Since my wine blog seems to have evolved into more of a commentary on life in New York, I figured I could branch out one degree further by reviewing beer this week -- Post Road Pumpkin Ale from the Brooklyn Brewery, to be exact.
I will be the first to admit that I know very little about beer. Sure, I've been working in restaurants for years, serving it to millions of customers, and partaking in a few pints myself during respective happy hours, but I honestly have no idea how it is made or what exactly constitutes a "good" beer. Of course, I have my taste buds to guide me, but my particular taste buds generally gravitate toward wheat beers with ubiquitous pieces of citrus fruit along the rims, much to the chagrin of many of my male friends.
With that in mind, I decided that I couldn't possibly respect myself as a blogger/pseudo journalist if I wrote a review of a beer with nothing but my own personal likes or dislikes to judge it by. So, I caught the next subway over to Williamsburg and took a free tour of the Brooklyn Brewery!
They offer free tours in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, and open up their tasting room to the public. I happened to go on Halloween, so my tour was led by a young female bartender who was dressed as a 1920s flapper girl. She led all of us -- a ragamuffin group of visitors from the greater New York area, the Central United States, the West Coast, and the UK -- over to the distillery room, and told us stories of how the Brooklyn Brewery began.
Essentially, it all started with a writer. That's right, a writer who happened to be living in the Middle East during the 1980s and working as a Foreign Correspondent for the Associated Press. His name was Steve Hindy, and he spent six years reporting on the Iran-Iraq War and learning to brew beer in his apartment (as alcohol is outlawed in many Islamic countries). He made friends with some U.S. diplomats stationed in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and they taught him everything they knew about brewing beer in their homes.
I don't want to give away too much of the story because I would highly advise going to the Brooklyn Brewery and hearing it for yourself (or reading about it online through this link); however, I will say that Steve later settled down in Brooklyn and joined forces with his friend and neighbor, Tom Potter. The two of them had the courage to follow their hair-brained dreams, and ultimated created one of the top successful breweries in the United States. (Brooklyn Brewery is currently listed at #17 in the Brewers Association's list of Top 50 U.S. Breweries).
Post Road Pumpkin Ale ($8.99 for a 6-pack at Trader Joe's)
Though they feature a wide array of craft beers, I chose to sample the pumpkin ale simply because it was the most festive. It begins with the same process as all their other beers: they take barley malt and wait for it to sprout, then dry and roast it. The roasting part is especially important because this is what determines the flavor intensity and color of the beer. For example, a beer that is lighter in color and flavor, such as a lager, would only have lightly roasted barley malt, whereas a stout beer would get completely charred. This is also the part where the natural sugars are released and where the beer takes on various natural flavors, such as chocolate and coffee.
My flapper girl/tour guide said that chocolate stouts generally do not have chocolate added to them -- they just naturally start tasting like chocolate from the whole roasting process. However, Post Road Pumpkin Ale does have fresh pumpkin added to it -- over 100 pounds, to be exact -- but this is not added until after the other key ingredients: hops (cone-shaped flowers that make it bitter), unfiltered New York City tap water, and yeast.
There are many other steps that follow, such as straining, fermenting, and kegging, but I will leave the rest of it for you to discover when you come visit me in New York and we tour the brewery. (Did you like that subtle, subliminal message?) In the meantime, let me just say that I love this beer! It has a rich flavor with bursts of spice and cinnamon that complemented the pumpkin and paired excellently with my Butternut Squash Lasagna. I'm learning more and more that specific beers can do much to round out a meal and add flavor complexity -- it's all a matter of being open to branching out beyond wine!
Butternut Squash Lasagna With Spinach and Caramelized Onions
(my own adaptation of Martha Stewart's recipe)
3.5 pounds butternut squash peeled, seeded, cubed
2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
sea salt and crushed black pepper, to taste
16 oz. part-skim ricotta
1/2 cup half n' half
2 cups part-skim mozzarella
1 tsp. nutmeg (but feel free to be as liberal as you like with the nutmeg!)
Another 3 Tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
12 oz. bag, fresh baby spinach
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
1/2 tsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. butter
handful of fresh sage leaves
2.5 cups chicken broth
1/2 box Trader Joe's No Boiling-Oven Ready Lasagna Noodles
First off, if you own a machete, I would consider utilizing it to cut up the butternut squash. Otherwise, prepare yourself to break a sweat as you battle your way through slicing it into thirds and then into sixths to scoop out the seeds. This will not be an easy task, my friends, so I give you fair warning. (I also give you full permission to spend twice the amount of money and buy a container of already cut, peeled, and cubed butternut squash -- but that is entirely your prerogative.)
If you do choose to brandish your muscles and attempt a face-off with said vegetable, I would suggest watching this YouTube video for a step-by-step guide to preparing butternut squash. The woman in the video suggests microwaving it first -- which I absolutely wish I had done -- but at any rate, before you start preparing the butternut squash, remember to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
After you've got that sucker chopped up into small cubes, place them atop a cookie sheet and drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil on top of them. Top with salt and pepper and then place in the oven for 25 minutes.
While the butternut squash is baking, mix ricotta, half n' half, eggs, mozzarella, and nutmeg in a large bowl until evenly combined. Next, saute the sliced onions in one tablespoon of olive oil for about 2 minutes. Lower the temperature and then sprinkle the onions with brown sugar. Let them slowly soften and caramelize on medium-low heat for the next 20 minutes.
Once the onions have caramelized, add a little more olive oil to the pan and then add the bag of fresh spinach to the mix, sauteing until it has fully cooked down.
In a separate sauce pan, melt the butter and add the sage leaves to it, cooking on low heat until they become golden and crisp.
Next, remove the squash from the oven, reduce the temperature to 375 degrees, and dump the squash in a medium bowl. Add the chicken broth and sage, then mash it all together with a potato masher or an electric mixer. The consistency should be thick, like lumpy mashed potatoes.
Get out an 11"x 8" casserole dish and spread a very thin layer of the ricotta mixture along the bottom of it. Next, place a layer of lasagna noodles on top, then cover them with more ricotta. Add a layer of squash directly on top, then cover the squash with a layer of spinach and caramelized onions. Begin the sequence again with a layer of pasta noodles, ricotta, squash, then spinach/onions. Keep doing this until the casserole dish is completely filled and you have used up all of the ingredients. Place it in the oven (375 degrees) for 35-45 minutes. The lasagna should be bubbly and golden on top.
Even if the weather in Southern California doesn't reflect it, the pumpkin ale and butternut squash lasagna will surely put you in the mood for fall!