Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quick Sips: Rodenbach Grand Cru

While IPAs continue to be the mainstay of the American craft beer movement, sour beers are trending upwards as the fashionable style of choice. That's in part because ardent beer geeks are looking for different different different, but also because sour beers are frickin' delicious.

The granddaddy of sours is Rodenbach, who have been doing traditional Flemish sours since 1821. They're also the most visible and easily available sour beer in the U.S., so if you want to try the style you'll probably start here or, more likely, with their classic red.

The Grand Cru is the big one. The beer pours a mahogany brown. It looks rich and complex ... and it is. The aroma is very sour, like cranberries and sour cherries stored for a few years in wooden barrels. Tones of red wine are present in the mix.

The taste is nuanced and layered. It is tart throughout, with a big sour finish. Not completely mouth-puckering, but close, especially as you work your way through your glass. A little bit of malt sweetness balances out the sour, and hints of oak at the end smooths out the edges.

Overall a tart, tasty jaunt into the world of sour beers. A perfect introduction to the style or a nice comfort beer for old vets.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quick Sips: Russian River Temptation

Among beer geeks, it's hard to find a brewery more sought after than Russian River. They're tiny tiny tiny, but get acclaim across the U.S. despite being available mostly in California and a few connected states. (Philadelphia, PA is an exception.) Their best known beer is Pliny the Elder, a big double IPA.

But the beers the hardcore look for are their sours. Russian River are known for being one of the great brewers of sour beers in the U.S. Temptation is among them, a sour beer aged in French oak wine barrels.

The beer has a mild bready aroma with clear Chardonnay tones throughout. Looks golden, crisp, and kind of ordinary. When it hits your palate, however, it's something new. The tartness pushes forward in the middle – it’s sour, but not mouth-puckeringly so – with a very dry finish reminiscent of, you guessed it, Chardonnay. It's crisp, but only because it finishes so dry. Quite dry. The more sips you take the more it all smooths out until you're drinking a tart, effervescent, fruity beverage that manages to be more complex than the white wine it initially hints towards. As it warms the yeasty bread starts to come out to play and the tartness (unfortunately) runs and hides. Delicious overall, but slow to reveal itself.

But here's the rub: on the East Coast I paid $15 for a single bottle. One bottle. Worth it? Only for the adventurous, or if you love sours (which are sadly rare on the East Coast scene).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Narrowly avoided DISASTER

I've mentioned before that in addition to liking craft beer, I also brew my own.

Well, near disaster on that front this morning.

On Monday I brewed a cranberry witbier. (Sadly, probably too late for it to be ready for Christmas.)

For those who don't brew, the basics of the process go like this: you brew your unfermented beer, put it in a fermentation vessel, toss in your yeast, and it ferments. A week to several weeks later, you have beer. During the process it kicks out loads of carbon dioxide. The vessel will have an airlock or some other means by which the CO2 gases can escape. It generally looks like this (note the CO2 escaping via the tube and jar of water):

So I get up this morning and before I get in the shower my wife says, "You might want to check on your beer. It's hissing and the top of the bucket is bulging."

Oh shit. This could be bad.

And sure enough, the lid of this super-sturdy, mega-hardy, thick-as-hell bucket is bulging out at an incredible curve. Never saw anything like it. The fermentation had gotten so active overnight, it pushed gunk into the airlock and clogged it. All that CO2 being churned out by the fermentation had nowhere to go. It was now building up pressure inside the bucket.

Left unchecked, this is pretty much a bomb.

I only exaggerate a little when I say that. I ferment in buckets. With them, the lid will blow off and gunk will splash out as high as the ceiling. Messy as hell, but not dangerous unless your face is over the bucket when the lid blows off. However, many people ferment in glass carboys. If this happens with one of them, they can explode with tremendous force, force enough to push glass through sheetrock walls.

In my case, because of the location of my fermentation bucket, a blown lid would have ruined our living room furniture, possibly doused several bookcases in gunk, and scared our cat.

Oh, and it would really, really annoy my wife. Here is what a bucket disaster can look like. Avert your eyes if you hate a mess:

So yeah, I didn't want that. Problem is, there is already a lot of pressure built up inside this thing. I can't just pop off the airlock to relieve it without risking muck shooting out. I slide the bucket under a table to catch any spray, form a shield around it with towels, and take off the airlock, preparing for a gusher.


Huge expenditure of gases as if opening a gigantic bottle of shaken cola, but thankfully no gusher. Disaster avoided!

But it was close. If that hadn't been spotted before the family left for school and work, BOOM, a living room doused in half fermented beer and yeast!!!

Remember, folks, beer is only a little less dangerous than war.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Quick Sips: Avery Maharaja Imperial IPA

Big, big beer with big, big hops and big, big malts and big, big flavor that doesn't stray into being a burning hot alcohol despite its robust 10.24% ABV.

So yeah, Avery's Maharaja is a pretty intense beer. It's produced during the warmer months of the year, features aggressive doses of hops, and certainly puts the "Imperial" in Imperial IPA.

You want a mega IPA? This is it.

Not that Avery Brewing is a stranger to big beers. This is what they do. Their absurdly huge Mephistopheles stout and Samael's oak-aged ale and Hog Heaven barleywine and The Reverend quadruple are all gigantic, delicious beers. (And yes, friends who are reading this, all four are in my cellar; maybe you can coax me to break them out one night?).

Maharaja is a heavyweight champion at over 10% ABV, yet doesn't feel like it in the drinking. It's BIG, yes, but beers this big usually get strong hot alcohol as they warm. This one never did. Instead, it just felt like a massive sipping drink with a complex, pine-laden flavor, chunky but smooth malts, and an aroma that might as well have been oranges hanging from Christmas trees.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How strong can beer get? Really freakin' strong

People tend to think of beer as an easy drinking beverage you can chug all day long. And it's true, it can be that. But it can also be the slowest drinking booze you would ever want to grace the table. More rich and nuanced than the finest of wines or whiskeys. Utterly complex, sophisticated, and yeah, potent as frickin' hell.

How potent? I'm talkin' a tall glass of single-malt Scotch potent. Sometimes more.

Over here you can see a list of the strongest beers in the world. Take a gander at those numbers. They're HUGE. Almost 30 beers come in at over 20% alcohol, more than the most potent of wines you'll find on the shelf of your local shop. And that list doesn't even climb to the top. Absent is a beer called Start The Future, which claims to come in at a whopping 120 proof, or 60% ABV, but even so, look at that top 10. Did you ever imagine a beer could be twice as potent as a hefty wine and still not even make the top 10?

Though I have to be honest ... I don't consider these Super Beers to be beers at all. You see, they're made with a process called freeze distillation. It means they freeze off the water (which freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol) and leave behind a more potent beverage. How is that different than traditional distilling, which uses heat to boil off and contain alcohol (which boils at a much lower temperature than water)? In my opinion, it's not.

The highest alcohol real beers in the world, meaning beers made with traditional fermentation techniques and nothing more, are Samuel Adams super expensive Utopias series, and more recently, Brewdogs's (stupid, gimmick-driven) Ghost Deer. Both come in at 25%+ alcohol by volume.

Think about that for a moment. The average beer is about 5% ABV. So a glass of Utopias is equal to drinking almost six glasses of regular beer.


