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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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.”

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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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Field Research

grocery beer

Every so often I’ll post a story discussing the recent mass proliferation of American craft breweries.  These days, you can’t go more than a day or two without reading a story somewhere on the internet discussing which state has the most or which state has the best.  Ordinarily, these stories are accompanied by some whiz-bang interactive graphic, or at minimum, a nicely color-coded map depicting the story’s analysis.

Oftentimes, stories about such breweries are more subjective than objective when it comes to naming the best brewery or state.  Hard numbers are difficult to find and most data is unreliable or unhelpful longer than a couple of years back (before the so-called American craft beer renaissance).  So opinions and preferences are included, which is all fine and good in the grand scheme.  A controversial and strongly opinionated article will create a bigger stir, that in turn results in more web traffic and more comments, which are all good for online business.

These thoughts were bouncing around inside my head the other day as I wandered through my neighborhood grocery store, which my wife and I affectionately named “Emergency Giant.”  You see, this Giant is unlike others: it’s much smaller than most groceries today and more importantly, its décor appears to date from the early 1970s.  So we only go there for emergency necessities.  Yet this Giant, for whatever reason, takes its beer seriously, especially the microbrews.  In the short time I’ve lived in the neighborhood, the beer section has slowly expanded onto the floors and in the center of several other aisles.  Beer has slowly taken over an entire corner of the store.

On a recent trip, the emergency in question was a gallon of milk for my son, who just transitioned from formula to whole milk (also known as the best milk ever).  As my grocery list was short, I casually perused the beer, just because.  And it was here where my mind wandered freely about all those microbrew stories I’ve recently read.

I didn’t purchase anything that day – I’m still working through a half case of Fat Tire.  But I did pick up some gummy worms along with the milk and decided to conduct some impromptu field research: how was craft beer selling in my neighborhood?  With what kind of beer were shoppers leaving?

My snack in hand, I sat on a bench outside the store and spent ten minutes or so enjoying a light breeze in the waning afternoon sun’s warmth.  Sunlight was just beginning to filter through the treetops and shadows were long.  And I, watching neighbors come and go, took note of their beer preferences.

A few minutes spent researching led to a few simple observations.  First, I finished my bag of gummy worms shamefully fast.  Terrifyingly so.  I think the bags must be smaller now than when I was a kid.  Second, micro and craft brews were the clear preference of those leaving the store with beer.  One pair of guys bought a 12 pack of Bud Light and I saw some Guinness too.  But by and large, it was six packs of craft brews folks were purchasing.

My observations complete and snack long finished, I grabbed the milk and headed toward the car.  Dusk was settling over the suburbs and it was time for dinner.  If only I were hungry for it.  Damn worms.

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 9:21 pm  Comments Off  
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Devils Backbone Vienna Lager

devils backbone vienna lager

Every so often I find a beer so delicious, it magically disappears. I open one and perhaps another, then amazingly they’re gone! Where did they go – I certainly didn’t drink them all myself!

Devils Backbone Vienna Lager is one such beer – two six packs have managed to vanish in as many weeks. I think my fridge may have been burglarized.

I have a soft spot for Vienna lager, as it sits nicely beside other Central European beers I enjoy – Czech pilsner, German lager, even lager variations such as schwartzbier and märzen. Vienna lager, amber or light red in color, is slightly sweeter and softer than its Bavarian or Bohemian brethren. Honestly, it’s hard for me to choose a favorite style of beer originating from Germany, Austria, or the Czech Republic.

Oddly enough, the number of U.S.-brewed Vienna style lagers seems to outnumber the actual number of lagers exported from Austria. Domestic microbrewers have capitalized on the American thirst for these lagers by producing their own versions. A quick search on Beer Advocate easily shows the few European imports among the vast American selections. (This list of course says nothing about what is actually available here in the states.)

This brings us to Devils Backbone, the Virginian microbrewer producing the beer I’ve struggled to keep stocked. The beer itself is lighter than ordinary ambers, but is nonetheless complex on the tongue, finishing clean and crisp – yet not so abruptly as to confuse it with a German lager. Vienna lager is also rounded and comforting, without the filling quality of a hefeweizen or the sharp snappiness of a pilsner.

