Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TOASTING THE NEW YEAR

I hope everyone had a great holiday season. I'm sure many of you served craft beer with your Hanukkah or Christmas repast. Many of you still opted for a bottle of wine on the table. If so, I hope it was because it paired better with your meal rather than giving in to the farcical notion that wine adds a touch of class that beer cannot achieve. My table had a bottle of wine as well as a bottle of beer, Delirium Noel actually. Both paired pretty well with the duck and wild rice pilaf I served, but I think that the Belgian yeast funk and candy sugar in the beer worked better with the richness of the duck. But this entry is not to argue the place of beer at the holiday table nor is it a beer versus wine discussion. I'm writing to make the case for toasting the New Year with beer rather than the traditional champagne.

"Sacrilege!", you say? Pshaw! How did champagne earn the honored spot as unofficial "official drink of New Year's"? Heck, it seems to be the go-to beverage for all celebratory toasts…and boat launches as well.  This could be attributed to strong marketing campaigns that associate champagne with luxury and indulgence. Check the red carpet and after parties of all self-serving celebrity awards shows and you'll see it everywhere. Good French champagnes (and only French sparkling wine should be called champagne) can be pretty expensive. Even many of the higher-end California sparkling wines (who erroneously and arrogantly call themselves champagne) can break your weekly budget for adult beverages. 

I try not to give in to marketing when I can. I don't have a Snuggy, nor did I buy my wife a Lexus for Christmas. Yet, I have been known to run out for a Volcano taco at Taco Bell after seeing the commercial. But in this case, I say, "No!" I will not toast this New Years with champagne! Come to think of it, I didn't last year either. I had a couple of bottles of prosecco, which is a dry, Italian sparkling wine. But that's out this year too...well, for me anyway. The Geisha will still have prosecco in her glass. But I will have beer, but what beer? 

I can't see going too far from the bubbly. I have crystal flutes that really only get used once a year and I don't intend to leave them forlorn, so I'll be choosing a beer that does well in a flute. Many of these come to mind and most of them are from Belgium. Almost any beer from Cantillon would fit the bill (if you can find a bottle at this time), but here are some style suggestions:

Oude Gueze: This is already the Senpai's toasting beverage of choice for the New Year and I commend his decision. I may follow suit on that. But unless you like sour beers you may want to pass. If you do like sour beers then you can't do much better. These beers can be very effervescent and supply that advertising-ingrained notion that you need something bubbly with which to toast. Cantillon, Drei Fonteinen and Boon are excellent and Oud Beersel isn't bad, but if you can find LambickX it's worth getting for the occasion. 

Kriek and Framboise: Both are sour fruit beers that can be pretty bubbly depending on the brewery. Some breweries make this a little flat to my taste and that leaves the fruit flavors a bit cloying. But if you get a really good one the pinkish tone of the beer can look quite lovely in a champagne flute and, at the risk of sounding sexist, grab the attention of the ladies. At the very least, it becomes a conversation piece and who knows, you might help convert some people to Belgian beer. Again, Cantillon, Drei Fonteinen and Boon lead the pack in this category. 

Biere de Champagne: Essentially this is beer brewed with champagne yeast, making it pretty dry and bubbly. This style is starting to find some popularity and it wouldn't be a bad thing to use for your ball-dropping toast. Again, this is a style that takes some getting used to as it delivers a different mouthfeel than almost every other style. Keep an open mind about it and you will find that you may love this beer. Honestly, Malheur is the only example of this style I've tried, but I truly enjoyed it. It even looks like a bottle of champagne.

Belgian Pale Ale: Strong or of "regular" strength, these are not as bubbly, but strike a brilliant golden hue in the glass. They technically should not be drank from a flute, but they can be. Some of the best beers in the world fall into this style including Unibroue's La Fin Du Mond, Victory's Golden Monkey, Orval and Duvel.

Pilsner: Yeah, I said it and I'll get some crap from the Duck for this, but these do look nice sparkling in the glass. I'm not talking the American adjunct pilsners, hell no! I'm talking about the well-crafted pilsners that have flavor. My Antonia from Dogfish Head comes immediately to mind here, but Victory's Prima Pils is another deserving beer, as is Rogue's Morimoto Imperial Pilsner. Czech pilsners are also some of the best beers in the world...Urquell is still the classic, but Zatec is my favorite. 

Koslch: Okay, if you REALLY, REALLY want something that looks like champagne in the glass then kolsch is perhaps as close as you'll get. It's very pale and has a nice carbonation to it. It's traditional glass, the stange, is about as slender as a flute and it acts about the same way when poured as does champagne. This will keep people from pestering you as to what you're drinking. As far as I'm concerned, Reissdorf is the only way to go in this style and is pretty easy to find in the good beer stores. 

Of course there are styles that you want to avoid pouring into a flute, like stouts, barleywines and German wheat beers. The latter will cost you a good half an hour to get enough beer (versus foam) into the glass to make it worth your while. The other two are just too viscous to drink from such a slender vessel. But if you don't feel constrained to use a flute, have at it! I comes down to one simple rule with all situations: if you like it, drink it!

I managed to find a bottle of LambickX, so my mind has been made up.
 
Have a fun, adventurous and safe New Year's celebration!













Monday, December 12, 2011

GIFTS FOR BEER GEEKS


So you're a beer geek; so am I. Obviously. I write a beer blog and you're reading it. So why am I writing a blog entry on what to get a beer geek for the holidays on a blog only beer geeks will read? So you can print it out, cut this part off and then leave around the house for someone who has the potential to care enough about you to get you something you really want.

So how does this work? I've got a few categories below with blank lines for you to make suggestions. You're supposed to fill that part in. I can't do everything. You're still going to get socks and a wallet, but it's worth a shot, right?

