Thursday, June 30, 2011

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

I'm pre-announcing (Is that a word?)* a new concept that I've got in the works for drinkdrank—and I'm pretty excited about it!

The new segments are going to be a series of interviews. I'm going talk to people who deal in all aspects of beer. From bartenders, to brewers, bloggers and wholesalers. I'm really want to see how people look at beer from all perspectives. I'm intersted in the making, selling and serving life, of our malty friend—what better way to do that, than having a conversation with those who know it best!

The first one up to bat is a conversation that I had with Mike Proctor—bartender and beer buyer at the Lionheart. Mike has a unique perspective on beer and it's cool to see hear the ins-and-outs of buying for a craft beer bar. Keep your eye out for it, it should be up early next week.

Oh! By the way— I'm looking for a cool name for the segment. If anybody has any good ideas, I'd love to hear them!

*Announcing the announcement?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Session Sensibility

Over the last month I've noticed a number of posts about session beer. Martyn brought up session beer, or rather it's origins, on May 20th. Stephen Beaumont, recently, pointed out a few flaws written about sessioning (to someone who shall remain nameless.) Joe and Alan have been engaged in a dialogue, on the warrants of American Light Lager as a sessionable beer, on Joe's blog Thirsty Pilgrim. Let's not forget Lew Bryson, either—he has a whole blog dedicated to it!

What I've noticed throughout all of these discussions is that a few points keep getting repeated, 1) session beer should be somewhere between 3 and 4.5% ABV and; 2) session drinking hasn't caught on in the US because American craft brewers don't make enough low ABV beers. A lot of emphasis is being put on the beer and it's characteristics, like quality and style. But, I see the beer itself, as only one part of the equation. It's the other part that's interesting, the part that's being overlooked—culture.

Americans and Brits have different drinking habits. In the US we are a happy hour culture and they are a session culture. We consume, as Beldar said, "mass quantities" while we barbecue or watch football—at home. The idea of "going down to pub," on a nightly jaunt to the local watering hole, is a foreign concept to most folks. Don't get me wrong, Americans do their fair share of boozing-out. However, most—over the age of 25 with families—aren't going to just go down to the local bar, after they've already gotten home from work. I want to be clear on this, I'm not—in any way—saying that behavior is wrong, it's just different than what happens in the US (I'll get to that a little later.)

Americans' go out on Friday and live it up; we stop for a quick one after work with colleagues; we barbecue with the neighbors and their kids on weekends. Beer is all part of that, but it's in the peripheral. It's not about going out on Friday to drink beer, it's about going out to drink—period. The quick one after work isn't about the beer, it's about not being at work. As much as I love the concept of getting together with friends and having a great conversation for a few hours over five or six beers, it's just not what happens. As a father or two little kids, I'm lucky I get to go to the occasional happy hour at all. I'll be honest, thanks to our Puritan roots there's a stigma associated with drinking in the US. Good, stand-up citizens don't drink six beers in a single sitting—in public—only drunks do that. You can drink a hundred beers at home in front of the TV, just don't do it in a public forum, where others can see. Thy other stumbling block is, that we don't have pubs—proper pubs—we're missing those places, those hubs of community where local people have come for fifty-years or a hundred-and-fifty years. Places where beer is to be had, and everyone knows you, your brother, his kids and their wives.

Beer is an integral part of the British culture. It's woven into the fabric of British lives and has become part of their identity. Low strength beer has been around in British culture for a thousand years. Small beer, Table beer, Family Ale, the Industrial Revolution, excise taxes and both world wars—all of these contributed to what would become modern session drinking. Beer isn't that influential in the lives of most Americans. So, if beer is Britain's Castor, then what is America's Pollux? Firearms—You may laugh when I say that, but it's true. Both industries have helped to build their respective nations, both are integrated into their histories, and both beer and firearms have a social aspect to them. Whereas four blokes in Abbotsbury might go down to pub on a Thursday evening; four buddies in Ashland might get together in the woods on a Thursday morning. Generations of young, American boys received rim-fire rifles, on Christmas morning, from their fathers. Just as generations of young British boys would grow up and go down to pub, the same pub their father—and his father's father before him—went down to. Not as far fetched as it originally seemed, right?

You can come at me and say, "Hey! You love beer, and you drink not to just get drunk. You drink because you really enjoy the experience of beer—you should be an advocate for session beer!" To that I say I am. Session drinking is amazing, It's just not a reality in the US. I wish it was, but it's not. We still don't have flying cars either—and they've been promising those since the 1950s.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

DRANK: Kelpie Seaweed Ale, Williams Brothers Brewing Company, Alloa, UK (Scotland) - BOTTLE

Stan Hieronymus recently had a post up about the "smell of the sea," or more accurately dimethyl sulfide (DMS), in beer. Stan's point was that even though DMS is considered an off-flavor, said beer might remind you of a trip to the ocean, so context is important. I'm paraphrasing, but you can read it here.

What if that "smell of the sea" was done intentionally? Not by chemical reaction, but by adding a little bit of the sea itself, into the beer. Williams Brothers of Scotland, UK, has done just that with Kelpie, a seaweed ale (I'm not making this up) of their historic beers of Scotland series. The label reads:

Prior to the 1850's there were many Scottish coastal alehouses, which brewed their own ales, these ales were made from local malted barley, which was grown on fields fertilised with seaweed. 
This environment gave the barley a very specific flavour which we have recreated by the inclusion of fresh seaweed in the mash tun. Seaweed (bladder rack) taken fresh from the water on the Argyll coast is 'mashed in' with the malted and roasted barley.

