El Bulli of Breweries

posted on January 18, 2009 in beer & food

Yesterday, I watched the apparently “infamous” documentary-turned-episode-of-No Reservations which takes Anthony Bourdain to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant in Spain.  This bit of foodie-lore was heretofore unbeknownst to me until I read this great post from the my life as a foodie blog (also a good beer blog in its own right) — thanks for the episode link and post, Phil!  Had it not been several years since the original aired and I hadn’t been already exposed to similar techniques on Top Chef (mostly by Marcel - the other Pope of Foam (in a less cool way), Richard (my fave) and now Fabio with his “spherical kalamata olives” (sweet how-to video in this link)) and other shows, I would have been totally blown away.  As it stands, I managed to keep a few toes on the ground.  Bourdain did a stand-up job hyping the shit out of this place though.  Seriously — if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  I can’t really do the episode justice by merely writing about it.  I can sprinkle sweet El Bulli pics from About.com throughout this post to further entice you though.*

Told you I'd sprinkle "sweet" pics: mango and vanilla ice cream roll

Told you I'd sprinkle "sweet" pics: mango and vanilla ice cream roll

Bourdain’s conclusion is that Adria, and his work at El Bulli, have ushered in a new era of food — one that embraces molecular level science and chemicals like calcium chloride and sodium alginate, and combines them with food in creative and surprising ways.  This acknowledgment partially scares Bourdain and partially excites him.  Mostly, he seems pretty damn pleased.

Oh hi.  Don't mind me.  I'm just here to look amazing.

Oh hi. Don't mind me. I'm just here to look amazing.

Unsurprisingly, there are those who are not so happy about this movement.  Unsurprising, because, as Bourdain says, “what he does is a direct challenge to perceived wisdom of centuries of classic cooking”.  Most famously, another Michelin 3-starred but traditionalist Spanish chef, Santi Santamaria has publicly denounced Adria’s cuisine multiple times, calling it unhealthy and declaring, “Ferran [Adrià] and I have an ethical and conceptual divorce over what we put on the plate”.

Now the culinary world, especially where Spanish chefs are concerned, has essentially divided itself into pro-and-anti-Adria camps.  These events, combined with watching Bourdain’s own trepidation at dining at El Bulli, force me to ask myself two questions (and really, you should ask yourself too, they’re pretty important):

1.  Where do I stand on this debate?  and;

2.  Who is the Ferran Adria of the brewing industry?

Since I want to start talking about beer, I’ll begin with the second question.  If the question had read, who is the Ferran Adria of the fictional chocolate industry, that’d be easy; hands down, Willy Wonka.  How can this guy not remind you of Willy Wonka?  El Bulli does not have a kitchen but a “laboratory” in which he creates dishes that constantly try to surprise (even trick) and, in turn, delight the diner.

Oh, you think that's caviar?  Wrong.  It's fruit.

Oh, you think that's caviar? Wrong. It's fruit.

Oh you think that's regular-flavored wall-paper?  Wrong.  It's shnozzberry-flavored wall paper.

Oh you think that's regular-flavored wall-paper? Wrong. It's shnozzberry-flavored wall paper.

Same difference.  And, for a while, Adria’s secrets were coveted almost as much as Wonka’s everlasting gobstopper; that is, until he released these.  And they both get that crazed look in their eye.

So, to rephrase the original question, who is the Willy Wonka of the brewing industry?  Unfortunately, I feel a bit unqualified to answer that question with my still fledgling, but happily growing, knowledge of the beer industry.  However, from what I have learned, one candidate for this analogy might well be Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head.

Now, this isn’t exactly me jumping on the Sam Calagione bandwagon.  Remember, I haven’t taken sides yet as to the first question posed so merely comparing the personalities is not an endorsement.  And while Calagione’s bandwagon is large (though nowhere near the size of Adria’s - or the one Dahl imagined for Wonka for that matter), he too has his detractors.  Which is precisely the point: these three men are each controversial figures in their respective industry to some degree.  Some hail Calagione as a genius; others consider him overrated.  But their common traits run deeper than merely being controversial personalities in their fields.

Like Wonka, Adria and Caligione are often characterized as being whimsical and inventive.  The late Michael Jackson (Beer Hunter, not Smooth Criminal) wrote an article on Caligione back in 1999 (before Dogfish Head was one of the 25 biggest craft breweries in the US) that demonstrates Caligione’s fondness for wordplay; mirroring Wonka’s mysteriousness, Calagione responds to Jackson’s inquiries by almost cryptically quoting Emerson, Thoreau and Warhol.  Jackson also notes the wordplay in nearly all Calagione’s beers (trademarked as “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People”): beers like Raison D’Etra/Extra (brewed with raisons) and Verdi Verdi Good (a lager given a natural green tint by the addition of spirulina, a blue-green algae).

