Jul 30 2009

Beergate 2009 – Choosing the Right Beer

And so Beergate is upon us.  And why should be care is a natural question.

Much has been made about the invitation from President Obama to Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to meet over a beer.  And just as much hype has been heaped upon the beer choices that these men have made.

The choices for this historical summit are:

President Obama: Bud Light

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. : Red Stripe

Sgt. James Crowley: Blue Moon.

As a craft beer fan, none of these beers stand out stand out as particularly good beers.  Well, in the case of Red Stripe and BL, the choices are downright bad.

But what is important about beer for this conversation?  Beer is still considered the beverage of the common man.  Metaphorically, we still call blue-collar workers “Joe Six-Pack”, although the Republicans may have ruined that for all of us. 

Beer is still the drink you reach for at a backyard barbeque, or at a baseball game.  Wine and liquor are a bit more formal.  You break those out for special occasions or structured events.  Beer, in this context, is about three men sitting around a table and working through differences.  Stepping beyond ceremony and just hashing things out like neighbors.

I think beer is the perfect choice for this situation and the environment that Obama is trying to create.  Obliviously, he could have chosen a much better beer than Bud Light, and frankly it behooves his images to move up to a Dale’s Pale (in a red, white and blue can no less) or a Sam Adams (brewer AND patriot) beer.

During the presidential race between Bush and Gore, polls pointed to George W. as the candidate that the typical voter would like to have a beer with.  I imagine that Bush would pick something as disappointing as an AB product, too.  I know they are human beings, but I think we all have to right to expect a little more of our presidents.  Certainly one of Obama’s advisors could have suggested something from his hometown of Chicago.  Maybe a nice beer from Goose Island.

I think Obama is a smart guy, but he isn’t the common man.  And, to be clear, I don’t really want him to be.   

It is common is for candidates running for office to be sorted into the “wine track” for upscale voters and a “beer track” for the blue-collar voters.  I’m naïve enough to hope that there is a common space between those two tracks that lends itself to some great craft beer. 

You want someone smarter than yourself to run the country, but the wine track guy is not someone I would immediately understand.  Seeing Obama at a White Sox game drinking something that actually deserves to be savored would actually speak to me.


Jun 10 2009

The Lupulin Reunulin 2009 at the RFD in Washington, DC

The night before the SAVOR gig was a tasting and panel discussion billed as the Lupulin Reunulin.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the panel for the evening was Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey Brewing Co., Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Co., Rob Tod from Allagash Brewing Company, Adam Avery from Avery Brewing Company, Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Bill Madden from Vintage 50/Mad Fox Brewing.  In past, I think some of these were east vs. west coast extreme hop challenges, but this one seemed to be a straight forward tasting with a lot of time for banter between peers who were also good friends.

I’m not normally comfortable reviewing beers from tastings and beer festivals because it is hard to take notes and there are so many beers being poured that it is hard to do any of them justice.  But I tried to take some notes on my iPhone and, well, the alcohol and my Fred Flintstone fingers made that a show of its own.  Not to mention that the flight was 16 beers wide.  But here are the cliff notes for the gig.  It was a really, really good time and definitely an event that craft beer deserves.   

Right before the Reunulin started at the RFD, the brewers slowly took the stage and we were only missing Vinnie who was running late because of travel/flight complications.  Sam began to work the room early by going from table to table saying hello and shaking hands.  He’s a charming guy, it was a nice gesture and I expected no less of him.

(Yeah, the picture is missing Adam and Bill.  These events don’t come with steel bladders….)

The first beer we tried was Dogfish Head’s Festina Pêche.  This is probably my favorite seasonal from DFH, but I might be in the minority.  I am not a huge fan of fruit being used in beers unless they are sour ales, and this is in the style of a Berliner Weisse.  I’ve homebrewed a Berliner Weisse and, when done correctly (not that I did), they have a thirst quenching tartness and taste a little bit like alcoholic white grape juice.  In Europe these are usually sweetened with some sort of fruit syrup when served.  DFH added the peaches for you from concentrate and they come across firmly without being overwhelming and cloying.  This is a light, dry and perfectly tart session beer that is made for a hot summer afternoon.

