Sunday, July 25, 2010

Notable Moments in 2010 Beer Drinking

And almost a week has passed, but in that week I tried 14 new beers! By far my biggest week of the year fell, not coincidentally, on the same week as my beeriest uncle's visit. Fresh from a five-week high school Europe tour (his eighth running?), I was psyched to score a Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, as well as a couple classic Cali IPAs. Not to be outdone, my Uncle Mike on my mom's side brought nine Thai beers back with him on his latest return trip; he lives in Thailand. Being known as the beer guy has its perks: I've accepted beer gifts from traveling friends, generous preschool parents and various extended family members. The beer crowd is generally a giving one. Now, if only I could land some presents from breweries, distributors, liquor stores...

Some other highlights of the year so far:


My favorite beer of 2010 has undoubtedly been Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. I had a 2008 bottle resting in my basement, and when beer spending ceased, those beers I'd been saving became fair game. It's hard to believe I'd gone this long without having this stout of midwest legend, but sometimes it's worth keeping some prize beers untried as long as you can. Luckily, there are so many thousands of pot-of-gold beers, I'll be able to spend my lifetime following rainbows.

The KBS was a perfect stout; better, in my opinion, than its Midwest counterparts Surly Darkness and Bells Expedition Stout, and even better, I thought, than Deschutes The Abyss. Of course, I didn't try these back-to-back. You'd be in trouble if you did. But I was licking my lips after every KBS sip, drumming on the kitchen counter with excitement, in the middle of one of those rare, perfect beer drinking moments. Motor oil black, with a rich, boozy blast of coffee, oak, vanilla and bourbon. The flavor sequence is magnificent: the roasted coffee up front, a sweet toffee vanilla coating as you're swallowing, and that oak-ey bourbon burn after it goes down. I loved the throat burn and nasal sting, and though it packed all these flavors, it was amazingly mellow, earthy and smooth. The only flawless beer I've had this year.

Beer in the hospital

We were told on our hospital tour that nurses had heard of people celebrating with beers in the delivery room, but had never seen it...She advised us that if we wanted to do it, do it with caution. No, I didn't ask about this in front of the entire tour group. She brought it up unprovoked. What, you think I can't go a night without a beer? Well, I went two nights, I think, but when we were told we'd be spending a couple more nights in that tiny, uncomfortable room, I could make it no longer. In came the beer, smuggled between bags of Funyuns and takeout dinner. First came Two Brothers Moaten, which I mentioned previously, then Harviestoun Old Dubh 12. The nurses were clueless, and I didn't mind drinking them out of Styrofoam cups.

St. Paul Summer Beer Fest

I won a pair of tickets to the June festival, held in St. Paul's Midway Stadium parking lot, and it's lucky I didn't realize they were VIP tickets until we picked them up ten minutes before the gates opened for the general public. Had I known we could have access to all those beers an hour early, I would have been a hurtin' individual the next morning. With a pace like the one I displayed that afternoon, an extra hour of drinking would have been devastating. Overall, I enjoyed the experience, though I was less than thrilled with the available samples. Somewhere in between a major geek fest (See: Firkin Fest) and a get wasted drunk fest (See: City Pages Beer Fest), this festival had a good enough number of breweries, 70+, but very few offered anything you couldn't find easily on any liquor store shelf or in house draught list. With that said, I managed to sample 32 new beers, and though I don't count them officially, I get a handle on the beers I'd like to try and those I'd like to avoid. The day's best: Surly Bourbon Aged Brown Eye and Great Lakes Nosferatu, both exceptions to the mass availability rule.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Six Months-a-Drinkin'

About time, don't you think?

Flash back to early 2010, when I felt lamely inspired by Julie and Julia to re-dedicate myself to my beer blog. I would take pictures! Expand my content! Have some goal-oriented project! And then, Kristie was put on bedrest. Money got tighter, housework piled up and I felt guilty--not just because I could drink and she couldn't, but because every time I went out, I knew she was home watching a rerun of Gilmore Girls and popping contraction-stopping pills. Blogging about beer was far from my mind.

But wait, there's more. We eventually had a child, in early March: you know, this pregnancy thing is finite and the end product is much more time-consuming than the journey. Show me a man who's increased his craft beer drinking after having a child, and I'll show you a negligent father.

Don't be daft, now. I kept drinking beer, and drinking good beer. I just drank at a much more relaxed pace, and often settled for 12-pack samplers (usually underwhelming) or 6-pack staples (usually IPAs). I bought virtually no bottles large in size, price or reputation. I dipped into my under-developed basement reserves. I skipped many tantalizing tastings, events and festivals. Times were a bit desperate, but you can't keep a man from his beer. With that in mind, here's a brief recap of the last half year of my drinking endeavors.