But then, these are high-end, stupidly expensive, richly complex beers that are as worthy of examination as the finest whiskey or port wine.

These mega-beers aren't always super expensive or difficult to find, either. Dogfish Head's obnoxiously large World Wide Stout clocks in at 18% ABV. It's easy to find, relatively affordable (about $9 a bottle), and will keep in your cupboard for decades. BrewDog's Tokyo* is another 18% stout that can be found in most better beer stores in America. There are many more. When it comes to beers as potent as wine or more, forget it. The list would run into the hundreds. In my cellar alone there are probably two dozen beers that will kick your Cabernet in the nuts and push it off the table.

Not that alcohol content is what matters. It's not. Not at all. What matters is taste and complexity and the overall drinking experience. The point is that beer is not locked into being the guzzlin' beverage it's often stereotyped as being. More than people realize, it can be much more than that.

Beer. Yeah, it's not just for Saturday softball anymore.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Quick Sips: Keegan Ales Mother's Milk Stout

I love milk stouts, so when I ran across this at the Asbury Park Beerfest, I was ready to give it a whirl. Both my wife and I liked it a lot, and liked it even more when the rep (whose name I do not recall) was super nice. So naturally, I looked for bottles when they became available in our area.

The brewery is based in New York, but from what I was told the founders are originally from central NJ and are trying to get their beer into their old stomping ground. That IS my stomping ground! So I bought.

The head pours frothy and brown, dissipating in a few minutes but not before a mildly milky (and slightly tame) aroma of cocoa and mlky coffee floats up. The beer itself is black with tight carbonation bubbles lacing the inside of the glass.

As you'd expect with a milk stout, Mother's Milk is creamy and smooth. There are subtle hints of subdued chocolate that reveal themselves as the beer warms, but it's not in your face. No real roasty flavor or coffee from it. Just smooth, milky dark malts. A lot of stouts these days try to be many things at once -- witness Founder's (excellent) Breakfast Stout, which they dub a double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout -- but Mother's Milk aspired to be one thing only: A good milk stout.

One important thing to note: Let this beer warm above fridge temperature before you drink it. When cold it's smooth but lacks taste. As it gets warmer, it reveals hints of cocoa and other flavors.

This is a very nice milk stout that compares favorably to crowd favorite Left Hand Milk Stout.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Quick Sips: La Trappe Isid'or Trappist ale

It's no great secret that I have a fondness for Trappist beers. They're considered some of the best in the world for a reason. I've made my way through every Trappist beer available in the United States (no, I have not had the elusive, difficult-to-get, available-at-the-brewery-only Westvleteren 12) and have rarely found them lacking. Even those that didn't thrill me were still top beers worth savoring.

So needless to say, I wasn't surprised when the La Trappe offerings I had were good. But I was surprised they were so off-the-charts good. Because damn. Wow. This was some fantastic stuff.

Wonderful aroma with all the banana and yeast you expect from a Trappist beer, plus some nice spicy notes. It was heady and herbal and inviting. Once poured (it generates an active, lively head) it drinks with a medium body and tastes of raisin bread, herbs, and pleasant sweetness balanced perfectly with mildly bitter hops. Hints of dark fruit tantalize throughout, though aren't as rich as, say, Rochefort's beers. All in all, this is like a delicious banana bread in a glass. Wait! If you've had this awful banana bread beer, please don't let the description dissuade you; the La Trappe is divine. This really is delicious.

Highly recommended. Got mine in a gift pack that included four bottles -- two of these and two of their Quads -- along with the lovely glass pictured at left.

Incidentally, the photo above won Beertography Photo of the Week on the beer photo blog of the same name. Cool! Go check them out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quick Sips: Bell's Porter

Evvvverybody loves Bell's Brewery, one of the best breweries in the Midwest (and yet oddly only the second best in their own state, after Founders). It's easy to see why in the rare opportunities I have to enjoy their beer. I'm in New Jersey, you see, and Bell's doesn't make it here. I have to get their stuff courtesy of friends like Jim McDevitt (also my coauthor). When I have, it's generally been excellent. Bell's are probably best known for their Two-Hearted Ale and summer favorite Oberon, not to mention the beer geek lust of Hopslam.

So, a porter? A simple, traditional beer like a porter? It's not exactly beer geek territory. So is it good?

Yes. Very much yes. Bell's porter is smoky like roasted chocolate on a bed of cool coffee, very nice malts with slight hints of caramel. It's dark, full, and delicious. Nothing fancy about it, nothing unusual about it, it's just a straight ahead fantastic porter. In fact, I'd rank it only closely behind two of the best American porters out there, the American trend-setter of this classic style, Anchor Porter, and another from their own state. Yup. Founders Porter, for my money the best classic porter made in America.

Bottom line: Bell's porter is the very definition of this style. Get it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Samuel Adams unfairly scorned by beer snobs

Become immersed enough in beer geek culture and you eventually reach a layer of people who don't just look down on Bud Light Lime, they look down upon American craft beer pioneer Samuel Adams, scorning it for being a mass-produced, too-popular line of beers. The beer is bland and safe and populist, they say. It's boring and watered down and not adventurous, they say. After all, everyone can get Samuel Adams and almost anyone can like it. It's just mass-produced beer masquerading as crafted, they say. And I suppose they have something of a point ...

But you know what?

Every time I have Samuel Adams I'm reminded why I came to like them in the first place. (For the record, when I first got into craft beer too many years ago to mention, it was Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, and Yuengling that paved the way.) It's true they almost never make the best beer in their chosen style, or even rank supremely high in each style they brew. Their Boston Lager remains the definitive American lager in part because very few American brewers do lagers these days, sure, but little of what they do inspires hardcore beer geeks to say, "This is frickin' outstanding!"

They do "solid" beers, rarely "extreme," and for many beers snobs "solid" isn't good enough. These days, people want BIG.

But so what if they don't knock it out of the park with every beer? Even if we set aside the fact that Jim Koch and the Boston Beer Company have been pioneering so-called "extreme beers" for many years, from 1994's Triple Bock to their rare and sought after Millennium to the highly expensive Utopias (one of the strongest real fermented beers in the world) to the ground-breaking brew experiment of Infinium (which may have failed in taste but which broke big new ground in the brewing process), the fact is that Samuel Adams produces a slew of styles each year, and they're almost always decent examples of the beer style in question. Not the best, maybe. Sometimes not even great. But rarely (with the exception of the unfortunate fruit lambic that shall remain unnamed) ever approaching outright bad, and often approaching pretty damn good. Their Black Lager, Holiday Porter, Noble Pils, Scotch Ale, Octoberfest and others are nice (and sometimes awesome) examples of each style.

And they continue to experiment with higher end brews, too. Their Barrel Room Collection is made up of big beers blended with a special, unreleased beer they call Kosmik Mother Funk. You can see great photos of their barrel room here, taken by fellow beer geek Jason Jammallo. They do an Imperial series that can be hit-or-miss, but hits well when it does hit. They even do a number of one-time, tap-only beers. For as long as they've been around they keep trying new things. They keep experimenting. They keep trying to broaden what they do.

As other bloggers point out, Samuel Adams no longer has to do stuff like this. They're the largest of the craft brewers. They're well known. Recognizable. A really big frickin' fish in the small pond of craft beer. They don't need to keep pushing themselves. But they do.

