Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Brews: To Spice or Not to Spice

Each season has their special releases which are appropriately enough called "seasonals". Spring has maibocks, Summer has citrusy weizens and Autumn has Oktoberfest biers, but none of are more well-known, more established or more anticipated than the Winter brews.

Winter brews are born out of the wassail tradition. Today many think of wassail as a mulled cider or spiced punch, but it is more likely that the first wassail was a mulled beer. There are conflicting stories as to how the beverage and custom came into being, but the meaning of the word "wassail" is agreed upon. It is a compounding of two words from Olde English: "wes" and "hal". I've known guys by those names, but in this case those words meant "Be in good health!" and was commonly used as a toast. But enough history, we're here to talk about the beer that was spawned from this tradition...those wonderfully strong brews that are used to shake off the bone-numbing cold of winter.

The coming of colder weather harkens the release of heavier ales (and even lagers). There are many varieties that start showing up on the better beer stores' shelves once the trees are bare in the northern climes. The vast majority are ales, but there a few winter lagers. The names vary in their references to winter and cold weather, but they all have one thing in common: they have pretty hefty malt profiles. Yes, there are exceptions that concentrate more on the hops but those are from the West Coast (are you surprised? I'm not) and even most of those go heavy on the malt.

Back in the day when microbreweries were just rising there were only a few of these cold-weather gems to chose from.
Anchor has been releasing their Christmas Ale since 1975. They actually call it "Our Special Christmas Ale" and then add the date. The label hasn't changed much through the years, but there has always been a tree on it. The type of tree has changed however...1995 even sported a palm tree. I've heard many beer geeks call this one "Christmas Tree Beer".
Sierra Nevada
first produced Celebration Ale in 1981, but the current recipe wasn't finalized until two years after that. This is one of the winter anomalies as it is actually an IPA. Even though SN had been producing a hoppy pale ale since it opened in 1980, Celebration - their first IPA - would come a year later.
Harpoon
refers to their winter release as Winter Warmer and has been doing so since 1988. Like Anchor's Christmas Ale this beer is spiced in the wassail tradition. Early on, the spicing was subtle but in more recent years it has become a little more heavy-handed. In my opinion, a bit too heavy-handed.
Samuel Smith
calls their winter beer Winter Welcome. The first imported winter beer offered in the US, it was introduced in 1989. This one is not spiced, which is more the norm for the United Kingdom's winter ales. British winter ales tend to focus more on the malty sweetness and higher ABV.
Sam Adams
first brewed Old Fezziwig in 1995. Although not my favorite winter beer, it does boast what I think is the best name for a festive brew. This is another spiced beer and also delivers the sweetness common to Winter Warmers.

Today, almost every brewery offers some variety of winter seasonal brew. And with more imports coming to the US each year, the variety of winter beers has grown exponentially. By the second week in December it becomes impossible to keep up with the influx and I must admit that there are still many that I really need to try. It is literal example of "so many beers, so little time". But I've still managed to include my list of favorite winter offerings, but you'll notice that there are very few spiced beers. I'm not overly fond of the style despite being appreciative of the brewmasters' efforts to keep true to tradition. So in no particular order, here are eleven of my favorite winter beers.
  1. Anchor Christmas - the first in the US and still a classic, spiced beer done right
  2. Weyerbacher Quad - you only need one to warm you up and send you off to long winter's nap
  3. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale - a strong, dark Belgian abbey ale with a 10% ABV kick, dark cherries
  4. N'Ice Chouffe - another strong, dark Belgian with a 10% ABV punch, but with an apple overtone
  5. Samuel Smith Winter Welcome - consistently sweet and clean, a favorite every year and always classic
  6. Nogne Underlig Jul (Peculiar Yule) - one of the few spiced beers that I loved, but drink it close to room temperature
  7. Celebration Ale - an IPA released to bring you a Merry Christmas and a Hoppy New Year (sorry, I couldn't resist)
  8. Weyerbacher Winter Ale - how can you resist the "Kleptomaniac Snowmen" label on this light-handed version of a spiced beer
  9. Lake Placid Winter Lager - yes, a lager in winter - heavy enough to qualify as a winter brew with the distinct taste profile of lager yeast
  10. Weyerbacher Riserva - more akin to a raspberry lambic, the sourness of this one is a refreshing departure
  11. Brasserie Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux - a saison for the holidays? Why not...and a damn good one at that
Yes, I'm a bit partial to Weyerbacher - I promise to try a lot more winter beers next year so that the chance of 30% of this list being Weyerbacher is lessened...but I can't promise that.

Next Time: A Beer Poem

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Parts 4 and 5 - Mouthfeel and Drinkability

I've included both mouthfeel and drinkability in one post since these commonly get confused and can sometimes wind up being included in one paragraph as if they're the same thing...they're not.

MOUTHFEEL
Simply put, mouthfeel is how does it feel in your mouth, not taste, but feel. Ignore the taste and sense the feel of the beer as it moves through your mouth. Pay attention as to how it crosses the lips, washes across your tongue, splashes up against the palate, brushes along the insides of your cheeks and hits the back of your throat. Is it silky, satiny, smooth, watery, thin, thick, viscous? These are primary concerns of mouthfeel.

The aftertaste is another element of the mouthfeel. How long does it linger? Is it pleasant, unwelcome, harsh? Another element is any alcohol "heat". Can you sense it readily? Does a high ABV beer mask the alcohol content well? If it's very present, does it overpower the taste?

Some reviewers will combine the mouthfeel into a paragraph with the taste since the taste of the wash is a natural segue into the feel of the wash.

DRINKABILITY
This is the least understood attitude of beer tasting and many reviewers rely on a few devices to get through this one. Could I finish a whole bottle easily? Will the alcohol content impair my judgment? What foods does this pair well with? Is this a good example of the style? How does this one stack up to the other offerings from the brewery? I've used all of these, but just explain how easy it was to drink it.

The only time that drinkability is easy to address is when a beer is undrinkable due to a very negative element. The taste of a Belgian-style dark ale could be so phenolic that taking cough syrup would be preferable. The IBUs of an IPA could be so through the roof that you can't unpucker your mouth enough to take another sip. The ABV of a Russian Imperial Stout could be so high that you can't get another drop into your mouth...your lap, shoe or ear, but not your mouth. An American lager could taste so horrendous that you couldn't bring yourself to finish and committed that sin of all sins - you poured it. I'm not judging; drastic times call for drastic measures and I've been presented with beers that I just could not finish. It happens. Blame the brewery who produced it, not your dwindling manhood.

NEXT TIME: Holiday Brews: To Spice or Not to Spice

I hope this sheds some light on the two most misunderstood attitudes of beer tasting. If not, you're on your own; this is all I got.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Three - Taste

Okay, it's been a while since I've done a new entry, but I was on vacation in Arizona. Once I've completed The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting I'll do an entry on the beer scene I discovered in Arizona. It is not to be overlooked...the beer scene in Arizona; you are certainly free to ignore my blog entry on it.

So on to taste. Like smell, I've covered off on a lot of this but there is always much to talk about when it comes to tasting beer. The first and foremost thing to always remember is that everyone's taste differs. Sure, all our taste buds work the same way, but the concentration of taste buds on one person's tongue will differ from the next. That's why some people prefer some beers and others prefer another.

TASTE REGIONS - When you taste a beer you need to be cognizant of those taste buds and where they exist in your mouth. They're not just on your tongue but on your palate as well. Segment your tongue and your palate and explore how what you taste in one region differs from what you taste elsewhere and how they work together to create one overall impression of taste. For instance, when you drink a stout you can get an overall taste impression of coffee, even if the beer is not brewed with coffee. How? Well, you taste roasted malts on the tip of your tongue. You then taste the bitterness created by those malts or the use of hops at the back of your palate. You can taste them separately if you concentrate on each region separately, but together they create the overall impression of coffee. But we've covered this...sort of.

TASTING TECHNIQUE - Let's talk about technique. Technique you say? Yes, it's not just a simple matter of pouring beer down your gullet and telling people how you like it. Funnels will not do in this exercise. The key here is to take it slow even though some beers make that difficult by being so damn yummy.

GLASSWARE - As mentioned a few posts ago, you should be drinking out of some sort of drinking vessel and not the bottle. Your nose is a big player in the overall taste impression and the act of drinking from a bottle takes your nose out of play.

SIPPING - Now that you've selected an appropriate drinking vessel, you should take an initial sip, trying not to get too much of the head. Taking in a small amount will help you separate the tasting regions of the tongue and allow you concentrate. Explore each region and what you find there. Don't buy into the traditional taste mapping, even though it's usually pretty accurate. There are some beers that will go outside the norm and display flavors where they are not expected.

THE QUAFF - After that you can continue to sip to make sure you understood everything you experienced or you can go for a full quaff and fill your mouth, bringing the palate more into play. Taste buds do exist on the roof of your mouth. Alcohol and bitterness usually assert themselves in the front of the palate and at the rear, respectively. A sip may hit these regions, but a full quaff will definitely do so.