Now that all might be horse shit, I have no idea. Ron, Martyn or Barm would all be better judges of that. I do know that oysters were at one time (and sometimes still) used in the production of some stouts, but seaweed is new to me. Either way, Kelpie is nothing if not unique.

This nautical brew pours nearly black with a thick, voluminous tan head. Even with my mug on the counter it gave off a heavy roasted malt and caramel aroma. Then there came a freshness, an outdoorsy smell, not unlike (dramatic pause) a walk on the beach. Seriously though, there was a very discernible "smell of the sea." Kelpie is rich and quite smooth with a sweet, mineral quality. Bittersweet chocolate and molasses notes are very prominent; with a slightly smokey, peated, earthiness and a hint of vegetable-ness at the end. It's got some bitterness, but the hops do play second fiddle to some of the bigger malt and sea oriented flavors. This feels like a much bigger beer than it's 4.4% ABV would suggest. My only reservation with this one is it's mineral quality. Personally, it seems to be bordering on salty. I don't have a lot of experience with seaweed—other than nori-wraped sushi rolls—so I don't really know what bladder rack (I keep thinking that says Blackadder, by the way) seaweed is going to bring to the party. Is the "smell of the sea" psychosomatic? Does Kelpie really smell and taste like the sea, or do I just want it to? Apparently I need to brush up on my edible Protista.

All-in-all I like this one. The salt is a little distracting, but what's a seaside inspired beer without salt? Anybody else in the mood for oysters?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

'Tis the Season

We all know that seasons have their own vibe; a natural ebb and flow to the year. Matching beer styles to those vibes has become a popular way for breweries to showcase styles or ingredients that they normally don't brew or use. It also gives them a chancce to experiment with smaller batches, year-to-year, without loosing their shirt if the experiment isn't, how shall I say, effective. Brewers have been making beer seasonally for time immemorial. Historically, the spring and fall were the best times to brew, because of fairly stable natural temperatures. The two most popular months were March and October—especially October because it led into five or six months of cool weather, perfect for storing and aging beer and ale. Moderate natural temps for fermentation and cooler temps for storage, that's the way it worked for thousands of years. Since it's no longer 1530 and now it can be 72º in Abu Dhabi, just as easily as it can be 72º in Reykjavik (inside a mall at least), brewing techniques have obviously changed. Regardless, seasonal brewing is still all the rage. We now have a beery menu for all seasons—from Bèire de Mars to Winter Warmers, Fest-biers to Maibocks, and the list goes on and on. Summer seems to be the season with the broadest range of interpretation. For a while American "Summer Ales" became one note, lemon zingers. That's changed. Breweries have embraced a wide variety of styles to give their summery-stamp of approval.

So, boys and girls, it's time to compare and contrast. I'm going to give a brief breakdown of four different beers, of four different styles, from different breweries, all of which are 2011 "summer offerings." Put on your shades, grab the sunscreen and get out the ribs for the barbecue—we're about to go on a beery summer vacation.

Sunshine Pils, Tröegs Brewing Co., Harrisburg, PA 

This one poured bright yellow-gold with a thick, marshmallowy head. I picked up a grainy aroma with a slight citrusy quality. It's fairly dry and smooth, with a light and creamy feel. There's a background metallic taste and just barely, a honey-like sweetness. It's moderately bitter and slightly black peppery with a very light straw or fresh-cut grass, hop flavor. It's quite a bit less aggressive than other pils I've had. My standards are a nowhere near that of Velky Al's self-proclaimed Pilsner Fundamentalism, but either way, it's a tad mellow, but that's not entirely bad.

First off, the new Redhook, retro, cone-top, bottles are pretty cool. 

Hazy gold—darker than I would expect from a Wit—with a thin, fleeting head. Carbonation is high on this baby, it churned and bubbled, but good. Right away I noticed a yeasty, almost toasty aroma. I got some spice, but no banana, and just a hint of sweet orange or tangerine. The label reads, Made with Ginger, but still digs Mary-Ann (which is effing great, by the way.) The sharp ginger notes are there, but in the background. There's just the tiniest sting, a reminder of ginger's lemony heat. Not like Thai food, but an essence of ginger without being gingery. What's more prominent is it's dry, biscuity notes. A wheaty mix of bready malt and Belgian yeastiness. It has a light effervescence to it, and it's not as dense as other American Wit's I've had. 

What make this ultra? I'm not quite sure. The name ultra does remind me of a laundry detergent or a Japanese superhero kid—like Ultra Tide or Ultra Boy. Anywho, I digress. It poured yellow-gold with almost no head. It has a prominent grassy citric aroma, with floral notes of mango and grapefruit. It's lighter in body than most American pales—clean and dry, with a bready malt profile—balanced by hoppy hints of orange and pineapple. There's a stone-fruit tartness to it, as well. This one has a nice bitterness to it, but not so much that it overpowers. There's also and interesting herbal spiciness, toward the end. If the first two were subdued, this one sure isn't.

Wacko, Magic Hat Brewing Company, South Burlington, VT 

Yeah, hoo-boy, where to start with this one? First off the color—hazy, rosy-pinkish-orange—like mixed cranberry and orange juices. Honestly, it's pretty off-putting, but I soldiered on. Not much of a head, just a thin, soapy film. I didn't get a whole lot out the of aroma either; an odd, grainy yeastiness. It's heavily carbonated, almost like champagne—fizzy and thin. The carbonation seems to dry it out as well. The taste to me, is very metallic, as if I were drinking it from an unlined can. There's an pronounced earthiness to it, and no bitterness at all. I want this beer to have a fruity essence to it or some sort of berry quality, that's just not there. It's thin, seltzer-like, dirt qualities are too distracting for me. In my opinion, this one is a swing and a miss for Magic Hat.