The lager’s characteristics are reminiscent of Vienna itself: similar to its regional neighbors of Prague and Munich, yet approachable and navigable. Vienna is simultaneously Eastern and Western European (if such a distinction still exists). It is inviting and expansive, seated at the crossroads of western luxuries and eastern functionality. Both decadent and conservative.

My visit to Vienna was all too brief – a few days during a nearly month-long journey through Europe almost 10 years ago. Still, the lager brings fond memories of a few days spent casually walking the city, enjoying its cafes and cuisine, relaxing in palace gardens between meals and museums. To this day, it still ranks as one of my favorite cities.

How nice to be reminded of such a wonderful place by such a wonderful, easily available American microbrew. All I have to do is open the refrigerator – if there’s any left.

Published in: on August 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm  Comments Off  
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Your Simple Beer Glass

stella chalice

Next time you open a bottle of beer and reach into your cabinet for a glass to pour it in, stop and consider that glass.  Chances are, it’s an ordinary pint glass (or soda glass).  No frill and very durable.  But in bars, it’s quickly becoming extinct.

Look around the next time you’re out.  You’ll likely see that specialty beer glasses – customized and uniquely shaped, emblazoned with the name of the brew it contains – far outnumber the humble pints. Instead there are snifters, stemmed pokals, and French jelly glasses.

This has been the case with imports for some time now.  Every import requires its own particular vessel, the common perception being the beer will taste best if drank from the proper glass. Belgium is notable not only for its beer, but also for its large number of specialty glasses.  The number of glass variations is so absurd that a good friend (and fellow connoisseur) jokes that the Belgian glass industry exists solely to support the Belgian beer industry.

Stella Artois is a particular excellent example of the specialty glassware trend, stretched to the extreme.  In most establishments, Stella is served in their signature 11.2 centiliter chalice (or goblet) with the gold rim and star-imprinted stem. Capitalizing on the chalice’s recognition, Stella’s marketing team formed an entire advertising campaign around it.  Further, specially-marked 12-packs of Stella bottles offered a free engraved chalice by simply entering an online code.

Was a free, personalized glass reason enough to buy a half case of Stella?*  You bet it was.

American breweries also took note of this specialty-glass-equals-fancy-import-beer trend: Sam Adams introduced their Boston lager glass a while back, putting a new, rounded spin on the traditional pint.  According to the brewery, the glass’s notable bulb or tulip shape gives “a full sensory drinking experience by fully showcasing Samuel Adams Boston lager’s complex balance of malt and hop flavors.”

Whether Sam Adams’s glassware will impart an air of refinement, as those Belgian imports are arguably intended, is anyone’s guess. They say it’s supposed to make a difference in taste, and that’s well and good, I suppose.  But perhaps I’m overcomplicating the point.  Maybe it’s just about brand recognition, as glasses carry logos.  Or maybe it’s just about selling a collectible.

I’m likely not the only drinker to hold intrinsic value in a glass from a notable evening or event.  So the next time you open your kitchen or bar cabinet, maybe you too will pass over that simple pint for that special, fancy glass you bought on that one vacation, where you first tasted a new and exotic brew.  Or maybe it’s that simple pint that holds the fondest memories of all.  Regardless, here’s hoping those memories will make your beer taste that much better.

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* Stella is a damn good beer.  So it’s not like I had to buy a dozen bottles of swill for the free glass. Not that swill would have stopped me, I’m a sucker for free stuff.

More importantly, Stella’s marketing and wider availability in the last 5-10 years has resulted in something of a pooh-poohing by snootier beer drinkers, who unfortunately equate availability with poor quality – unless it’s really bad, then it’s ironic).  This is hardly the case: as I remarked in a Booze News entry in January 2012 (citing an Economist article), Stella is a top-selling beer, even in Belgium of all places.

Published in: on July 9, 2013 at 9:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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