WORDS - The hardest part of reviewing taste then becomes the words you use. Some flavor wheels for beer tasting have been developed. Here's one that I found on-line. It's not easy to read so click on it and you'll find it's still pretty hard to read.

When drinking stouts I get tired of describing them as having taste elements of roast, toast, coffee, chocolate and smoke. With some styles this is unavoidable, but you can be creative within the structure of a well-known and accepted flavor profile. Ask yourself, "What kind of coffee? Roasted or toasted what? Milk or dark chocolate? Is the toast burnt? From where do these flavors arise? Do they taste like something else you've had? Do they work well with one another?"

BALANCE - That last question can be important. If you're not particularly liking a beer, but the flavor elements seem to be fine when taken separately it might be that the beer is not in balance. Individual flavors can be nice, but if they're clashing and not working well together it can make for an unpleasant experience. Mention that! I've seen reviews that have referred to a beer as a muddled mess...and they were right! The flavors individually were good but they worked so counter to one another that the overall impression was horrible. One example for me is some chili beers. I love beer (duh) and I also love hot chilies. In many chili beers the chilies are not in balance with the rest of the beer because the heat overwhelms every other flavor rendering the beer undrinkable. Just as a side note, I have had some chili beers where the taste of the chilies is balanced by the sweetness of the malts, the hops used are mild and bring just some bitterness and the heat of the chilies is all but gone. That was a well-balanced and great chili beer!

BRAVERY - Finally, be not afraid! Your impressions are your opinions and are not and cannot be wrong. If you post a beer review and someone tells you that you're wrong then they just don't get it. Okay yes, there are some flavors that almost everyone can pull out and there can be objectivity to a taste. We should all be getting the same flavor profiles when tasting the same beer. However, not everyone will sense everything and some flavors will appear a little different, but will remain close to others. For example, some people may describe a phenolic beer as astringent, others will describe a spice that it tastes like and someone else may call it medicinal. None are wrong; they just chose different ways to express the same taste.

So go forth and taste, review what you taste! But most importantly enjoy what you taste. If writing out what you tasted in a review becomes a chore and no longer enjoyable, stop doing it! You're not doing anyone a favor. We all have to read a review that has no pleasure in it and you're ruining your beer-drinking experience. Only review if you enjoy it. Do not let it ruin your enjoyment of your beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Parts 4 and 5 - Mouthfeel and Drinkability

Thursday, September 2, 2010

THE FIVE ATTITUDES OF BEER TASTING: PART TWO - SMELL

I've already covered a lot of aspects of the sense of smell's role in tasting beer in two previous posts in August. In one of the posts I explain how smell is linked to taste and in the other I talk about the importance of drinking your beer from a glass in order to enhance the olfactory experience. So what's left to cover? How to actually review the smell aspect of a beer.

From what I can figure there are three tacks a reviewer can take:
  1. Descriptive - Using descriptive words (also known as adjectives to those of us who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock) to impart your experience to others. Words like astringent, toasted, acrid, sour, boozy, creamy, spicy, floral and many others. I don't see this methodology used all that often. This is not a surprise considering many beer reviewers can't spell "adjective" much less know how to use them. I also rarely use this method.
  2. Comparative - This method I see more. It involves sharing sensory experiences by invoking the smells of items with which others may be more familiar. In stouts you'll see toast, coffee and chocolate. In IPAs you may get grapefruit, pine and lemon. In many Belgian styles you may see raisins, horse blanket or brandy. This method can describe an overall sensation due to the combined smells. For instance, the smell of roasted malts paired with the bitterness of the roast or some hops usually results in a beer having coffee-like accents.
  3. Elemental - Some of the reviewers who are very familiar with the brewing process will speak to the elements (ingredients) of the beer that they smell. They may describe which malts are present or which hops were used. Belgian yeast has a very distinct smell that most experienced beer drinkers can pick out. You'll see phenols and esters mentioned and you'll begin to wonder what they mean and how on Earth they can figure this out. It's either that they're that good or they're guessing. If I do this in a review, I'm usually guessing but I try to mention that it's just a guess.
More often than not you will see a combination of all three. Maybe something like, "The banana esters of German yeast gives the sense of bananas." There's that word "ester" again. It's not a High Peak in the Adirondacks that the author has climbed...that's spelled "Esther"...so what is it?

Esters are given off primarily by yeast and typically add a fruity element to the smell. If you love hefeweizens you are familiar with that banana odor that comes with almost every one them. This is an ester given off by the German wheat ale yeast.

I also mentioned phenols. So what are they? Well, they're similar to esters in the fact that they are made present by certain yeast strains. I said "made present" because it isn't the yeast that carries the phenolic acid; it's the malt. But that phenolic acid is not released as an aromatic unless acted upon by particular enzymes found in those certain yeast strains. There are some yeast strains that are used purposely for this effect, but for most unwanted phenolic odors wild yeast is to blame. How are they sensed by our noses? Medicinal, astringent, clove and black pepper are many words used to describe the odor. Again, if you enjoy hefeweizens the you've smelled the clove-like odor. You are smelling phenols.

So take a good whiff of your beer and then...what? You don't smell much? Neither do I because I showered this morning. Oh! You don't smell much coming off the beer. That's a problem, but not uncommon. It's possible you have a cold. If not, then the smell may not be making it through the head. If the latter then try to wait for the head to abate or blow into it to release the odors. Even if there is no head then agitate the surface of the beer to get some scents off of it. If that doesn't work then you've come across one of those beers that have little aroma. Mention that and move on to tasting the beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Three - Taste

THE FIVE ATTITUDES OF BEER TASTING: PART ONE - APPEARANCE

Glass occurs naturally when silicates melt and then cool. Lightning and volcanic activity are the prime motivators in the natural process and they've been doing their job since before humans walked the planet. When and where man first made glass seems to be disputed. It may have first happened in Phoenicia around 5000 BC, Mesopotamia around 4000 BC or Egypt around 3000 BC, it all depends on what source you reference. Not only is that in dispute, so is the origin of glass drinking vessels. It is known that both the Egyptians and Mesopotamians were creating hollow glass vessels in and around the 16th century BC, but nothing precise. And then there's glass blowing, which did not occur until some time around the birth of Christ...give or take a few decades either way...in the area that is now Syria.

So most of the earliest development of glass was centered around the Middle East until the Romans got involved and clear glass was discovered. Venice later became the glass-making center of the world and even the French got involved in the 17th century AD, improving the clarity and flatness of glass sheets and the reflective quality of mirrors. And then the Industrial Revolution occurred and the Germans got involved. In the late 19th century they figured out a way to increase the production of glass drinking vessels and make them more affordable. They started to become available to the masses...that's us! Yay!

So what does this history lesson in glass have to do with judging the appearance of your beer? Just about everything. Obviously, it would be hard to see the beer without it being in glass, but it goes further than that.

Beer styles and their popularity started to change once glass vessels entered the mainstream and the beer could actually be seen. Murky and cloudy beers fell out of favor as the brilliantly clear pilseners out of Bohemia surpassed them in popularity. As much as our noses can enhance the flavor of beer, it seems our eyes can do the same thing due to preconceptions drawn from the visual experience. If ti looks gross, it must taste gross. We're all susceptible to it. Remember the first time you poured lees into your glass? Were you eager to drain the glass dry? If you say yes then I need to call you out on that. I still have no idea who looked at a lobster and said, "yummy". Glad they did though! Boil one up and serve with a nice Belgian pale ale.

The shapes of the glasses also helped to enhance the color of the beer and the formation of the head. Certain shapes and thicknesses of glass can control the amount and angle of light hitting the liquid, thus changing the intensity of the colors. A fluted shape will produce a taller head than a chalice since the carbonation becomes concentrated into a smaller area. Pour a stout into a pint glass and it appears black, but pour the same beer into a flute or stange (which is blasphemy, but pardonable for the sake of science) and you'll see that the color is dark brown.

Enough of that, now on to talking about actually rating a beer's appearance.

There are three different components when rating a beer on appearance: color, head and carbonation. Some reviewers will even be able to note a beer's apparent body from the way it pours into the galss, but I'll just concentrate on the other three components here.

COLOR - The color of beer can range from very pale to jet black and even pink, orange, green and other non-earth tones. When discussing color feel free to explore the color vocabulary. Get out your 64-color box of crayons and compare the different shades. You can even use other items as reference points (i.e. - the color of honey, ink-like, etc.).

Or you can go scientific and utilize the Lovibond scale or judge in EBC (European Brewing Convention) or SRM (Standard Reference Method) units. Not many people have a Lovibond scale sitting around to reference so it's best to stick to the names of the colors, but here are two charts, one showing the Lovibond scale and another showing SRM, for your own reference. Click on them for a larger version.