What I noticed most, out of all these beers, was their light bodies. Even the Wacko, which fell flat everywhere else, still had a lightness to it. These beers, like summer, have a come-as-you-are feel. They've shed their malty, winter coats and snow boots in lieu of sprite bodied, tank tops and flip-flops. Don't get me wrong, I still love my porters, dopplebocks and barley wines, but there is something to be said for lithe and jaunty, purpose-built beer's of summer.

Now then, I've got to go mow the lawn and fire up the grill!  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Your tax dollars at work

Did anyone else see this?

It looks like two beer loving, US Senators, Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) (tough name, by the way) and Max Baucus (D-Montana), want to get in on some of the action had by the House Small Brewers Caucus—who, amazingly, have a website. Aside from the obvious excuse for a little bi-partisan beer drinking, could our elected officials actually be doing something to improve the business side of craft beer? The Brewer's Association thinks so. It makes sense really, think about what goes into making and distributing a single bottle of beer. There is a lot of industry affected by beer making. Alan gets into the global aspect of beer as a recession buster, but think about it at a local level, too. In fact, the whole local slant is what makes craft brewing unique, as economic stimulus. Most craft beer is made and consumed pretty close to home. If the beer's raw ingredients come from the guy down the road—even better, it's like a beery victory garden. You might as well build your local economy, it's eventually going to have an affect on the bigger picture. Take Brown's Brewing Co., in Troy New York as an example—a few years back they established their own hop farm in Hoosick Falls, New York. They started with 800 rhizomes and went from there. They, along with Groveside Natural Farms in Pittstown, Pedersen Farms in Ontario County and The Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, are helping to rebuild the hop production industry in New York—an industry, mind you, that up until two or three years ago was dead for nearly a hundred years. Think about how many jobs "beer" employs in just those four places, let alone peripherally. Corporate bail-outs and tax relief are one thing, but sometimes change—even change to something as monstrous as the US economy—can start small. It wouldn't be the first time beer saved the world.

If the impetus for this caucus was to simply drink beer—great. If it's just to get votes, okay, at least the craft beer word is getting out. But if these two politicos really are trying to help small breweries, then I think craft brewing might just become the revolution it's always wanted to be. The brewers are going to have to do the hard part, but a little greasing of the wheels might help. There's only one stumbling block, well two actually—the rest of The United States Senate and the United State House of Representatives.

Bring beer boys, you're going to need it in Washington.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

59 breweries in 3 hours

**UPDATE-See Below**

I don't go to a lot of beer festivals. Usually I don't hear about them in time or, being a father of two little ones, I've got other plans. Yesterday was different story, the plan was the beer festival—The second-annual Saratoga Brewfest, to be exact. The last of my unmarried friends, Paul, is finally tying the knot with his long time love, Debbie. As with all upcoming nuptials, the manliest of all rite of passages must be engineered—the bachelor party. What better way to do a bachelor party right, than a beer festival?

Which way is the beer?
Just like last year, this year's event was held on the grounds at the Ellms Family Farm in the rolling hills of Saratoga County, New York. If ever a venue was perfect for a beer fest (or any festival) The Ellms is it. There's is more than enough room for the breweries, tents, merchandise vendors and of course the port-o-potties (ahhhhh!) Fifty-nine breweries, in all, attended the event. With representatives as far west as Anchor and Rogue; down south, like Abita; and from our Canadian neighbor, up north, Unibroue. A Belgian contingent came along as well including reps from Maredsous, Lindeman's, Saison Du Pont and Westmalle. Brewfest is organized by the beverage distribution companies around the Northeast. Unfortunately, that means none of the local, undistributed, brew pubs are invited to participate. That didn't stop two of the best brewers in the area from showing up and having a great time—George De Piro of Albany's Pump Station and my old friend, Drew Schmidt, from the recently reborn, Van Dyke restaurant in Schenectady. Both of these guys have brewing chops out the wazoo, so it was great to get a chance to talk with them about beer and the state of craft brewing, not just locally, but across the country. 

Inside the main tent
Adirondack Brewing's cask offering

The beer flowed freely from bottles, cask and keg. Pretty girls in sundresses drank from small tasting glasses as bands played cover tunes from the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello and the Beatles. The sun was out, the weather was warm and people were happy. The selection was broad and varied, with each brewery offering at least two styles, sometimes three or more. This was a great opportunity, especially for novice beer drinkers to experience a wide array of tastes and styles. But, the burden of being a beer lover is, that I (being the exact opposite of a novice drinker) already have had most of what was offered. With one exception—Olde Burnside Brewing of East Hartford, Connecticut.

Olde Burnside Brewing taps
I'd never heard of this brewery, but their rep Matt Foley, gave me the rundown. Founded by Albert McClellan in 1911, the Burnside Ice Company has been providing ice to central Connecticut for 100 years. Albert's grandson Robert, using the same pure, ice-making water (coveted by local home brewers for it's mineral content) established Olde Burnside Brewing in the mid-nineties. Drawing on the McClellan family's Scottish roots, Olde Burnside created their flagship brew, the Scottish-style Ten Penny Ale. Amber hued, with a bright, caramel smoothness, Ten Penny would help to build Olde Burnside to one of the largest craft breweries in Connecticut.