Next up was Tomme’s Hot Rocks which is a stein lager done under the Port Brewing name in collaboration with Tonya Cornett of Bend Brewing Company.  This not a style of beer, but rather an old fashion method of making beer.  Back before they could direct fire a wort to boil it, they would superheated rocks and then drop them into the kettles and that would cause the wort to boil.  I used to love the Stone beer made by, the now defunct, Brimstone brewing in Maryland.  The stones would cause the wort to boil and sugars would caramelize on the rocks. They would then reintroduce the rocks back into the beer after fermentation and they would release these wonderful toffee flavors.  Tomme and Tonya’s beer was a nice malty dark lager with the same notes of sweetness and toffee.  A very nice and interesting beer.

It has to be mentioned that, at this point, the trash talk was increasing with each beer.    For every thoughtful remark about the art and the industry (like Tomme talking about a customer’s willingness to pay for the “the experience” in the bottle), there were equally illuminating pearls of wisdom about life in general (Like how you shouldn’t put accountants in charge of hiring strippers.  That is one service that you really shouldn’t cut corners on, or actively looking for bargains in.) 

Sam is the most out spoken brewer in the group, which is great, but it also makes him the target of a lot of jabs.  West coast brewers are known for their love of hops and Sam was quick to ask why all the west coast guys have to have gigantic hopbacks.  What were they compensating for?  Tomme was quick to ask Sam if his brewing style was compensating for the size of the state of Delaware.

Next up was Avery’s Brabant.  This is small batch that is, in essence, a Baltic porter fermented with two strains of Brettanomyces.  If memory serves, and it usually doesn’t after that sort of night, the strains were from Orval and Fonteinen.  This one seems to have mellowed over the last few months since I reviewed the Brabant.  It was still plenty funky, with horse blanket and baby diaper notes, but less extreme.  This one is becoming very balanced.

The next beer was from Bill, of Madd Fox brewing, from the stash he brewed at Vintage 50.  It was called the Molotov Cocktail, and he described it as a stealth beer that they rarely mention and just secretly put on draft.  It was a big piney DIPA with a lot of grassy notes. 

The next one was brought by Rob and it was Allagash’s Confluence.  The initial story behind this one is a common one for the style.  This started as a saison and the yeast, as saison yeast often does, pooped out a little early.  They let it set for a few days and it magically began to ferment again.  This sounds like a good thing, but it turns out, after some later lab testing, that it had attracted some brettanomyces.  For us, that was a great thing.  This one was tart, funky, floral with touches of melon and apple.

Vinnie popped into the RFD just in time to introduce us to the Russian River Blind Pig IPA.  This beer had a big hop aroma, but the bittering was very, very smooth.  There was lots of pine flavor, but the resins kept everything in synch.  It was amazingly balanced.

The next beer was an off-the-wall one from Sam of Dogfish Head that he called the Hoppy Onion.  I’m still not sure on the style, but it tasted like a Rye IPA.  He mentioned a multitude of unusual spices, like fenugreek, and smelled like a marble rye onion bagel.  It was really strange, but very likeable.  Somehow, I tasted a little Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, too.  I don’t know if it is marketable, but it is a very bold experiment.

Lost Abbey’s Carnevale was next which was a bretted, blonde saison.  This one was comparatively mild, but refreshing.  It was lightly acidic and spicy, with a faint echo of American hops.

Adam broke out the Avery Maharaja DIPA at this point.  The hops on this are demanding, and the simcoe aroma and flavor is amazing.  There was a backnote astringency that hit me as harsh, but these big IPAs are not about subtly.

The next one came from Rob of Allagash, and it was the Hugh Malone.  Rob told a great story at this point about the hoops that the brewers have to go through to get their beer’s names and labels approved by the government.  There was a screw up in the process to get consent  to use the name “Hugh Malone” and they mistakenly got permission to sell a beer called “Huge Melons”.  Although, according to him, there were no immediate plans make such a beer, he seemed very happy to have that in his back pocket.  The Hugh Malone was a big Belgian ale with lots of American hops added throughout the boil, as well as a bit of dry hopping.  It was fruity with a little lingering grassiness.  It had that definite tripel feel.