Courtesy of Ron Wrucke






HEAD - When bubbles rise through the beer and pair up with proteins (actually polypeptides, but close enough) they create a foam that rises to the top of the beer, thus creating the head. Within this component of a beer's appearance there are five elements: thickness, color, retention, structure and lacing.
- Thickness is often expressed in terms of "fingers". Stack your fingers at the side of the glass and measure the thickness against how many of them are needed to cover up the head. Since a six-and-a-half-foot tall Scandinavian man's fingers are thicker than a four-foot-something Asian woman's, this can be extremely imprecise. This is why my proctologist is a short, Chinese woman. So many people like to stick to inches or centimeters. Heads can shrink quickly, so take an initial measurement and then do so again after the structure stabilizes, if it doesn't disappear entirely.
- Color is once again judged here. The foam is almost always lighter in color than the liquid, but there are beers whose heads match the body in hue. I even vaguely remember reading about a beer with a black head. I'll believe that when I see it. So many beers are judged as black, but are really dark, dark brown. I'm sure that's the case with the head of that beer, whose name I cannot remember.
- Retention just simply means how long does the head stick around. Keep in mind that any oils on your lips will knock a head down once you take a sip. Some lifespans are judged in seconds, some in minutes and some will even last long after all the fluid is gone. Watch for that with well-crafted German weizens and American Imperial Stouts, among others. These can be truly unique beer-drinking experiences when you're constantly working around the foam. Some people like to gulp the foam down so these beers are an extra treat.
- Structure is something that doesn't always show up in a beer's review, but some beers deserve to have this reported. German weizens can produce heads that can be described as "rocky", "chunky", "billowy", "meringue-like" or something even as simple as "dense" or "thick". Look closely at the head and note the size and density of the bubbles. Even beers with very little head have descriptors for their structure. A crown is that ring of foam sticking to the edge of the glass when the head recedes entirely. Floaters are little islands of foam floating on the surface. Sometimes you have to report that the beer has no head at all, which makes me sad.
- Lacing is the portion of the head that sticks to the side of the glass, but you usually can't notice it until you start to drink the beer, except for when you get a beer with a massive head. You can see lace left behind as the head falls in on itself. Some beers have sticky lace that can even have protuberances of foam. These can leave nice patterns on the inside of the glass like spider webs. Some have lace that slides back down into the beer and others leave none at all.


CARBONATION - Carbonation is simply the rising of bubbles of carbon-dioxide through the body of the beer. You can't always speak to this if you can't see it. This is the case in almost all stouts and porters; they're simply too dark to see the bubbles, but if there's a thick, rocky head then you can be sure that there's is ample carbonation building the foam. In a pilsener you will almost always see vibrant activity rising from the bottom of the glass. In fact, many glass makers will make some sort of etching in the bottom of the glass to help with the release of bubbles. Dogfish Head developed a glass with its logo etched there. With the right sort of beer, their shark logo can appear in the head. I've seen this once and if I can make it happen again I'll try to photograph it and post it here.

I went through a whole spiel about heads on beer, describing thickness, retention, structure and lacing and never once mentioned Guinness, that most famous of beer heads...the one with the cascade that mesmerizes millions of Irish pub goers. Why did I omit it until now? Because the head on a pint of Guinness is caused by nitrogen, not carbonation. So the beer itself doesn't really create the head, the use of nitrogen to draw the beer does. They basically cheat. However, the head created using this method is thick, long-lasting and oh so wonderfully creamy. I much prefer a beer that can do that on its own with only the carbon-dioxide created through fermentation, but no one can deny the beauty of a dollop of foam hanging off of a Guinness drinker's nose.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Two - Smell

Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE FIVE ATTITUDES OF BEER TASTING: GLASSWARE FIRST

It happens almost every day in the summer, long necks are put on ice and served at a barbecue. A “manly man” opens it with his keyring, takes a swig and struts around the gathering. The way he holds the bottle when he walks, where he rests the bottle where he sits and the way he brings the bottle to his mouth is all a carefully acted show. He needs to look cool, suave, sophisticated. Poser! Swillers of NASCAR beers sneer at a Beer Samurai pouring his favorite libation into a glass. They have no idea that there’s a reason for this act and that reason is that our beer tastes good not because we think it makes us look cool. In my opinion it does show a higher ordinance of intelligence though.

The only time that beer should be poured down your gullet from a bottle or a can is when you are drinking beer that tastes like feet, ass, medical waste, trash, Wookie sweat or has no taste whatsoever. Well, there is one exception: The Alchemist Heady Topper is meant to be drank from a can. Anyway, if you are invited to one of these poser fests, go ahead and drink the beer from the bottle…it will save you some pain and suffering because you’ll avoid some of the off-flavor assault on your taste buds. The reason for this is that you’re taking your nose out of the equation. By drinking from a bottle or a can, the beer goes straight into your mouth and the nose never gets a whiff.

The nose has a lot more importance in tasting than one would suspect…that is, unless you’re reading this and have a cold. When you’re nose is stuffed up you really can’t taste much, can you? Smell and taste are inexorably linked and work in much the same way by translating chemicals in the air and in our mouth into signals to our brain. Of course, you can still taste the beer drank from a bottle because the olfactory sensors in your nose are also accessible from the back of your throat, but there is a difference. Your nose will get more out of odors coming from the air than from your mouth since saliva has already mixed in with the beer, limiting the release of airborne chemicals. They’re there to be sure, but not as evident. Don't believe me? Drink a good beer from a glass, then the bottle and then do both holding your nose.

For beer that you really want to taste it is important to pour it into some sort of drinking vessel. There are even some vessels that are specialized to a certain style of beer. This is one of the many similarities that beer and wine tasting have in common. Almost every style of wine has a different glass, but you can get away with just a red wine glass and a white wine glass. And although many beers are more easily enjoyed in their specifically designed glassware, my rule of thumb is “when in doubt, use a pint glass”. NOTE: This has changed throughout the years as I rarely use a pint glass and gravitate more to stemmed tulips.


PINT GLASSES

Technically, the only requirement to count as a "pint" glass is for the vessel to hold a pint of liquid. However, if you ask for a pint glass in a bar you're more than likely going to get one of four styles. An American bar will almost always give you the conical variety. All will have a wide opening to aid in smelling the beer and give room for the head to form. The volume of these glasses is strictly controlled in the UK and each glass must be certified. Certified pint glasses are given the Crown stamp so that pub-goers know that they're not getting cheated out of even one drop of beer.

The size of a pint glass in the US differs from that in the UK. Part of that is that an "Imperial" fluid ounce has a little less volume than a US fluid ounce, but that is marginal when you take the difference in volume between the two pints. An Imperial pint is 20 Imperial fluid ounces, while a US pint is 16 US fluid ounces. To make this easier we'll convert both to metric. A US pint is equivalent to 473.176cc while an Imperial pint is 568.261cc. This means that a US pint has only 83% of the volume of an Imperial pint. Enough with the math...let's get on with the different varieties of the pint glass. Click on any picture to see a larger, properly proportioned version.

CONICAL aka SHAKER- This is the shape most of us think of when we think of a pint glass. It's nothing but a very simple cone, open on the wide end and truncated on the bottom before coming to a point, otherwise how would it stand? Most beer geeks will have a nice collection of these glasses promoting their favorite beers or brew pubs or sports teams/figures. It is also called a tumbler and can be made of glass or ceramic. Ceramic drinking vessels have the advantage of keeping your beer cooler longer.

NONIC - The nonic was developed because condensation can form on the outside of a glass, making it a little slippery to hold. A bulge was introduced about an inch down from the rim of the glass to stop this slippage. But this configuration had another advantage and this is where it got its name. If you stack conical pint glasses they nest pretty tightly. If the glasses aren't thoroughly dried they can get stuck together and one glass can even chip the next. You don't want to nick the edges of the rim, hence the name "no nick". You will sometimes hear this referred to as an "Irish" pint glass. That's probably because until recently, you'd be hard-pressed to find one of these in an American bar without the Guinness logo on it.

TULIP - This is NOT a tulip glass (see below for that), but a tulip-shaped pint glass. This style of pint glass has more elegant lines. It bubbles out at the sides about a third of the way up and then the walls of the glass go straight up from there. I've seen these called English pint glasses due to their prevalence there, but I've been told that nonics are just as widely used in the UK.

GERMAN - Very similar to the tulip style of pint glass, but the "bubbling out" is not as drastic and occurs further up the side of the glass. This is also called a willybecher or more commonly, just a becker.





TULIP GLASSES

Tulip glasses are becoming more and more popular in the United States. It may have something to do with the fact that Belgian beers are becoming more popular or that most craft breweries now have tulip glasses with their logo emblazoned across the front. Tulip glasses almost always have a stem and can be held by the stem to avoid warming one's beer with the heat from your hands. Some even go as far as holding it by the foot to avoid transferring heat. I like my beers a little warmer, so the stem is mostly useless to me, as I tend to hold it by the bottom of the bowl anyway. The shape of the glass, which not surprisingly resembles a tulip, is designed to enhance any odors coming from the beer by concentrating them in the glass' throat and then opening up to waft it to your nose. It also to assist in building the head.


