THE PERFECT BLACK & TAN

Many years ago, when I was but a wee tyke, I had the good fortune (broadly speaking) to encounter a young Brother Barley.  Roughly five minutes after we met, Brother Barley snorted in disgust, slapped the Zima out of my hand, smacked me upside the head for good measure, and informed me that my education was about to begin.  Though much of my training must remain confidential due to various non-disclosure agreements and a sealed pardon involving some leader of the free world or other, I am fortunately at liberty to mention one of the more intriguing aspects of my education: the Black & TanSometimes referred to as a Black & Gold, a Half & Half, and various other names (depending on location and/or particular method of concoction), the Black & Tan can generally be understood to be the combination of a light-colored beer (usually a pale ale or lager) and a dark beer (generally a stout or porter) in a single glass.  The classic mixture from across the pond is Guinness and Bass, though some prefer Guinness with either Harp or Newcastle.  An ideal pour should leave the darker beer floating above the lighter, with little to no mixing.  While some would call such a combination a needless bastardization of two perfectly good brews, I am not such a purist that I am above ordering one when the mood strikes me.  And by God can they be tasty.

Given the Aleheads’ American brew-focus, I was ruminating the other day on what two American craft beers would make the best possible Black & Tan.  After posing this query to Brother Barley, he suggested that nothing less than the full panel of Aleheads would be able to do justice to the question.  Since I seem to be fairly adept at coming up with such pain-in-the-ass inquiries, he suggested that it might make an interesting recurring feature on the Aleheads site.  And so, welcome to the very first of Beerford’s Conundra: What two American beers would make the perfect  Black & Tan combination?

One further ground rule: Anyone who suggests any version of a snakebite as a viable answer will be banned henceforth from the site.

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BROTHER BARLEY MCHOPS

First of all, I didn’t “slap” the Zima from your hand. That sounds like something from Sex and the City. I gave you a manly fist-bump which shattered the bottle of Zima, thereby impaling your hand with glass shards which you pulled out of your flesh with a Leatherman in the most masculine way possible. And then we watched Tombstone. Second, while I would love to take credit for serving as the catalyst for your personal Beer Odyssey, the truth is, you have long since graduated from Barley’s Beer School. Since you currently reside in the gloriously beer-filled Pacific Northwest, you’ve been consuming gem after gem while I sift through the chaff here in the Southeast. I, and the other Aleheads, greatly look forward to perusing your future scribblings about obscure Northwestern brews. But for now, on to the Conundrum!

A couple fun Black & Tan facts before I jump into the fray. Generally, when the concoction is referred to as a “Black & Tan”, it’s served as a pousse-café with the dark beer clearly separate from the lighter one. A “Half & Half” is when the lazy bartender just dumps the brews in together. The layering is usually achieved by utilizing a funky little spoon with a shallow, round “bowl” and a notched handle that can rest on the lip of the glass. First, the “Tan” is poured in about halfway. When the head settles enough, the “Black” is very slowly poured over the back of the spoon. A deft bartender can create a perfect delineation between the two brews (which is, of course, destroyed as soon as you drink). Black & Tans are popular in Ireland where the Irish beer (Guinness) floats on top of the British beer (Bass), thereby symbolizing Irish dominance over the Brits. For those unschooled in history, those two nations have had a “spot of bother” over the past few centuries. Something about religious differences, mass genocide, and explosives. But at least those differences have blessed us with a cool-looking beverage to drink in pubs.

Another worthwhile thing to note about a traditional Black & Tan…the Guinness “floats” on the Bass (or Harp) because it’s a lighter-gravity beer. So when a friend scoffs at drinking Guinness because it’s so “heavy”, show them a picture of a Black & Tan and remind them, in the most condescending, patronizing manner possible, that just because a beer “looks” heavy, it does not make it so. OK…enough stalling…I have a question to answer and answer it I shall.