Cut here ------------------------------(and don't leave the words "cut here", I shouldn't have to tell you that)

MY HOLIDAY WISH LIST FOR A VERY BEERY SEASON

BEER - No one ever gets me beer because no one I know knows beer the way I know it. I'm also not very good at hiding the look on my face when I'm given another bottle of Chimay. Everyone who doesn't know beer asks the guy at the liquor store and it's usually not a liquor store that carries craft beer and the best beer they have is Chimay and so I invariably get at least one bottle every year. Not a bad deal really, but it's getting a little old. So, to make it easier this year, I've listed the top five beers that I've always wanted to try, but haven't bought for myself. Here's my list:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

GLASSWARE - Drinking beer out of a plastic Solo cup or one of your dinner glasses with the floral motif just doesn't work for all styles of beer. Each beer has its particular style of glass that helps enhance the beer drinking experience. Many breweries have their logos on their glassware, but please no logos that you could find on the hood of stock car driving fast and to the left every Sunday during the warmer months. Here are a few ideas:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

BEER GIFT PACKS - Make it easy on yourself. A lot of breweries bundle their beers in packs that include one or two of their glasses, just in time for the holidays! You can usually find these near the front of good beer stores where they keep the best gift ideas. Most of these tend to be pretty good, but here are some of the best ones:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

HOME BREWING EQUIPMENT - I can save us money by brewing beer at home. Who knows? I might even win a competition if I get good at it and, if I'm good enough, I might be able to open my own brewery someday. Think of this as more of an investment than a gift. Every home brewer has different methods and like to brew in certain batch sizes, so here's a list of stuff that I would need to either get started or to enhance the equipment I already have:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

BREWERIANA - No, I didn't make up that word! It's actually its own category on eBay. Go ahead! Look it up! See?  It simply means "brewery related memorabilia". You know all those brewery logo coasters the bar lets me take home when I ask? Those would be considered breweriana. Then again, so would an illuminated, rotating Guinness sign that mounts to the wall. How cool would that be? So many things fall under this category, like brewery logo model train cars, bottle openers, beer mats, beer trays, tin brewery signs, etc. It can be overwhelming so you can refine your search with these ideas:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

BEER TOURISM - Oh yes, there's a niche market in the travel agency world for beer geeks. Classic beer tourism destinations are Germany and Belgium since the beer culture is so interwoven into the everyday life in those countries. But we don't even need to leave the United States to hunt down places where beer is revered. The San Diego area, Portland (Oregon, not Maine, although Allagash is in Portland, Maine) and Denver are all chock full of breweries and brew pubs. And to make it even better, they're also great centers for culture, history and shopping! These are the top five places I'd love to visit:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

STORAGE AND SUCH - A beer fridge is a necessity; a kegerator would be awesome; a double-tap kegerator would be legendary. A racking system for cellaring stronger brews can be stylish as well as utile. Wall-mounted bottle openers and shelving to display an empty bottle or a glassware collection is also very nice and reduces clutter in the man cave. These are a few things that I could use, ordered on importance level:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

BOOKS - If you think all this beer-drinking is killing brain cells then books are something that would stimulate the brain to help stave off all that mythical, urban-legendary brain damage caused from excessive drinking. Charlie Papazian wrote some great books on brewing (and there are many others on the subject) and there's a really good book by Garrett Oliver (he's the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery) about beer pairings. But the expert on the subject was Michael Jackson. No, not the glove-wearing, pasty-faced, noseless King of Pop you're thinking of; I'm talking about the Beer Hunter. If you want me to read then I'd read these:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

GIFT CERTIFICATES - This is even easier than the gift packs above, since you won't have to decide which gift pack. All the best beer stores sell gift certificates and then I can decide. Most of the homebrew stores sell them too. I believe you can even get gift certificates off of eBay. So you need to decide what you might want to get me and then figure out where the best place would be to get it and then that's where the gift certificate comes from. I'll even tell you the top five places I'd like a gift certificate to:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

So now you know what I'd like this season...stuff to make my cheeks rosy, like Santa's, and make my belly slosh when when I laugh like Santa. I promise to not operate the sleigh after having a few. 


Love you tons! ____________________
                           (put your name here)

Monday, December 5, 2011

ROADTRIPPING - TRIP B, PART 3: FAREWELL TO BALTIMORE


The National Katyn Memorial
We had walked a lot and drank a lot the day prior, so waking up in the morning brought bursting bladders and aching feet. A good breakfast was in order and the Control had a definite idea as to what he wanted, biscuits and gravy and grits. The plan was to break our fast before we headed out to Fells Point to check out their annual festival. That plan didn't quite work out as planned. I had found a diner in the area that was sure to have the morning vittles that we were looking for and we struck off in search of it. Unlike the Pratt Street Ale House the night before, it was NOT where it was supposed to be. In fact, we think it had closed down and was never taken off Google Maps. Plan B was implemented, which consisted of wandering in the general direction of Fells Point, looking for a good place for breakfast along the way.


The first place we found was swamped and the prices were quite unreasonable for breakfast, but we were still in the tourist area of Inner Harbor so we pressed on, looking at every eatery along the way, rejecting each one for one reason or another. Biscuits and gravy and grits were becoming a fading dream, as we entered Fells Point and started to walk around the festival. Our hunger was distracted by the merchants, classic cars and historic ships for a while, until the Control caught sight of a place that held promise. On previous road trips we have turned to the traditional Irish breakfast to stave off the effects of a hangover. There's nothing like eggs and a variety of greasy, prepared meats to settle you down right. Although we weren't even slightly hung over, the sight of an Irish pub called Slainte gave us hope that we could get some adequate breakfast food to fill our bellies. Slainte would turn out to be so much more and was the third place on the trip that was unplanned, but really made this trip worthwhile.

I miss this place already
As we walked up to the door to check out the menu we could hear raucous cheering coming from inside. It was just after 11:00AM and there were sports fanatics crowding the bar…English Premier League football fanatics. Unlike the Abbey Burger Bistro, Slainte does not appear to have one favorite team and various club scarves adorned the rafters and the fans from both sides of the pitch. Good-natured barbs were hurled back and forth after each play. Being EPL fans ourselves, we decided to get a bite to eat here and, wondrously, biscuits and gravy and grits were on the menu.