And this isn't even getting into how they helped bail out many microbrewers during the 2008 hop shortage, the way their annual Longshot contest supports homebrewing (did you know every Samuel Adams employee is given a homebrew kit upon employment?), or how they offer loans to startup breweries.

These guys are awesome.

I write this after having ignored their new Rustic Saison and East-West Kolsch all summer long. Finally broke down and got the last summer variety pack in my shop, though, because after some 17 years of drinking Samuel Adams beer I didn't want to let these two slip past without at least giving them a shot.

And they were good. The saison was bright and a bit funky (but not much) and had some nice spice. It was a good saison. I've had better, but dammit, it's a good introduction to the style for someone new to saisons, and for old vets it's still a good, refreshing beer. Same with the Kolsch. Clean, crisp, tasty. The best? No. But who cares? Excellent way to show beer drinkers, "This is the Kolsch style of beer" and make sure it's available to millions.

That's freakin' great. And it's just one of many reasons for beer snobs to stop being pricks about Samuel Adams.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

This is the way writers podcast

That's Jim McDevitt. He's my coauthor on a little book called A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. We also do a podcast of the same name together, a light-hearted, casual audio companion to our more serious look at the work of Alfred Hitchcock. (I post a bunch about the book at my main blog.) We sometimes ramble, go far off topic, bust one another's chops, and generally botch the entire idea of podcasting well.

And you can see why it's light-hearted and casual and borderline trainwreck at times. Because when Jim and I record podcasts, we also enjoy some fine beers. That's what we do.

That's also why they're a fun listen.

Hey, let's make this a "contest" of sorts: Anyone who can name the two beers shown in this picture gets a shout-out on a future podcast. Click for a larger image. Just post your answers in the comments or in the comments on my Facebook page.

So yeah, writing, podcasting, beer. Is there anything beer can't do?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Quick Sips: Stone Japanese Green Tea IPA

Japanese Green Tea IPA. By the name alone it's probably easy to tell whether or not you'll like this, because it is exactly what it sounds like. An IPA -- a huge double IPA, actually, clocking in at 9.2% ABV -- dosed heavily with green tea.

Stone, brewers of the well known Arrogant Bastard, brewed this in conjunction with Ishii Brewing Co. in Guam and Baird Brewing Co. in Japan as a collaboration beer.

But with its giant malt profile, big hopes, and overall largeness, it's all Stone.

Despite its name, this beer doesn't overwhelm you with the taste of green tea -- which would be hard, since green tea tastes pretty mild. But it's present and detectable if you're a green tea drinker (which I am). The more it warms the more noticeable the green tea is, but even when it reaches room temperature -- at 9.2% ABV it's a sipper, so it will eventually reach room temp if you're drinking slow -- it never takes over. It's an accent that makes it just different than your usual double IPA.

This beer's high alcohol content is fairly well masked, getting a bit "hot" as it warms but otherwise not stepping all over the taste. If the alcohol content is noticeable it's in the lack of a head. Even poured down the middle into a tulip glass, this beer generates very little head that quickly dissipates. What's left is a beer that looks like a light-colored syrup or cooking oil.

Yeah, I know, not doing a good job selling this, am I?

But it's worth trying if you can find it. (Quantities are limited, especially here on the East Coast.) It's got a fresh, "green" taste that is a nice change from your usual double IPA, well balanced and drinkable despite being potent enough to knock you on your ass. Give it a whirl if you see it.

Dogfish Head Bitches Brew makes its return

According to the folks over at beernews.org, Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew will return to shelves this month. This was a beer brewed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the landmark Miles Davis record of the same name. You can see a full description of the beer at the Dogfish website.

Joining it will be a re-release of Hellhound on My Ale, another beer made to honor a musician (blues legend Robert Johnson) and Faithfull Ale, a beer brewed to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Pearl Jam's album Ten. It's a Belgian style golden ale brewed with black currants. I can't verify for sure, but I'm pretty sure this was once a brewpub beer brewed under a different name, specifically Au Courant.

I'm a fan of all three musical acts, so these beers are fun based on that alone. Thankfully, they're worth drinking, too. (Well, the two of them I've had, at least.)

Bitches Brew is a big imperial stout with a pleasant honey flavor at the end thanks to blending in Tej. It doesn't sound like it should work, but it does. The initial aftertaste is surprising but wonderful. The beer was featured on the short-lived show Brew Masters, and as a result became very difficult to find. Bottles flew off shelves the same day. They sometimes sold for $40-50 on the aftermarket. Expect this one to sell like mad this time, too. But do make the effort to find it; it's delicious.

The Hellhound is a pretty good imperial IPA with some lemon zing to give it a twist. Like most of DFH's big IPAs it's very sweet and thick and borders on syrupy. This one works better than their others due to that lemon, in my opinion, which gives it a bit of needed zest. Clocks in at a robust 10% alcohol by volume, so it's a big beer. If you don't care for their 90 min or Squall take a pass, otherwise give this one a look. It's a nice sipping beer, especially on a warmer day. This beer was once brewed under a different name, too. It was a brewpub exclusive called A Romantic Aromatic.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Quick Sips: Timmerman's Kriek

A Kriek is a Belgian lambic beer fermented with sour cherries, making for a fruity, slightly sour, slightly sweet concoction that will make you wonder if you should call it "beer" at all. Rest assured, it is beer ... but it's probably the sort of brew the average beer drinker in America has never imagined existed, much less tasted and enjoyed.

But don't let the word "sour" fool you. Timmerman's is far from sour. It's just tart enough to counteract the sweetness of the cherries, but it fails to even slightly pucker the mouth. The beer pours a rich red color (click the image for a larger view and noticed how red it is at the edge) with a hazy pink head. The visual cues suggest this will be fruity, and it is.

Arguably too fruity. Fruit-laden variations on lambics such as krieks and the framboise style can be delicious without making you feel like you're drinking candy. They remain a beer, albeit a beer that challenges your preconceptions of what a beer is. Thanks to the light body and active carbonation, though, this one drinks more like a heavy cherry soda. The cherry sweetness is candylike. Very little in the way of malt or bready aromas or yeast. This is pure distilled cherry sweetness disguised as a beer.

It's tasty in its own way, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to have more than one.

Timmerman's is fairly easy to find and fairly affordable, so if you're interested in trying out this style it'll be a snap to locate. You won't be tasting the best of them, but it'll get you started.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quick Sips: Allagash Confluence 2011

Well hell, I was supposed to like this. I was supposed to like this a lot. Instead it left me disappointed.

But don't blame Allagash, who are one of the finest brewers of high end beers on the East Coast, blame the cruel mistress that is "expectations." You see, my intel on Confluence was bad. I thought this was meant to be a sour beer. Thought for sure it was meant to be a sour. But it's not.

So when I gleefully slipped this from the beer stash, grabbed my favorite tulip glass, and hit the back deck for some funky sour goodness, I was dealt a harsh blow to discover it's "just" a wild Belgian style ale. Argh!

(Why would I want a sour beer? Trust me, they're delicious.)

I write "just" a wild ale with some sarcasm because it's a great style, and this is the perfect brewery to be doing them. Along with Ommegang and New Glarus, Allagash are one of the great American brewers of Belgian styles. When you get an Allagash, you're getting quality.