When Beerford first posed this Conundrum, my initial thought was “Why not just mix one of the best dark beers (say Deschutes The Abyss) with one of the best pale beers (say Russian River’s Pliny the Elder)?” But while that mixture would certainly be tasty, the truth is that the whole would not be greater than the sum of the parts. My comparison was slapping some lobster pie on top of a nice, aged porterhouse. Sure, it would be delicious, but does either dish actually complement the other? It’s like an All-Star team…the individuals might be magnificent, but they don’t necessarily play well together. Something like The Abyss is noted for its beautiful roasted, charred wood bitterness. That distinct flavor wouldn’t necessarily mesh well with the Pliny which, due to its massive hop-profile, is already beautifully bitter in its own right. So my approach was to look at two very disparate beers. Two brews that have nothing in common but which should meld wonderfully to create an epic Black & Tan, worthy of being sipped and savored by any Alehead.

My selection? The Moylan’s Hopsickle and the Southern Tier Creme Brulee. I know, I know…hold on to your monocles and bear with me. The Hopsickle is a brutally delicious hop-bomb of the highest order. It’s a high enough gravity beer that it should hold up to the lush, rich Creme Brulee, but it has extraordinarily little sweetness or malt profile to get in the way of its face-melting hoppiness. The Creme Brulee, on the other hand, is as sweet and creamy as any dessert beer on Earth. It’s delicious, but overpoweringly rich. A massively bitter “Triple” IPA blending with a decadently sweet Imperial Stout? Sounds like heaven. The sweet and the bitter should play marvelously off each other and produce a beer that transcends the individual brews that created it. Plus, it’s pretty easy to come up with a name for a blend of Creme Brulee and Hopsickle: The Creamsicle. Of course.

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MR. SLOUCH SIXPACK

Beerford, Brother Barley, Esteemed Aleheads, and Visitors from the Blogosphere,

While your Creamsicle concoction may in fact result in a tasty black and tan, I think it’s by no means guaranteed. My major concerns include:

  1. The dominant grapefruit peel notes of the Cascade hops in the Hopsickle not playing nicely with the vanilla/ chocolate/ caramel etc. notes in the Southern Tier Creme Brulee. Have you ever tried chocolate or caramel coated grapefruit? Of course not. They don’t make it because the flavors don’t complement each other.
  2. Mouthfeel- both of these are thick, syrupy, arguably cloying beers in their own right. Beerford’s Conundrum gives to the discerning mixologist a chance to moderate this characteristic with a proper pairing, a chance which Barley clearly chose to ignore.
  3. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Beer. Namely the stronger the hop profile, the less precisely the successful pairing with a malt profile can be predicted. Could this combo work? Maybe. Would I waste a bomber of each trying it? No. I cannot wrap my mind around what this beer would taste like. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the streams. Why? It might be bad. What do I mean, “bad”? Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light. Total protonic reversal. That’s bad. Important safety tip.

So now that I’ve crapped on Brother Barley’s offering, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to come up with something better. A treasured beer memory for me was moving to the Allston/ Brighton neighborhood of Boston right after graduation from college, within walking distance of the landmark Sunset Grill and Tap. This was before the craft beer explosion we are currently enjoying, and their 128 offerings on draught was like nothing I’d ever seen. The drawback to having that many beers to choose from was that some of the kegs and lines would invariably skunk or encounter other issues, and it was good to have a contingency plan of popular beers that would cycle through quickly and be guaranteed fresh. It was also the first bar I’d found with Lindemans Framboise Lambic on tap, and they billed it on their menu paired with Guinness as a “Black Forest”. Yes, it was foofy. It was pinkish in coloration. It was borderline sacrilegious to hardcore Guinness fans (like myself). Also, it was delicious, and gave Mrs. Sixpack and countless others a gentle raspberry introduction to the dark and beautiful world of stouts. Thus, I propose:

New Glarus Raspberry Tart (the acknowledged American kings of fruit beer bring their considerable skills to the raspberry) + Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout (the vanilla, chocolate, coffee will go great with the fruit, plus the surprisingly tart and lactic Special Double will mitigate the New Glarus’ sweetness).