SNIFTERS

These are not all that different from a tulip except that the mouth doesn't flare back out. The diameter of the mouth is much smaller than the bowl and concentrates the vapors coming from the top of the beer. Traditionally used for cognac and brandy, beers with massive ABVs can be well-served in this type of glass. Some don't even have stems and are meant for you to cup in the palm of your hand to warm the liquid and release more of the vapors from the alcohol.


WEIZEN GLASSES

Known as wheat glasses in the US, these are tall glasses that can accommodate the mass of suds generated by German wheat beers. The skinny height of the glass also shows off the beautiful variety of colors found in these types of beers. They can be challenging to drink from if you're not patient enough to wait for the head to recede, unless you know what you're doing. If you tilt it slowly, the head will pack itself into that upper flare you see, allowing the beer to come to its daddy (or mommy), without having to such down the head.





PILSNER GLASSES

Designed to accentuate the positives of the beer style after which the glass is named, they can range from straight walls that form the shape of a trumpet's bell or they can be gently curved...some even have stems and are called pokals. Whichever style, they perform the same function for pilsners as weizen glasses do for wheat beer and that's why they look so similar. They show off the beer's color and carbonation and have space to hold a voluminous amount of foamy head.


CHALICES

Every Trappist ale and abbey ale is supposed to be tasted from a chalice or goblet, or so it is told. I prefer those styles in a tulip glass and feel that the insistence on using this type of a glass is more religious than functional. Why would an abbot drink from any other type of vessel than one shaped like the cup that caught the holiest of blood? These do help in head retention, especially if "scored" on the bottom, but I feel that the tulip glass can build a more dramatic rise of billowy head. This view is sure to be contested as many do believe that to drink a Trappist ale from anything other than a chalice is blasphemy. What I do love about chalices is that they can be highly decorative. My Orval chalice is ribbed on the inside while my Kasteel chalice has the castle that gives the beer its name built onto the foot of the glass as a support for the stem. Both of these chalices are gold-rimmed. Very pretty, but I rarely use them.


FLUTES


Yes, the flute that you drink champagne from, not the instrument used that one time in band camp. There are many styles of beer that have the delicate body and ample carbonation of sparkling wine and can be best enjoyed in glass that doesn't allow the bubbles to get up your nose. It also forces you to sip your beer and really appreciate all the flavor nuances. Rather than drinking Dom Perignon of Veuve Clicquot on New Year's Eve, I may fill my flute with an oude gueze from Cantillon.


STANGES

This is just a simple tall cylinder that is also called a kolsch glass, since kolsch is best served in one of these. These glasses allow the scent elements in more delicate beers to be concentrated. What I don't understand about this is the mouth is not wide enough for you to smell the beer. The size of the aperture also makes it impossible to chug. Put a kolsch in a pint glass and you'll be able to suck it down in seconds.


MUGS

A mug is any drinking vessel with a handle. These can be glass, ceramic, even metal. They can be smooth or dimpled (in which case they can be called a krug). They can also even be lidded, as is the case with a lot of steins. Most beer mugs have some serious volume and boast pretty thick walls. My favorite benefit is that the heat from your hand won't transfer to the beer. This is why I only use a mug if I'm drinking a beer that is best served cold. An added bonus is that they're also easier to toast with because they're usually pretty sturdy and because your fingers are out of the way. And please don't chill them (or any other glass for that matter), you'll only end up diluting your beer and making it colder than necessary. Save the frosty mug for root beer.


BOOTS

According to truebeer.com, a Persian general vowed to drink beer from his boot if they were victorious. They were and he was faced with the thought of having to drink from a vessel of worn leather that would make the beer taste like feet. So he had a glassmaker fashion a boot of glass and a tradition of toasting victories by drinking from a glass boot began. It's now more of a novelty and many German breweries put their logos on them and sell them to tourists, mostly Americans. truebeer.com also claims that the incredibly serious and ground-breaking documentary BeerFest increased the popularity of the boot in the US due to the final face-off between the Germans and the Americans. Landfill lives! This is the one style of glass that I do not currently have in my collection. I should rectify that and find one with a Franziskaner logo.


YARD GLASSES

These glasses are three feet long with a bulb on the bottom, so you need a stand to hold them up. Why would someone design a glass like this? Back in the days of coaches, these glasses were used to hoist up to coachmen so they could have a drink before having to hurry off to their next stop. This is another challenging glass to drink from.




Of course there are other shapes and sizes. The glass I have for drinking Aventinus is hard to describe so I've supplied a picture. It almost looks like a water tower. I have seen curved stanges that look more like art deco flower vases and there's even a pint glass that has an interior shaped like an inverted beer bottle. Some glassware is meant to emulate the drinking horns of Scandinavia. So many of these are just novelties and you're best off sticking to the standard styles listed above...well, except for a yard glass or a boot. There are only four reasons to drink from a glass boot: you were victorious in battle, you want to show off your drinking prowess, you're doing a Broadway interpretation of BeerFest or you just want to get drunk. Neither the yard glass nor the boot does anything to enhance the beer itself.

Some glasses come in half sizes (like yard and pint glasses) and some in larger sizes (like a 1L kolsch or a 3L boot...just imagine). And of course they can come in a wide variety of colors and can be adorned with any manner of logo or even personalized. Which glass you ultimately choose to drink from is up to you, but please do drink from a glass when drinking good beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part One - Appearance

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE FIVE ATTITUDES OF BEER TASTING: AN INTRODUCTION

The Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi in the 17th century, is considered the cornerstone of bushido. Musashi, a renowned swordsman, artist, architect and master samurai, details military tactics and one-on-one combat strategies. There is one quote from that book that really resonated with me:

“It is said the warrior’s is the twofold way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both ways.”

As a Beer Samurai and follower of brewshido, this had instant meaning to me. In order to follow the Way one must not only taste, but you must also write reviews. It is not enough to just use one’s tongue (sword) to discern the different flavors in your beer, but one must also organize those sensations into a cohesive format with your pen…or keyboard. By writing a review of what you experienced, you are giving your experience form and substance. These can be read by others to help guide them or even be returned to by the writer to aid in remembrance.

As you might know, I review beers on BeerAdvocate.com, as do so many other beer geeks…including The Senpai. The top of this page provides a link to my profile there and from that you can access any of the reviews I have written. But there are other sites on the internet where you can review beer, RateBeer.com being another popular site. Which site should you use? It doesn’t matter. In fact, you can go “old school” and keep a handwritten journal for your purposes only. Whatever you are most comfortable with, as long as you write down your impressions of what you just drank. It is a great record and even better practice.

In The Book of Five Rings, Musashi describes five different “attitudes” necessary to handle the long sword effectively. I have adapted this for beer tasting as a device for describing the different tasting categories you will see on any beer tasting web site. I feel it translates well because the attitude that you take when exploring each element of the beer can seriously affect the way you perceive that beer. But I will not describe the Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting just yet. This is because before you write your first review you must understand the Way of the Sword…in this case, your tongue.

Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, even before you take that first sip, you must understand the physical make-up of your tongue. Please don’t go to the mirror and stick out your tongue for examination. The physical make-up I am referring to is the tiny world of the taste buds. You must learn how they communicate taste to your brain. It was once believed that certain tastes always came across from four sectors on the tongue designed to perceive a certain taste. This was due to the concentration of different types of taste buds in those sectors and illustrated on the taste map of the tongue.

http://www.understandingfoodadditives.org
“Sweet” tastes are perceived at the tip of the tongue. This is our ability to discern the presence of sugars and the complex carbohydrates associated with them.

“Salty” come across on the sides, just behind the tip. This is our ability to discern ions of sodium and similar metals.

“Sour” is also perceived on the sides of the tongue, just behind the salty area. This is ability to discern acidity.

“Bitter” will always be tasted at the back of the tongue. The chemical reactions in this group are far too complex for me to understand or relate.

But two things would overturn this neat little set-up and throw the taste map into the realm of myth-information.

The first was a fifth basic taste: “savoriness” or in Japanese, “umami”. This is our ability to discern glutamates. Meaty flavors fall under this heading and there has also been talk of “fatty” being a separate and sixth taste. This has been shouted down more than once. Sorry bacon, we love you dearly, but you’re still not a taste unto yourself. However, many do feel you are a food group unto yourself and I for one will not argue that point. There are few beers that exhibit flavors in the realm of umami, but they’re out there.

The most important discovery was that each type of taste bud existed all over your tongue and even on your soft palate. They were not segregated to the sectors as shown in the taste map even though they had higher concentrations in those areas. What made this so important was that it showed that it was possible to discern flavors on portions of the tongue that were not classically associated with that particular taste. If you stick the tip of your tongue in tonic water, will it have no flavor? Tonic water is not sweet and that is the sector of the tongue that is tied to sweetness, so you shouldn’t taste anything at all, right? This is not the case. You will taste bitterness, even though the taste receptors for bitter foods are supposedly at the back of the tongue.