We were showed to a booth and were grateful as Wayne Rooney for his new hair that the waitress allowed us to order from the breakfast menu despite the late hour. We each also got a cup of coffee and a pint of Guinness. The food was fresh and very well prepared and the Guinness went a long way to fortify us for the rest of the day. The coffee was even good, but the highlight of that was the mug it was served in. It was a good mug, one of those that feels good in your hand and holds just the right amount of steaming goodness. We each purchased one to bring home as souvenirs. We watched the game, wolfed down our breakfast, sipped our coffee and enjoyed the hell out of a properly poured pint of Guinness. Our waitress assured us that there was no rush and we could sit and lounge as long as we wanted. Being right comfortable in our surroundings and being brought a healthy dose of properly poured pints of Guinness, we had no compunction to leave at all. But leave we must, since we had an appointment for a brewery tour and still needed to walk back to the hotel.

To give you an idea how comfortable we were in Slainte, we both Liked their page on Facebook. They update it often and we both get melancholy when they advertise a special or promote that they're televising an important match live. We so want to just get in the car and drive to Baltimore and lounge in that wonderful Irish pub until they kick us out. For my own happiness I'm thinking of Unliking it, but I can't bring myself to do it. 

No, we never went inside
Another indication as to how much we liked it there is the fact that I knew Max's Taproom was right around the corner. I had wanted to stop into this Mecca for Baltimore-bound beer geeks and even knew that the longer we spent in Slainte the more the chance to pop into Max's would disappear. I really didn't care. We walked past Max's and I took a picture of the outside, but we were in a hurry and now I have another reason to return.

Meat Tent!
On our way, we quickly explored some of the sections of the festival we hadn't see yet. One of these sections is dedicated to the Hispanic community. One of the awe-inspiring sights we saw in that area was meat cooking over an open fire, stretched out on thick, wire frameworks covering the rising heat from the fire. The Control aptly referred to them as "meat tents". These were nearly tall as a man and the smell coming from the slabs of cow smoking away on them was even better. Sadly, we were stuffed and pressed for time, so we took pictures and moved on. Another reason to return now, but it will have to be for the next Fells Point Festival.


We retrieved the car and drove south of the city to reach Heavy Seas. The brewery used to be called Clipper City and they decided to change the name. The old name is still preserved in the Clipper Fleet line of beers, which includes all the beers brewed under the original brand. They also have the Pyrate Fleet and Mutiny Fleet lines, all brewed in their Halethorpe facility, just south of Baltimore. This is another brewery located in an industrial complex but unlike many, the structures are newer. On your way inside, you have the option to buy a logo pint glass that has 5 chips in it with the Heavy Seas logo. As you probably guessed, you can trade these in for samples at the bar, which they will pour to the line on the back of the pint glass in order to stay within the legally prescribed limit for a "sample" of beer.

Who Cares! They Have Beer! And Medals!
The sampling area also doubles as the gift shop and they have all manner of licensed product and much of it has a pirate theme to it. The sampling bar is well-manned and proudly displays all the awards their beers have won throughout the years. Behind the bar is the tap list that very nicely explains each beer being served, including all the technical information (ABV, IBU, OG, FG, etc.) You can get a growler fill while there or buy beer in cases and they even have some of their 22 ouncers available for sale. The Control bought a couple of bottles of their Yule Tide that had been cellared since 2002 and, being the friend he is, gave me one of them.

This is one of the more interesting tours you'll attend at a brewery. The tour guide gets into a bit more detail than most and she would ask questions and reward correct answers with a free sample chip. And yes, I did manage to win one of these for myself by correctly identifying their hop back. The chip came in very handy since the chips are so neat that I decided to keep one as a souvenir. And then, as happens so often at breweries that give out tickets or chips, we were given more chips by people who weren't using them. I was glad that the Control was driving as I gladly tossed back sample after sample of Peg Leg Stout.

I've been to a few breweries that I put in the "been there, done that" column and have no desire to revisit. But if I find myself back in Baltimore, I will make a point of returning to the brewery for some samples and perhaps a souvenir or two. There are quite a few places there that warrant a return visit, like Zeebah Lounge, Slainte, Abbey Burger Bistro and Blue Agave. There's probably enough to turn this into a yearly event…with all beer geeks invited. As Larry promised me years back, Baltimore is a really great beer town, even if it does close up too early.

Monday, November 28, 2011

ROADTRIPPING - TRIP B, PART 2: A-SMOKING AND A-DRINKING


We learn so much on these road trips and most of what we learn has nothing to do with beer. Much of it is life lessons and some of it is a combination. For instance, we learned on this trip that walking around is a real buzzkill…literally. We had a few beers at Tir Na Nog and then walked to the Abbey Burger Bistro. We had a few beers there and took a short walk to Pub Dog. Two beers there and a little walking tour of Federal Hill brought us to Blue Agave Restaurant Y Tequileria. A generous pour of tequila there put us back on the street with barely a hint of inebriation. On foot and bouncing from one place to the next is a really bad way to try to get drunk…not that getting sloppy drunk is the goal, but…

Our next stop did nothing to increase our happy level, but it did give us a moment to relax and try something we had never done before. On our way into Federal Hill to meet Larry we had passed a place called Zeeba Lounge. Not knowing what it was at the time, but finding the name interesting, we were surprised to find ourselves inside this establishment after bidding Larry farewell. The way that happened was typical of the way many off-the-cuff decisions are made with the Control and me. It starts off with the Control displaying his awesome reading skills…"Zeeba Lounge is a hookah bar. Huh." I am then forced to acknowledge that he has correctly deciphered the letters. "I see that". This is followed by a lengthy interrogation as to my interest. "Ever done hookah?" Exasperated and weak from the questioning, I manage to eke out a reply. "Nope". Coercion and arm-twisting immediately precede the use of thumb screws and water boarding. "Wanna?" Completely and cruelly broken I give in. "Sure". It's a sadistic and complex dance, but one that has served us well through the years, as it did here. It brought us into the second place that was unplanned, but became one of highlights of the trip. In case you missed it, or I forgot to mention it, the tequila bar was the first.

