Four Beers to Spring For

spring summer beers 2014

I’ve been on something of a beer-buying binge this May and June and have enjoyed more than my fair share of new releases and old favorites.  I know this because my recycle bin has been filling up faster than usual – that’s always a sure-fire way to measure.

Between mowing the lawn and grilling out – or any ordinary sunny day – there’s no shortage of excuses to pop a cold one while working or cooking.  And my fence-mounted bottle opener makes this all too easy.  The best part: the magnet just below catches those pesky caps.  It works so well, my wife insists on opening my bottles for me just to watch the magnet snatch the caps out of mid-air.  (Now that’s service!)

As the temperatures rise and summer settles in – the first day of summer has officially arrived! – here are a few late springtime/early summer favorites for 2014.

- Newcastle Bombshell English Pale Ale.  The famous British brown ale brewery brings back their spring seasonal, with moderately successful results (the original is still better).

- New Belgium’s Summer Helles Lager. Helles-style (light colored) lager is the Big New Thing for American microbreweries. Think Spaten or, my favorite, Weihenstephaner Original.

- Old Bust Head Brewing Company’s Bust Head English Pale Ale.  A decidedly American take on the English pale ale that’s brewed in nearby Fauquier County, VA.

- Great Lakes Brewing Company Eliot Ness Amber Lager.  I’m a sucker for Great Lakes Brewing’s mellow, full bodied lager (as well as its Burning River Pale Ale).  It’s a great brew from my home state of Ohio (yet it’s from Cleveland, so, some pluses and minuses).

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 10:57 pm  Comments Off  
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The Cave Floods

sad pipe

When it rains, it pours – an adage of life everyone experiences at one point or another. When things are bad they often get worse. Bad news piles on more bad news; difficulty can never be uncomplicated or simply solved.

In addition to this time honored phrase, I’d like to introduce a new permutation, based on a particularly unfortunate event that only recently concluded:

It pours, even when it doesn’t rain.

That’s exactly what happened, in the most literal sense possible, to my basement a few months ago. The Man Cave, a terribly accurate nickname in this circumstance, had flooded. As happened to so many others (according to my insurance agent) during this winter’s record-breaking cold temperatures, a pipe cracked in my house, allowing water to gush from behind the drywall and onto the floor, soaking the carpet, some furniture, and a few books. Thankfully, the room’s true centerpiece – a framed 10 feet wide by 6 feet tall world map – escaped unharmed.

In the grand scheme, it was minor as compared to others the clean-up crew had seen. (It certainly didn’t feel minor at the time.) I lost no liquor and only a few books. The water was immediately dried and the pipe repaired; however, replacing the carpet and patching the wall (which was cut to access the broken pipe) took much longer.

During this time I had no place to sit and drink and think and write, resulting in several months of ordinary and uninspired drinking. And obviously, no writing.

Work finally concluded last week and I returned the couch, chair, bar, bookcases, books, and bottles to their old familiar places. The room, aside from a few pictures to be re-hung, was back to normal, with a fresh coat of paint and new carpet to boot.

So now, roughly three months later, the calm and comfort allow my thoughts and words mingle with the smell of paint, as they once did when we first moved in, but with a little added touches of age and experience. And lifelong memories of the first unplanned reconstruction project of our first new home.

Here’s hoping it’s a one-time event, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Because sometimes it rains and sometimes it pours.  Other times, it just pours.

Published in: on April 28, 2014 at 9:03 pm  Comments Off  
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Closing the Book on 2013

Each year, every year, December comes and goes too quickly to be fully appreciated.  This year, it felt especially blurry: finding the time for all the holiday cheer, travel, and glad tidings, before the 25th arrives and before plunging into the cornucopia quivering with desire and ecstasy of unbridled avarice (thanks Jean Shepherd).  Not to mention the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in our front window (yes, we have a nearly four-foot tall replica).