Next up was Bill’s Vintage 50 Head Knocker which he described as a golden barelywine on cask.  This one was hard to nail down, but someone across the table from me smartly pointed out that it more closely resembled a biere de garde.   It was malty, but a big sweetness followed that made it hard to enjoy.

Tomme broke out the Port Brewing 3rd Anniversary Pale.  If there were hops in this one, they had faded and left behind a sweet, Belgian strong ale.  Lots of candy sweetness and tropical fruits.

Vinnie then brought out his Russian River Consecration ale.  This was their strong dark ale aged in cab sav barrels with currants for 6 months.  This was a beast of sourness, and the vinegar flavor was huge, but very likeable.  The wine character was apparent, too, but not devastating.  This was amazing beer and probably the big winner of the night for me.

As we got close to the end of the gig, Sam broke out the Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron.  This has become a regular offering from DFH, and it’s a got a long interesting story behind it.  I had had this before and it is big brown ale with big wood, vanilla and brown sugar character.   

Everyone was pretty loose at this point, and Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada came to the “stage” and talked about the early years of craft beer.  Listening to his stories about trying the beers from Anchor Brewing back in the seventies and how they inspired him to start SN was very cool and a rare treat.  Clearly, everyone in the room had a lot of respect for Grossman and appreciated Sierra Nevada’s role in the craft brew movement both then and now.

The next to last beer was Adam Avery’s Mephistopheles stout.  This was a huge imperial stout with crushing amounts of smoke and bittersweetness.  There was alcohol warming that shot through despite my downward spiraling senses.  It was 16% alcohol and so full of flavors that it had to be respected for its absurdity.  A monstrosity of indulgence.

The final beer was Bill’s Vintage 50 Wee Heavy from 2002.  It was the last keg in existence, and I think it was in the style of a scotch ale.  Bill said that this had been boiled for 6 hours, which sent a series of head-scratchings though the room.  To make fun of DFH’s IPAs, someone quickly pointed out that 6 hours was like 360 minutes to Sam.

At this point, I had a few parting thank-yous and goodbyes to the brewers, who were all very cool.  Tomme was especially patient and kind in dealing with feeling-no-pain me. In retrospect, the beers with dinner beforehand may have been a bad idea.

This was a great event, and I would definitely be interested in attending this sort of gig again.  It was the highlight of the weekend and, even if they repeated the same beers, I’d come back for the smack talk, the camaraderie that is apparent amongst these brewers, and the affirmation of all that is good about craft beer.


Jun 2 2009

SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience 2009

I missed the SAVOR event last year, and so I jumped at the chance to make it this time around.  The $95 ticket price was steep, but as a beer lover there are few opportunities to try craft beer that does not a have a distribution network on the east coast.  And the chance to meet some of those brewers was a huge bonus, as well, while inching closer and closer to beer heaven two ounces at a time.

I bought my tickets during the presale put on by the AHA, but it slipped my mind for the first 24 hours and two of the salons I wanted to get into had sold out during that time.  One was “Cult Beer from California” Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey Brewing Co. and Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Co.  That hurt a little because they were two of the breweries that we cannot get here in Virginia, and ones that I was most interested in hearing speak.  

I’m honestly not sure what my expectations were for the SAVOR gig.  I was focused on the beers, but it was obvious from the website that they put a lot of thought into the pairing of craft beer and food.  I appreciate that, but I have to explain in advance that one of the few beer and food tastings that I’ve attended was put on by Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewing.  His pairing of Brooklyn’s Cuvee D’Achouffe, spiced with Spanish thyme, with vichyssoise was amazing, and my taste buds exploded with spicy, herbal notes.  Both the saison and the soup made each other better, and something very different than they would have been alone.  The same sort of thing had happened just before when he paired his Brooklyner Weisse with a baby spinach salad with walnuts, feta, bacon, cherries and a weisse vinaigrette.  It was amazing, but I digress.