A doorman opens the door for you and moves the curtains aside to allow you entrance into the lounge. And it is truly a lounge: it's dark with low tables surrounded by low couches full of throw pillows and an amazing lack of smoke hanging in the air. These people know what they're doing, unlike a certain place in Jersey we tried just recently. We were directed to one of the manager's tables and she showed us why this place is so well run. Knowing we were hookah virgins, Nidia (for that was her name) walked us through all the ins and outs of smoking a water pipe. After a few test jabs she figured it would be really hard to offend us and her wicked sense of humor came forefront and made for great entertainment, even if it was at our expense at times. A hookah full of pomegranate and pistachio flavored tobacco and a few Turkish coffees and we had settled in nicely, blithely puffing away on the pipe and recapping much of what had gone on that day. Yeah, our buzz was entirely gone, but so was our sense of being tired and bloated. We left relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to find more beer. It was now off in search of the Pratt Street Ale House.

A short walk and we found it, right where it was supposed to be. There weren't a lot of people there, so we took stools at the bar and ordered some Oliver Ales. It's a little confusing as the beer is brewed by Oliver Ales and the brewpub is called Pratt Street Ale House. But they are one in the same, apparently. I never thought to ask about this while we were there and I am curious if the beer is brewed at the same location as the Ale House or not. All I know is that I did not see any brewing equipment, but that's not proof of anything. I know places that call themselves brewpubs, have brewing equipment displayed, but all their house ales are contract brewed at a local brewery. And they don't even bother to change the name of the beer! Yeah, I'm looking squarely at you, Egan and Sons. If anyone knows more about Oliver Ales and the Pratt Street Ale House relationship, please leave a comment below.

I'm not antisocial, I'm just not social…well, until I've had a few beers. I'll usually come into a bar, sit down away from other patrons and order my beer. I'll pull out my smartphone and make some tasting notes on what I have, but then after a few, something changes. The smartphone gets relegated to the recesses of a pocket and I start to engage the people around me. I don't exactly turn into the Mayor of the Bar, but I will talk to just about anyone about beer, weather, sports, whatever. This occurred in the Pratt Street Ale House and we wound up talking to a couple that were Philadelphia sports fans, one of which had his hand in a rather large bandage. The story behind it was very boring, so boring that I forget what it was, so we supplied him with a better story that involved saving orphans from various, large, wild animals while on safari.Or something to that effect.

Pratt Street Ale House woodworking
he beer here was good and very true to the English styles that they proudly purport to replicate. We both found quaffs that we enjoyed and I would recommend the Dark Horse, which is a nicely done English dark mild ale. There's nothing here that will blow your socks off, but that's not their aim. They produce nicely balanced, English-style ales and they do it rather well and serve them at the proper temperature. Another pleasure of this place is they've worked to create an hospitable environment. Yes, I used "an hospitable" just as the British would, trying to get into that kind of feel here. Unfortunately, the bar area didn't really have a fully authentic English pub feel to it. They did their best to transport you to an English pub with the building's fa├žade, but the interior seemed a bit off. The trappings were there, brass taps with wooden-handled pulls, solid woodworking, colorful but not gaudy paint job and other brick-a-brack that an American might expect to find in a London local. But the bar itself was a bit off. It was entirely open, meaning it didn't have the enclosed glassware racks above the bar that I've come to associate with an English pub. Just my observation and one mostly shared with the Control, who actually has experience in the pubs in London, but this is not a large enough negative and more of a nitpick. It's a great place to go if you fancy a pint.

After leaving the Pratt Street Ale House we decided to head back to the hotel, but on the way back to the room we realized that it was still around midnight…far too early to call it a night when bar hopping a big city, right? Wrong, especially in Baltimore. Maybe we're spoiled living within the gleam of the City That Never Sleeps, but closing everything down at midnight seems downright ludicrous. During the day the city is vibrant and alive. The Inner Harbor has the National Aquarium, historic ships, bustling restaurants, shopping for all budgets and tastes and policemen on Segways. Now I would never condone lifting an old lady above your head and, while roaring like Conan, tossing her off the Mystic drawbridge, but I had to agree with the Control that the urge to push the overweight cop doing his patrol on a Segway into the harbor was irresistible. Get a desk job or go for a swim, tubbo! Stop wasting the taxpayers' money because you can't resist Krispy Kreme! Well, who can? Apparently the urge wasn't entirely irresistible because we didn't actually do it, but we thought mightily hard about doing it, I tell you what!We did get a chuckle trying to imagine him chasing down a perp on that thing. Do you suppose he makes vroom-vroom noises when he does?

At night the police force, sans Segways, seems to be concentrated around an area that is full of bars and nightclubs called Power Plant Live! Their exclamation mark, not mine. The street here is cordoned off and you get carded on your way through because you can roam between the bars, restaurants and clubs with open containers. At the end of the night there tend to be a lot of drunken idiots, so the cops need to be in force. But again, the end of the night is midnight! That exclamation mark is mine and was placed there in disbelief that a big city would close the party down at such an early hour. If Prince Charming is coming to Charm City to look for a princess then he better get there early, before all the women run home and turn into Sleeping Beauty and there's not even a pumpkin ale to be found.

After being accosted by the mother of a bride-to-be-the-next-day looking for one last hook up and exclaiming that she was "easy", we hastened ourselves the opposite direction and managed to find that Tir Na Nog was still serving. For some reason they're open until 2AM, God bless them! A few pints of Guinness later and we were ready to call it a day…a day made all the nicer by a nicely stocked beer store, a yummy pit beef sammich, an eclectic burger joint with a great craft beer list, an affordable brewpub for the college kids, a classy tequila bar, a comfortable, well-run hookah lounge and a brewpub serving authentic English ales. So it was time to go back to the hotel, review the photos, plug everything in to recharge and then plug ourselves into our beds to recharge for the next day. We heard there was a festival going on in Fells Point and we were going to go see what that was all about…and find some beer.

Monday, November 21, 2011

ROADTRIPPING - TRIP B, PART 1: LEAVE AT 9:00, DRIVE TO BALTIMORE


One thing that occurred to me about the two road trips the Control and I took recently is that they followed a pattern.

This is how I go about planning it:
1) I set up a plan to best utilize our time for the optimal beer experience. I do this utilizing the "Places" section on Beer Advocate and The Beer Mapping Project website.
2) I plan the meals around the beer locations. Sometimes it's a brew pub or highly regarded place that serves something that the locale is known for.
3) I find a good beer store in the area, utilizing Beer Advocate, so that I can find some good souvenirs, concentrating on local breweries.
4) I allow for extra time in case of traffic or other unforeseen obstacles.

