Monday, October 17, 2011


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

Monday, October 10, 2011


The Lady and the Tiger

"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
in the forests of the night," - William Blake

There are two doors and you are forced to choose one. You are told that behind one lies a beautiful Lady and behind the other lies a ravenous Tiger. There are two men there and you are told that one always lies and the other always tells the truth. How do you ensure that you choose the correct door? But is the correct door necessarily the Lady? She may be beautiful, but she might be a rip-roaring bitch who will use you like an ATM. Is the incorrect door necessarily the Tiger? It may be ravenous, but after it is fed and sated can it could be playful and make for a stunningly exotic pet?

In the case of the Mohawk House the decision you are faced with upon entry is to be seated in the dining area or stroll into the bar. There are no liars or truth-tellers to guide (or misguide) you; you're in charge of your own destiny. Do you enter the Lady's parlor for a fine-dining experience or dare you enter the lair of the Tiger where your elbow is destined to be overworked? Let's weigh our options in a classic pros-and-cons breakdown.

THE LADY aka The Harvest Room

The Harvest Room is the main dining area. The Mohawk House offers luxuriously appointed private rooms for get-togethers, but we're just going to concentrate on this one area.The ceiling here is high and one side of the room is dominated by a massive stonework fireplace. Everything about this space screams...well, no screaming, let's say calmly avows rustic elegance.

The chef here caters to foodies and changes the menu seasonally to make best use of the freshest ingredients available. Restaurant reviewing sites give the Mohawk House high marks and they're well-deserved. The flavor combinations are expertly fine-tuned and the range of ingredients is extensive without getting overly exotic and intimidating. They offer a raw bar selection and a selection of artisinal cheeses from around the globe. I'd love to see a chacuterie plate introduced to compliment the cheeses, but you can't have it all.

Unlike many restaurants the Mohawk House does not attempt to utilize every square inch of floor space to increase revenue per hour. This has three benefits: 1) you're afforded a modicum of privacy and can easily engage in intimate conversations without fear of eavesdropping (unintentional or otherwise), 2) the wait staff is living up to its title and waiting for you to need something and are quick to respond to the slightest nod in their direction and 3) the kitchen can concentrate on each culinary creation that goes out rather than turning into a manufacturing plant, resulting in food arriving at the table at precisely the right temperature.

Even though the dress code is categorized as "smart casual", the cuisine of the Harvest Room is not modest, simple, nonchalant or any of the other synonyms for casual. You should expect to pay in kind for the wonderful creations that come from Chef Stefan Sabo's kitchen since you will not be disappointed.

THE TIGER aka The Bar (yes, they call it simply, The Bar)

The bar is just as beautiful and elegant as the dining room and the high ceilings give the feeling of a ski lodge with an exorbitant room rate. The top of the bar is roomy enough to comfortably eat a full dinner without ergonomic worries. But if you prefer face-to-face time with your companion there are high tables lining the walls and some lower tables in the open, adjacent room.

Oh the beer! Scrawled on a massive chalkboard hung on the wall above the bar are the beers residing in the 42 taps, only 3 of which are sacrificed to the gluttoness demon gods of B-M-C. The owner's beer philosophy reflects that of the food in the dining room, concentration on the seasonal offerings. This ensures that the beer is always fresh and rotating, often more freqeuntly than once a season. You can also find many beers here that are in limited supply and if you check out the leather-bound beer list, you will see suggested food pairings. They even host beer events like tap takeovers or Meet the Brewery nights from time to time.

The menu in the bar is different and more in keeping with typical pub fare, but with a top chef's sensibilities. For instance, the nachos are topped with braised short-rib chili and manchego cheese. The fish and chips are made from Chatham cod and served with carrot roumelade. The bar pies are topped with gastronomical combinations that you're not going to find in your local pizza place. Not your typical pub grub.

The entertainment schedule is eclectic and could go either way depending on what you're looking for. If you want a night of raucous rock and roll and excellent beer then check their website to see if there's a band playing. They usually have bands on Fridays and Saturdays but not always. If you want a quieter drinking experience so you can talk to your friends or neighbors, then go when there is no band.

This time you're only sort of getting what you pay for. The price per serving of beer trends higher than other places carrying the same brew. However, you'll be hard-pressed to find all of the beers they serve in the same place without trekking into the city. Plus, when you top your nachos with braised short rib chili and manchego cheese you can't exactly offer that up under a tenner.

Something to ponder as you pee

The answer to the original riddle is to ask any of the two men which door the other man would say has the Tiger and then you go through that door, thus avoiding the ravenous Tiger and hooking up with the beautiful Lady, for better or worse. Think about it and you'll figure out why this is the answer. If you're reading my blog that means you're pretty smart and I have faith in you to understand the riddle's answer. However, you don't need to fill your brain case with steam to figure out why that answer works. At the Mohawk House you can choose and you'll win with either choice. Although the Lady is a gold digger, she is the classic trophy wife and well worth it. For me, I will always attempt to catch the Tiger by its tail and hope that I can sate the beast.