In the first six months of the year, I tried 92 new beers. That may seem like a big number, but it doesn't compare to 2008 or '09, when at this point of the year I'd enjoyed more beers than days. Still, those I tried were the tastiest, on average, of any year's beers since I started keeping track. Though I've only given one beer the full five stars (I'll touch on that later), more than a third of those I've rated I considered better than average on a craft beer scale. Translation: Budweiser, on my scale, is not an average beer. Budweiser is a one-star at best. I consider an average craft beer to be 3.5 stars on a scale that accounts for those skunkiest of skunk. It makes sense to me. Anyway, 37 of 92 garnered four or more stars, and another 20 checked in at the 'average' 3.5-star level.

OK, this is getting far too nerdy. I'm a stats guy, what can I say. So, in the early months of the year, many of those above average beers fell roughly under the Flemish/Flanders Red Ale category. New Belgium's La Folie calls itself a Sour Brown ale, but who am I to argue with Beer Advocate. A bold sour smell, like the one La Folie has, is the only invitation I need, and the dry, chalky finish is a crisp and refreshing way to subdue the potent sourness that dominates the tongue. Maybe the wordiest sentence I've ever written. Soon after, I tried Ommegang's Flemish offering, Rouge, at the Blue Nile and had a Flemish classic on tap at the Muddy Pig: Rodenbach Grand Cru. Without question, the end of winter meant the rise of the Flemish Red. These three are universally sour, and that is a pretty quick turnoff for some. I, on the other hand, can't get enough of them. I always tell people trying them for the first time that they must suspend their idea of what a 'beer' is, and enjoy what they're tasting on its own merits.

I had been saving a bottle of Westvleteren 8 for a special occasion, and there are none more special than the birth of a child, so it was soon after we returned home with her that I cracked it. I must say, I wasn't as blown away as I hoped I would be. Perhaps this was a case of me pumping a beer up so high that it had no chance of meeting my expectations. Reputation often dampens enjoyment, unfortunately. It was still great. It wasn't, however, the first beer I had as a father. That honor went to Two Brothers Moaten, another Flemish red, and a collaboration between the Illinois brewery and Urthel, a respected Belgian brewery. Like the Westy, expectations set by the three outstanding reds gave Moaten no chance to live up to its honor as the celebratory fatherhood brew. This time, it was more the case of Moaten being a below average beer, rather than one over-hyped into submission.

So, I've taken you into mid-March, and my unplanned and lengthy introduction is forcing me to split my mid-year recap into several posts. Hopefully, it'll be fewer days before my next post than it was months since my last.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Best of 2009: #1

AleSmith IPA

Brewery: AleSmith, San Diego, California

Style: India Pale Ale

ABV: 7.25%

Rating: 5 stars

Since I've let these rankings drag well into 2010, the motivation to write extensive reviews is lacking. I've also been spending mucho tiempo preparing for imminent child birth, caring for my bed-resting wife and getting another blog up and running.

I'll give you a little background on where this one came from, though. We were in Phoenix in early December for a wedding, and I wanted to pick up a sampling of high-class West Coast brews we can't get here in the Great White North. I bought about a dozen bombers, including Deschutes The Abyss, Port Brewing Wipeout IPA, Lost Coast Indica IPA and Left Coast Hop Juice. Our free drinking time in Arizona was limited, so I had to smuggle five of them back in my airplane luggage. All five made it successfully.

So there I was, in my kitchen a few days later, with a tulip glass and a giant bottle of AleSmith IPA. This was very exciting. Simply put, it was the perfect IPA. Floral and lively, bitter and sticky, potent but drinkable. And fairly cheap!

If I was a Californian, though my IPA options would be massive, I'd find it difficult to make a pass through a beer store without grabbing one. Or more. I guess I don't have anything more to say.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Best of 2009: #2

Surly Wet

Brewery: Surly, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota

Style: India Pale Ale

ABV: 7%

Rating: 5 stars

Wet hop/fresh hop beers were all over the place this year, especially this fall, and though I may be a bit biased, Surly's was the best. For reference, here are the others I had and how I rated them:

Minneapolis Town Hall Fresh Hop 2009: 3.5 stars. Needed more balance, though I realize that's a difficult task for a fresh hopped beer. Tasted sweaty.

Two Brothers Heavy Handed: 4 stars for both Cascade and Willamette versions. Cascade had delicious burps. Willamette was a bit creamier.

Founders Dry Hopped Pale Ale: 4 stars. Lighter hops, metallic backbone.

Avery Dry Hopped IPA: 3.5 stars. Incredibly bitter. Smelled like clover.

Boulder Hazed and Infused: 3.5 stars. A good beer. As you can see, most of these are solid. But not that memorable.

Left Hand Warrior IPA: 4.5 stars. Easily my favorite beer from this brewery. Round flavor, lasting bitterness.