This is what happens:
1) We hit ALL of our marks, usually right at the time I planned.
2) We don't need much of the extra time I build in.
3) The spare time allows us to find places not in the original plan.
4) The experiences we have in these places are what wind up defining the trip.

For example, on the Newport trip we made it to the two breweries, the one brewpub, and the clam shack, and still had time left to enjoy time with the Mystic, CT locals in John's and taste "stuffies" in the best craft beer joint in Newport, Pour Judgment. The time spent in John's set the tone for the trip, allowing us to really slow down and enjoy ourselves and the whole day was capped off nicely by the entertainment of Pour Judgment. The planned stops had their merits too, but John's and Pour Judgment added a sense of discovery to the sense of accomplishment.

Baltimore was no different except that we didn't have to drive back the same day and we found three places that made us want to return…or even relocate to Baltimore.

On both trips, I planned to hit the beer store before anything else. This has advantages and disadvantages. The sole advantage is that you set a budget for the beer store and you wind up using it for its intent rather than going crazy along the way and finding you've run short of cash and can't grab that last bottle of Imperial Storm Trooper left on the shelf. But the disadvantages outweigh this. The bottles are in your trunk for most of the trip, which can be a problem. But the most compelling reason to wait is that you may taste one of the beers at the brewery and not really like it, only to find that you have a six-pack to bring home. Also, the brewery might be selling growlers or special releases and your beer budget is gone. Next trip I think I'll plan on hitting the beer store near the end of the trip.

After completing the long, arduous trek of the Delaware Turnpike (all 11.2 traffic-riddled miles of it) we stopped at State Line Liquors in Elkton, MD. We could have just as easily stopped in on the way back home as it's just a short jaunt off of Route 80. If you find yourself in this area make sure you stop at State Line. Not only can you get most of the beer brewed in the state of Maryland, but find offerings from breweries that may not distribute to your state: Buckbean from Nevada, for example. They also have a pretty extensive selection of imports, their Belgium section being particularly impressive. Expect to spend some time in there hunting as you're sure to come across quite a few items that you may not have seen before.

After that stop it was time for lunch and I've always heard about pit beef in Baltimore. One place in particular, Chaps, has attracted a rather large crowd from the Food Network, so I decided that we needed to give this local favorite a try. The menu at Chaps is long and diverse, but we were here for the pit beef. You can order it at any temperature, but rare is the only way to go in my opinion. Grab a soda and a bag of chips and hit the condiments bar. I spooned a bunch of the fresh horseradish and the barbecue sauce. After my reward of whistle-clean sinuses, we settled in for the remainder of the drive into Charm City.

Okay, when did Baltimore become Charm City? I had never heard of this until we got there. It's obviously not one of the better known nicknames like The Big Apple, The Windy City, Motor City or The Big Easy. And why Charm City? Are the people there charming? From what I can figure out the nickname was first used in 1974 as a way to attract more tourism to the city. The effort was for naught as the city underwent strikes by firemen, police officers, garbage collectors and zoo keepers right around the same time. But the name stuck, for some reason. It wasn't until the Inner Harbor was cleaned up and the National Aquarium and Harborplace were built, that "Balmer" became a tourist destination. Based on our time there, I think they've done a great job.

After we checked into our hotel we decided to stroll around Inner Harbor, but we really needed a beer, so we stopped off in an Irish Pub in Harborplace called Tir Na Nog. They have a house beer that's brewed by Heavy Seas that wasn't all that bad. The food's pretty good too, but Tir Na Nog would soon pale in comparison on every level to the places we would be visiting on this trip. This was just a jumping off spot and a place to slake our thirst. It was time for dinner.

I have a friend down in Baltimore who I met over five years ago. The common interests in craft beer and hiking sealed the friendship and I made plans to spend time with him while down there. We decided to meet for dinner at the Abbey Burger Bistro. The eclectic burger menu boasted exotic meats like wild boar, ostrich and rattlesnake, and nontraditional toppings like fried egg and peanut butter. And they even serve tater tots! What's not to love! It wasn’t just the burger menu that caught my attention; the beer selection was pretty solid as well. They have 14 taps with no NASCAR beers represented. If you want one of THOSE, then you'll need to go to the bottom of the bottle and can beer menu in the section titled "Other Beers", just above the sole near-beer offering. The upper portion of the menu features a lot of Belgian brews, which should be expected in a place with the word "abbey" in the name, but what made this establishment stand out for us was that the upstairs bar is a shrine to the Arsenal Gunners. The Control is a big fan of the Gunners, so he felt right at home. Being a United fan myself, I was relieved to find out that the owner was not present.

We finished up and headed over to Pub Dog to sample their wares. Be careful with their web site that advertises two mugs of beer for four dollars. The pictures on their site make the mugs look huge. When we got there the price was $4.50 for two mugs and the volume was probably around 10 ounces. Still, not a horrible deal but I was a bit put off by the deception, intended or not. They use three floors with a traditional bar on the first floor and one that was more reminiscent of a Chinese take-out counter than a bar, on the second. The top floor has a shuffleboard table and a bunch of twenty-somethings playing tonsil hockey. All floors are a bit crowded and the best way to describe the feel was "grunge". Although we were a bit out of place here, due to our age and bearing I could see this being a great hang-out for the college scene. But it's not a place I have any need to return to, even though the beer was pretty good.

Filled up on burgers, tots and beer we figured that the night was starting to wind down as we walked Larry back to his car, but we decided to pop into a tequila bar before we said our goodbyes. The Blue Agave Restaurant Y Tequileria has an impressive array of fine tequilas. Now if you're sitting there making a pukey face and all you've ever had was Jose Cuervo then listen up! Jose Cuervo is not fine tequila and the good stuff does not require salt and lemon to get down your throat. Don't feel bad; Larry hadn't had good tequila before that night either. I'm not sure we made a convert of him or not, but he did seem to enjoy his Galardon reposado, even though he didn't finish it. The Galardon was ordered from the Last Bottle menu, which will be your best deal. Fine tequila is not cheap and when ordered by the shot it gets even more expensive.

