“Basically, I’m a chef with better hours.” Gretchen Schmidhausler, Brewmaster at Basil T’s
Getting ready for my upcoming interview with Gretchen Schmidhausler, the masterbrewer of Basil T’s Brewery and Italian Grill in Red Bank, it occurred to me that her job is similar to that of a chef. First, she has to select and order ingredients. Then, she has to formulate a menu (including specials in the form of seasonal brews) and “cook” up the final product for consumption right there on premises.
The chef-brewer idea really hit home when she described some of the challenges she faces as a brewpub brewmaster. Beer moves fast at Basil’s and space is limited. That makes lagering, or the aging of beers to ferment slowly at low temperatures, impossible. She produces only Ales which are top fermented quickly at higher temperatures. Ales are also very adaptable. Without a grain mill on premises she’s also limited to the kinds of pre-ground malt she can buy. Malt is the grainy backbone of beer. English Malt is her base and a couple of other dark malts for color and flavor shifts.
So, like a chef, she looks for unexpected ingredients to create her seasonal brews. The Spiced Apple Wheat benefits from locally made apple cider to make a tart, spicy beer. She’s also used locally produced honey. Once, when some smoked malt presented itself, Gretchen collaborated with Basil’s pastry chef to select a collection of chilies that she made into a tea and added straight to brew tank. Chipotle in a glass! I was sorry I missed that beer but jalapeños may be showing up soon in another contemplated collaboration. This time it’s with Tim Kelly, brewmaster at the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City. Inspired by a jalapeño chocolate bar, they will be using jalapeños, cocoa and cinnamon as common ingredients. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that!
Ok, so let’s take a look at the menu. Now I’m talking about both the food and the beer menu. Having lived in Red Bank for 14 years, I’m very well acquainted with Basil’s gastro offerings as well as their beers. My job is to cover beer, but for me, you’d be hard pressed to find better food in any brewpub in the state. That’s saying something, as Gretchen explained to me. Opening a brewpub is an expensive undertaking in this state, so we tend to have more upscale places here. I was expecting Gretchen to give me some killer beer and food pairings, but she surprised me.
Basil’s core beers (the list can be found here) are really designed with the entire menu in mind. They all stand alone as wonderful examples of their style, but they don’t overpower the food either. The micro beer scene might be overrun with high alcohol imperial this or double that, but you won’t see those palate killers at Basil’s. The whole dining experience is taken into consideration. That braised short rib may go great with the porter but, then again, the red ale would be great too. You don’t get beer and food, you get beer with food. Big difference. Gretchen likes it that way. She also worries about the mug club customers who typically drink out of the club’s 20 ounce mugs. You just don’t want to put a 12% abv Imperial Stout in one of those mugs! Someone’s going to get hurt.
So, in my last ditch effort to squeeze out a pairing, I asked Gretchen her favorite beer styles: American Pale Ale (not west coast hop bombs!) and stout. If you do it well, you don’t have to overdo it. That’s a lesson from the brewmaster herself. Take heed.
Still no pairing, but I was able to find out that Gretchen is becoming as happy in front of the kitchen stove as she is at the brew kettle. So the brewmaster likes to cook too. The circle is complete. I should have known.
Rosie’s Pale Ale – Tough choice among the core beers. The stout is great, but the Pale Ale is a little more versatile. It walks the tightrope between the citrus of the Cascade Hops and the malt, then loses its balance at the end just enough to keep it interesting.
Iceboat Ale – I’ve tasted most of the seasonals and liked most of them, but I always look forward to the Iceboat! It pays homage to those hearty souls who skid down the Navesink River on skates and sails. This chestnut hued Scottish Ale is just the thing to thaw out your frozen bones! (usually available in late winter)
Peter Culos is the editor of “Beer Bites,” a new monthly feature about breweries, bars and good beer in the garden state. A graphic designer by day, and a life long New Jersey resident, Peter was first introduced to the novel idea that beer could actually have flavor during several visits to the UK. He’s been riding the craft beer bus ever since. It has been called the ultimate social lubricant and Peter’s philosophy on beer is, “I’d rather split my last good beer with a friend than drink the whole thing by myself.” Besides beer he also likes history, dogs, Jeeps and painting. In the past, he has written a History and Art blog for the Weider History Group and occasionally contributes to his own blog, history-geek.com. Life is short. Drink good beer.