Possibly the most intriguing, and most Adria-like of Calagione’s beers though is his Midas Touch brew.  I first drank Midas Touch after I heard about it at the Davis Coop, where a fellow Super-Worker told me the story behind the beer.  If you watched the Beer episode of How Stuff Works, you saw the research and scientific collaboration effort

The carrot foam of beers

The carrot foam of beers

that went into the Midas Touch recipe, a beer that Dogfish describes as, “the actual oldest-known fermented beverage in the world! Our recipe showcases the known ingredients of barley, white Muscat grapes, honey & saffron found in the drinking vessels in King Midas’ tomb!”.  To some, this type of effort undertaken all for the sake of a single beer recipe might be ludicrous, but I’ll bet Adria, who painstakingly records his lab’s successes and failures all to make something like “carrot foam”, would appreciate it…and he wouldn’t be alone.

Also, like Adria, Calagione seems to go to great lengths to take a subject that most thought had reached its limits, and push it a little bit further, and make the lines a little more blurry.  For Adria, he throws the very meaning of food into question; as John noted while we were watching the How Stuff Works episode, Calagione does the same with beer styles - inventing his own and using non-traditional ingredients - to the chagrin of many a beer connoisseur.

While I’m (still**) going on about the second question, I might as well throw this tid-bit in: to me, Adria’s combined rigorously scientific and playful approach to food is the very essence of beer.  One cannot produce good beer without adhering to precise, calculated methods.  Beer is a more industrial, technology-driven beverage to make than, say, wine.  At the same time, beer, as a foodstuff, retains a playful image, and don’t think this is entirely due to its marketing/advertising.  As Bamforth notes in Grape vs. Grain, there is more room for creativity in beer - more ingredients to choose from and far more ways to incorporate them.  Given these comparisons, I’m tempted to conclude that beer itself is the Adria of the brewing industry, which doesn’t make sense.  Perhaps, though, it at least can be viewed as the Adria of the beverage world.

I guess the last paragraph sort of gives away the answer to the first question.  If I declare Adria’s approach to food shares characteristics with the production of beer, I damn well better appreciate him.  And I do, but cautiously.  I love innovation and I think it’s what drives people - and there’s no doubt in my mind that many of Adria’s contributions are extremely innovative.  But I also understand Santamaria’s point; what Adria does isn’t really the same as what most chefs do, and thankfully so.  Could you imagine eating nothing but El Bulli’s food for a week?  Would that be satisfying?  That’s why the comparison to Wonka is so apparent - Adria’s food is a delight, but one does not want to consume it for every meal.  For me though, that makes the contribution all the more important; it is these detours from the traditional foods and drinks that makes us want to return to them.  And then we want to be surprised again.  It’s your basic yin and yang.  Adria and Santamaria may not like each other, but the rest of us get to like them both.

P.S.  Happily, my alma mater seems to agree with me when it comes to their stance on Adria’s food.  Adria recently visited Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to give a lecture and sign what is definitely the most interesting MOU I have ever read.  Between this event and JK Rowling’s awesome commencement speech, I’m thinking it would’ve been smart to fail a few classes so I could’ve stuck around a couple more years.

*Warning: “Decoding Ferran Adria” has been known to induce feelings of food envy.  Viewer discretion advised.

**Yeah, I got a little long-winded in this post.  The malignant side-effect of becoming inspired.  Next few postings should be shorter.

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  1. I really enjoyed this blog. Here in Italy most people (especially girls) don’t drink much beer; we like water served at room temperature or sometimes a coca cola, a cocktail or a small glass of wine.

    Comment by Tiziana Mutande — April 20, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment Tiziana - hope you keep reading and enjoying BMAB. I have heard Italy has a burgeoning craft brew industry so I hope you do get to venture out from your typical Italian beverages. Let me know if you find any really great beers there - I encourage you to try them out!

    Comment by kjdalton — April 21, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  3. muy bien muy bien Senor Ferran Adria
    I hope to meet you in Barcelona one day soon
    please book me a seat in your restaurant !

    Comment by maryjo reyes feraren — June 19, 2009 @ 3:11 am

  4. Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all of us you really know
    what you’re talking about! Bookmarked. Please also visit my website =). We could have a link exchange agreement among us

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