As in most places, we found people to talk to and the Control allowed the fairer half of a couple we met sample his Galardon, seeing that she was struggling to find something to order. What was not understood at the time was that she was perusing the wine list and the look on her face made it obvious that she was not a fan of tequila. Conveniently, Larry was parked right outside the tequileria and took his leave of us and we went in search of more beer and found something completely different…and more beer, of course.

Monday, November 14, 2011

GIVE THANKS FOR GREAT BEER


I love Thanksgiving. I fucking LOVE Thanksgiving! It is the epitome of gluttony that all other gluttonous holidays presume to challenge. Halloween is good and gluttonous, but all that candy will make your stomach convulse and cause you to clean up more of the house than you had intended to that night. Christmas, a holiday that is supposed to be a high religious observation, has turned into a materialistic orgy of spending. It's a close cousin to gluttony, but doesn't have that physically revolting aspect to it. Yeah, there's a big feast, but does anyone post Facebook pictures of their plate, overflowing with the Christmas dinner? No. I guarantee I'll see at least a dozen photos where the good china is completely obscured by heaping mounds of potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce with a large hunk of turkey on top, the whole thing smothered in gravy. There might even be a vegetable or two poking out from somewhere. For gluttony, Thanksgiving cannot be beat. End of argument.

The day starts off with a parade full of lip-syncing celebrities and high school marching bands from around the country that are just learning how cold New York can get in November. And there's always the wonderful possibility that they'll lose control of one of the balloons, sending it careening into a building's fa├žade, deflating it and smothering the creepy-ass clowns marching underneath. All this while you're drinking your coffee and having a light breakfast to make room for the Gobble Day feast. But in the afternoon, while the cooking is going on, we have football. Most years it's a Dallas Cowboys game and a beat down of the Detroit Lions by anyone and everyone. This year the Lions are supposedly a good team and facing the Packers. That could be the game to watch, at least until dinner is served. Time for food! And the food is epic: birds exceeding twenty pounds, mounds of stuffing with all sorts of mouth-watering ingredients, bowls piled high with mashed potatoes that are soon to be swimming in sinful turkey gravy, cranberry sauce (from the can or freshly made, doesn’t matter), butter-slathered rolls and don't even get me going on the desserts. I wonder if the spike in shopping on Black Friday compares to the spike in visits to the cardiologist.

All this food is awesome, but we need drink to go with the day's schedule. We have coffee for the parade…that is sacrosanct. Besides, I don't drink beer before 11AM, or is it 10AM? Doesn't matter; I need my coffee. But once the games begin it's drink on! Some households have Thanksgiving dinner early so there's no need for lunch. We still have ours close to the traditional dinner time…that's usually because I've underestimated the bird's cooking time…so appy-type snacks during the first game are served in lieu of a true lunch. Football and appies? That screams for a lager of some sort, but nothing that will weigh you down or get you so snookered that you stuff the bird with the sweet potatoes. Think of your beer selections throughout the day just like a beer tasting or sample flight. You start off with the lightest and lowest ABVs first and work your way up in ABV, body, IBU and flavor. No, I am NOT suggesting a "light" beer to start. Just wipe that out of your mind. No NASCAR beers!

I do have one rule on Thanksgiving: every beer I drink will be brewed in the US. Thanksgiving is an American holiday and drinking imports is a slap in the face of those intrepid pilgrims who fled religious oppression in Europe. So for the football games I'll probably go with a pilsner of some sort: lighter-bodied, low-ish ABV, but still flavorful. Possibilities: Full Sail Session Lager, Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, Victory Prima Pils, Troegs Sunshine Pils, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, Sierra Nevada Glissade, Oskar Blues Mamas Little Yellow Pils. If I could get it where I live I'd go with the Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, but I'm probably going to settle for the Sierra Nevada Glissade.

I understand that there are so many other beers that could be mentioned for any role within this post, so I attempted to stick to those available in the Garden State.

If you love to cook, like I do, and you grew up watching Julia Child you knew that some of the wine went into the cooking and some of the wine went into Julia. That's perfectly swell when you're doing a television cooking show where a bunch of other cooks are preparing the ingredients and precooking the finished dish. In my opinion, drinking while preparing a big meal is not the best idea. You're going to have a very minor buzz from the football game beer, adding onto that while managing a very sharp chef's knife could ruin the holiday with an emergency room visit. I, for one, don't relish sitting in the emergency room, hand wrapped up in bandages, next to the moron who got his head stuck in the cavity of the turkey because he thought he could wear it as hat. Too much beer can do that and one time when I was marveling at a similar moron, I realized I was sitting next to a mirror. So, I will go well off-form here and suggest that you drink water as you cook. You'll need the hydration for the beer to come as well as to survive the heat of the kitchen as the oven does its job and every burner throws flame. Save your alcohol tolerance for the main attraction.

The cooking is done and the good china is on the table along with the good silverware and crystal ware. You know, all that stuff on your wedding registry that kept you from getting that BBQ set-up that could accommodate two whole pigs and three sides of beef. The bird is out and everything else has been put into serving vessels so that pictures can be taken. Why? I don't really know. Has anyone ever gone back and looked at pictures of the turkey from prior years? The sink and kitchen counter are nowhere to be found under teetering columns of pots, pans, utensils, cutting boards and mixing bowls. They can wait because it's time to eat! And drink, of course. I've made some mistakes in the past with pairing a beer with Thanksgiving dinner. My usual mantra is "drink what you like", but that doesn't really work here. One year I poured a strong Belgian brown. Not only did it overpower much of my dinner in flavor, but the high alcohol content, paired with the tryptophan, made it really hard for me to help with the cleanup…or at least that's what I told the Geisha. Another year I poured a DIPA, which had the same effect: could barely taste the food and it knocked me for a loop.

So this year I need to find something with a flavor that will compliment all the dishes without overpowering them and also allow me to make it to dessert in good enough shape to be able to bring another beer into the mix. I don't want to repeat the beer from the football game, as it would disappear entirely and taste like nothing against the feast, but I've learned my lesson with too much flavor. Right off the bat my mind goes to Bluepoint Toasted Lager. It has a slight nuttiness that should pair well with much of what I serve on Thanksgiving and a light enough body and low enough ABV to get me through dinner. Let's face it, with all the food we eat, one will NOT be enough. Other options would be ambers that don't bring a large hop load to your palate. New Belgium Fat Tire would work as would many of the malt-forward American-brewed Oktoberfests. I'd lean toward Weyerbacher's Autumnfest here as it's a bit lighter and approaches the American Amber Ale style more than a true Oktoberfest, but the Toasted Lager will be my choice this year.