Great Divide Fresh Hop: 4.5 stars. "Better than Surly Wet? Close, but not quite. Delicious Delicious."

Deschutes Hop Trip: 3.5 stars. Sweetest of the bunch.

Like I said, fresh hopped beers were everywhere. So what separates Surly's effort from the rest? I don't know. Maybe it was because I was on hand for the beer's release. Everything tastes better when it's being unveiled for the first time. And accompanied by spring rolls. Maybe it's because I love that Surly touch; the grapefruit, the huge roof-of-your-mouth pull you get after every sip.

Perhaps, though, it was because this wet hopper, as opposed to most on the list above, improved as I emptied it. These beers have a tendency to wear me out after a full 12 or 16 ounces. This one had just the right amount of balance to accompany the big hop pulse. Don't get me wrong, I love my hops as much as the next guy. But this one didn't have the 'eating a hop plant' bluntness that many do. At the time of my first tasting, I called it a triumph. And I stand by that statement.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Best of 2009: #3

New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red

Brewery: New Glaurs, New Glarus, Wisconsin

Style: Fruit Beer

ABV: 5.1%

Rating: 5 stars

Prior to having this, I'd had two kinds of cherry beers: the incredibly sour kriek, and the cough-syrup sweet nastiness. I expected this one to fall into the sour category, but I was quite wrong. Not to say, obviously, that that was a bad thing.

This beer is brewed with handfuls of Wisconsin cherries, and the flavor is not that of a cherry-flavored beer, but a mouth-coating cherry spritzer that happened to have fermented. It tasted like cherry pie in a glass. By far the best fruit beer I've had, and one that I'd present to guests. Now, if only we could get New Glarus in Minnesota.

(These reviews are getting shorter the longer I let them drift. Top two coming this week, promise.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Best of 2009: #4

Town Hall Mango Mama

Brewery: Minneapolis Town Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Style: India Pale Ale

ABV: 6%

Rating: 5 stars

It took me far too long to give the mangoed version of Town Hall's Masala Mama a look. There was some initial hesitance: Kristie is allergic to mangoes and mango flavor (yeah, we don't get dessert that much), and therefore we never have them around the house. Also, mangoes aren't near the top of my favorite fruits list (pineapple is). And why mess with an already outstanding IPA? Masala Mama, sadly available only on location, is one of the can't-miss IPAs of the upper midwest.

The positive reviews kept pouring in from friends, though the online responses are strikingly polar. It seems to be a love it or hate it beer, with the haters citing the overpowering mango. More fruit than hops. You can see why this would be a concern of mine due to my distaste for mangoes. In fact, earlier in the year I got my hands on a Virgin Islands Tropical Mango, and compared the taste to paint chips.

Well, the first sip of Mango Mama eased my worries. The detractors' point is not lost: the mango is very strong in both the smell and the initial lip smack. It's big, but not bigger than the Masala hops, which carry the beer out the back of your mouth. An extremely pleasant finish.

How good was this beer? Near the end of our June patio stay, a moth found its way into the last swig of my beer. As it struggled, I weighed my options: give up on the final sip due to contamination fears, or fish the moth out and finish the beer, consequences be damned.

I finished the beer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Best of 2009: #5

Russian River Publication

Brewery: Russian River, Santa Rosa, California (collaborative: see below)

Style: Saison

ABV: 8%

Rating: 5 stars

That's me, enjoying my Russian River Publication at Denver's Falling Rock Tap House, the stop for any beer lover visiting the Rocky Mountain State. A great selection of draughts, and the most beer paraphernalia I've ever seen assembled in one place.

So here's the back story on Publication. Russian River owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, along with members of beer bars Toronado (San Francisco), Horse Brass Pub (Portland), Brouwers (Seattle), Monk's Cafe (Philadelphia) and Falling Rock Tap House (Denver), formed a brewing group called the Publican National Committee. Publication, a strong saison modeled after Orval, is the PNC's inaugural beer.

I'm not sure I have all the details correct, so that's as much as I feel comfortable saying.

Now, it doesn't hurt that Orval is one of my favorite beers, so I went in assuming I would like it. And a draught only, limited release beer from Russian River--a brewery whose beers don't make it close to Minnesota? This I could not pass up.

The look certainly reminded of Orval: light, sparkling and highly carbonated. Some white grape and other delicate fruits, but the brett smell is the star. Live yeast, that is, for non beer jargoners. I promised to leave out the jargon, but you say brett and beer lovers can smell it instantly. Funky and champagne-like.

Easy drinking, especially for the bumped-up ABV. Again, the live yeast hits hard at the finish and is the lasting impression of the brew. A bit tart, sour, and with that lovely sparkle that makes it feel like a classy beverage. I can't say it was better than Orval (though I've had some bad Orval), but I'd love to be able to taste them back to back. Sadly, I don't see that ever happening.