A few weeks before SAVOR, I heard about a tasting to happen the night before dubbed the “Lupulin Reunulin” at the RFD in Washington, DC.  In the past, it seemed like these were playful challenges between east coast and west coast brewers, but this one was more of a straight up tasting with a panel of brewing rock stars.  The panel for the evening was Tomme from Lost Abbey, Vinnie from Russian River, Rob Tod from Allagash Brewing Company, Adam Avery from Avery Brewing Company, Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Bill Madden from Vintage 50/Madd Fox. 

I felt the beers and the banter would be well worth coming up a day early, so I did.  That was a great evening, and the highlight of the weekend.  But I’ll review that in my next blog post.

So, I showed up to the Nation Building Museum with a friend 15 minutes before the doors opened, and the line to get in was already a little absurd. 

For some reason, everyone was being let in through one set of doors on F street which I’m sure was a security precaution.  But the line got quickly out of hand and they had to open up the doors on the other side of the building to expedite the entering.  Of course, they broke the lines into two pieces just after me, so I got the worst of both lines.  That was a show, but line moved pretty quickly and we were inside by the time the beers started to pour at 7:30. 

The crowd was a little different from what I’m used to seeing at a beer event.  SAVOR urged people to wear “Business casual to cocktail party attire. Dress to Impress!” That gave the crowd a little bit of a different vibe.  It felt a little more like it as a big cocktail party or the lobby of a broadway show.  But there wasn’t much impressing going on…

Once inside, the National Building Museum is a nice venue, but the number of people there made it feel really claustrophobic very quickly.  There wasn’t always a lot of room between tables, and lines going to each brewer were very organic and, therefore, chaotic.

I would have liked to have hit every table but, at ~70 breweries, trying them all would have been folly as well as a waste of my sobriety and taste buds.  I made a decision before that night that I wasn’t going to try any beer that I had had before, or could easily get where I lived.  The beers I wanted to try were there, but not always easily found.  I had to refer to the program many times to look up the breweries I wanted to check out, and then I had to circle those tables like a shark to find who I was looking for.  This made my trip around the place pretty inefficient, but I muddled through.

The one salon I had a ticket for was the “Craft Beer and Cheese Pairing Taste Off!” 

I sat between a friend and Jeff Bearer from Craft Beer Radio.  It was great to meet him in person, and he was kind and knowledgeable.  The panel included Greg Koch from Stone Brewing, Greg Wallace from Left Hand Brewing Company and 2 wine/food/beer journalists.  Although it was a beer and cheese pairing, there was some chocolate, too, but I found it a bit granular inside like the sugars had not quite dissolved.  The maytag cheese was good, though.  From best to, well, not the best for me the pairings went 1) Deschutes’ Dissident, 2) Stone’s Ruination, 3) Allagash’s Black and 4) Left Hand’s Smoke Jumper.  The panel had good chemistry, but it went on far too long and none of the pairings really blew me away.  Greg was fun and amusing, and embodies what Stone is about but, outside of that and getting to try The Dissident, the whole thing felt like an hour lost away from the main floor.

Back out of the floor, the food was just…… boring.  It felt catered in the most pejorative way.  The 4 or 5 types of sliders sounded interesting, but ended up being mostly bread and all tasting the same.  The skewers were lifeless,  and I cannot remember anyone actually standing in one place with food in one hand and a beer in the other actually paring the two with any seriousness.  The oyster bar was a huge exception to this, though.  The line for that was obscene, worse than the best breweries, but the oysters I had were big, meaty and flavorful.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the Brooklyn dinner, but none of the pairings from that night hit me with that any of profundity.  If I was there for beer AND food, I would have been disappointed.  But I was there for the beer and the brewers brought their “A” game.

I loved trying Lost Abbey’s Cuvee Tomme, The Bruery’s Saison Rue, Russian River’s Consecration, Deshutes’ Dissident and Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Great Lakes’ Dortmunder Gold.  Jeff was kind enough to score me samples of DFH’s Theobroma (which I am still getting my head around) and Sam Adam’s Utopias (surprisingly good, and as strong as you imagine.) I liked the Angel’s Share, but I tried it way too late in the evening.  After hours of sampling relatively strong beers, ending it with a barleywine aged in bourbon barrels was a bit too much. But that was my fault.  I look forward to trying that again at the beginning of an evening, or curled up by a fire.