I mentioned getting one more beer in, didn't I? Oh yes, if they can have dessert wines then there HAS to be dessert beers. I could go one of two ways here. I could either choose something that compliments most desserts, like a coffee Stout, or find a beer that is a dessert within itself, like a frambois. What did the girl at the end of Trading Spaces say? "Why can't we have both?" We could, and then we'd sleep really well, but I will probably go with just one, even though I'll discuss both here.

At the end of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Santa Claus makes his entrance, symbolically ushering in the holiday buying frenzy. Christmas is the next holiday on the radar (along with Hanukah) and it's time to prepare. Trim up the trees, deck the halls, get your gift shopping done and prepare for that upcoming feast. So why not symbolically usher in the holiday season with a holiday beer at the end of the meal? Many of them will be released by that time and they're as varied in execution as summer beers and pumpkin ales. Some will be spiced, some will have fruit, most will be strong, but you can be assured of one thing: with the multitude that are being brewed you will find one to your liking. And you should be able to find one with the correct flavor profile to pair with whatever dessert you're serving. I have a Heavy Seas Yuletide from 2009 set aside for this year, but The Geisha will have me go out and get Harpoon's Winter Warmer (hopefully they won't be as heavy-handed with the spice this year) and I'll more than likely have more in the beer fridge to choose from. Southern Tier Old Man Winter, Weyerbacher Winter Ale, Sam Smith Winter Welcome and Saint Bernardus Christmas Ales tend to be staples and that selection gives me a nice range of beers to choose from.

But then there are those beers that are desserts unto themselves. A well-aged barleywine, an old ale or a bourbon barrel-aged stout can take the role of a snifter of brandy with ease. Belgian-style Quads are like having liquid bread in your chalice. Imperial Stouts deliver chocolate and coffee flavors with each luscious sip. If fruits are more your style then you've got options there as well. Most lambics available in this country are blended with fruit, like frambois, kriek, peche, etc, but there are some fruit beers that don't deliver the sour pucker that many lambics do. Dogfish Head Fort is a strong raspberry ale that would be delicious as a reduction over vanilla ice cream or enjoyed from a snifter. New Glarus also does a raspberry ale and one made with Wisconsin cherries. If you crave that pucker then Allagash Interlude, Ommegang Ommegeddon or Weyerbacher Rapture should do well without having to look to Belgium for the funk.

The point is that you've got many choices when it comes to beer with Thanksgiving and you can do what you want. I for one will be trying to stick the "rules" I outlined here and will now bullet point for quick reference and reminder.
- In the AM, get your coffee on…it will be a long day
- All beer should be domestic to honor this very American holiday
- Start off light-bodied and low alcohol content, especially if you're cooking
- If you're cooking, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
- Your dinner beer should not overpower the meal or your alcohol tolerance
- For dessert all bets are off…drink what you like
- Give thanks for good health, good fortune, good friends, family (good or otherwise) and great beer

Monday, October 17, 2011

PUMPKIN ALES

An American Beer Classic or a Travesty?

For such a young country we have contributed so much to world culture...good and bad. Jazz first sounded from clubs in the US south, but from the Northwest came the disco beat. To help the children of the world play more safely, we created Nerf balls and Super Soakers, but the Manhattan Project was devised and realized in an American think tank. De Niro and Pacino were native New Yorkers while Keanu grew up in the surf of Hawaii.

This dichotomy of awesomeness and suckiness also pervades the American beer scene. The terroir of the Pacific Northwest imparts wonderful citrus and pine notes to the hops varieties transplanted or developed there and, the argument of which brewery first did it aside, the "black" IPA was first brewed in an American brewery. But then we unleashed onto the beer-drinking world a concoction that, like most other beer geeks, I will seek out every September for some unknown reason. Even though I don't like the style, it am compelled to grab the new seasonals for some reason. Maybe it's to see if a miracle has occurred and they're better this year than last. Maybe I'm just a masochist or I cave to peer pressure too easily. Who knows? I speak, of course, of pumpkin ales.

Necessity to Nostalgia to Nasty

It goes without saying that when British colonists arrived in the new world their first rule was that of survival. A new world brings different climates and soil conditions. Many fruits and vegetables they knew from their homeland would not grow in American soil and no one was sure what was edible, what could kill them and what would merely make them crap and puke out their own body weight for three days straight. Friendship with the natives helped in this manner and larders became filled with indigenous species: among which were turkey, corn, oysters and that massive, orange squash we call the pumpkin. It is TOO a squash...I thought it was a gourd until I looked it up.

Once their needs were fulfilled they would have done as anyone else would have done and turned their eye to the luxuries they missed from home. They would have attempted to make their favorite dishes substituting ingredients from the area and probably would have attempted to make tea from the leaves and roots of the varied flora. And it is certain that they attempted some sort of alcohol, for we know that they did indeed brew beer. But with what ingredients?

Growing barley and malting it would have been difficult, if not impossible at first. Slashing and burning forest to make ariable fields was time-consuming and the first priority for those fields would have been food crops. So the colonists had to find other fermentable sugars to feed the yeast. The easily-grown pumpkin fit the bill nicely and pumpkin ale was born.

But then Manifest Destiny expanded our borders and the farming community increased the number of available products. Ingredients for everything from cosmetics to weapons to snake oil abounded. Barley and wheat became available for brewing from the farms and also from trading. The shipyards began to crank out sailing vessels and trade opened up with Europe, allowing cherished malts and hops from England and Germany to come to American ports. There was no longer a need to use a lowly gourd squash for brewing and the practice was phased out in favor of beers with familiar flavors.

