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Feature Fri May 29 2009

Smoking and Drinking

With a grey and drizzly Memorial Day in our rearview mirrors, the official backyard -- or back deck alley, sidewalk, whathaveyou -- barbecue season is upon us. And sure, you could simply pull out the Weber and grill up some hotdogs and hamburgers. But if you really want to impress your friends, take it to the next level and start smoking -- meats, that is.

Getting Smoked

I know, you're probably thinking, doesn't that take a lot of specialized equipment? And anyway, I've never done it before, it'd probably turn out horribly. The answer to that first question is no, it doesn't require special equipment -- you could do it in that kettle of yours, assuming it's something larger than a Smokey Joe. And as for never having done it before, there's a new book to help teach you how: Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons, by Gary Wiviott and Colleen Rush.

lowslowbbq.jpgWiviott, aka "G Wiv," is the founder of LTHForum, the Chicago-based culinary chat site, and a veteran pit master; Rush is a veteran food writer who professes to have known nothing about barbecue before this project. Together, they have turned Wiviott's popular online smoker tutorial -- which itself grew out of an email to a nephew -- and distilled it into five lessons that comprise a crash course in cooking with smoke, starting with marinated chicken and working up through brined chicken, baby back and short ribs and finally pulled pork. Lesson #1, Chicken Mojo Criollo, is available for download on the book's website.

But first things first. Before even getting to the chicken, the authors take you through an equipment check, laying out exactly what you need for proper smoking. Wiviott is a big proponent of K.I.S.S. -- keep it simple, stupid -- and has unkind things to say about most of the gadgets and doodads you'll find in gourmet stores. All you really need is lump charcoal and newspaper, a chimney starter, some pans of water, and something to the the smoking in. Even thermometers are unnecessary in Wiviott's opinion, but he begrudgingly encourages you use one just to show you why you don't need it.

Most people don't have a top-of-the-line professional smoker, so there's information about the three primary consumer options: the Weber "Smokey Mountain" smoker, the offset smoker and the standard Weber kettle grill. The authors take time to explain the mechanics of the smoking process in each smoker type, and how to set up each for optimal cookery. They carry that info into each of the lessons, too, providing adjusted directions for each smoker format.

If all it was was the five lessons broken down for three smokers, it wouldn't be much of a book. Fortunately, there are a good number of recipes for marinades, brines. rubs and sauces for when you've mastered each lesson the simple way and are ready to start riffing. At the end of the book, there's even a chapter on sides to help round out your summer meal, as well as some additional smoking recipes for such things as fruit and oysters, and what to do with leftover smoked meat (if there is any).

Thanks to our prolonged and rainy spring, I've only been able to try out Lesson 1 from Low & Slow. Following the directions for my kettle grill, I ended up with some beautifully smoked chicken, with a light smokey flavor that permeated the meat without overpowering its natural flavor. I'm a step beyond an amateur, having done quite well cooking smoked brisket in the past, but I had no trouble following directions and I doubt someone with less experience than me would either. In fact, it might be an advantage, since you'd be more likely not to stray from Wiviott's recommendations. If there's a criticism I have of the book, it's that its "do as I say or else" taskmaster tone in the lessons could be a turnoff to some. The idea behind it is to get you to follow instructions until you know them by heart before going off and experimenting, but not everyone takes kindly to commands. However, it's easy to ignore the tone and just heed the solid guidance this book provides. I'm eager for a nice weekend to try my hand at some smoked baby back ribs -- Lesson 3.

What Are You Drinking?

Chances are you've seen commercials for MGD 64 and other ultra-low calorie beers, but have you ever noticed there's no nutritional information on beer? The Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is working on labeling guidelines, but it may be years before you know what you're putting down. In the meantime, you have Bob Skilnik. A certified brewer and frequent writer on the subject, Skilnik has collected and compiled the nutritional information for more than 2,000 beers from around the world into a book, Does My Butt Look Big in This Beer?.

buttbeer.jpgThis self-published book isn't bed-time reading -- aside from a short introduction explaining methodology and shedding a little light on why beer doesn't have all this stuff right on the bottle, it's just pages and pages of data. For every brand, you get serving size (12oz.), the number of carbs and calories, the alcohol by volume, and for dieters, the number of Weight Watchers points that beer will eat up. Both macro- and microbrews are covered, including Goose Island Brewery's full line.

While it's not exactly a page-turner, Does My Butt Look Big does yield some pretty interesting info. For instance, speaking of Goose Island, only three beers had higher numbers than their Bourbon County Stout (45 carbs, 415 calories, 13.5 percent alcohol by volume [ABV] and 8 Weight Watchers points): two high-alcohol beers from Avery Brewing and Boston Beer Company (aka Sam Adams) Utopia, which has an ABV of 27 percent and a whopping 732 calories -- that's up there with a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald's. (Bourbon County Stout is roughly equivalent to a regular Quarter Pounder and a couple fries.)