Hands down, the best beer of the day, however, was Olde Burnside's Dirty Penny Ale. A 60/40 blend of a proprietary dry stout (made only for this beer) and their Ten Penny Ale. I'm amazed that a craft brewery, in this day and age, would go to the trouble of producing one beer (and not sell it) only to mix with another —That's dedication to making great beer. Dirty Penny is a deep brownish black with a coffee colored fluffy head. It's complex with a smokey, coffee and bittersweet chocolate character. It's light in the mouth with a very smooth finish, and amazingly easy to drink. It's tastes of a much bigger beer, but at 5.0% ABV, one could swig these long into a summer evening. Olde Burnside offers three other ales: Penny Weiz, a Wit brewed with heather tips; Ten Penny Reserve, a Wee-heavy Scotch Ale and Amazing Grace a Whiskey barrel aged version of the Ten Penny Reserve. There is a catch though, Olde Burnside does not bottle, they are available on tap at a few local hot spots (like Mahar's) around the Capital Region and obviously more readily available in Connecticut. They do offer growlers at some beverage centers across New York, so grab those jugs. Seriously, this is good stuff, try and track it down if you can. Olde Burnside is taking the time to make great beer, and you can really taste it in their products.

There's something to be said for communal drinking, outside, in warn weather. Whether it be around an intimate campfire with a few friends or in an open field with a few hundred friends—beer is best enjoyed with other people. There was none of the nonsense that has been in the news recentley—No fights, no one acting stupid, not even any accidents. There was just a group of people really enjoying themselves with beer and sunshine—and that's a just two good things that go good together.

Try and make next year, you'll be glad you did.

If you're local, Oliver's Beverage has both Ten Penny and Dirty Penny in growlers in their import/craft cooler!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

DRANK: Field Mouse's Farewell, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, Somerville, MA - DRAUGHT

It's been one of those days.

Nothing in particular went wrong and no one specifically got under my skin, but still I bristled with contempt all day. It was gorgeous outside and I was inside, I was frustrated at every point in the task I was performing and I simply didn't want to be at work. When the proverbial "quitin' time" whistle blew, I knew there was only one place to decompress. The lovely Lionheart—my beery Mason-Dixon between work and home. I needed the perfect elixir to soothe away the dusty bad vibes of another day in the grind, and the moment I got into my car I knew what I wanted.

It's great to be able to order something by simply saying "field mouse," and not having them look at you like you've got two heads. In doing just that, the Thursday night man, Jay, placed the hazy, golden pint on the bar at my center mass. I could feel my tenseness begin to fade. A sweet, grainy aroma with a distinct citrusy-lemon and banana perfume, wafted from the pint. It's head reduced to a thin white film, speckled with bubbles. At first glance, or sniff for that matter, one might assume this to be your rank and file wheat beer. Trust me, it's not. On the first taste, it's soft and dry and there is a prominent wheat flavor, but there's more to it than that. There's an herbal, almost minty spiciness, with underlaying bubblegum, apple and ginger flavors. A sweetness tempered by a mild sourness. It brings a musty, earthiness with yeast, dough and outdoorsy notes—like eating fresh bread, in a pasture. A tangy bite rounds out the swallow and numbs the tongue ever so slightly. The hops are present, but are just back-up singers in this one. They offer a subtle hay-like quality, reinforcing the beer's al fresco character.

Field Mouse is sunshine in a 16 ounce glass. It's a turn-that-frown-upside-down kind of beer. It's nearly impossible not to feel good (or at least better) drinking this one. I knew driving to the Lionheart, that Field Mouse would get me out of my slump—and I was right. I've heard it described as a rustic ale, and I agree. It has a countrified feel to to it—a beer for long hot, days working in the field—or behind a computer. All I know is, if rustic means "stops making your day suck," then they've nailed it, and I'm all for it!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IPA Throwdown: Round 3

Round three: The wrap-up

I suffer from beerdom (beer + boredom = beerdom—sorry, I know that's bad.)

Normally on a trip to the pub, I'll switch-up pints between brewery to brewery, or style to style. Rarely do I have two of the same style, let alone two of the exact same beers in a row. My taste buds are far to A.D.D. for that. The Lionheart usually has rather broad selection to chose from, so it's easy to switch from one to another. The IPA Throwdown worked-out differently than that—it ended up being a great way for me to try some amazing beers, back-to-back, allowing me focus on all of their similarities and differences. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit to having had the Stone before. The ImPaled Ale, Meantime and Punk however, were all new to me (In all honesty, I put this whole scenario together as a good excuse to try the Punk—but we'll keep that under out hat, okay?)

My expectations going into this were that, naively, the Americans would make a better American-style IPA and the UK brewers would ace the English-style. However, the US seems to have a slight edge over the UK. Stone excelled—with laser acuarcy— in producing it's variety of IPA, while BrewDog has a little catching up to do. Middle Ages and Meantime, both brought technique rather than brute force, although ultimately, the English battle, would end in a draw. Did all this poking and prodding get me the answer I was looking for? Yes—the US can produce a great English-style IPA. With a little work, I think the UK can harness that American panaché, for their American-style IPAs, as well.

But really, who cares?

What's more important is what is going on with the Punk and ImPaled Ale. Both of these beers were looking for inspiration, rather than imitation; both took elements from their local brewing traditions and interwove them with other brewing ideas. Each of these beers embraced classic, UK grain bills and matched them with typically American hops, to make something new. As much as I love the Stone and Meantime beers, they seem to be doing what is expected of them—and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, the Punk and ImPaled Ale, embrace their respective heritage and at the same time add their own elements, transcending either American or English IPA styles. My only grievance is with the Punk. I wish it had been brighter. More hoppy citrusy bite, like you'd get from Magnum or Cascade hops, would have really made for a spectacular beer.