Many scientists feel that taste is more like color. White light is the combination of all colors of the spectrum. You can discern different colors by changes in wavelength of the light. They say that it’s the combination of all the taste buds working together that give you the overall taste. But I feel that we can sense the individual “colors” by concentrating on different portions of the tongue. Through practice and training you can learn to isolate different portions of your tongue so that you can zero in on a particular taste. So take that first sip and describe your first sensation in general terms (sweet, sour, bitter, citrus, medicinal, vegetal, malty, bready, vinous, spicy). Then start to feel the sensations on different parts of your tongue. Try to isolate what you sense and use more specific terms (in the same order as the general list…honey, cider vinegar, chicory, grapefruit, eucalyptus, asparagus, toast, pumpernickel, bourbon, black pepper).

It is important to understand that the placement, sensitivity and concentration of taste buds can vary from one person to the next. Thus, one person’s experience might be different than another individual's. Many times two people will agree on what they taste, but other times they won’t. Remember, this is subjective; respect others’ opinions. If you read others’ reviews before writing your own, try not to be swayed by what they wrote. It’s not just the tongue that causes differences in experiences. There are other factors that can alter the flavor sensations. First and foremost, it is important to have a clean palate when tasting a beer. Food pairings can have dramatic changes on the flavor of the beer. Anything that you drank before the beer in front of you can effect what you sense. If you drink three IPAs and then switch over to a brown ale, then you’re probably not going to taste much in the brown ale. The bitterness in the IPAs can burn out your taste buds for anything else, making them seem bland. It would be the equivalent of eating a hot Indian curry and then trying to enjoy a cup of green tea. The tea has too subtle a flavor to stand up to the assault of spices which blasted your tongue. Smokers will also not taste what a non-smoker does. Ever wonder why someone who quits smoking almost automatically gains weight? It’s because they can really taste their food again.

There’s also the possibility that any given reviewer is not experienced in tasting or has a limited vocabulary in which to express themselves. They may also have a different batch or vintage of the beer you tasted. Few breweries can produce the same exact flavor from batch to batch. You don’t know what other factors may have played a part in another person’s review. They’re not wrong and neither are you. Write down what you experienced and do not worry that someone will contact you to tell you that you’re an idiot and you could not have possibly tasted soy sauce. If someone does that then they are not followers of brewshido and are to be tolerated, but ignored. The only time that it is acceptable to be told by someone that you could not have tasted something is when you specifically state that you taste a certain variety of hop or type of malt or strain of yeast when they were not used to brew the beer. This did happen to me and I was corrected by the brewery’s owner. In a case like this, practice humility: apologize, admit your mistake and edit your review.

Please do not review a beer highly because you have heard that it is a great beer or “one of the best offerings of the year” or because it won an award in some beer event. The word of mouth accolades could have been started by the brewery for all you know and there are some awards that can be bought. Even if the contest is on the up-and-up, it’s possible that there may not have been a lot of entries in that style. A mud pie will almost always win a taste contest against a steaming pile of shit. Try to ignore beer magazine hype, use previous reviews only as a reference and take any awards with a grain of salt.

There is another factor that can affect taste that I’ve been purposely avoiding. It is something few people think about, but good beer bars know…the glass from which you drink your beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Glassware First

Sunday, August 8, 2010

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE DRUIDS

The Druids worshiped nature and held many plants to be sacred. Mistletoe and holly were representative of the male and the female reproductive roles. Think about the colors of each plant’s berries and you’ll understand the symbolism. Their use in the Yule festival carried over into our present-day Christmas decorating orgy (pun intended). The shamrock (or cloverleaf) was also sacred to the Druids as its make-up of three leaves held the sacred number and apparently had the power to ward off evil spirits. I have a ton of it in my front yard and my family and my in-laws rarely visit, so effectiveness holds true in modern times. Eventually, this plant was subjugated to the Christian conversion cause (as was everything "pagan") in Eire and came to represent the Holy Trinity. The word “Druid” actually translates to “knowing the oak tree” in Celtic. They held the oak sacred as well, and performed many of their rituals in the presence of these stately trees. The added existence of mistletoe growing on the tree further accentuated its mystical power. This is how the Druids rolled, but did they know beer? Probably not, although it is thought that they drank mead which is a close cousin to beer, as is sak√©. So why bring them up and talk about their sacred plants? It’s because two places that have become sacred to me bear the names of two of these plants: the cloverleaf and the oak tree.

I have already mentioned the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell earlier in this blog and I explained that it was worthy of its own entry. Well, it will actually have to share, but it’s in good company. During my first visit to Cloverleaf, The Senpai and I drank quite a few beers and I noticed their Master of Beer Appreciation (or M.B.A.) program. I picked up a card that night and took the single step that started the journey of 45 beers. The card lists each of these beers and they punch a star in it when you finish each one. Since a handful of them are seasonals you can’t do it in one sitting or one week or one month. However, if you start it at the right time of the year you could conceivably finish it nine months. I am on course to do just that. The Senpai started about a month or so after me and is starting to catch up. So if you do this, complete any seasonals that are currently in stock or you might wind up waiting another year for them to come around.


http://www.cloverleaftavern.com

(I finally figured out how to make links work, yay me!)

The program comes with incentives, as all good rewards and loyalty programs do. For each 15 beers you finish you are awarded a $15 gift card. Once you complete all 45, you get your name on a plaque, get a t-shirt and drink your pints from larger glassware than other customers paying the same amount. Not too shabby.

The only problem with the M.B.A. is that some of the beers on the card are ones that most Beer Samurai are unwilling to drink, so you need to slog through those. My advice to The Senpai on dealing with these beers was to chug the whole thing so you only have to taste it once…twice, if you belched afterward. That is the method I used to deal with J.W. Dundee Honey Brown, Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, Red Stripe, Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer and Labatt’s Blue. There is a beer on the list however that many have difficulty finishing and that I do not advise that you chug: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauschbier Urbock. It is a smoked beer from Germany that tastes like someone burnt down a house and fermented the charred timbers in river water. It is definitely an acquired taste. I did not enjoy it at first, but later came to appreciate the style. The Senpai still has nightmares about his experience.

Once you complete the M.B.A., or only have seasonals left, they allow you to start on your PhD, that is Professor of Hops and Drafts...not quite as clever as Master of Beer Appreciation, but who cares? This new list consists of 60 beers, but it changes from year to year so they only list the beers by season and number. Once you get rolling on this, you have to ask for the seasonal beer list when you sit down as these beers do not appear on their "standard" beer menu. Each beer corresponds to a number on your card and your card is punched by that number. If you don’t complete the whole season in the same year, the beers you need to do the next time that season rolls around might very well be different. Once again there are incentives. The gift cards are upped to $20, but come after every 20 beers that you finish, so they maintain a dollar reward per beer average. Also after each twenty you get a special bottle for “home study”. Once you complete all sixty, your name goes on another plaque, you get another shirt and the glassware gets even larger. If you run through the PhD three times, you get a huge ceramic mug to drink from. So now we know the Beer Samurai’s goal.

But it’s not the drinking clubs that make this place what it is...it’s the staff. The Senpai and I have become pretty familiar with the bartenders and know some of the regulars, but have not yet reached Norm status. We’ve become particularly friendly with two of the bartenders there and enjoy discussing everything about beer. One of these guys works at a liquor store that he constantly brags is the best in New Jersey…and he’s right. Due to his ties to both of these sacred spots I shall refer to him from now on as The Druid. I have referred to this liquor store before in an entry where I stated that we’d find a place that would make Circle Liquors and BLO look “woefully understocked”.

Oak Tree Buy-Rite Liquors is so named because it is on Oak Tree Road in South Plainfield. It’s very possible that this place is also a great wine store, but I wouldn’t know. I grab a cart and head toward the beer coolers, but stop before reaching them and check out the boxes of new releases. Once going through those I take a left into the aisle of domestic craft brews. So many of them are available in singles and you can ask for some empty six-pack carriers and start grabbing bottle after bottle. Go to the end of this aisle and you’re at the back wall, the Great Wall of Imports. Not only is their selection of Belgians impressive, but they’re the first place I’ve seen some of the first offerings from the fledgling Italian craft beer movement being sold. They also had every one of the Mikkeller single hop IPA series. Their prices are some of the best I’ve seen and the staff is very helpful and knowledgeable. Incidentally, and tying into this entry’s theme, they also carry more varieties and brands of mead than I’ve ever seen.

http://www.oaktreewines.com/InventorySearchBeer.aspx

After I was rung up after my first visit, the store manager came up and handed me a couple of beer glasses…yeah I spent more than I probably should have. I did the same thing when I returned, with an awed Senpai in tow. We both got to choose glasses from the secret stash in the closet. The result of these shopping trips was that I could barely close the beer fridge. It is good to know that having it crammed full significantly raises the efficiency of the compressor since there’s less air to cool…or so they say. Just go with me on that one…it makes me feel better.