And this was indeed a quality wild ale. The beer was musty and murky, tasting like lightly yeasty biscuits and delicious bread. It had a grassy aroma like wide open fields during the summer. Though there was some spicing happening here, it was more mild than you'd expect. Very approachable, very drinkable. If you could drink a picnic, it would taste like this. You could share this beer with anyone and they'd probably like it.

But I wasn't looking for this, dammit, I was looking for a sour beer that would pucker my mouth and carpet bomb my taste buds. This ain't that.

So really, if there was disappointment, it was because I expected the completely wrong thing. Shame on me, I suppose. Try it if you enjoy wild ales, Belgian pales, and beers with a little bit of mild murky grassy funk. But sour? Despite reviews that mention sour notes, there were none to be had here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbits, and BEER

So, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Yeah yeah yeah, I know what you're thinking. "This is a beer blog. Why the hell are you posting about the dude who wrote about elves and hobbits and all that?"

I'm doing it because Tolkien and beer go together like me and Kate Beckinsale. (Just go with me on this, please.)

Tolkien loved his beer, something reflected in his fiction by way of the Hobbits' passion for a pint and the way in which a good pub is shown to be central to finding true contentment. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, for example, Merry, Pippin and Sam are forever looking for their next opportunity to have an ale. (Frodo was a bit of a stick in the mud about that, what with fleeing from the Black Riders and all.) The theme comes up again and again. They lament missing a great pub on their way out of the Shire, Merry and Pippin rejoice at finding good beer in the ruins of Isengard, Sam pines for a pint while slogging his way through Mordor, and one of the Shire's best years, 1420, was marked by an especially excellent season of beers.

If Tolkien was a Hobbit made real -- and in many ways he was -- he made clear from the start that a good, comfortable life involves generous portions of beer (among many other comfort foods). In The Hobbit, Bilbo keeps barrels of beer in his cellar and even serves some to the dwarves for breakfast. Balin, Bilbo's great friend among the dwarves and the leader of the ill-fated expedition to Moria, specifically asks Bilbo for beer, which the hobbit supplies. Porter was among the styles he had on hand.

"Some called for ale, and some for porter, and one for coffee, and all of them for cakes; so the hobbit was kept very busy for a while." --from The Hobbit, 'An Unexpected Party'

Indeed, for Tolkien, being a good host involved supplying your guests with beer.

None of this should come as a surprise to those familiar with how Tolkien socialized. Many of his ideas were hashed out over beers with friends like C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia. They'd sit at the pub for hours smoking, drinking, and talking mythology, literature, and what they were writing at the time. These "Beowulf and beer" sessions, as one writer deemed them, proved to be a vital component in Tolkien's lifelong work of building Middle-Earth's vast mythology. He and his other friends did this for nearly two decades, famously calling themselves the Inklings and likely consuming a vast quantity of ale while doing so.

Sitting about with friends over a pint or three influenced his work not merely in the way in which he presented a great pub as an essential to a comfortable life -- as Tolkien readers know, both The Prancing Pony and The Green Dragon are central locations for hobbit happiness -- but also in allowing him an outlet via which to share his ideas with companions who also happened to be writers, philosophers, and professors. These sessions fueled the excitement necessary for him to tackle the vast mythology projects he did. (The extended Middle-Earth mythology, presented only in part in The Silmarillion, was all but unpublishable prior to the explosive popularity of The Lord of the Rings. Likely Tolkien knew it, too, yet he worked on it for his entire life.) A pint shared with good company kept him content. Energized. Happy. Excited.

So yes, J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed his beer, and this is reflected in his life's work. He enjoyed quiet times and good conversation and a great pint.

And who doesn't?

Plenty more geeky talk about Tolkien, Doctor Who, comics and more in Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, a book I coauthored with four other great authors. For other reading on Tolkien and beer, check out this post at Smokes and Booze, and these suggested beer pairings for celebrating his birthday, which takes place in January. Cheers!

Visit my personal website or check out my independent editorial services at Your Awesome Editor.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Quick Sips: Fort Collins the Incredible Hop Imperial Black IPA

You'd forgive the awful photo if you could experience the gigantic hoppy goodness of Fort Collins' fantastic Imperial Black IPA.

So what the hell is an Imperial Black IPA, anyway? The name and style are both relatively recent inventions (and even the name is in dispute; the style is also called a Cascadian Dark Ale). Imagine a beer that has the dark, fat, malty, roasted body of a stout, but has the huge, aggressive, floral hops of a big India Pale Ale. That's a Black IPA.

In the case of this beer by Fort Collins, "big" is the right word. It clocks in at 10% ABV. You'd never know it, though. There is so much taste going on here that the alcohol doesn't stand a chance. The hops are GIGANTIC, smelling like a musty old forest of citrus and pine trees -- and I mean that in the best way possible. The bitterness is big, too, but the malty backbone of this beer stands up well to the assault of all those hops. There are tastes of roasted chocolate and coffee throughout, and plenty of murky blackness for folks who like their beer black coffee-dark.

If you want an aggressive beer that will blast your mouth with flavor, this is it. Highly recommended for hop heads and malt addicts alike.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Quick Sips: Fegley's Brewworks Hop'Solutely Triple IPA

The folks at Fegley's Brewworks have been around for a while, brewing up beers in the Leigh Valley of Pennsylvania (quietly one of the best beer states in America). They brew some very adventurous beers and have won local accolades. Their best known beer is Hop'Solutely, touted as a triple India Pale Ale (IPA). At least one beer writer named it his Beer of 2010.

I can't say I agree. Hop'Solutely hits you with high bitterness on a hefty malt body, but it's got hints of mild sourness that just don't blend well with the rest of the package. The hopped-up bitterness here bordered on was medicinal and antiseptic rather than floral and cleansing. Little pungent aroma, no piney or citrus-laden notes in the taste.

On a positive note, though this beer boasts a huge alcohol content, the alcohol taste wasn't hot or off-putting. It drank surprisingly well despite approaching 12% ABV. It takes a skilled brewer to craft a beer this big that doesn't taste like it.

Though my initial impressions were lukewarm, I'll give this another whirl one day. Big beers like this can vary from batch to batch. At the moment, though, can't recommend it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Yuengling tries their hand at seasonal beers

If you live on the East Coast, chances are you know Yuengling. They tout themselves as America's oldest brewery (a title they claim in part because unlike other breweries, which switched to other products during Prohibition, they kept brewing by making near beer) and run neck and neck with Boston Beer Co., makers of Samuel Adams, as the largest American-owned brewery.

That's right, folks, your Budweiser is actually owned by a Belgian company, Miller is owned by a British company founded in South Africa, and Coors is owned by a Canadian company. You want to support American beer? Stop drinking Bud, Miller, and Coors.

Anyway, Yuengling is not known for their inventive beers, creative marketing, or ridiculously high-endbrews. They are known for producing traditional, very standard lagers and ales and offering them at a low price. Nothing wrong with that. They provide a great alternative to the giant brewers mentioned above. Their beer is better, the price is the same, and they're local.

(Full disclosure: I'm not a big fan of Yuengling's beer. It's really not that different than Coors or Heineken or whatever to me, fairly ordinary stuff all around, though I did drink a lot of it at one time and think for the price, their porter and black & tans are fine purchases. Also, if you're having a party or just stocking the fridge with some normal, everyday quaffing beers, it's hard to go wrong with 12 packs for $6.99. So I may not drink it, but I'll still recommend Yuengling for people who enjoy Bud, Miller and Coors. It's a good alternative that won't hurt your wallet.)