So what do you get? A colorful, complex, balanced dessert Black-and-Tan-inspired treat that dares you to stop at one. Ladies and Aleheads: The Malt ReTarted. I’d take this over the Brother Barley’s Creamsicle any day of the week, and thrice on Sundays.

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BARON SUDSY VON BRUE

Fascinating selections.  If “taste” is defined as a process by which taste buds in the tongue and throat convey information about the chemical composition of a soluble stimulus to the brain, “delicious” is, properly understood, the harmony of such introduced stimuli.   As a culinary enthusiast, I have often believed that what makes perfect flavor combinations ‘perfect’ is the balanced formulation of flavor complexity to stimulate the greatest mass of taste buds and, therefore, taste.   By way of example, a French fry with ketchup is a perfect composition of flavor stimuli:  The fried potato is hot while the ketchup is cold; the fried potato is salty while the ketchup is sweet; the fried potato is crunchy while the ketchup is smooth, and so on.   The result is a perfect harmony of flavor.  Similar analyses can easily be rendered for peanut butter and jelly, et al.  Pizza may represent the pinnacle of this theory.  As a beer enthusiast, I think the “Malt ReTarted” or “Creamsicle” certainly fit the bill.  I would order and enjoy either. For the Baron’s money, however, look no further than a frothy mug of Da’ Korova Dank.  First on your lips, the subtle sweetness of Burgess-inspired Three Floyds Moloko Milk Stout (plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, naturally).  Hints of coffee and chocolate abound as the lactose mouthfeel coats your tongue with silky goodness.  As you drink, the balance shifts in favor of green, citrus bitterness courtesy of Troegs Nugget Nectar – the diggitiest of Amerian Ambers.  The pine resin blends with mocha.  The bitter and sweet pop across your tongue.  The crisp cuts the cream.  And all is well in the world.  Make up your razudoks, my droogs.  What’s it going to be then, eh?

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LORD MASHTUN COPPERPOT

Hold the phone, your horses, and other idioms of similar connotation. Three straight concoctions, and each one of them derives inspiration from Willy Wonka. Silky sweetness, fruitiness, chocolatey goodness. I am depressed. I can only hope that an ooompa loompa puts me out of my misery.

You know what inspires me? Bourbon inspires me. And you know why bourbon inspires me? Because I’m a man. And what do I do when I’m not parroting Old Spice commercials? Not much, actually. I spend my hours imitating absurd, hypermasculine deodorant advertisements.

But yeah, back to the bourbon thing. I like a good bourbon, and what could be better than the pairing of manly American beers that work together to remind you of the great American whiskey? That’s why I’m pairing The Great Divide’s Oak-Aged Yeti, (which will provide the necessary bite along with subtle oak undertones) with Founders Red’s Rye P.A. which will temper the beast (while adding complex notes of rye, pine resin, and just a touch of burnt caramel). Along with your livers, bring your tastebuds. But please leave your dessert spoons at home.

And what are we calling this? Why, Ma-Rye-O AndYeti, of course. The perfect beer to accompany a passe race in one of America’s most pointless cities.

I’m on a horse.

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DR. RIPPED VAN DRINKALE, III

When I think of the ubiquitous Black & Tan, I think of what the “Black” can do to make the “Tan” better.  We all know that Bass is a little boring, Harp is downright awful, and many Pale Ales and Lagers leave much to be desired for your everyday Alehead.  You know what makes Bass taste pretty damn good though?  You pour half a Guinness over the top and give yourself a creamy, tangy bite before you set into the semi-bitter Pale Ale.  I suppose you could reverse this and say that the “Tan” is what makes the “Black” taste better, but if you’re looking for ways to cut through the flavors of a Stout or Porter, you’re kind of just pegging yourself a big pussy – and no one wants that.