So, that leaves only one—Middle Ages Brewing Company's ImPaled Ale. It was, without a doubt, my favorite of the four. It is, in every sense of the word, a proper English IPA—it just happens to have an American accent.      

Monday, June 13, 2011

IPA Throwdown: Round 2

Round two: English-style IPA

If the signature of an American-style IPA is boldness, then English-style IPAs are an exercise in refinement. The earlier American bout—a slugging match—ultimately was cut and dry. BrewDog's Punk IPA is a really terrific beer, but it just not a true American IPA—especially up against the harder-hitting Stone. This round is a different story, it's a true finesse fight, in every sense of the word.

...From York Hall, in London's East End, The British Boxing Board of Control presents tonight's main event... Making his way to the green and black corner... From Lawrence Trading Estate, Greenwich, our fair city... at 11.2 ounces and at 7.5% ABV... Meantime India Pale Ale!... Now entering, wearing mutli-coloured trunks... From Middle Ages Brewing Company in Syracuse, New York... weighing 12 ounces and at 6.5% ABV... ImPaled Ale!... As always, I want a clean fight... I'm looking for a noticeable but not overpowering hop aroma; a strong, sweet malted backbone with a balanced, fruity hop bitterness; and a smooth mouth feel with just a hint of warming. U.K. ingredients area welcome, and let's keep it between 5 and 7.5% ABV.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Both IPAs pour a luscious shade of ambery-copper, leaving a quarter inch putty-colored head. The American boasts slightly more carbonation, while the Brit's head dwindled more quickly. The Meantime gave-off an earthy, caramel aroma with hints of plum-like fruitiness; the ImPaled Ale's scent was a tad stronger and more juniper and citrusy. Both IPAs taste, unmistakeably, of British two-row pale malt. The Brit leaned more bread-like, with honey and molasses; the American was just slightly sweeter with note of brown sugar and caramel. In each beer, it was in the hop notes that the biggest divergence came. The Meantime brought a grassy and flowery-pine essence—the Impaled Ale was more orangey, and grapefruit-like, more tropical in nature. Bitterness from each beers was prominent, and intensified after the swallow. Each had a nice warming touch and smooth body.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

This was a lot more difficult than I had expected. If the Stone is Tyson, then these two beers are the Ali/Frasier match-up in this contest. The Meantime and the ImPaled are truly, evenly matched. Both beers are at the top of their game. The Impaled was slightly brighter than the Meantime, but both beers epitomize the style. If these two beers are representatives of their respective countries, then everybody wins. It's also clear that American brewers seem to have a really good handle on brewing this style of IPA. I can't believe I'm saying this, but we have a tie!

Decision: DRAW - Meantime India Pale Ale, Meantime Brewing Company, Greenwich, London, England, UK and ImPaled Ale, Middles Ages Brewing Company, Syracuse, New York, USA 

Up next, Round three: The Wrap-up. See you then!

Friday, June 10, 2011

IPA Throwdown: US vs. UK - Round 1

I'm on the fence about beer rating sites—like BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer. I'm not opposed to the concept of grading beer in an open forum, in fact I think both places can be a wealth of information, and a great jumping-off point as an introduction to a new style. However, browsing through both sites, I've noticed there seems to be a bias toward beers within a style. I realize that both sites are opinion polls, so there's no right or wrong and I'm not talking about one beer simply being "better" than another, either. It's more complex than that. There seems to be a preference for certain beer characteristics—even within a style or sub-group—almost like pedigree dog breeding. Let's take India Pale Ale as an example. Ratebeer's top 25 IPAs are exclusively made in the United States. Over on the BeerAdvocate side, 25 of 25 American-made IPAs were given a grade of "A", while UK-made IPAs went 6 for 25. Yes, you can say that most of the raters or reviewers are American, or the US has a deeper pool of drinkers to dip from, but both sites do have reviewers from across the globe. Nevertheless, at some level, certain characteristics of American-made IPAs appear to be more desirable for the two groups as a whole, and not just in the US.

IPA is interesting in that it started from a purpose-built, British brewing tradition of the nineteenth century; then came to the U.S., and over time was adopted and adapted by American brewers. This sojourn across the Atlantic would result in an evolutionary split for IPA. On one hand you have the beer's earlier state, the subtle English-style IPA, and on the other hand, the more recent and assertive, American-style IPA. While both are still IPAs, they each have enough diverse characteristics to warrant two distinct styles. Here's where it gets really interesting: A growing number of UK brewers are adding American-style IPAs to their repertoires. Meanwhile back in the states, some breweries—although still producing American-style IPAs—are adding "traditional" English-style IPAs to their stables. This raises the question, if UK brewers are now making American-style IPAs, and American brewers are making English-style IPAs—how are they doing?

So here's what I'm going to do—a head-to-head match-up of IPAs—although, I not going to do it, how you are expecting me to. I'm going to try and answer that "how are they doing?" question, with a three-round title bout (Just to let you know, I'm going to riddle the rest of this post with boxing jargon.)

Round one: Can the UK produce a first-class, American-style IPA, compared to an American-made, American-style IPA, and which one is better?

Round two: Can the US produce a top-notch English-style IPA, compared to a UK-made, English-style IPA, and which one is better?

Round three: Who does the best job, overall?