So Yuengling is known for doing the everyday drinking beer. Craft brewers dabble with special releases and seasonal beers and all the rest. Meanwhile, Yuengling just keeps chugging along.

But for only the second time ever, Yuengling will be doing a seasonal beer, specifically an Oktoberfest. (The first was their bock beer.) The thing is, it will be easy to miss. It will be available on tap only, and they are doing almost no marketing for it. From this news story:
Most drinkers are stumbling onto the new brew the same way Terry Mentzer did last week at the Market Cross Pub in Carlisle.

The Adams County Yuengling drinker just happened to spot the bright orange tap handle and decided to give it a try.

He wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s a little heavier than the lager, and it’s got a nice, smooth mouth feel,” Mentzer said.
Even the folks at Yuengling admit this is new territory for them, and that juggling many varieties of beer is "difficult." It's just not what they do. This is a traditional brewery, so no surprise that they brew in a traditional, conservative manner. That will translate to the beer, too. You can expect that whatever seasonal beers they make will be quite approachable and won't assault your taste buds, making them perfect for the casual drinker but uninteresting for the ardent beer geek. That seems to be the early verdict, too.
“I’m glad Yuengling is expanding their horizons,” Otto said. “I wouldn’t say their Oktoberfest is the best, but it is less aggressive than some of the others, and you can drink more of it. Definitely anyone who drinks Yuengling will be happy with it.”
I'm glad they're expanding what they do, too. I may not be a regular consumer of their beer, but I respect what they do and would like to see them succeed in helping chip away at the big guys.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Quick Sips: 21st Amendment Hop Crisis Imperial IPA

Yes, you can get great beer in a can. The 21st Amendment Brewery has been doing it for over a decade. Despite the stigma against cans, it's actually better for your beer. Cans protect against light, and since it's light exposure that causes beer to skunk (temperature has nothing to do with it; that's a myth) that's a good thing. And as long as you're pouring your beer into a glass -- you ARE pouring your beer into a glass, aren't you? -- you won't taste can, since modern cans are lined. No metallic taste.

Anyway, back to Hop Crisis, 21st Amendment's imperial IPA (India Pale Ale). This is a big, bitter, hoppy monster with loads of bitterness riding on a fat body of sweet malts. The brewery slams it with a mess of different hops. At just under 10% alcohol you won't encounter many bigger beers in a can. It drinks big but well, never tasting boozy, and the big malts are hefty enough to balance well with all those hops. There are better DIPAs/Imperial IPAs out there, but this one holds its own pretty damn well.

Huge IPAs are a dime a dozen these days, but huge IPAs in a can aren't. You want to impress some non-beer snob friends with what canned beer can be, grab a four-pack of this. Perfect for bringing to a BBQ, camping, a party, whatever.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thank you, Beer Labelizer

You don't need to be a homebrewer to appreciate this handy web tool. Fun to mess with and ridiculously easy to use, you can crank out great looking labels in no time. My son and I have also used it to label sodas we've made at home. (Strawberry vanilla cream soda = yummy.) There are multiple templates, and it's easy to do further adjustments in your image editing software of choice. Check out how nice they look from this recent batch o' homebrews I brought on a weekend trip:

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(For those curious, from left to right that is Hophurst, a double IPA; The White, a Belgian witbier; Summer Slices, a heavy wheat beer with orange peel and coriander; Old Kicker, an oatmeal stout with chocolate and coffee; Summer Ale, an ale brewed with key lime; and The White With Cherries, a Belgian witbier with sour cherries.)

Do you need to label your homebrew? Of course not. Some markings on the cap are all you need to identify your beer. But it sure is a lot more fun to share with people when you've got them dressed up in spiffy labels. Take a gander at my Colonial Maple, a colonial porter/spruce beer brewed in fresh maple sap. Looks much classier than it tastes:

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Quick Sips: Southern Tier Mokah

Southern Tier, out of Lakewood, NY, are very quietly brewing some of the best beers on the East Coast right now. I expect over the next year or three they'll increasingly become one of the more highly regarded brewers out there. Most of what they do is very good, and much of it is fantastic.

This one is Mokah, a big imperial stout brewed with loads of chocolate and coffee. It's a hefty one, clocking in at 11.2% ABV. Definitely a sipper. (I nursed this bottle over the course of an afternoon.) The chocolate and coffee are strong but not gimmicky, tasting rich and Earthy rather than like cake in a bottle.

Though it's a strong beer, you don't taste that big alcohol content. It drinks very smooth. Delicious dessert beer. Would probably taste nice poured over ice cream or pie, too. I didn't pair it with a cigar, but I expect this would be a perfect match for a dark, musty stick.

Recommended for a nice winter night or after a dinner by candlelight.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Founder's Breakfast Stout: a little slice of Heaven

Founders Brewing Company out of Michigan has over the last few years established themselves as one of America's very best craft breweries, especially of stouts. Difficult to find beers such as their KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) get beer geeks raving, but even their year-round "standard" beers are pretty kick-ass, notably Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale and Centennial IPA.

My favorite, though, is by far their Breakfast Stout, a double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout. Yeah, you read that right. It's only available between September and December, tends to disappear from the shelves fairly quick depending on where you live, and is worth spending a few weeks in a war-torn country just to try.

This is a big, tasty stout, though I wondered if it would be when I first poured the glass. The aroma had hints of coffee and roasted chocolate, but neither were overpowering.

The taste, though. Yeah, the taste. While it's true this is like a meal in a glass, the important part is that it's like a delicious meal in a glass. You don't initially taste strong chocolate or coffee; they're just hints in an impressive weave of roasty flavor. They're rich and full and strong, yet they never punch you in the face. The beer is perfectly balanced, tasting like a complex stout with smokey nuances and a smoothness (probably brought on by the chocolate) that belies its bitterness. Very impressive. Hyped beers often don't live up to the hype. This one does.

The bottom line is, this is a stupidly good stout that really would make a great breakfast if it weren't for the alcohol. It offers a strong and complex yet not overpowering taste. None of the boasted flavors (chocolate, coffee, oatmeal) are so prominent that they scream "look at me," instead mixing into a pleasing and heady beverage.

Believe the hype.

Founder's Breakfast Stout should be hitting stores in a few weeks.

(2013 edit: The last year years,Founder's Breakfast Stout has changed a bit, with the coffee being much more out front, at times being the dominant flavor. Still delicious, but certainly a bit different.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Creating a Christmas beer for the ages

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What do you suppose the above has to do with brewing a Christmas beer? Let me tell you.

Seasonal beers and Christmas beers in particular are an annual traditional in the world of good beer. Better breweries put out seasonal beers a few times a year, and Christmas beers are a major part of that.

With that in mind, I set out to make a beer for the holiday season. Something to drink and enjoy when the weather is cold, holly hangs from the eaves, and pumpkin pie tastes best. I also wanted something that would LAST. Something that could be enjoyed both this holiday season and next holiday season ... and the one after that, and maybe the one after that.

I settled on a Belgian dark style, which, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I love.

The base of my recipe was the Raisonette Trappist (PDF warning) recipe courtesy of Brewer's Apprentice in New Jersey. It's based on Raison D'Etre by Dogfish Head.

