your review for Sly Fox), do you mention it to the brewmaster/winemaker and chefs?

If so, what is their response?

If not, why don't you discuss your opinions with them?


David McDuff said...

Thanks, Tom. You're in a great location for exploring local artisanal beers, as Sly Fox, Dogfish Head, Flying Fish, Victory, Troegs, Yards, PBC, etc. are all within easy reach (sorry if I left anyone out).

Thanks also for your thought provoking questions. The timing is funny because I had just sent copies of this post to both Jonny at Chick's and to Brian O'Reilly at Sly Fox. So yes, I often do share my thoughts with chefs, wineries, brewers, etc. This is particularly true in cases where I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to them face to face.

When I get a response -- I don't always -- it tends to be receptive, open, thoughtful and sometimes even appreciative of the context of my criticism, which, positive or negative, is meant to be constructive. Of course, I'd hardly expect everyone to agree with everything I write.

And of course, everything I write is right here for anyone and everyone to see. Comments and discussion are always encouraged.

Joe said...

Palate training - beer, scotch, or otherwise - cannot be underestimated. But was the tasting done "Blind" - that would be real interesting.

David McDuff said...

Hey Joe,
The tasting was not done blind, though that would indeed have been interesting. I haven't stumbled upon very many producers (wine, beer) who choose to show their own products in a blind format.

Joe said...

No, I can understand a producer's reticence - but I would really like to do a blinded beer tasting. You just gave me an idea...

Lenn Thompson said...

NOW I know why you want me to write about Southampton's brews're a farmhouse ale fan too.

I agree on SlyFox's's okay and an affordable option. And, if you're new to saison, it's a good example that doesn't bring the funk right away.

For me, the best I've had it from Fantome...had another bottle this weekend.

David McDuff said...

Hey Lenn,
It's been ages since I last tried Fantome; I'll have to revisit it sometime soon. On the US front, if you haven't already done so you should definitely check out the brews from Jolly Pumpkin. Tasty stuff.

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