This was the last beer I had on our five-day Colorado trip, and I'm glad I dragged the family to Falling Rock before we boarded the return flight.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Best of 2009: #6


Brewery: De Struise, Oostvleteren, Belgium

Style: Sour Ale

ABV: 6%

Rating: 5 stars

A gem find from a Christmas '08 trip to Sioux Falls. I had a handful of Struise beers to choose from, and randomly selected this sparkling sour ale.

Sour doesn't do this one justice. This is as tart as the tartest candy; enough to make your eyes water. Lots of funky yeast, too. The carbonation is great; I preferred it super cold, like a sparkling cold duck the kids drink on New Years. Floral, lemony and bright.

Yet with all these potent flavors and funks, it finished gently and was shockingly easy to drink. I like challenging my taste buds in all aspects of cuisine; whether it be a vinegar tart beer, a super spicy dish or pungent olive, and I don't mind a challenging sour. This one was not challenging, and I'd venture to guess that your average beer drinker might even enjoy a glass of this. Unfortunately, I haven't seen this bottle in Minnesota, though I haven't scoured the shelves completely. Hopefully I'll find it again soon. I've never driven as far as Sioux Falls just for a beer, but I'm not putting it completely out of the question.

The Best of 2009: #7

Three Floyds Alpha King

Brewery: Three Floyds, Munster, Indiana

Style: American Pale Ale

ABV: 6%

Rating: 5 stars

I was lucky enough in 2009 to get my hands on a few Three Floyds offerings, and Alpha King barely nudged out the Dreadnaught Imperial IPA as my favorite.

It's simply a perfect pale ale. It starts with a potent hoppy aroma--obvious Centennials and Cascades. The musky, unfiltered texture makes it creamy but smooth. At 6%, it's incredibly drinkable, and as far as drink-in-bulk beers go, this is by far the best I've had. There's enough depth and flavor to enjoy a single bottle, but if I had time and an empty stomach, a six pack wouldn't stretch my stamina.

The hops carry over to the taste, with a nice biscuit malt giving the beer balance and substance. Pale ales have a tendency to go one of two ways: hops overpowering the malt, or malt overpowering the hops. This one does neither and it's that balance that sets it apart from the standard, bland offerings you so often get from craft breweries.

I snagged my six pack on a summer visit to the Chicago area, but now that it's available just across the border, I see many more of these in my near future.

The Best of 2009: #8

Oskar Blues Deviant Dale's

Brewery: Oskar Blues, Lyons, Colorado

Style: American Pale Ale

ABV: 7.1%

Rating: 4.5 stars

Left: The sampler at the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, CO.

You wouldn't think it possible that an influential, groundbreaking brewery could exist in a town like Lyons, Colorado. A town of around 1500, built along two parallel streets, Lyons is barely a blip on the route from Denver to the Rockies. Nevertheless, Lyons is home to Oskar Blues Brewery, the first U.S. craft brewery to package its full lineup in cans (I'm going to trust the brewery here rather than research).

So it was mid afternoon on an August Friday when I found myself alone in a dark basement bar ordering a sampler: OB's five year-round offerings: TenFIDY, Gordon, Dale's Pale Ale, Mama's Little Yella Pils and Old Chub; limited releases Woo Moon and One Nut Brown Ale; and specialty brew of the moment: Deviant Dale's.

A dry-hopped version of their popular flagship pale ale, Deviant Dale's was only available at the brewery and I felt lucky to get a taste. Side note: there are two OB breweries; one in Lyons, and one in nearby Longmont, home of Left Hand Brewery. All the beers from the Longmont brewery are shipped around the country. The Lyons versions stay in house. The bartender said there was a noticeable difference, and the Longmont offerings were less cared for. One sniff of my Gordon was all she needed to know this version had come from Longmont. Interesting.

But back to Deviant Dale's. This was definitely brewed in Lyons, and as a dry-hopped pale ale, it was by no means revolutionary. If anything, it was cliched. Everyone is dry hopping. But you know why everyone is dry hopping? Because it's great. Tasty. Aromatic. However, while many dry-hopped pales offer a much richer smell, many don't carry the difference through to the taste. I had experienced this just two days prior, when Avery's dry-hopped IPA didn't deliver the taste that the smell promised. Deviant Dale's did.

Lighter in color, and with a much bigger head than the original, Deviant Dale's looks like the beer that I love tasting: A little froth on the lips, a smooth glide down the throat, and the hope of a nice bitter linger. Hops teetering between grapefruit and pine, DD had what I like to call the bug spray finish. Stings a bit, gets into your nostrils.

After the sampler, I chose this as my featured pint. And I could have had pint after pint. But, being in Lyons, the shopping was limited, and the women of the trip joined me long before my drinking was done. Such is life.