Okay, so who are the scrappers? Since I'm working at an international level, availability is an issue. I tried to choose four solid beers, to represents a diverse IPA population. You might not agree with the choices, but there's only so much beer available to me at any given time. What can you do? So, here's the first match-up: 

Round one: American-style IPA

Ladies and Gentlemen... Welcome to the main event of the night... In the category of American IPA here in Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada... Now in the green corner... Weighing in at 12 ounces and 6.9% ABV...Hailing from Escondido, California, USA... Stooooooone I-P-A! ...His opponent in the blue corner... Topping the scales at 330ml and 6.0% ABV...from The United Kingdom... Fraserburgh, Scotland's own... BrewDog Puuuuuuunk I-P-A! Gentleman, let's set some guidelines. Your going to need a prominent hop aroma and a medium body; a good amount of hop flavor and bitterness but enough malt to balance them out; with a finish on the drier side. American ingredients are a plus and I'd really like to see an ABV in 5.5-7.5% range. Anything else—flavor profiles, color, carbonation—is up for interpretation.

Let's get it on! Ding! Ding! Ding!

I'll admit, Stone has the advantage. By nature, it's an American-style IPA, plus it's got the reach, at 6.9% ABV on the Punk. But, in the glass is where it is really going to count. Each beer pours a nearly identical color—bright, golden-orange, with the Punk being slightly hazy to the crystal-clear Stone. Both produce a good, half-inch foamy, white head, and leave a nice bit of lacing. The Stone reeks of hoppy bright, citrusy, almost tropical notes; the Punk while aromatic (jab to the Punk!) is far less forceful, with a more earthy tone (another jab to the Punk!) Both beers have a pleasant, mildly dry smoothness (cliching). The Stone brings a flowery and tart orange/grapefruit flavor, bordering on peach-like (right hook to the Punk's cheek!) with a touch of bready sweetness and a hint of alcohol. The Punk's hop notes are subdued and a bit grassy (right cross to the Punk's jaw!) with a slightly dull quality. A rich, caramel and stone-fruit sweetness weaves throughout the background. Both beers are aggressively bitter, especially on the back end, but the Punk seems to be bitter just for bitter's sake. It's got all the bite but none of that resiny, candy-like quality, so associated with American-style IPAs (Uppercut to the Punk's chin... He's is on the mat! 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10—Ding! Ding! Ding!)

That's it, I've got to give this one to Stone's IPA. Granted, BrewDog doesn't label Punk as an American-style IPA, but it's obvious, that's the vibe they are going for. Honestly, it was no contest, BrewDog made a great beer, but it's just not in the same league as the Stone. If intensity is the hallmark of an American-style IPA, the Punk just isn't intense enough. I checked out their website, and I can pick out the issue in two words—Maris Otter. The hops were fine (Chinook, Simcoe, Ahtanum and Nelson Sauvin) a bit earthy, but well-selected. It's the Maris Otter—it's too, well... British. That malt brings, again, too much earthiness for a proper American IPA, it muddled everything. I really wanted Punk to stand up to the Stone, but it just didn't have the balance of subtle malt and a citrusy hop profile, to fit the bill. It's just not bright enough. It seems that UK brewers making American-style IPAs, still have some work to do.

Decision by knockout: WINNER - Stone IPA, Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, California, USA

Stay tuned for the next round. English-style IPAs.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tropic Thunder

Ah, summer—the whirring sound of a lawn mower down the street; kids laughing and splashing in the neighborhood swimming pool; the smell hot dogs and hamburgers, steaks and chops, grilling on so many backyard barbecues. The mercury is rising and the humidity is covering Albany like a wool blanket. What better opportunity than a day in the upper 80ºs to grab a nice pint of stout. To which you reply, surely you mean IPA or Pilsner or even Kölsch? Nope, I mean stout, good old, black-as-night, stout—and the closer you get the equator, the more people are going to agree with me.

The stout I'm talking about is Foreign Extra Stout, or as it is sometimes referred to—Tropical Stout. The idea of dark beer consumption in warm climates, isn't as far fetched as it might sound. The whole thing started in the early nineteenth century. As Britian's empire expanded, so did it's demand for beer, and brown beer was no exception. We all know the story of IPA's trip around the globe, but Porters and Stouts also got their vacations. In fact, during 1860 nearly 30% of Whitbread & Company's, London-brewed porter was made for the, rather steamy, Indian markets. Don't believe me? Go spend the next few weeks perusing Ron Pattinson's site Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, and see for yourself. Historically, the main difference between domestically consumed stout and those stouts produced for foreign exportation, was the amount of hops. Extra hops in the boil and dry hopping gave the beer more preservative power, as well as a nice zing on the tongue. While IPAs have become arguably, the most recognizable "export" style, FESs have gained and grown in popularity, especially in sultry, tropical and subtropical areas. In some cases, breweries were established in those sun-baked countries, and the characteristics of export stouts—medium-high gravities*, pronounced bitter sweetness and a slight sourness—became the standards for locally produced versions. These stouts are now being produced globally, in countries as far-flung as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Argentina, Bulgaria and Japan—as well as the U.S. and Europe.

In the best interest of my readers, I took it upon myself to test the theory that ebony hued beers can be just as satisfying in the 80ºs as the 30ºs. I went with stouts from three different breweries, two from warm climates and one produced by an obscure brewery, on a little island in the North Atlantic— first Cooper's Best Extra Stout from Leabrook, Australia; then Dragon Stout from Desnoes & Geddes of Kingston, Jamaica; and finally the grand pappy of them all, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout—from that little island in the Atlantic. I'm not going to review all three, but I am going to give a general overview of the style, picking out points from each.