And now it's time to get all Beer Samurai on you. One must always look upon every person one meets as a potential sensei…every place you visit as a possible dojo. Brewshido requires that you continue to learn and we learn by listening and tasting. Reading the words I write may help guide you to these places or these people, but you cannot learn unless you experience. The Way of the Beer Samurai has no end and we learn more each and every day. Now that I have shared the encounters that have put me on the Way it is time for instruction in the Way to begin.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: An Introduction

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A TALE OF TWO BEER FESTS

It was the best of beer fests, it was the worst of beer fests… I speak of two beer fests that my wife Lisa and I attended in May and June of this year. The first was the Philadelphia International Great Beer Expo held during Philly Beer Week. It was held at the Cruise Terminal at the Philadelphia Naval Station. This would be only my second beer festival, the first was one I attended at Split Rock in Pennsylvania with a bunch of people from work. But that had been a while ago and the details escape me, except the fact that this is where I got my Edgar Allen Poe beer quote ceramic pint glass. The quote?

Filled with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
On my brain - quaintest thoughts - queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.

Not quite Annabelle Lee, but the sentiment is quite beautiful.

We had thought that the beer fest in Philly would be a nice ramp up to the next one we had scheduled which was the New York City Brewfest. The one in NY had a more extensive and illustrious list of breweries and was being held on Governor’s Island. The brewery list for the Philly event was not as expansive or impressive. So we went to Philly with no expectations and to NY with high excitement. We apparently got it backwards.

Rather than taking the buses from the parking lot of the stadium where the Eagles play football, we drove right into the Naval Station and parked really close to the venue. Apparently not everyone knew you could do that since the lot never really got full. Walking up to the building to get in line we noticed many of the people wearing chains of pretzels around their necks. What a great idea, even if they looked ridiculous. The pretzels help soak up some of the alcohol and the salt helps to retain water. This supposedly results in less potty breaks and a milder hangover. Despite getting primo parking, we still had a lot to learn about attending these festivals.

Once inside you are given literature and, most importantly, your tasting cup. It’s a small, plastic cup that has the name of the event on it and the prime sponsor…Miller. The sponsorship did not thrill me, but they did pay for the tasting cups. I was not going to put any of their beer into it, however I would be putting some Michelob in it. I had noticed that Michelob had started a craft beer division and that they’d be there. I figured I’d give it a try so I would be putting a Michelob product into my Miller-adorned, 4 ounce, plastic tasting cup. Time to start the rounds.

The first table stop was at Yards. Yards is famous for owning the beer recipes from some of our Founding Fathers and having them served at the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia. They offer Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale, George Washington’s Tavern Porter, Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale (for those of you who don’t know Colonial American history, Poor Richard was a nom de plume of Ben Franklin's) and Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale. Lisa had Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and I, of course, had the saison. It was the first American beer called a saison that I tried that was actually a saison. Due to this, Yards impressed me. Blue Point was next and I had their famous, award-winning Smoked Lager. It lived up to the hype. Heavy Seas was there represented by an over-tasked man dressed as a sailor who refused to have more than one bottle open at a time. Next time, get someone who knows how to work a beer festival regardless if they’ll wear the sailor suit or not. Weyerbacher didn’t show up even though they were listed, but Boulder was there and the microbar even had Stone’s Old Guardian Barleywine.

One whole portion of the terminal was given over to InBev and Miller-Coors. This is where the NASCAR beers were represented so this is where the Michelob Craft Brews set up. I gave them a shot and was sorely disappointed at their efforts. They’ve got a lot to learn yet, but I like the thought process. It might be indicative of a switch in mentality for American beer drinkers...or not. Since so many people associate Anheiser-Busch with bad beer (and rightfully so) they also associate InBev with bad beer because they own A-B. Yes, they own Budweiser, Becks and Stella Artois, but there are many really good brands that fall under their umbrella. Leffe, Hoegaarden, Bass, Boddington’s, Franziskaner, Murphy’s and Spaten are some of the good ones, so don’t judge them too harshly. They are from Belgium after all which means they know good beer. They’re also smart and recognize cash cows when they see them. If by selling Budweiser at sporting events, Franziskaner continues to be exported to the United States, then I’m a fan. If having to put up with Stella Artois swilling beer snob wannabees means that Leffe is readily available, then I'm all for it.

This blog is about the beer scene in New Jersey and the surrounding environs, so Philly qualifies. However there was a more specific tie to New Jersey that came out of this beer fest. River Horse was there...they were late, but they were there. They brought their Double Wit and Hop Hazard with them and I loved them both. I wish their whole line was as good. I got to talking to one of the brewers about the hops they use for Hop-a-lotamus which led to a discussion on craft beer in general. This discussion went on for over half an hour, to the dismay of the other people from the brewery who were picking up his slack as he chatted. The end result was that it prompted us to hunt down their brewery in Lambertville once we left the brew fest. We were going to that town on the Delaware River anyway to have dinner at the Lambertville Inn for Lisa’s birthday and we had plenty of time.

We arrived at the brewery just in time to tag along with the last tour of the day. The guide at the Weyerbacher tour was much more personable and easier to hear. We didn’t learn much, but seeing this historic building and how they altered it to become a brewery was pretty neat. We had a few samples at the bar which were underwhelming. They had four beers on tap and they charge a buck for six samples. We gave them two dollars; we each had two samples and then left to walk around Lambertville until it was time for dinner. That was also disappointing. It was still a nice day overall and we had really enjoyed the beer expo and eagerly read all the beer magazines that we snatched up while there.

That was the good, now for the bad. We were really looking forward to the New York City Brew Fest, from the ferry ride over to being on Governor’s Island to being able to try beer from so many great breweries. We packed water and a bunch of pretzels, not quite ready yet to make a necklace out of them. This was going to be great! The disappointment started off before we even got to the island. My plan to get to the ferry terminal worked beautifully. We caught the light rail in Weehawkin, took it to the Marin Boulevard stop and walked to the dock. What excited us about taking the ferry over was that the Red Bull Air Race was being held at Liberty State Park, just south of there. When we got to the terminal we could hear the planes as they corkscrewed through the course and even caught a glimpse of one every now and then as they performed a “knife edge” through one of the gates. As we watched the camera ‘copters swoop and dive to get the best angles, we couldn’t wait to get on the water and clear the headland so we could see the whole course. Once we cleared the Coast Guard building we could see all the pylons, but we also noticed the camera ‘copters leaving the scene. The racing was over and we didn’t get to see much of anything. Bummer!

When we got to Governor’s Island we could see that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of other people disembarking from other ferries with more waiting to dock. The walk to the entrance of the festival was on the far side of the island and by the time we got there the line to get in was not so much a line as a huge mass of people shuffling forward a few inches at a time when they got a chance, all toward one point...the gate. It took us 45 minutes to get inside! But once inside we marveled at how well it was set up. The only complaint I had at Philly was that it was sometimes hard to tell what brewery was at what table. The booths here were very well marked and walking through and reading the signs broadcast that many of the best breweries had shown up. This would be the last really good thought about the event I’d have for the rest of the day.

Reports the next day said that over 10,000 people attended the New York City Brew Fest, which was probably about 5,000 more than should have been there. The venue was cram-packed and the lines to get your 4 ounce sample were about 30 people deep. In Philly, the lines were no more than 8 people deep and I was sometimes forced to down what was left in my glass in order to get my next sample. In New York, your glass was dry before you even got halfway to the front. And once you got to the front, seeing what the breweries brought was another letdown. None of them had brought any of their seasonals or special beers. It was all the year-around offerings. At one point I remember getting to the front of one line and when asked which one I wanted I replied, “Whichever one is NOT an IPA”. EVERY brewery brought an IPA with them, in some cases both taps produced hops in liquid form. Don’t get me wrong, I love IPAs, but after a dozen or so you want something a little maltier to counterbalance the hops you’ve been pounding. And forget about doing so with food. The lines for food were over an hour long! They seriously oversold and under-delivered.

Another difference I noticed between the two festivals was the camaraderie. It existed at both, but it was different. In New York you made connections by commiserating with each other about the overcrowding and lack of anything special to taste. In Philly it was more of a drunken love-in. One person would raise their glass aloft and howl and everyone would follow suit. Maneuvering around each other was friendly and casual. Trying to get around the one in New York was not easy and people didn’t really want to get out of your way. And don’t try to tell me that this is the difference between the two cities. The City of Brotherly Love is anything but friendly. I have always found the Big Apple to be friendlier. It was the difference in the conditions at each festival that drove the mood of the crowd. I know which one I’ll return to and which one I’ll avoid like the plague. Live and learn. Bigger is not better.

Next Time: In the Footsteps of the Druids

THE SENPAI AND THE DUCK

I have two friends who I talk to at length about beer. One is an old friend that I met at work who now works elsewhere. I have managed to drag him headlong into the world of beer. Prior to the events illustrated below, he was enjoying Sapporo and Miller Lime. He will be known from here on out as The Senpai.

The other I also met at work and he is still in the same position as when I met him. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and attended the University of Oregon. He comes into this storyline with a serious West Coast bias. I sometimes refer to him as His Royal High Duckiness, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll just call him The Duck.