Christmas flashes by, then it’s New Year’s, which for me has never caused much of a to-do.  Sure, I used to go out and drink and actually care about doing something.  Yet it was never as much fun as hoped and always absurdly expensive.  Even the most epic eventualities cannot reduce the annoyance of waiting 10 minutes for a cocktail,  delivered weak and in a plastic cup while skinny girls step on your toes to get faster service.  Such is hell.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.  December, even with its hurry and bustle, still remains and was indeed enjoyable.  I spent time off from work, with family near and far, and poured a fine drink or two.  So before the clock strikes midnight and 2013 concludes, here are a few late year discoveries and favorites.  To you and yours, Happy New Year.

- Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter.  Difficult to find a bad brew from this old, traditional English brewery.  Much like their Oatmeal Stout, the porter is another fantastic cold weather beer – perfect for sipping in front of a fire.

- Devils Backbone Kilt Flasher Scottish Ale.  This wee heavy ale is another hit from this new-ish craft brewery located near Shenandoah National Park, a few hours southwest of Washington, D.C.  (Read my take on their Vienna Lager here.)

- Barrel Trolley Amber Ale.  Brewed by the Genesee Brewing Company, in Rochester, N.Y., this amber is fairly sweet and light bodied, especially considering the range of amber ales these days.  Decent overall, but finishes too weakly.

As per usual, here are a few additional selections, for the interested reader and drinker.  Not all booze related, but mostly.

- PUNCH.  This new online wine and spirits magazine (punchdrink.com) seeks to “bring the worlds of wine and cocktails together,” as stated in a Wall Street Journal feature earlier this month.  The site is a creation of Brooklyn-based writers Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau and is backed by a small division of Random House Publishing.  I particularly enjoy the site’s long-form writing, a format similar to my own.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary, by Tim Federle.  2013 saw much writing published on the intersection of literature and drinking.  Here it continues, but with a more lighthearted touch (a Christmas gift from the wife).  Mr. Federle’s short text proffers literary-inspired cocktail recipes: impress your friends the next time you host book club.

Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford.  Professor Stafford shines a bright light on several often overlooked months following the Allied victory in Europe.  Although formal hostilities with Nazi Germany ended, chaos, uncertainty, and death did not.

Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot

widow clicquot

The story behind the founding of one of the world’s foremost champagne houses is a curious mix of individual personality, international business, and French society.  The story centers on one Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous widow of Reims, and is told in Tilar Mazzeo’s bestselling book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Mazzeo, a professor and self-admitted oenophile, expertly weaves the tale of the widow’s business acumen, professional drive, and competitive nature, not to mention her luck and amazing timing when it came to European geopolitics and the fluid nature of the early champagne market.  All this creates a rich fabric of the widow and her times.  Amidst these themes are nestled captive descriptions of French country estates and dank, ancient wine cellars, as well as informative summaries of the winemaking process and its progress between the 1790s and 1860s.

Simple explanations – such as distinguishing levels of champagne’s dryness or a brief overview of grape varietals (which determine the style of champagne) – might be missed, but for careful reading.  The book’s brevity betrays the wealth of knowledge it offers to the introductory champagne drinker or wine trivia buffs.  One of my favorite quotes, from the prologue: “According to legend, the shallow goblet-style champagne glasses known as coupes were modeled after this lady’s [Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France] much admired breasts.”

Even unexciting topics – the process of fermentation or how champagne’s age affects the bubbles – come alive alongside the overarching story of the widow’s life.  Intertwining the two, historical narration and technical explanations, so effortlessly and seamlessly is one of Mazzeo’s most notable talents.

Yet the widow’s world, so often looked at through grainy and colorless photos, comes bursting alive via the author’s words.  Even in death, Barbe-Nicole is painted in lushly descriptive imagery: “In the last days of July…1866, when the gardens at Boursault were sending forth their intoxicating blooms and the grapes were beginning to grow heavy on the vines that clung to the hillside below the château, the Widow Clicquot breathed her last.”