All of the stouts poured essentially, black with coffee-colored heads. The Coopers had a noticeable fruity, cocoa aroma, however the Guinness and Dragon leaned more earthy. The Dragon was the sweetest, with a molasses and anise quality. The Coopers had mildly tart, plum-like bitter sweetness, while the Guinness was, by far the most sour—bringing just a slightly sweet, leathery-charcoal cocoaness. They all had a good amount of bitterness, although the Guinness had significantly more, than the first two. All three, while flavorful and complex, are surprisingly light bodied, rich and involved, but not thick. The ultimate test of the style however, would come to the Guinness. The temperature, in Albany yesterday, reached the high 80ºs by dinner time. The humidity was causing the moisture on our house windows to condensate. Add the heat radiating off of my outdoor grill and you've got the the perfect, Malaysian rain forest-like, conditions to test the mettle of these beers.

That beautiful Irish lass came through.

Yes, these beers are dark and yes they have a ton of flavor, but none of them are heavy. I'd take a guess, that most Americans expect all stouts to be the "served off nitrogen–thick and creamy–wait for the head to settle out" kind. These stouts are nothing like that and honestly, I wouldn't want a Guinness Draught in August, either. These stouts aren't just thirst quenchers, either—that would be too boring for these beers. I've seen descriptions of them as just beefed up dry stouts—that's like calling a Porsche 911 GT2 RS, a beefed up Volkswagen. Theses beers come from the idea that embracing the heat, will cool you down—like hot chilies in curry. They're big and bold and they wrestle with the you, saying, "Yeah, it's hot. Guess what? It's gonna be hot tomorrow too. Grow a set and deal with it." Whatever you want to call it—Foreign Extra, Export or Tropical—the next time you can't stand the heat, put back that can of lawnmower beer or bottle of Euro-lager, and go for something black, because you know what they say... you'll never go back.

*As a note of clarity: I've seen online, a number of sites stating that FESs originally used more hops and had higher gravities "... to survive their long journeys..." I didn't think that was completely true—the hops yes, but not the gravity part. As usual, the good Doctor Pattinson was able to straighten things out. He let me know that, the final gravity (1.075ish) of these stouts was on par with domestically produced stout until the outbreak of WWI. At that point domestic stout gravities dropped, while FES stayed higher. All of that is neither here nor there, when it came to beer freshness and exportation. What was crucial to staving-off spoilage was making sure that the beer was fully fermented before it was put on the ship. Un-fermented or partially fermented beer was more susceptible to a yeast infection or developing off-flavors, especially when the ships carrying it reached warmer climates.     

Monday, June 6, 2011

DRANK: Wolters Fest-Bier, Hofbrauhaus Wolters GmbH, Braunschweig, Germany - BOTTLE

I've been lacking in my beer review posts, of late. So, in keeping mit dem thema Deutsch...

As soosn as I walked through the doors at Oliver's I saw the wall of Wolters cases. Boxes of Fest-bier and Pilsner were piled high enough to obscure the guy behind the counter. I'll admit I was intrigued, but there's always one big caveat, when it comes to German imports — Das bottle. I've always been dumbfounded as to why breweries export, light-sensitive lager in green bottles. Temperature control in beer shipping is the X-factor, but brown bottles seem to be a no-brainer—why even risk onion beer? I continued my trek between the beverage center's tall shelves, loaded with beautiful brown bottles. Every time I rounded the corner of one of the aisles, my eyes were drawn to the brighlty colored blue and gold cartons of Wolters. Damn you green botttles! Be gone from my mind! Nope, it was in my destiny to buy a green-bottled import— a "best-in-September-Fest-bier," no less! I was a victim of point-of-purchase advertising. I consciously, said to myself, "It can't be any worse than any other skunky beer you've had." I didn't want to buy it, and I justified the purchase, because I am simple-minded and gullible.

You know what's coming next, right? Off pops the cap and —WHEW! But, no, that's not what happened. The cap came of with a hiss and I braced myself for the smell, but there was only a pleasant toasty aroma, with a slight metallic hint. Eyebrow raised, I stared skeptically at the mouth of the bottle. Pouring the brew into my mug, it shone a perfect amber—much lighter than the usual American made märzen biers. The bright white head held form and offered more of the toasty, tinny aroma. As I drank, the body was soft and slightly creamy on my tongue, with a weight to it. The lager was rich with caramel and had a mild spiciness, like cracked black pepper. The hops brought a grassy, hay-ness and a quick, sharp bite at the very end.

I learned a valuable lesson with this one. Don't judge a beer by it's label and leave your preconceived notions at the beverage center door. Having such good luck with the märzen, I went back for the pilsner... but that's a story for another review.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

All things German

I have to admit I'm lucky to live in Albany. She's not a huge city, by any means — just over 90,000 residents. Sure, she has the same problems as any other small city, not-enough money, screwy politics, crime, and lousy parking.  But, her good qualities far out weigh her bad. Washington Park in the spring is beautiful; the Center Square neighborhood is a bustling hub of entertainment and dinning; festivals and events dot the calendar throughout the year. Most importantly (for this blog's sake), she's a beer town.

The bars and pubs are great and we have a good number of beer stores, as well. But, that's not what makes Albany a truly great beer town. It's the little gems she offers — the hidden away places, you'd never expect to find great beer. No spot in the  city exemplifies this better than Schuetzenpark Biergarten at the German-American Club.