So how did The Senpai become my senpai? We went out to dinner at Houston’s in Paramus for ribs. The Senpai loves his ribs as does the Beer Samurai. The restaurant had Victory Prima Pils on the menu and I ordered one and I talked The Senpai into ordering one as well. Prima Pils gets a lot of good press, but I find it lacking, but that’s because I’m a huge fan of Czech pilsners and I find that there’s no comparison. We started discussing this opinion and other beer facts and decided to hunt down a beer bar that I saw recommended on Facebook. This was posted by the same bass player who recommended BLO to me. So we headed off to Caldwell, NJ to find The Cloverleaf Tavern.

We found it very easily, parked and entered the place that would shortly become special to us both and is deserving of its own entry in this blog, which will come later. We sat at the bar and I scanned the taps as I do whenever I walk into a bar, usually to my disappointment. The first thing that caught my eye was that they had Delirium Tremens on tap! Oh my. I liked this place immediately. But we didn’t start off with DT, instead we ordered pints of Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA. Then we went for DT and the effect it had on The Senpai was immediate. The subtly complex floral and fruity flavors that Belgian yeast delivers enchanted The Senpai and he was hooked. He had bypassed the usual progression from malthead to hophead and jumped straight to Belgian beer snob in one sitting. We had an instant convert and a willing pupil. We tried many other beers that night and paid for it the next day. In The Senpai’s case it was more like three days, but his tolerance is improving and he’s beginning to pay more attention to ABVs.

So I decided that it was time to take The Senpai to Weyerbacher and I invited The Duck along. I have no recollection as to when The Duck and I began to talk about beer. Our conversations usually centered on college football and watches. Due to the aforementioned West Coast bias, The Duck feels that the Pac-10 is under-rated. Other than USC’s dominance due to bucking NCAA recruiting rules, I have yet to understand this point of view. Somehow or another, this line of conversation must have turned to beer. He would extol the virtues of Stone, Rogue and Sierra Nevada and I would counter with Weyerbacher, Dogfish Head and Ommegang. We have both acquiesced on many of the points made by the other. I have come to embrace the hop maniacs that are Stone Brewing and his estimation of East Coast breweries would be forever altered by this trip to Weyerbacher.

The day was gorgeous if not a little hot and we piled into the Aztek and headed off to Easton, PA. We stopped at the Clinton exit on Route 78 to grab some grub and then proceeded on to the brewery. A Beer Samurai always builds a good drinking base when he prepares for battle. The brewery is just off of the second exit in Pennsylvania on Route 78 and not hard to find if you manage to make the correct turn after getting off the highway. They had the garage doors open and you could see the tasting bar as we drove in and found a place to park. After nearly destroying the Aztek’s front end on a boulder, we spilled out of my beloved red eyesore and went inside.

Upon entering we were warmly greeted and told that the next tour would begin in about twenty minutes. We shrugged and made our way to the tasting bar. I had explained to both the guys that the brewery tour was a bit boring so we were there to taste. The volunteers behind the bar really should be paid for the good they do. They walk you through all the offerings on tap and explain each beer as you proceed through their line-up. They do a good job keeping straight what beer each of their patrons has already tried. The Duck’s view of East Coast beers would change after his second sample. Not that the first one was bad, it was quite good, but the second one made him smile like I had never seen him smile before. That is until he tried Insanity.

After we ran the gamut of the beers they had we took the tour. Eh, why not? After 8 samples of high ABV beer we could use the break. This time was different than the last time I took the tour. Our tour guide was engaging and told some great stories. He didn’t actually work for the brewery, but for their distributor. I won’t recount all of the stories, but I will tell you how he said Blithering Idiot got its name. If you’re not familiar with this beer, it is their barleywine and the beer that put Weyerbacher on the map. Prior to this they had offered a pale ale, a stout, an IPA and it was at this point where the tour guide yawned. Everyone was brewing these styles. Well, one day the owner, Dan Weirback, got invited out to the Victory brewery and they served him a barleywine. He enjoyed it so much he drank quite a few of them, despite the higher alcohol content that comes with that style. So they took his keys away from him and drove him home. The whole ride home he kept slurring, “We gotta make shum of dis schtuff!” He had basically turned into a blithering idiot. So they put his likeness in a court jester’s outfit, enjoying a glass beer on the label of their first batch of barleywine and dubbed it Blithering Idiot. The beer was well-received and won many awards and became one of their top-sellers. From there on out they decided to put their efforts into more audacious brews and the jester became the company’s logo.

That brings us to Insanity. If you take Blithering Idiot and age it in bourbon barrels for a few months, the bourbon flavor leeches into the beer. If it is done by Weyerbacher, it is called Insanity. The tagline for this beer is “The Idiot has finally lost it!” They hadn’t had this on tap when we started the tour, but one of the kegs had kicked so they had swapped it out with Insanity. The Duck fell in love and immediately grabbed a growler to be filled. We left with his growler and more than a case each of Weyerbacher beer and other swag. Plans are in the works for a return trip, but maybe not until the next batch of Quad or when their lambic is released. At this time Quad IS on tap there as is their Imperial Pumpkin Ale which is supposed to be one of the best pumpkin beers in the United States, which pretty much means the world as it is a very much an American style.

Afterward, we went down to Circle Liquors in Pennington, NJ on the recommendation from the tour guide. Being a big BLO advocate at the time, I was dubious but it did turn out to be worth the trip. Did they have a better selection than BLO? No, the selection at both places is comparable, but the two places do seem to get different items. This is probably a function of distribution territories. The one thing that put them maybe a notch higher than BLO was that they offered so many of their beers as single bottles. At BLO, if you want to try something you typically need to get a six-pack. If you don’t like the beer, you’re stuck with five beers that you can try to foist off onto your Senpai, but eventually they become wise to that. So we came back with some nice stuff oblivious to the fact that New Jersey had a beer store that would make both Circle Liquors and BLO seem woefully understocked. But that's another entry for another time.

Next Time: A Tale of Two Beer Fests

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

TO BREW OR NOT TO BREW…HOW IS THAT A QUESTION?

For my 43rd birthday my wife prepaid for me to go down to a place in Freehold to “brew on premises”. This is a novel, wonderful idea and I hear these are starting to slowly pop up all across the United States. New Jersey has one, which is more than can be said for most states, so far. The place is called The Brewer’s Apprentice and they will shortly be located on Route 33, not far from the NASCAR beer-loving bar The Cabin. From what I understand they have both kinds of music there…Country AND Western. But we’re not here to bash on sh!t-kicker bars or quote The Blues Brothers. This is about craft beer in New Jersey. Well, not this entry so much…this is more about home brewing. But Beer Samurai, you said it was a “brew on premises”, not home brewing…and so I did, but patience Grasshopper. I’m getting to that.

The idea at The Brewer’s Apprentice is to go in, select a recipe and brew that recipe. They have a bank of copper steam kettles with a whole flow system attached. The staff will bring you to your brew kettle (which awaits with water already at the proper temperature) and guide you through all the steps from gathering your ingredients to timing when to add the ingredients and (most importantly) what NOT to do. It makes it all quite easy and the bonus is that they clean it all up when you leave! Now I really wish I had known that you could alter the recipe and they’d just charge you or credit you any differences. I had chosen a recipe titled Muni Old Peculiar which I did according to the recipe. If I had known I could change it up a bit, I would have used different hops and perhaps changed one of the grains. Still, it came out pretty nice. It was tasty, but just a tad under-carbonated and a wee shy on the ABV for my liking. So I’d love to go back and do another batch. One of the great things about a place like this is that you can get a bunch of friends together and reserve all the brew kettles and make six batches of beer! And each batch makes six cases of 22 ounce bottles! That’s quite a bit of beer. So if you get six buddies to all do this, you can all go home with a case each of the six different beers. Perfect!

After brewing the beer, they moved into a first-stage fermenter which was a large plastic keg. We were free to go and went to the Triumph Brewpub in Princeton, which I highly recommend. The food is really good, but the place is a bit expensive and pretty hoity-toity. It is on an Ivy League campus after all. I still need to explore more of New Jersey’s brewpubs and will write about those experiences, but back to The Brewer’s Apprentice. I returned two weeks later to bottle the beer. By this point it had been moved into a stainless steel keg and was hooked up the bottling machine and was force-carbonated. The process is tedious. First you wash and dry all your bottles. Then, one at a time, you fill and cap them. It is monotonous, but you do get to taste your beer as you bottle, unless you request it to be bottle-conditioned. I’ll probably do this next time despite the fact that you’ll have wait a few more weeks to crack open one of those bad boys. While bottling you’re encouraged to swap with other people (who you may or may not know) that are bottling at the same time. It’s a very jovial, communal atmosphere. How could it not be? We’re bottling and drinking beer! One word of advice: if you want to label your bottles, do so when you get home. The bottles will sweat a little at first and your labels will not adhere properly.

The whole experience got me thinking about home brewing again. “Again”, you say? Yep, I tried my hand at it back in the eighties and made a passable stout, if a D is a passing grade. I still have the first bottle which, like Pandora’s box, should never be opened. It wasn’t all that great back then and I imagine it is downright vile by now. So I want to try again, now that I know so much more and understand a lot of the science behind it. I even have Android apps that will perform the important chemical calculations for me. I also have so much more experience in the different styles and flavor profiles and know what ingredients create what flavor in the finished product. I think I stand a chance at putting together a decent brew, but the proof is in the pudding.