Another big highlight was trying Pliny the Elder, which it seems we all pronounce incorrectly.  Despite the amazing amount of hops that goes into this beer, it was smooth and drinkable.  And the fact that my first Pliny was poured for me by Vinnie himself was priceless.

The beers were amazing, and the brewers were kind and patient.  It was great to see and meet them in person, but having a 15 second conversation with them diminishes the real value of having them there in the first place.  I’d love to have had some discussions about wild yeast and wood aging, but it just wasn’t practical.

It was a good event for the beer side, but the food was lacking.  And frankly that wouldn’t have bothered me if the event was just spun as just a celebration of craft beer.  But since they went to such great lengths to push the pairings aspect and they never even listed the beers without having the food pairings on their site, they clearly came up short on that goal.

Will I go again?  Maybe.  I really had a good time, but they need to improve their food pairings and bring in some real chefs, or just simply not make pairings the focus of the event. The price of admission was steep, but worth it for someone who was eager to try so many beers that he had only been able to hear about before.  Next year, thanks to this event, that list will be much smaller, so the ways they improve SAVOR will be much more important to me and my wallet than just the beer line-up.

I would go to another Lupulin Reunulin event in a heartbeat.  We’ll see about SAVOR in 2010.


May 23 2009

Duck-Rabbit Brown Ale Review

This time around I’m trying the Duck-Rabbit Brown Ale.  Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery is located in Farmville, NC and they call themselves “The Dark Beer Specialist”.  

I tried a couple their beers while in the Outer Banks last summer, but I honestly wouldn’t have tried them if the owner of the shop hadn’t recommended them to me.  Word of mouth, or in this day and age good reviews on the internet, is still a huge factor in how we all figure what we want to try next.  The Duck-Rabbit symbol is the old image that was used by psychologists to reinforce that what we perceive is not only a product of our senses, but also our current mental processes and state of mind.

Honestly, it’s a cool concept that isn’t played up in the marketing I’ve seen.  And without that, just having that image and the packaging they use, the beers of Duck-Rabbit just don’t jump off from the shelf at me.  Luckily, I got some shop advice.

I remembered liking them, so it is good to see that they are expanding and now available in Virginia.  I picked up a few of their brews the other day and the first to get the formal review is the Duck-Rabbit Brown Ale.

It pours a half inch dirty, brown head which dissipates quickly, but clings nicely to the rim of the glass.  The beer is a deep red with cherry highlights. It is very clear for a brown ale and striking.


The aroma is slightly sweet, with hints of caramel and nuttiness that brings pecans to mind.  What really jumps out at you is the smell of the roasted grains.  Usually roasted grains come across in beers as a coffee flavor which can be complex, but mostly end up being overwhelming and boring.  This smells exactly like the actual roasted grains I use when homebrewing.  I taste everything I put in the mash and the pot, and to me roasted barley is warm bread with a slight astringency.  They nailed that, and I loved that smell.

The good news is that that pure roasted flavor comes across in the taste, too.  The mouthfeel is full and there is a hint of toffee.  The bitterness becomes sharper as the beer warms and seems to come from the grains as much as the hops.  Duck-Rabbit says they use Amarillo and Czech Saaz hops in this, but the presence of both was muted at best.  The citrus of the Amarillo was a no-show, but I did get some of the spicy of the Saaz.  Unfortunately, it seemed like the Saaz only helped to make the swelling bitterness even more pronounced.  I wish I had checked the bottling date on this one to see if it was an older bottle.

In the end, I liked this beer and thought the authentic roastiness was amazing, but it puts some wear and tear on your palate.  Solo, it would be really hard for me to drink this all night.  But, with the right foods, it would probably become amazing.  This brown ale with a thick burger, or ribs, or just about any red meat off the grill, would enhance those caramelized flavors and the meat, in turn, would mute the bitterness.  

Try this out, but do so with food.  The Duck-Rabbit Brown Ale is good, but it needs a copilot to really get off the ground.