"An infallible way to conciliate a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured." - Konrad Adenaur

Monday, October 3, 2011


We had managed to tour and sample beer in two breweries within two hours...two breweries that were an hour away from each other. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for this feat when it became evident that we needed to get something to eat. So it was off to the Coddington Brew Pub which was only about 5 minutes north on the same road as Coastal Extreme Brewing. We found it easily. The exterior and the interior made me think that someone had bought a defunct Bennigan's and turned it into a brew pub. The internal lay-out was different, but add some kitsch hanging on the walls, pin some flair on the wait staff and you'd get the same effect. We were seated at a high table in the bar area, per our request, and each ordered a sample flight and some nachos. With all the beer in our bellies we weren't all that hungry, but knew we'd better eat. 

The waitress came back with the samplers and we noticed that there were spaces on the placemats for each beer she put down in front of us. The placemat saved the waitress the trouble of telling us what each one was, but she did anyway. We originally thought this to be ingenious but it turned out that once the beers were set you could not move the placemat as the condensation from the beer glued it to the table. Oh well.

They had a blueberry ale into which they dropped a few fresh blueberries. This turned the head blue. There was a watermelon blonde that came with a microslice of watermelon on the lip of the glass. The rest of the beers ranged upwards in body and color from there, all the way to a stout. The stout was my favorite, no surprise there, but I enjoyed all of the beers and bought a growler of the watermelon blonde to bring home to The Geisha since none of the beers she had instructed me to get were in season.

One thing that Coddington Brewpub does very well is service. Yes, the beer is good and the nachos were really good, but the level of service was above board. Anything we asked for was met with "of course" and appeared at our table in no time. The waitresses were pleasant and personable and served everyone with a smile. The whole atmosphere was friendly and you could tell that this place was a staple for the locals to have family get-togethers. Despite the lack of a true "New England atmosphere" that was promised on their website, I found that I liked this place, but it was time to move on and head into Newport.

How the "other half" drinks
One hint about Newport: just pay to park and be done with it. Finding one of the free parking spots is impossible. So after driving around for a while we parked in a pay lot and urgently found a place to pee. A lot of beer equals a lot of peeing. Sorry, but it must be said. Unlike John's, we had no inclination to hang out at this new watering hole (water out, not in) and went in search of a place that The Control remembered from years before when he had last been in Newport. It took some time but we found Christie's. He had remembered it as being an eclectic mix of rich folk, locals, middle class tourists, college kids and normal dudes. Things had changed and everyone was dining on linen and drinking concoctions made from the tears of a 1,000 Taiwanese sweat shop children. Well, maybe not, but it looked as if they would have all ordered that drink if it were offered on the menu. Bastards!

So we went to our go-to strategy. We approached one of the waitstaff and asked her where she goes after this place closes. Not fully understanding she started to point us to another tourist trap bar, so I clarified. "Where do YOU go after you're done dealing with all THESE people?" The light when on and we knew she now understood as she directed us to a place called Pour Judgment, informing us that they had "like, thirty taps." Bingo! I could have kissed her, but if I had I wouldn't have been able to report that in the blog. The wife proofreads for me.

After a few wrong turns and directions from a tattoo artist, we came across Pour Judgment. We entered and hovered around the bar until a seat or two opened up. Perusing the taps I immediately saw a Nebraska Brewing Company beer. I have been dying to try their stuff so that was the first thing I ordered. Other beers there were from Heavy Seas, Newport Storm (of course), Stone, Peak Organic, Dogfish Head, Rogue, Harpoon and others. The crowd was a mix of hipsters, foodies (like the Helter Skelter crazy blonde food critic we sat next to), college kids and people getting off of work. There were a few other beer tourists there, but no other out-of-towners. Kudos to the waitress at Christie's for sending us to what might be the best beer bar in Newport.

But there was one more pleasant surprise to be had. After all the walking to get there I was feeling hungry again and asked for a menu and lo and behold! There were "stuffies" on the menu! I had looked for them at Coddington and had resigned myself to the fact that this particular goal would go unfulfilled, but no! Victory was to be snatched out of those metaphoric jaws of defeat. So I placed an order and I have to tell you, everything that was disappointing about clam bellies was more than made up for with the revelation that are stuffed quahogs. If you've never had one it's a quahog (a large clam) emptied from its shell, chopped up, mixed up with linguica or chorizo sausage with some breadcrumbs, peppers, onions and spices added. The mixture is placed onto one half of the shell and put in the oven to bake. This being my first example of one, I can't say how it rates in the stuffy hierarchy, but I really enjoyed the hell out of it. All the trip's goals were now surprisingly accomplished!

On top of that, I had 18 different beers in one day! I wasn't exactly trying to see how many I could do on that trip; it just turned out that way. That bar is now set and I'll have to see if I can find a way to top that in one day, just not any time soon.

We're not too sure how we crammed all of this into one day, but we did. We've had moments like this before but never a whole day worth of satisfaction, revelation and success. Usually, our failures hold sway and are more spectacular and memorable. Having this day in the success column might be small comfort against that other, nastier column, but that worked for us, even if for just one day.

NEXT TIME: Mohawk House