Fine wine, crab cakes let you forget summer heat

August 21, 2002|By ROB KASPER

IT HAS BEEN a long, hot and largely unpleasant summer. But I am here to tell you that if you're sitting in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art, sipping fine wine, eating quality crab cakes and eye-balling young, firm bodies wrapped in black leather and fishnet hose, you soon forget about the heat.

That is one coping mechanism I have employed this summer to deal with the rotten weather. It falls under the general category of tossing down a lot of liquids, including a bevy of crab-friendly wines and a new light beer.

The 10 wines I was drinking were vying for the honor of being named best companion for crab meat. This happened at an event called Craberet, a benefit for the Women's Housing Coalition held at Gertrude's restaurant, in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In the end, the top crab-companion honor went to a German wine, a 1998 Georg Breuer Riesling Montosa, with a South African wine, a 2001 Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, finishing second and an Italian, a 2001 Cavalchina Bianco Di Custoza, right behind it. All were white wines.

As is true with many elections, the process of selecting a winner was more fun than tallying the results. I was one of four bibulous jurists - the others were Marc Steiner and Al Spoler from radio station WYPR and Cynthia Glover, a free-lance food writer - who rated 10 different bottles of wine, which were covered in brown paper bags.

As we sipped each wine, we ate platters of crab cakes and crab legs served to us by Gertrude's waiters and waitresses who were dressed in erotic, cabaret-style, black-leather get-ups. We pondered each wine; we savored each crab morsel, and we admired the occasional feather boa. We did not complain about the weather.

Ordinarily, I am not much of a fan of German wines, but when the numbers were tallied and the brown bags pulled off the bottles of wine, there was no doubt that the $17 Breuer Riesling was the clear winner. Its balance of fruit and acid heightened the sweet, almost buttery notes of the crab meat.

I was less fond of the $9 Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc; I thought it was too acidic, even prickly, to get along with crab meat. But it wowed my fellow judges, and I don't fight with people who drink wine from brown bags. The $12 Cavalchina and a wine that finished out of the running, a $12 Gini Soave, were two of my favorites.

While these wines did quite well when paired with delicately spiced crab cakes and crab legs, I doubt that any wine could withstand the barrage of peppery flavors that come with steamed crabs. For that you need beer. One of the many beers that goes down easily with a pile of steamed crabs is a new one, Sam Adams Light, which hits the market this month.

I was intrigued when I heard that Boston Beer Co., maker of the Samuel Adams line of brews, was coming out with a new light beer. Since its inception in the mid-1980s, this craft brewery has liked to say that it started a revolution in the American microbreweries, brewing beers with deep flavor. Did this light beer mean that the brewery had become a turncoat to the full-flavor cause?

Jim Koch, founder and president of the Boston Beer Co., said no. In a lengthy telephone conversation last week, Koch reminded me that Sam Adams Light is the second light beer, not the first that his brewery has made. The company's initial light beer, Lightship, launched in 1986, but he said it "never really caught on." Lightship, Koch said, had "way too much flavor" to win over Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light drinkers but not enough flavor to attract the craft-beer crowd.

This time around, the brewery is taking a new approach he said, brewing a different style of beer rather than trying to "lighten up" its traditional beer, Samuel Adams Lager. Sam Adams Light relies on roasted malts to produce a burst of initial flavor, and on Spalt Spalter Noble hops. The new light beer, Koch said, has half the specific gravity, a rough measure of the amount of ingredients in a brew, than his traditional lager. The light beer has 124 calories, compared to the lager's 160 and 4.1 percent alcohol by volume compared to the 5.1 in the lager.

As for why he is making another light beer, Koch said it was both a brewing challenge and smart marketing.

"There is no reason light beer has to be watery and weak," Koch said. "Brewing a really good light beer is an interesting challenge, but it can be done. England has beers that are 3 percent alcohol, yet still have flavor."

Moreover, Koch said that for a large section of the population, beer means "light beer." "Many people started drinking light beers in their 20s. Now they are in their 30s and light beer has almost become their norm," he said.

I tried a bottle of Sam Adams Light, wrapped in a Coors-like silver label, the other night. It had a rich copper color, a big but quickly fading head and a pleasant burst of roasted malt flavor. There was more there there, than most light beers. It did, however, have an aftertaste, in the top of my mouth, that I was not fond of. I am sure a mess of steamed crabs could take that taste away.

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