Even more interesting was the other end of the spectrum. There are only three beers in the entire book that only rate 1 Weight Watchers point that weren't also non-alcoholic: Beck's Light, MGD 64 and PBR Light. But Beck's Light and MGD 64 aren't just light on calories, they're light on alcohol, weighing in at 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent ABV respectively. Most beers are in the 4-5 percent ABV range, which means you'll need to drink two MGD 64s to every one regular MGD to feel the same effects -- thereby eliminating any diet effects. In comparison, PBR Light is 3.9 percent ABV and still only 72 calories (though it's double or triple the carbs of the other two).

I'm not sure Does My Butt Look Big in This Beer? is a book everyone should run out and buy, but if you're trying to work on your figure or just trying to avoid growing the beer gut any further this summer, it might be worth spending the $10 for a copy. At the very least, every bar in the city ought to have it on hand as a reference for customers.

Both of these books come accompanied by rich and informative websites, and in the case of the beer book, a great blog about drinking healthy, too.

 

Bob Skilnik / May 29, 2009 6:26 PM

C'mon Andy. Everybody in the world should go out a buy a copy of the book! 3 copies!!

It really should, however, be a fixture in every bar to at least answer questions like what beer's the strongest? the weakest? has the most calories/carbs?

Bob Skilnik / May 30, 2009 11:36 AM

Just one more comment and I'll let readers alone; the reason I have the nutritional values from Goose Island in the book is because they COOPERATED with my efforts. Goose is successful, in small part, because they tend to help nitwits like myself who ask John or Greg Hall for help during my various writing assignments about the local beer scene.

I would have loved to have also included info on Half Acre and Metro beers. Oddly enough, every media interview I go through about Chicago's beers and the local industry's history, I plug all of them. (Catch WCIU's upcoming look at the local beer industry, coming soon on Saturday morning on First Business Chicago, for instance.)

Unfortunately, my written requests to gather the kind of info I could have used to calculate the nutritional info for various breweries and brewpubs throughout the Chicagoland area were ignored. That's a shame, especially when the smaller businesses should be doing whatever they can to help with getting the word out about their products. In the meantime, I have no problems with setting up an information pipeline with established operations like Sierra Nevada, Allagash, The Lion, Boston Beer, Flying Dog, Papago, etc.

Summer's coming and folks are asking me for the nutritional info on ALL of Chicago's breweries. I now receive dozens of weekly requests from local beer drinkers looking for nutritional info of their favorite beers, and all I can tell these potential customers is that the brewers won't seem to help me to provide the kind of information that their beer drinkers are looking for.

If somebody wants to contact my with info on their products as I begin a new and revised version of "Does My BUTT Look BIG In This BEER?" please contact my through my website, www.mybeerbutt.com.

It's amazing when business folks ignore the opportunity for some FREE publicity.

Please help me help you.

Andrew Huff / May 31, 2009 11:34 AM

Hi Bob, thanks for commenting. I would imagine that one of the reasons smaller independent breweries like Half Acre and Metropolitan didn't respond with nutritional facts for you is they may not have had their beers evaluated yet. As I'm sure you know, nutritional information is gathered by a food testing lab, not just some math on the back of a napkin. And as you'd expect, testing isn't cheap, so chances are the little guys haven't done so yet, since they're not yet required to by the feds.

Bob Skilnik / June 1, 2009 8:35 AM

Andrew,

Let me beat this dead horse once more. Actually, the carbs and calories can be reasonably calculated by using in-house information that the brewer knows while formulating his/her beers. The alcohol by volume (abv) is also known by the brewer. With this info, enough nutritional info can be derived that keeps within the TTB's range for accuracy. They look within a range, not for precise accuracy. That's an impossible task since each batch of beer presents variables that lead to expected ranges, not dead on numbers.

What the TTB has in mind is nowhere near the kind of info you now find on food products, the kind info required by the FDA (nutrition, ingredients, allergens, etc). Just look at the Nutrition Facts label on a "light" beer and you'll see what I mean. It's much less detailed than on the label of a package of Hostess Twinkies, for instance.

BTW, I know it's easy to spend other people's money, but testing labs will do an analysis of beer for under $100 per sample and offer package deals of considerably less per unit if a number of beers are sent in for testing.

As I point out in the book, globalization will eventually force American drink manufacturers to add nutritional facts to their labels, although I'd be happy just to see the info on the web sites of drink makers. It would certainly be cheaper this way than extensive labeling redesigns.

Expect the EU, however, to lead the way with new labeling requirements that will force any booze imported into their countries to have this info on their labels. U.S. drink manufacturers sell something like $1 billion dollars per year overseas. Aside from the EU, there are 43 different countries with different labeling requirements. And we know that money talks...

William Trentman / June 3, 2009 8:41 PM

Are you sure about the 73 calories on the PBR Light? I'm in Utah (low ABV state) and the nutritional info. on my PBR Light can says 110 calories. I only wish to clarify because I am on WW diet and a 1 point jump in my beer of choice would be crushing.

Lawyer Pakistan / January 2, 2010 3:55 PM

The alcohol by volume (abv) is also known by the brewer. With this info, enough nutritional info can be derived that keeps within the TTB's range for accuracy.Very help full text.

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