I’ve tossed around many ideas for the Black & Tan based on my original theory and most failed immediately.  I wondered what would happen if you poured an Imperial Stout over a Yuengling for example, only to find that the whole concept of density wasn’t quite the myth that I once thought (F’ You Archimedes, thanks for wasting my beer).  While it was cool to watch my glass turn into an inside-out Tan & Black just before its ultimate end, the result of this experiment was disastrous at best.  I should be slapped for even attempting such a feat.  Back to the drawing board, I thought of cool “Mashups” by the likes of Terrapin Brewing and others that seem to be all the rage these days.  Unfortunately though, most of these styles will not separate quite the way I’d like – A Red Ale mixed with an IPA just becomes a Red IPA.  I’m basically just creating beer cocktails, and they’re gross.

Alas, after much contemplation and far too many Blackish & Tannish beers in the good Doctor’s belly, I’ve come up with the ultimate pairing that will put all others to shame.  Unlike most of my fellow Aleheads, I’m not a huge fan of the sweet up front with the bitterness coming from the finish.  Just like my workday, I prefer to be beaten down to a useless pile of sludge before the sweetness of 5 O’Clock ushers me away to the land of milk and honey (That’s my couch by the way).  While it’s difficult to be slapped in the face on the “Black” side of the equation due to the need to place a lower gravity beer on top, I’ve of course found the solution.  I give you Puff the Magic Stoned Monkey.

First, fill half your glass with the luscious, overly sweet, Golden Monkey from Victory Brewing Company.  This Triple, coming in at a hefty 9.5% ABV, tends to be way too sweet for me to take any more than just one serving.  Again, what do you do to solve this problem?  Well, pour a half-pint of Stone Smoked Porter over the top and that will give you a bit of a barrier before you tap into the candy base below.  This offering from Stone won’t really smack you all that hard as it’s really a lightweight in sheep’s clothing.  What it does though is offer you a touch of smokiness, especially in the nose, and a fantastic bitter tooth that sets you up for the rest of your tasty beverage.  To me, this is the Memphis Rib of the beer world.  Smokey up front, sweet in the finish, the perfect pairing come dinner time.

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SIR MAGNUS SKULLSPLITTER

As I read the selections from my fellow Aleheads, I realize that they have missed the point.  Thus, it is up to the Scotsman, yet again, to step in and explain just exactly how wrong every single one of them are.

The problem is quite basic.  Look at the story of the Black & Tan.  At its core, the drink is two distinctly different styles representing two distinctly different cultures.  Each beer must be solid on its own, but it is the combination that is the key.  The classic Black & Tan brings together the English and the Irish in ways that the actual leaders of Sinn Fein or the Prime Minister of the UK could only dream of.  I decided that I, too, must look to diversity, matched with common spirit, in order to create the perfect Black & Tan.

Looking at the beers chosen by my fellow Aleheads, there are so many beers chosen from such homogeneous places that I could almost cry.  My god, the uber-diverse land of Michigan mixing with that melting pot known as Wisconsin?!?!  The horror!  Don’t tell me you’re actually going to mix Indiana with Western Pennsylvania!  They won’t know what to do with each other!!!!  No, in order to find the proper beers for the ultimate Black & Tan, we need to go to the one place that does diversity better than anywhere else in America.  Well, let’s face it, it’s the one place that does a whole lot of things better than anywhere else in America.  That’s right.  New Yawk City!  So, without further adieu, I present to you the Righteous Brooklyn.

The first brilliant thing about this is that you actually cannot buy the beer at a grocery store.  A Black & Tan was meant to be poured by a master draught operator at a publick house, not by your drunk ass at your kitchen table.  Thus, the Righteous Brooklyn requires you first to go find a bar serving Six Point’s Righteous Rye, as it is only available on tap.  Using the pouring spoon, you carefully pour Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout right over the top of it.  Presto!  A perfect combination of bitterness, sweetness, maltiness, hoppiness, and all the other nesses (except for Loch Ness, of course).  You can thank me later.