I still have some of my old equipment and, despite languishing in the swamp that is my basement some of it is still serviceable. The non-metal components did not fare well and they need to be replaced or upgraded. My 6-gallon (or is it 5?) second-stage glass carboy needs a good washing, but it’s good to go. The 6-gallon plastic first-stage needs to be chucked, or I can transform it into a blow-off bucket. I now use the old brew kettle as a lobster pot. It’s stainless steel, but thin and does not hold heat very well. So I have my eye on an 8-gallon brew kettle that has a built in thermometer, strainer built into the bottom and an industrial-grade spigot. With the carboys being no more than 6-gallons, why do I need an 8-gallon brew kettle? That extra capacity allows for better control of boil-overs which could really ruin much of your kitchen. Hot wort is not easy to clean, especially after it cools. I also seem to have misplaced my triple-gauge hydrometer, but those are relatively inexpensive. The fermentation locks will also need to be replaced. The one I do have left looks immaculate, but after 15 years there has to be something funky growing on it that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Why chance it? Let’s see, what else? Got: bottle capper and bottle cleaner. Need: racking tube, bottle tree, wort chiller, grain mill and tubing.

The “need” list is now complete, but where does one get these things? I used to go to a place in Bogota, but started to go to a place in Morristown because it was a lot closer. The place in Bogota is where my best friend bought me the first start-up kit for brewing. Both places are now closed. However, Corrado’s in Clifton has opened a wine and beer-making store, right near their Corrado’s Family Affair grocery store and emporium. Bonus: there’s a Papaya King right next to it! One could write a blog about the different hot dog stands across the United States, but I’ll be sticking to beer. Corrado’s doesn’t have everything I’m looking for, but they have quite a bit and will be a great resource. But some of the stuff I’ll need to order on-line. Doing so is sight-unseen, however. Corrado’s also has a really good selection of ingredients from whole-grain malts, malt extracts, hops, yeast, flavorings, spices and chemicals. A wider variety can be found on-line (especially in the extract department), but again it is buyer beware.

So when will I start brewing at home? It won’t be at least until 2011…maybe 2012. First, I need to amass the equipment and will have to wait until my anniversary, Christmas and my next birthday to complete it all. Secondly, I’m having way too much fun exploring the beers that are out there. I have no time to drink anything that I brew myself. I still have half of the beer I made at the Brewer’s Apprentice left and this is after giving a lot away at work and bringing nearly a case of it down to a bar-be-cue. Starting to brew now would be a waste. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve tried just about everything I want to try then I’ll get that ball rolling. As for now, I’ve got so many more beers on my list to try. Even once I do start brewing I will never stop tasting beers. To do so would be to stagnate and to stop learning. Learn something new every day and try a new beer at least twice a week.

So, “to brew or not to brew”? The answer is brew, but when you are ready. And when you are ready I suggest purchasing Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing to get you started. Oh, and save me a bottle.

Next Week: A Tale of Two Beerfests

Monday, August 2, 2010

SIT UBU, SIT! ...GOOD BEER!

The back of my red 2001 Pontiac Aztek sports a few stickers, one of which reads “UBU”. Many television viewers from my generation, and some previous generations, have heard this word used at the end of a few sit-coms, Family Ties being the most notable. At the end of the show, after the credits, a splash screen popped up showing a black Labrador Retriever with a Frisbee in its mouth and the voice over said, “Sit Ubu, sit!…good dog!” So when one comes across a beer from Lake Placid, NY that is called Ubu and claims to be named after a Labrador Retriever, one would assume that it’s the same dog. It isn’t. Having just recently learned this I apologize to all of those who I dragged into this misconception. This Ubu was a Labrador Retriever who lived in Lake Placid and was quite legendary…for what, I don’t know. I can’t seem to find any other references to this pooch other than on the back of the bottle. Any internet references just reiterate the label script word for word. From what I can gather, this dog drank beer, and only good beer. Now that’s my kind of canine and he(?) was probably less psychotic than my younger dog, Ana. I’d consider giving her beer, except for the fact that all veterinarians claim that it’s bad for dogs. Well, bacon’s bad for me and I still eat it.

But what does a strong, English brown ale brewed in upstate New York have to do with my journey through the New Jersey beer scene? Everything! See, I came across Ubu in the late nineties while sitting in a steakhouse in Lake Placid while they were parading the competitors for the upcoming Ironman race through the main street. That steakhouse had it on tap and a couple of us ordered a pint. What a revelation! It was tasty and just one of them made you a little buzzed. It was dark in color, but deceptively light in body due to the carbonation. This got me exposed to styles that weren’t pale ale, lager, pilsner, porter or stout. It made me aware that there are styles that are somewhat new to the New World, or at least being rediscovered…styles that had flavor, body and higher alcohol levels. One year my wife and I took a trip to Lake Placid with our oldest son when he was only about a year and a half old. One night I went out looking for Ubu, naively checking the liquor stores. In New York, the liquor stores only carry liquor; wine and beer can be bought at the grocery stores and convenience stores. The man at the liquor store, who I later learned was from a family of famous Olympians (the Sheas) and one of those Olympians (Jim, Sr.), told me that the best place to get it was the brewpub. Brewpub? What’s a brewpub? I hadn’t ever really heard the term. So I went, sat at the bar, had a pint of Ubu while my wife tried to get the toddler to finally go to sleep. I can be a bad dad from time to time. I now return there any time I’m in the Adirondacks. I would also start looking for Ubu in my local liquor stores, being quite disappointed at first, but it would make its way down to New Jersey eventually.



So, as I mentioned in the last entry, I was drinking wine, tequila, bourbon and vodka (not all at the same time, thank Whatever-You-Call-Your-Deity) and not really looking for good beer. Yes, if I was out with friends drinking beer I would shy away from the NASCAR beers and look for something that I could stomach. This is where Guinness became my crutch since it was pretty prevalent in the NJ bars and was not nearly as offensive as the alternatives. Then one of the local liquor stores began to carry Ubu. I picked up a six-pack, fearful that it would not be as good as I remembered. I opened, poured, admired, drank and was brought back to my first one. Yep, it was still wonderful. And then devastation! The Shop Rite liquors in town discontinued stocking it. No!!!!!! I was set back to wine, tequila, bourbon and vodka. If you change the order of those to vodka, bourbon, tequila and wine, you can set it to the tune of Scarborough Fair. Hmm…I should mention that to some musician friends I know. Speaking of those guys, one had much to do with my beer Renaissance…through Facebook. Yes, Facebook had a lot to do with my returning to beer.

When I was tricked into going onto Facebook I was hooked. There are so many bad aspects of that website, but a lot of good can come out of it as well. I initially let it rule my life and spent hours upon hours playing the games and chatting with new friends. I’ve since eliminated all but two of the less-addictive games and reduced my friend list to mostly people I know in real life. But I also reconnected with some old high school friends and for that I am thankful. What relates Facebook to this blog is a posting put up by the bass player from a mutual friend’s band. He “liked” a liquor store in Boonton due to its beer selection. I figured I might find my beloved Ubu there and I did…and so much more.

The Discount Liquor Outlet in Boonton is sometimes called Boonton Liquor Outlet (duh) or just BLO, which is how I will refer to it from here on out. I had known about this place, but had gone there for wine…their selection and prices on fermented grape juice being pretty darn good. But now when I go there I ignore the right-hand side of the store where the wine and spirits live and I go straight to the back wall where the beer coolers are. I rarely buy anything from the coolers, but stacked in front of the coolers are cases of beer from some of the more prolific craft breweries. These stacks are where I happened upon Dogfish Head.

Moving to the left you come across the beer wall. Starting by the coolers, it begins with Belgians and moves through Europe as you walk to your left. Then you get into the American craft brews. The selection made my head spin and exhilarated me at the same time. I grabbed a six-pack of Ubu and a few others that were recommended by the aforementioned bass player and brought them home, monopolizing much of the space in the fridge. Another six-pack I brought home was Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo. Prior to Torpedo, the only other IPA I had tried was Harpoon's. Wow! What a buttload of hops Torpedo packed! I had also picked up 750ml bottle of Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde…another recommendation from the bass player. What a remarkable beer that was!

I went back to BLO and picked up another Unibroue offering, Maudite, and Dogfish Head’s India Brown Ale, as well as few more from Sierra Nevada: Celebration and Anniversary Ale. I began to comb through the Belgians, but I was still a bit too intimidated to try any...but that would all change. My curiosity was piqued and my love of beer renewed. I was back on the scene and about to fully submerge myself into the world of beer. Things had changed since my last visit into the realm of malt, hops, water and yeast. New breweries were dominating the beer scene and imports that had not been available before were now there for the taking. I had some catching up to do.

Next Time: To Brew, or not to Brew…How is that a Question?