November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:43 PM
By Dee Hitch
I recently attended a beer presentation for wine professionals put on by Merchant du Vin. Keeping the attention of this ragtag group of wine connoisseurs was indeed a miraculous feat!
Merchant du Vin, a beer importer, is owned by Charles Finkel and is based in Seattle. Finkel is singularly responsible for importing into the United States many of the European beers consumers take for granted.
Here in the Seattle area, we are on the cusp of computers, coffee, wine and artisan breads. But, unknown to most of us, Seattle also has been in the forefront of imported beers -- thanks to Finkel and his company Merchant du Vin.
Finkel pioneered importing wine into the United States. When Napa and Sonoma valleys in California started producing, Finkel was instrumental in distributing their wines. He is credited with inventing the term ``boutique winery'' for small-production wineries. He was the exclusive agent for Chateau Ste. Michelle in the late '60s and was involved in the design of the current chateau in Woodinville.
So, how did this wine guy get involved in beer? Boredom mostly.
After a side trip into retailing -- many foodies will remember Truffles, a high-end delicatessen in the Laurelhurst area -- Finkel started Merchant du Vin in 1978. He is the exclusive United States importer for Samuel Smith, Ayinger and Lindemans beers, which are in most grocery stores.
He also brings in three of the six Trappist ales available in the world: Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle. To be ``Trappist,'' a beer must be made in abbeys by monks. My favorite beer at the presentation was Orval. We were told that Orval tends to be preferred by wine drinkers, particularly chardonnay fans. Three more imports round out Finkel's portfolio: Traquair, Pinkus and Melbourn Bros.
Within all these brands of beer are classifications which define each style. Ale, like red wine, is fermented at warmer temperatures and is designated as ``top fermented.'' The warmer fermentation yields distinctive, flavorful beers. Lager, like white wine, is fermented at cool temperatures and is designated as ``bottom-fermented.'' Lager offers clean flavors which allow malt and hops to dominate.
Most beers are fermented under controlled conditions using cultivated yeasts, which are added by the brewmaster. Those breweries are immaculate.
On the other hand, spontaneous fermentation beers -- such as those produced at Lindemans brewery in Belgium -- are naturally fermented by airborne wild yeasts and then aged in wooded casks. At Lindemans, in contrast to the usual spotless brewery, cobwebs and dust prevail. Louvered windows are opened to allow the breeze to blow the wild yeasts around. Fruit is added to balance the tart flavor of wild yeast strains.
Lindemans' framboise is the biggest seller in the United States of these spontaneous fermented Belgium beers. It is infused with fresh raspberries and pairs well with chocolate desserts. The brewery also produces beers with peach, cherry or cassis added. It began producing commercially in 1811, and Merchant du Vin began importing its beers into this country beginning in 1978. Because of the resident yeasts needed to ferment its beer, Lindemans can never relocate.
Seattle area is home to many microbreweries
Merchant du Vin not only brings in imports, it also owns its own brewery: Pike Brewing Company near the Pike Place Market. It is still a ``microbrewery,'' which means it produces fewer than 50,000 gallons. If a brewery puts out more than 50,000 gallons, it becomes a ``macro-brewery'' -- which actually sounds rather unattractive -- so ``craft'' defines those breweries producing more than 50,000 gallons. Pike Pub and Brewery is on First Avenue near Pike Place Market and is termed a brewpub, serving food and beer.
The Seattle area has spawned many microbreweries: Red Hook, Pyramid, Maritime, Hales, Big Time. Some breweries do not bottle; their beer is only available at their brewpubs. It is a huge investment to start bottling and some breweries are content to make their fortune on-site. Others like Red Hook and Pyramid have moved out of the microbrewery classification of fewer than 50,000 gallons to become ``craft'' beer producers. They not only bottle, but are available nationwide. They still retain their ``craft'' designation to separate themselves from the large domestic breweries like Budweiser.
Another Seattle brewpub worth note is Elysian Brewery and Public House on Capitol Hill. Last year Elysian was awarded ``Large Brewpub on the Year'' for the second year in a row at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Foodies who watch the Food Channel on television will be familiar with this competition. Two thousand beers from 389 breweries were judged, and 28,000 people attended. Awards are few and far between. For Elysian to earn this honor once is great -- twice is phenomenal. But wait! It also received that same award in 1999, and has earned gold medals for its Dragonstooth Stout and The Wise ESB. In 2001, Elysian began bottling its beer, which is available in Oregon, Alaska, north Idaho and Pennsylvania.
A good way to try beers is to go to brewpubs like Elysian and Pike Pub. However, you are limited to the beers of that brewery. My husband and I recently went to The Tap Room in Bellevue, which advertises 160 beers on tap. It also offers a tasting of any four beers. The servers are knowledgeable. However, do not be swayed by general consensus. As with wine, if you don't like it, don't drink it!
Wine News Update:
Horse Heaven Hills is now an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) for Washington state. AVAs are granted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It joins Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Puget Sound and Columbia River Gorge. Being considered for the appellation designation are: Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan and Rattlesnake Hills.
Dee Hitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming Wine Events:
August is Washington Wine Month. Look for special displays and prices at your local retailer.
The Auction of Washington Wine is Aug. 11-13 at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Go to Washingtonwine.org for more information.