This book – from vivid settings throughout pre-industrial Europe, early wine-making tutorials, and insight into the “Grand Dame of Champagne’s” ahead-of-her-time management and entrepreneurial methods – is much like champagne itself: a carefully crafted and leisurely savored luxury item.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off  
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Fall Beer Frustration

hazelnuts

It seems Daniel Fromson is feeling somewhat frustrated with fall beers lately.  Pumpkin beer seems to be the cause.  I too noticed a significant increase in pumpkin ales in the last few weeks, but came to a different conclusion than Fromson.  Whereas he steered away from the season beer landslide, I dove right into it.

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this week, Fromson (along with one of his interviewees) had few kind words to say for the increasingly ubiquitous autumn brews.  For Fromson, it’s a matter of taste: “…it is a reminder that coolers will soon contain orange-and-brown Pantone spectrums of sweeter, maltier, spicier beers, which — despite their popularity — I usually don’t like to drink.”  For Shane Welch, president of Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery, it’s something a bit more.  “I can’t stand these [expletive] beers,” he told Fromson.  “What started out as genuinely creative has turned into a total farce.”

Instead of pumpkin beers, Fromson suggests brown ales, which “are diverse in flavor if not appearance: some are nutty and raisiny, others bitter like India pale ales, still others so roasty that they almost taste like stouts.  They are generally divided between lighter, sweeter ‘English brown ales’ and bolder, hoppier ‘American brown ales.’”

Fromson provides several solid recommendations in his Post article, a few of which I’ve tried and enjoyed.  Yet it didn’t include my favorite brown ale, a nearly black beer from the Czech Republic called Krušovice černé.  I first learned of Krušovice (černé meaning “dark” in Czech) back in February from a New York Times article by Rosie Schaap, where she named as it one of her “Best Beers of Winter.”  Unfortunately, picking up some was not as easy as a run to the grocery – no one in the DC metro region sold it.

I reached out to Rosie via email for ideas on tracking down a few bottles and she was more than helpful in sharing information.  Research proved particularly helpful as I eventually contacted both Krušovice’s importer and Mid-Atlantic region distributor to locate a seller from whom I could order.  A specialty liquor store in northwest DC agreed to order a case (the minimum amount) and a few days later I first tasted the malty Czech brew.

I’m still working on the case of Krušovice, which in part has helped me avoid this year’s onslaught of pumpkin ales.  Also, pumpkin ales are now mainstream; so this year, what new flavors are at the cutting edge of autumn seasonal brewing?  Rather than avoiding the seasonals like Fromson, I decided to completely embrace it.

Brews with nuts, berries, and coffee beans appear on the shelves this year, which I presume fall outside of Fromson’s ordinary enjoyment.  And that’s ok – we drink what we like.  But I believe they deserve at least some consideration.  Experimental brews made with nontraditional elements are oftentimes more successful than not.  And innovation and experimentation are factors that have driven the so-called American craft beer renaissance.  Pushing the brewing envelope (including re-discovering ancient recipes) encourages innovation, even becoming the stock-and-trade for some microbreweries altogether (Dogfish Head Brewery comes to mind).

Here then, are a few interesting bottles I’ve enjoyed so far this fall:

- Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale

- Anchor Brewing Big Leaf Maple Autumn Ale

- Dark Horse Brewing Perkulator Coffee Dopplebock

- Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale

Taken together, Fromson’s brown ales, Rosies Best Brews of last winter, Krušovice černé, and the beers named above (totaling over a dozen) will ensure you’ll be satisfied as autumn and winter arrive.  Not to mention all those pumpkin ales, which you shouldn’t dismiss out of hand.  As Fromson deftly observes, “Better, I think, for consumers to drink what they like than to always accept what the industry pushes.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Of further note:

Rosie Schaap’s New York Times article also included a cocktail recipe, the Brown Corduroy, made with Bulleit bourbon, Krušovice černé, orange bitters, and nutmeg.  She is also the author of Drinking With Men: A Memoir.

Daniel Fromson is the author of Finding Shakespeare, an e-book recently published by Atavist.

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm  Comments Off  
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