There was a period where you'd probably be hard-pressed to find a pumpkin ale, but we are a nostalgic lot for a country just over 235-years-old. Tragic eighties fashion has made a return in "retro"wear. Disco, while it still sucks, has become nostalgic and is met with enthusiasm in some nightclubs. We have a penchant for looking back on bad stuff that we let die and reviving it. I can't explain this obvious self-destructive behavior, but it's what we do.  
The "Original"

In 1985, Buffalo Bill's Brewery decided to drag the rotting carcass of pumpkin ale out of its well-deserved resting place. All well and fine. Then, tragically, the trend spread and today we face a virtual tsunami of pumpkin ales every Fall. An alarmingly large percentage of the craft brewers now offer a pumpkin ale and I, for one, wish that they'd stop and put this trend back into the grave. But, for a group of people that like to innovate and try things that no one else has, our craft brewers must develop feelings of inadequacy if one brewery is making a style that they don't. One person starts the wave and then everyone grabs their boards and jumps on. It doesn't matter if that wave is made up of a coppery brown, cloudy fluid that has the taste of astringent spices and gourd innards. The brewers follow each other and we, as beer drinkers, snatch up our favorite brewery's seasonal offerings like obedient sheep as if it was cipro and your neighbors were receiving letters filled with a mysterious, white powder.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I am not a fan of these "pumpkin pie in a bottle" brews. If I want pumpkin pie, I'll buy a pumpkin pie. However, I try a good cross-section of them each year to see if anyone is doing anything different and each year I'm largely disappointed. I have given some of them high reviews on Beer Advocate, but that's because I review to the style and some are better than others and there are even a few that are refreshingly different...very few.

There are so many of them that I can't cover all of them here. So I concentrated on a few that are readily available in Northern Jersey each and every year.
 
The Satndard
Dogfish Head's Punkin may be middle-of-the-road for the "pumpkin pie in a bottle" lot, but it is the standard. It's the beer that helped launch DFH and also the one that took pumpkin ales from being done by a few scattered breweries trying to be noncomformists to a national craze of comformity. This beer may be near and dear to Sam Calagione's heart, but I do blame Punkin for this horrid revival. Buffalo Bill's revived the beast; DFH put it in a top hat and tails and made it perform "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Packs a whallop
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin took the typical pumpkin ale and ramped up the sugar load. The ravenous yeast went to town and the ABVs went through the roof. This pumpkin ale will shortly make you forget that you're drinking a pumpkin ale, which is a good thing in my book. But it is also one of the better balanced pumpkin ales, with the malts and spices sharing equal billing.


Nicely different
 
Southern Tier's offering in this category takes a different tack and tastes more of roasted pumpkin seeds than it does of pumpkin pie. The spices are minimal and the flavor of toasted pepita pervades. Perhaps they were inspired by Mexican cooking or maybe they were aiming for something different. Either way, this is one of the few pumpkin ales I enjoy despite the fact that I turn my nose up at the pumpkin seeds The Geisha roasts every year. Maybe that's because I saw the goo they were fished out of.


Where's the pumpkin?
Sixpoint does one called Autumnation. The can says that it is "flavored with spices and pumpkin", so I am lead to believe that the pumpkin is not used primarily for its fermentable sugars, but as a flavoring agent. This one is heavily hopped and the pine and citrus flavors mask any flavor of pumpkin and even quells some of the spices. It would be interesting to taste this done without the pumpkin to see if there's really any difference, but they may have to label it an IPA if they bothered to label it at all.

Astringency Ale
 
Bluepoint usually does pretty well with beers flavored with fruits so I thought it would stand to reason that they'd do a nice job with pumpkin. I was wrong...well sort of. It's not so much the pumpkin that is the killer in this beer it's that their base beer is lighter than most and it can't really stand up to the astringency given off by the spices.


Stop the bourbon barrel madness!
Heavy Seas puts out two pumpkin ales every year. Although I have yet to try Great Pumpkin I have had Great'Er Pumpkin which is the Great Pumpkin aged in bourbon barrels. The pumpkin is very evident in this one and the spices bring pie to mind but this beer clearly illustrated that not all styles are conducive to bourbon barrel-aging.


The best NJ can offer?
I'd be remiss to exclude beers from Jersey in this entry so let's discuss River Horse's Hipp-O-Lantern. It is certainly one of the more cleverly named pumpkin ales, but the product itself is about as run-of-the-mill as DFH's Punkin without the heart-warming history, quality controls and consistency.



Where's the American Ingenuity?

Every year schools, companies, service organizations, magazine, web sites, newspapers and communities hold pumpkin carving competitions. Some of these are broken up into categories like scariest, funniest, most creative, best theme, poltical, company appropriate, etc. If you go to the internet and look up winners of these contests you will see some creative thinking and phenomenal pumpkin carving skills. Sadly there only seem to be three categories in pumpkin ales: 1) sucks, 2) doesn't suck so much and 3) not horrible.

I don't doubt the skills of our craft brewers but the originality seems to be lacking (with noted exceptions). I imagine that will change since, rest assured, groups of homebrewers have come up with pumpkin brews heretofore unheard of. I'd love to see some of these surface and if you homebrew or belong to a club that has come up with a unique pumpkin ale, please brag about it in the comments below.

In the spirit of historical nostalgia, has anyone tried brewing one without hops but with a gruit made of herbs and spices that would have been available to the colonists?

What does lager yeast do with the sugars found in pumpkin? Has a jack-o-lager been brewed yet?

Here's an idea...get some vanilla ice cream and make a float...a pumpkin pie ale-a mode. This could be one good way to dispose of the rest of the four- or six-pack that you may have been forced to purchase.

If we're going to insist on brewing these noxious beers year after year then let's truly hit them with the American stamp of in-your-face! The British developed the IPA, but we took the IBUs into the stratosphere and brought our aggressively flavored hop varietals into the mix. The Germans perfected wheat beer but we went big and brewed the first wheat wine. The Russians clamored for stronger stouts, so the British made them Imperial stouts and then we got our hands on it and added coffee or aged it in bourbon barrels. We took porter and made it with smoked malts. We're not content to EVER leave well enough alone. So I want to see this spirit applied to pumpkin ales. Just because we invented the style it's sacrosant? I can't believe that and I hope that perhaps a few more will come around that I might actually enjoy drinking. Then again, like Linus, I might be waiting for a long time as pumpkin ale fans mock me.

United Feature Syndicate