I added a small amount of brown sugar to slightly boost the alcohol content, then added cinnamon and freshly ground nutmeg to the mix to give it some winter spicing. The beer fermented for one month, then I let it mature for another month in a big glass vessel ... cleverly disguised so Mr. Eric would let me keep it in the living room:

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This process started in June. Yes, I was planning out my Christmas beer that far in advance.

So, after two months of letting this big bastard age, it came time to get it into bottles. The first goal was to get it into something special. If it's going to be a long-term beer, after all, why not make sure the bottles are long-term, too? So, I bought some gorgeous bottles that will help say, "This is a special beer."

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Cool bottles, and the sort of thing that will look great when you break 'em out at the holidays -- which is the point. But out of the five gallons typical with a homebrew batch, I only put three gallons into bottles. The other two gallons became the subject of a pair of beer experiments. Those experiments started like this:

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Golden raisins to your left, sour cherries to your right, plus a little bit of oak for good measure. (The oak is meant to simulate aging in an oak barrel.)

I racked one gallon of this Belgian dark onto 6 oz of golden raisins. I can't imagine how that will turn out, since the Dogfish Head "Extreme Brewing" book recommends that amount for a full batch! The other gallon was racked onto 6 oz of tart cherries. Both got doses of nutmeg and cinnamon again, too.

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However they turn out, I'm excited about the possibilities. They could each be very offbeat, very special, very delicious beers. Or both variations could turn out horrible. It's possible, but hey, they're experiments. And isn't being creative part of why we home brew in the first place?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Quick Sips: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter

I've had a few vanilla porters here and there, and they've rarely been anything less than good. Despite merely average reviews on Beer Advocate, I think Breckenridge Brewery's vanilla porter is a pretty solid one. It pours black and thick, smells of vanilla with just enough roast to remind you of a vanilla latte if you stretch your imagination, and tastes like a (somewhat) pleasant porter with a WHOA! of a vanilla-laden finish. Lots and lots of vanilla.

But it ain't perfect.

If the underlying porter were better this would be an outstanding beer, but unfortunately the porter part is average at best. It's a bit thin, has a light mouthfeel, and is a little slick tasting. The vanilla is the star of the show here. That's not entirely a bad thing because the vanilla is tasty, I only wish the base beer was better because without the vanilla this is a dud. I wouldn't drink a few of these in a row, but it would make for a nice night-ender.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Quick Sips: RJ Rockers Son of a Peach

RJ Rockers Brewing Company is based out of South Carolina and have, to my great surprise, been brewing since 1997. Considering their neck of the woods it shouldn't be surprising that one of their seasonal beers is a peach wheat beer, Son of a Peach.

The beer smells very peachy, strong but pleasant. It drinks light, far crisper than expected considering it's an unfiltered wheat, with a nice dose of peach flavor that is never less than noticable but also never off-putting or overpowering. It finishes with a little zest. Unlike a lot of fruit beers, though, this one is all beer. The fruit doesn't take center stage; this beer remains a beer.

Pleasantly surprised by what I expected to be a pretty gimmicky brew. Too bad I can't get it in New Jersey. I'd buy this one again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Quick Sips: Widmer Bros. Pitch Black IPA

The Black IPA aka Cascadian Dark Ale style is one of the fastest growing in America. It combines the bitterness and aroma of a hoppy India Pale Ale with the roasty, malty character of a dark ale or stout.

With the style's popularity growing at a huge rate, no wonder Widmer Brothers Brewing has decided to take what was supposed to be a one-time only batch of beer and start brewing it year round.

Thing is, this stuff needs to be consumed fresh. VERY fresh. It was July when I had one bottled in March. A mere four months should be nothing at all, but in the case of this beer it had already had an impact. The hops were musty like a wet closet. The aroma was only mildly hoppy and largely forgettable. The malts were nice and dark, no chocolate or coffee to them yet nicely roasted and somewhat smokey, but without that nice blast of hops it only managed to be a light-bodied dark beer.

Maybe this would have been better if I had it fresh. Hoppy beers should be consumed fresh, after all. I'm very glad Widmer Brothers puts bottling dates on their labels -- too few breweries do that -- so I'm willing to say the blame for my being underwhelmed is on the age of the beer, not the beer itself. I'll try it again in the future if I can find fresh bottles.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Quick Sips: Bell's Oberon Ale

Bell's Oberon Ale is something of a standard for beer lovers in the middle United States. In some ways, it's the flagship brew of this fantastic Michigan brewery.

Oberon is a wheat beer -- very traditional style during the summer -- with a clean taste and smooth-drinking character. It's often served with a slice of orange, and it's easy to see why. The citrus goes well with it. But even on its own (which is how I had it this most recent time) this is a crisp, refreshing summer beer that goes down easy but still offers good taste.

It's far from the best wheat out there, but it drinks so nice you'll want to go back for seconds (and thirds) on a hit summer day. Worth picking up if you see it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Weyerbacher brews a heretical stout

Weyerbacher is a fantastic brewery out of Pennsylvania that really deserves more attention, especially since they've been crafting exceptional beers for 16 years now. They do some fine year-round beers, the Merry Monks being my favorite, and also do a large number of small-batch, limited release and seasonal beers.

Among them is Heresy, which is their Old Heathen imperial stout aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels.

And it's a pretty nice one. Just look at that tasty pour! The rich, foamy head so thick you can flat a cap on it!

Thing is, for being a pricier version of their standard issue imperial stout, the oak aging didn't do much for this brew. It has a slightly woody nose with a touch of bourbon, but you really have to be looking for it. Most of this is just nice imperial stout with strong chocolate taste from the roasted malt. Not that there is anything wrong with that! It's a good beer with a great roasty flavor, just didn't seem to benefit much from the barrel aging (which is all the rage these days among American craft brewers).

Comes in at 8% alcohol, but it's a very smooth 8%. You'd never known it was a more potent than usual brew. I've seen reviews that said the alcohol taste was kind of hot, but not in my experience. Maybe it's because I've had it for a while and let the alcohol mellow. (The bottle was about seven months old, stored at room temperature.)

All in all I'd say the Heresy is worth a look, but if you balk at the price consider a single bottle rather than the four-pack.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fill up your beer jug while you fill your gas tank?

So imagine you roll into the gas station to fill up the tank. While you're there you also get a half-gallon jug filled with some local craft beer. You then drive away, content that your car will keep going and you'll have a fat jug of beer ready once you get where you're going. This sounds like some sort of bizarre fantasy land dreamed up by someone who has had three too many, doesn't it?

Well, it looks like some Sunoco stations in west New York are now filling growlers with craft beer. That's right. Stop in to get gas, and get a growler fill while you're there.

Maybe I find this concept mind-boggling because I'm from New Jersey, where in their infinite wisdom lawmakers have decided that allowing convenience stores to sell bottles of beer to adults is far, far too dangerous to consider. Hell, they don't even let us pump our own gas.

Anyway, from the story:
"I don't think people expect to see beer taps at a gas station," said Kim Wilson, sales shift leader at the Tonawanda Sunoco on Niagara Falls Boulevard. "People come in and say, 'Woah! When did that happen?' They are really excited."