Tucked away, behind one of the cites largest industrial areas, sits a slice of Munich. The club itself, founded in 1895 by German immigrants, is open to the public year round. An indoor banquet hall hosts events in the colder months, while the biergarten is open for picnics and Friday night happenings, throughout the summer and fall. Last night was the official summer opening of the park, so the family and I paid a visit. Friends of ours, Paul and Gravey are members, and when you have an in like that, how can you not take advantage of it?

Admittedly, the park is a little rough-around-the-edges, but there is a certain charm in that. The buildings are worn but homey and the outdoor kitchen, is little more than a lean-to. At one time, it may have tried to emulate the classic gardens lining the River Iasr, but it's long past caring about imitation now. The smell of sauerkraut and bauernwurst wafted through the air as the PA system joyfully spouted oom-pa music—occasionally interrupted by laughter and chatter in a decidedly Bavarian accent. Sitting on it's picnic benches quaffing cups of Franziskaner Weissbier, Hofbräu Dunkel, and Spaten Lager while the sun painted dappled patterns through the tall pines onto the sandy ground below, was nothing less than sublime.

Schuetzenpark Biergarten is what all beery places should aspire to be — simple. The park is what it is, a good place for people to meet, eat and drink all things German.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I Don't Like Craft Beer

Okay, that's not entirely true. I love the beer part — I just don't like the word "craft."

Now, hold on and hear me out... It's not the concept of hand-crafted beer that bothers me; it's what can be inferred by using the word "craft" or "crafted," that I find a bit sticky.

Yesterday, I commented on Mark Dredge's blog about a beer list he'd come up with for the UK burger chain, Byron Hamburgers. In my comment I referred to his US beer choices as a batch of American craft brews. In response, Zak Avery, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, cracked off that neither Goose Island nor Brooklyn are true "craft" beers. Goose Island is negated because, in his words, they are ABInBev's glove puppet (which is a fantastic phrase, by the way) and Brooklyn gets checked off the list because it's contract brewed in Utica—180 miles north by north-west, of Brooklyn—by the Matt Brewing Company. Zak's mischievous comment-bomb, got me thinking about the nature of "craft" as it relates to beer.

So, herein lies my issues with using the word "craft."

It's way to easy, to infer that all "craft" beer is the result of some storybook, cottage industry. Contrary to popular belief not all "craft" breweries were started by two best friends, who against all odds, using only the freshest, local ingredients, made good and now produce award winning liquid gold—using only their four little hands. I'm pretty sure Harpoon or Left Hand or Stone have some fairly complicated computer systems monitoring all their production variables. These companies are far from up-scaled, home brew or brew pub operations. "Craft" brewing may have started in someone's garage back in the 1970s, but it's big business now—which leads me to my next point.

There is an implication that "craft" brewers are always the tiny underdog, fighting the good fight against the monsterous big boys of beer. Yes, craft breweries are smaller in comparison to ABInbev, MolsonCoors, SABMiller, Carlsburg, or even Guinness. Guess what? So are the majority of companies in the US and Europe. The two largest craft breweries in the US—Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—sold more than 2.5 million barrels of beer last year. That's not as much as the macros, but that's still a lot of beer, and that's still a lot of profit (50.1M for Sam alone, in 2010). Last week, Jim Koch founder of Samuel Adams, said that being the largest "craft" brewer in the US, is like being the tallest pygmy. What kind of airplane do you think that pygmy flies around in?

Lastly, "craft" also implies homemade goodness; as in small, local "craft" brewers produce a better, more wholesome product than large multi-national, uberconglomerates. Again, that's not always the case.. I've had good and bad beer from both parties. Michelob's craft line is great, and it's accessible to novice beer drinkers, right in the grocery store. Small doesn't mean good, nor does large equal bad. The majors don't necessarily make bad products—if they did, they wouldn't be in business. Do I agree with all of their business tactics? No. But, I'm sure that some "craft" brewers engage in some less than noble efforts to get their beer out there, too. If it tastes good, while it's getting to my belly, then I'm happy.

Here's my conundrum. I still say craft beer—I hate it, but I do. Honestly, it's for lack of a better term. Independent beer? No, that's not right. Regional beer? Nope, not right either. Independent regional brewers with a national or international presence? Yeah, that's a bit wordy. Do you know what I need? I need, an O-fficial-like, bona-fide definition on "craft." So here goes:'s top two definitions for craft are:

1. skill in planning, making, or executing

2. an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

Those are pretty open-ended parameters. "Craft brewing" isn't quite as magnanimous, when you look at that way. So, the bottom line is, let's not get caught up in craft or real, micro or macro, new or traditional. Let's get caught up in unique and unusual or best of all great beer, from whatever the source.    

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Better I can write: What do pro beer writers think of amateur beer writers?

I'm a professional graphic designer. I've found out over my career that everyone is a designer. Regardless of education or talent, as long as Microsoft Word and Gimp are installed on their computer, everyone is a designer. Good or bad, everyone is a designer. This is a fact that every design school graduate will soon find out.

What I am not, is a writer. Yes, I can get my point across and every once in a while evoke an emotion. Be that as it may, my grammar is a bit rusty, I am indebted to spell check and I, might, be, a, tad, comma, happy. Yet, I have a blog. The whole dichotomy got me thinking. I love beer; however, I'm wholly unqualified to write about. How does the professional beer blogger feel about that? I'm not just talking about myself, either. How has the influx of amateurs onto the beer writing scene affected professional beer writing? I'll even open the question up to the non-professional, but more well-established beer bloggers. Has the ability for anyone to share their opinion about the state of the beery universe been good or bad for the beer blogisphere?

In light of the Valentine's Day massacre, I'd like to know not how CAMRA views beer blogging, but rather how beer bloggers view each other.