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BEERFORD’S WRAP-UP
Well then, faithful readers, there you have it!  The best possible American Black & Tans, as concocted by the always-brilliant (and moderately disturbed) Aleheads.  This gives you a little peek into the kinds of conversations we have behind the scenes, whether interesting or simply nonsensical (notice, for example, that Sir Skullsplitter insists on geographical diversity in his Black & Tan, and then picks two beers brewed in the exact same borough of New York ).  Now if only we can find a taproom that serves all of these beers simultaneously, we can sit down and start drinking (do let us know if such a place exists)!

I won’t deign to comment on which answer is in fact the best, as the final conclusion can only be determined by pouring and sampling these delicious creations.  I’ll leave it to you to decide.  We look forward to your comments, observations, and additional suggestions!

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13 comments

  1. Magnus Skullsplitter · · Reply

    For the record, I insist on cultural diversity, not geographic diversity. Brooklyn is perhaps the most culturally diverse place in all of America. I stand by my argument.

  2. […] Good luck, Mark Zable and Fried Beer! This Alehead salutes you. But is there any way I could get mine wrapped in bacon? And what kind of beer would be the best fried? I smell a conundrum… […]

  3. Commander · · Reply

    Black & Tans are British. They should not be made with American beers any more than Cracker Jacks should be made with potatoes. Notwithstanding all of your outstanding (not) Photoshop abilities, I suggest that this post be stricken from the Aleheads record.

  4. CrackerJack SHOULD be made with potatoes! That would be awesome!

    Much like baseball, the postage stamp and the crossword puzzle, I have no qualms with stealing something from the English, making it better, then pretending it was ours all along.

  5. I resent the implications. Those image mash-ups were clearly done using Microsoft Paint. What am I, a graphic designer? You try to find a goddamn picture of Sixpoint Righteous Rye!

    As for Black & Tans being invented in the UK. So were IPAs. And Stouts. And Brown Ales. Should we stop making those as well? I seem to recall a certain Commander enjoying a pint of IPA and Imperial Stout every now and then. As Magnus said, it is our Hop-given right as Americans to steal ideas and make them better.

    If, however, you are simply trolling this post because it was put up by your arch-nemesis, Beerford…well, carry on then.

  6. The Commander is just mad because he didn’t invent the black and tan himself. And, for that matter, beer and the internet. Which gives you a bit of an insight into his crazy little internal maelstrom of a mind. Pay no attention to his indiscriminate lashings out. He can’t help it.

  7. Am I the only one that thinks Harp sucks? Guinness is Guinness, but a black and tan can always be improved on by seeking better companions. I’m with Mr. Skullsplitter.

  8. […] gentlemen, I give you Beerford’s Conundrum – Porterhouse Edition:  What beer style would make the best partner for a porterhouse steak? […]

  9. […] 45% of the glass with Racer 5 IPA.  Fill the remaining 45% with AleSmith Speedway Stout (use a black and tan […]

  10. […] my West Coast wheelhouse and hop overseas to the more traditional environs of Germany.  In a prior Conundrum on Black & Tans, I mentioned that my goal in choosing the ultimate pairing is to pick a Black that accentuates the […]

  11. […] preferred. But he selected the Righteous (an awesome rye beer) as the “tan” in his Perfect Black & Tan, so it’s clearly making the list. It’s the selection I’m least confident in, but […]

  12. black and tans are meant to be the great experiment…this is achieved by trying 2 different ‘tans’ from any country or brewery every week, to coincide with your 2 days off a week and commenting with your buddy, in my case my son on the appearance, aroma, start and finish of your drink. beware, some black and tans do not leave a distinguishing line, i.e. Taj Mahal, so best of luck from So Cal.

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