I bet they are! Growlers are a great way to bring fresh draft beer home with you. Any place offering growler fills probably has great beer on tap, too, making them an especially attractive choice for the person who wants to enjoy great draft beer in the comfort of their own home.

So this is a pretty cool idea. I wonder if it will catch on? I'm sure some will have safety concerns -- since they're meant to be reused, most growlers are only sealed with some tape or a sticker -- but overall anything that spreads top notch craft beer is okay in my book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Going big with Westmalle Trappist ale

Trappist beers sure do get a lot of respect. Beers like Chimey and Rochefort are some of the most highly regarded in the world. Among the rare few beers that can call themselves Trappist beers is Westmalle Abbey and their famous Westmalle Tripel. It may look like an approachable beverage (click the photo at left for a larger version), but make no mistake, this is a BIG BEER.

Tripels (sometimes spelled "trippel") are an acquired taste, and this one is no exception. Looks light and fluffy and drinkable, but one gulp and you realize it's a sipper.

A common misconception with beer is that color tells you how "heavy" it will be. People think dark beer = thick beer or heavy beer, but that just isn't the case. For example, Guinness is a low-alcohol beer with about the same calories and alcohol content as Miller Lite, Bud Light, etc. So while Westmalle Tripel looks light, it drinks like a lead weight, with lots of body and a robust 9.5% ABV alcohol content.

The taste is sweet but not cloyingly so, a touch spicy but not in your face. The beer lacks all the dark fruit flavors of Belgian darks, but does have lighter fruits in the aroma. They're especially noticeable as you let the beer ease into warmer temperatures. Dominant is a "bready," almost pastry-like taste. The beer has very active carbonation -- all that head in the photo was generated with a gentle pour -- and foams up quite a bit in your mouth. I drank this while eating a pasta dish with a mild cheese and the beer completely overpowered the food despite a very clean taste.

Excellent beer, but you know what? I'm going to piss off the hardcore beer folks when I say I like American tripels better than this one. It's sacrilege, I know, but the aggressive hopping of beers like Flying Fish's Exit 4 are more appealing to me, adding balance to the weight of a big beverage like this. They're Americanized, highly hopped, very spicy, robust, full of flavor. And, for me, more desirable.

No, you're not supposed to say that about one of the most praised beers in the world -- BeerAdvocate rates it an A-, a notch over the B+ for Exit 4 -- but there it is.

Which isn't to say you shouldn't give it a try if you spot one and enjoy Belgian styles. It'll run you about $5 to $6 for the bottle, but the cost of entry is worth it because you'll experience a heady, challenging beer unlike most you'd normally be drinking.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

100 years ago today, the violent activist who helped kickstart Prohibition died

Carrie Nation was, shall we say, an exuberant woman. She was a key figure in the Temperance Movement, which paved the way for one of the most idiotic laws in American history, the Volstead Act. With it came Prohibition -- along with murder, organized crime, corruption, and other fun pastimes.

Mrs. Nation wasn't merely against alcohol. She believed in violent protests. She was known for raiding bars with a hatchet, leading groups of women inside to smash the place to pieces. That's right, a hatch-wielding old lady who roved the country chopping up taverns because damnit, people shouldn't drink. Surely she was a joy of a woman.

Today, 100 years ago, she keeled over before having a chance to see her dreams of prohibition become reality.

How sad.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fresh from my fermenter, an oatmeal stout

I've posted about homebrewing before. Here's a brew that I think turned out pretty good and should turn out even better after a few adjustments for my second batch. Introducing Old Kicker Oatmeal Stout, brewed with cocoa and coffee:

Old Kicker has a lively carbonation like Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout, with a taste of cocoa in the middle and then the lingering bitterness of coffee.

I can't take full credit for it, though. The recipe isn't fully my own concoction. It began with an oatmeal stout recipe from the fine folks at Brewer's Apprentice. I then added two scoops of cocoa during the boil, one with about 30 minutes left in the boil and another in the last five minutes. For my second batch I'll be adjusting that upwards, adding one to two more scoops of cocoa so the taste is more pronounced. Both will come in the last five minutes; I'm afraid that early dose may have boiled away some desirable cocoa aroma.

My other addition was coffee. For those who don't homebrew, here's how it works: When you bottle your beer you add something called finishing sugar as you bottle it. The yeast wakes up and eats it, producing CO2. Since the beer is now in a bottle, the CO2 has nowhere to go, and this stays inside the bottle. That's how your beer carbonates. (And YES, if you add too much sugar the yeast will generate too much CO2 and your bottles will literally explode. It can be dangerous.) Generally you boil the finishing sugar with a small amount of water before adding it to the fermented beer.

But with Old Kicker, I used coffee instead of water. Amazingly, I only used about 3/4 a cup of coffee for a five-gallon batch, yet you can still clearly taste it in the beer. It's a touch on the astringently bitter side for my taste, so next time I'll be cold brewing the coffee to provide a smoother coffee flavor without the bitterness.

Finally, I'll be adding a small amount of lactose sugar. Lactose is a sugar that beer yeast can not ferment. Adding it will do one thing: add body, making the beer taste and feel "fuller" and heavier.

The results will be, I hope, a delicious chocolate oatmeal stout with coffee. The first batch was pretty tasty (and there is still plenty left). Hoping the second will be delicious.

For those interested in trying to brew Old Kicker, start with this stout recipe (PDF warning) and adjust as per this post. Experiment a bit to make it your own.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tasting some history with Rochefort's Trappist beers

Note: This post originally appeared on my main blog.

For centuries, Trappist monks have been known for their outstanding brewing abilities. Monks in Belgium brew beer not only for their own consumption -- they are hearty, healthy beers -- but in order to pay for their way of life. Some of these beers are among the most sought after in the world, most notably beer from Westvleteren, which can only be purchased at the abby and only in small quantities. Others, like the world famous Chimay beer (brewed at Scourmont Abby), are widely available and are among the world's most praised beers.

Not too long ago, I had a chance to have the three beers of the Rochefort Brewery, one of the only seven true Trappist breweries in the world. This beer has been in production since 1595. So yeah, it's a piece (delicious) history.

Rochefort makes three beers, simply called 6, 8, and 10. They're relatively similar in style, with increasing levels of alcohol (from 7.5% ABv to 11.3%) and complexity being the major distinguishing factors. These beers are consistently among the top ranked beers in the world. Do they live up to the hype?


Pouring the 6, the first thing you notice is the gorgeous color. It's closer to a deep orange brown than you see in the picture above, not unlike a forest floor in autumn. The 8 is similar, showing the brown of autumn leaves with just a faint hint of red. Not thick black like a porter, not golden brown like a brown ale. Brown like Mother Nature. It's quite beautiful. The 10 is a deep, murky brown with hints of red at the edges but otherwise totally opaque.

All three beers are bursting with carbonation, too. Even with a gentle pour they jump up with two or three fingers of head. So all in all, these beers are wonderful looking.

When I first opened the 6, though, I wondered if they'd meet expectations. I expect a world class beer to have a world class aroma, but at first I felt slightly underwhelmed by Rochefort 6. Maybe it's the big IPAs and Imperial Stouts I've been drinking this winter, almost all of which fill the nose with heady aromas, but this left me unimpressed. Smelled heavy with yeast, very sweet with hints of caramel. Not unpleasant, but also not alluring.

The 8, on the other hand, had an active and complex aroma. Hints of figs and raisins and just a touch of caramelized pears, with the damp, uplifting smell of a forest stream bank in the spring. Yeah, I'm serious. If you can imagine what a walk through old Europe would smell like, well, it smells like this.

The 10 was the most difficult to judge in the aroma department. The aroma is boozy similar to a big barleywine style ale. (Think of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot.) If you pay close attention you get some hints of figs and caramelized apples, but the big, malty alcohol smell dominates. It's certainly a STRONG aroma. Whether or not it's a good aroma depends on your tastes. As it warms, the aroma mellows a bit, revealing wafts of malt and raisin. Much more pleasant closer to room temperature.

The taste of each was just as complex and nuanced. The 6 got better with each sip. It tasted like a rich pastry bread in beer form, all sorts of bready and malty and delicious. A little sweet but subdued; caramel flavors but in perfect balance with everything else going on in the beer; touches of raisin and the like. By the end what had started as a decent but not mind-blowing beer turned out to be a stunner.

The 8 was more complex and yet oddly more subtle, too. The taste isn't overpowering or explosive. It starts innocuous, a slight gulp of beerish liquid riding on the heady aroma, but the middle quickly broadens into Earthy, vaguely nutty flavors with malt, caramel, molasses, and touches of fig, raisin and plum.

If it's got a fault it's that the 9.2% ABV is more upfront than many crafts manage to accomplish these days. It's not an invisible alcohol. While the Rochefort 6 drinks so smooth it's frightening, you can TELL this one is a big, potent beer. In these days of 10 percenters that drink like they're 6 or 7 percent, I'm sorry to say that this is a minor setback.

With the 10 you get nutty caramel and pumpernickel and other Earthy brown breads in the taste. It starts mild, then expands into a yeasty burst of pleasingly musty flavors before finishing with an alcohol-laden shimmer of mildly sweet breads and dried fruits. Like the 8, it also has a big, strong alcohol taste. A BIG alcohol taste. Many American crafts manage to meet or even exceed this ABV without the alcohol coming to the fore. Not here. Here it wants to arm wrestle you. American craft lovers have been spoiled with easy-to-drink big beers; the Belgians aren't playing that game. This is not for the faint of heart.

(With both the 8 and the 10, I suspect they age WONDERFULLY and will taste less boozy and more complex after a year or so. I'll find out in about a year; I already have a bottle of each stashed away.)

All in all these were incredible beer experiences. They'll run you $5 to $8 a bottle, but if you love great beer it's well worth treating yourself, even if only once.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What's in the fermenter this week

I dabble a little in homebrewing. I'm far from an expert, but it's an enjoyable hobby and I have a good time experimenting with going off-recipe. One of the fun things about exploring beer -- and making it -- is trying something a little offbeat. So with that in mind, last week I bottled three gallons of the stuff inside this bad boy:

You wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the color, but that's a Belgian witbier, aka white beer, similar in characteristics to Hoegaarden. It doesn't look like Hoegaarden, however, because it's been sitting with a few pounds of tart cherries. That's what all the jellyfish looking stuff is. Cherries having their sugars eaten up by the yeast inside the carboy.

I wanted to use fresh cherries but they weren't in season. My second choice was fresh frozen, but our local grocery store carried every frozen fruit imaginable but tart/sour cherries. Plenty of sweet, no sour. So I settled on a few cans of these:

How does it taste? I have no idea. Only just got it in the bottle and am unlikely to try a taste for at least two weeks. But I think tart cherries will go well with the spiced, tart taste of a Hoegaarden clone, especially when the weather is warm.

I'll give a taste report in a few weeks and, if the experiment was a success, the full recipe. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Deconstructing hops

So when I recently posted about hops, I had that limited release Samuel Adams 12-pack in hand but had not yet indulged. Now that I have, let's explore just how these six "different" beers really are different. After all, they're the same beer with the same recipe and the same malt, yeast and water. How big a difference could a single hop make?

A big one. Check it out, listed by the hop, with an eye towards how they might be used in brewing your own beer:

Ahtanum - Cleansing floral pine in the aroma, huge fluffy head on the pour. The bitterness is a lot less than I expected from the aroma, though. Taste is almost a bit medicinal. Ugh. Not appealing in taste, yet very nice smell. I could see using this hop as an aroma hop in a homebrew, but I wouldn't touch this for bittering or mid-boil hop additions.

East Kent Goldings
- Very famous hop among beer geeks/historians. This is a traditional mild English hop. Kind of earthy. Only mildly bitter and the aroma is musty and unimpressive. In a single-hop beer it's rather boring, really, but it is an old standard as a bittering hop. Easy to see it used for that purpose.

Hallertau Mittelfrueh - A well known and often used German hop. Smells of pine and something pleasant I can't quite place. Apricot? Taste is mildly bitter but with a touch more fruit than East Kent Goldings. Still mild fruit, though not a lot. This would be a nice bittering hop or 30-minute hop.

Simcoe - Oh wow. I love this hop. VERY bitter, very piney with a touch of harsh citrus. It's a popular one in big American IPAs these days. Weyerbacher, a great brewer out of PA, does a Double Simcoe IPA that is outstanding. It translates well in the Samuel Adams version, too. Up front, aggressive, hoppy, this version of Latitude 48 is better than the regular version!

Zeus - Nice citrus aroma, sharply bitter, tastes of pine. Almost a little harsh, but not in an off-putting way. I could see this being used in almost any role in a beer -- if used in moderation and in balance with others.

Fully-Hopped Latitude 48
- Eh. It's not bad. Mild, mild pine aroma. No citrus. Taste is smooth but underwhelming. Nicely bitter, perfectly balanced. In a way that's why it's forgettable. It leaves absolutely no impression on you -- yet I can't help but think it will stand the test of time BECAUSE of that. No trends. No bold taste. Just a tasteful blend of hops grown at the 48th latitude. I'd prefer something bolder and more aggressive, but as an example of a traditional IPA this is a fairly capable (and very approachable) beer.

The bottom line here is pretty easy to get to: hops matter. A lot. They can change a beer entirely. So next time you see a beer boasting it uses This Hop or That Hop, pay attention. It really does mean big differences in how it tastes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's American Craft Beer Week

For a long, long time, American beer has had a pretty bad reputation. The world saw (and sometimes still sees) it as watered-down piss barely fit for anything other than chugging. And sadly, for a long time that perception wasn't entirely wrong. While the easy-drinking Buds, Millers and Coors of the world have their place, that's all American beer had to offer.

Not anymore. Anyone who knows their beer knows that following the trails blazed by Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, Boston Beer Co., New Albion and others, American craft brewers are making some of the best beer in the world. They're innovating. They're pushing boundaries. They're inventing at a remarkable pace. It helps that they have a rapidly growing base of support from the craft beer loving community in the United States, die hard beer geeks who demand quality from their brew. While beer overall remains stagnant or shrinks slightly, American craft beer is enjoying double-digit growth.

That's good news for those of us who enjoy great beer.

You can celebrate that this week, as May 16 to 22 is American Craft Beer Week. It's a growing event enjoyed by beer lovers across the country. Surf on over here to get loads of links events taking place in your area, or like the event on Facebook to show your support for American craft beer.

On Friday, I'll be tipping back a pint glass of excellent American beer. I hope you'll be joining me.