Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Flying Fish opens its new brewery on Saturday

New Jersey's largest craft brewery, Flying Fish, will be opening the doors of its new brewery to the public for the first time on Saturday. According to a story in the Courier Post:

Flying Fish plans to open its doors to its new neighbors on Somerdale Day, on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Kennedy Boulevard.

“We’re going to do our first public tours for Somerdale Day,” said Muller. “Somerdale Day is going to be in front of our brewery, so we’ll open up that day and let the public take a peek.”

Flying Fish previously brewed in Cherry Hill (and as of this writing they're still operating there). Cherry Hill traffic sucks. I doubt that's why they moved, but it's certainly a big reason why I have never toured their old brewery. Scooping your left eye out with a teaspoon is more enjoyable than driving through Cherry Hill.

Anyway, they're moving because they're undergoing a major increase in capacity. In other words, they want to make more beer. Lots more. And that's cool, because they make good beer.

With all the (well deserved) hoopla surrounding Kane and Carton, two of New Jersey's newest craft breweries, both of which are winning raves, folks seem to be forgetting Flying Fish.

But Flying Fish has been here all along, churning out good beers since 1996, long before today's huge craft beer explosion. My personal favorites are the Exit Series beers, offbeat brews made with News Jersey ingredients. With the exception of Exit 4, an excellent American Tripel, these beers have been one-time brews that you have to grab before they're gone. I spoke to one of the brewers at a beerfest last year, and he told me the new brewery would allow them to bring back some of the best of the Exit series and package them in six packs. I can't wait!

A lot of people don't realize that New Jersey has a number of excellent breweries. River Horse is a personal favorite (look for their Tripel Horse, and in a few months their Oatmeal Milk Stout). High Point, aka Ramstein, makes traditional German style beers to much acclaim. Cricket Hill has been on a roll lately with their Reserve series. And Boaks makes big, interesting beers that are sure to turn your head (try their Monster Mash!). For good measure throw in Climax and you've got a good array of New Jersey beers to choose from, and that doesn't count the many brewpubs in the state.

And if you're not from New Jersey, find out who brews in your state. Try out their beers. Support your local brewers!

In the meantime, I'll be waiting for the next installment of Flying Fish's Exit Series ... cheers!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

From the Cellar: Weyerbacher Fourteen

Weyerbacher is great.They do a lot of really amazing beer that people miss because, frankly, up until the last few months their labels were TERRIBLE.

'Cause yeah, even though we know we shouldn't, we really do judge books by their cover. I've often said that Weyerbacher would be more widely considered a great brewery if their branding wasn't so bad. They wised up, contracted a new logo, and are now in the process of rebranding their whole line. Excellent!

So what does this have to do with a three-year-old brew put out for their 14th anniversary?  Nothing at all. Just thought it would make for a good intro.

Anyway, for the Weyerbacher's 14th anniversary they brewed a spiced up wheat wine, essentially a boozed-up barleywine but with wheat as a primary fermentable grain. These beers are BIG, complex, and age well.

And this 2009 vintage fits the description. After three years, the aroma is a boozy, murky mix of bread, spices, and a touch of caramel. Drinking it, though, you'd never know it was so strong. Despite coming in at a whopping 11.8% ABV, there is little alcohol heat to speak of here. It starts to show through as the beer warms, but even then it’s much less than you’d expect from a beer this potent.

Rather than bitterness, here you get spicing, with hints of rye, pepper, and summer herbs. As the beer warms this really ramps up, too, providing a surprising spice kick. Meanwhile, the wheat malts bring a smoothness to the beer that makes it go down better than any three-year-old, nearly 12% beer has a right to.

Overall this is a big WOW. If you have one, I suspect now is a great time to open it. If you see one, get it and drink it right away. 'Cause this stuff be gooawd.

BEER: Weyerbacher Fourteen
TIME AGED: 3 years

VERDICT: This beer has laid down pretty well. If you're lucky enough to find a bottle, consider scooping it up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Quick Sips: Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale

Ahh, sour beers. This ancient Belgian style is sort of the trend these days. They are not THE trend in the way IPAs and barrel aging were, but they're definitely a hot commodity right now. (I will post what I think is the new up and coming trend soon.)

In the U.S., there are few places more renown for being a mecca for Belgian beer as Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia, a cramped, cozy little headquarters for some of the best beers on the planet.

And lo and behold, they have their own beer, Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale! Well, sort of. It's actually part of the regular lineup of Brouwerij Van Steenberge, packaged with some Monk's branding. The nice thing is, this beer is affordable. Thanks to the care it takes to make, special facilities to separate it from other beers, and the required aging, sour beer is EXPENSIVE. Yet this one is in line with other pricy craft beers, expensive but affordable.

If you spot Monk's Cafe sour and want to drop the roughly $20 it will cost for a four-pack, you should expect pleasant tartness and acidity in the nose, with just a mild hint of the vinegar-like qualities common to some sours. The aroma is not going to impress.

Once it hits your palate, the sourness of this beer is only mild, very mild, accentuated a bit by the brisk carbonation but falling far short of mouth-puckering. A nice sweet note carries throughout the entire sip.

What this beer is is drinkable. It has some sourness, but it's not the aggressive sour pursued by sourheads. It has nice fruit and sweet flavors, in fact. Probably a great introductory beer to those new to sours, and in a way the ultimate session sour. You could put these down all day and your palate would be fine.

But once you've had a few sours, you'll drink this wishing your mouth would pucker. For me it scratches an itch, but only just barely.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Quick Sips: Southern Tier Pumking

Welcome to what might be the most sought-after pumpkin beer in the nation, Southern Tier's gigantic Pumking, a big ass imperial pumpkin beer. (Note, this review is of the 2011 batch.)

So, the thing about most pumpkin beers is that they don't as much taste like pumpkin as they do pumpkin pie. Which is fine. Think about it. Pumpkin on its own just tastes like mushy vegetable. Pumpkin pie tastes awesome thanks to all those fall spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, clove, and others.

That's what most pumpkin beers are. Spices. They are spiced like pumpkin pie -- and may not even have any real pumpkin! It's true. You don't need the pumpkin in the beer to make it taste like a great pumpkin beer, just the spices.

Anyway, Southern Tier's sought after imperial version of the style? Well, it smell likes nuts and butter and peanut butter. So how about the taste?

Nutty! That's right, nutty. It tastes like liquid peanut butter with some spices. VERY sweet. Almost sickeningly so. To drink a whole bottle of this on your own? Ugh. No thanks. I can't imagine doing it.

Word of mouth suggests this 2011 batch was off from previous years, a significant downgrade from what was made before. Having never had Pumking prior to this batch, I can't comment on that. I will say that if batches can vary that much from year to year, the otherwise exceptional Southern Tier has some quality control issues to worry about.

This tasting is based on the 2011 batch, consumed and written in late February of 2012, and only posted now.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Does Dogfish Head live up to the hype?

Just like any breed of geek, beer geeks can be a knee-jerk lot prone to pounce before they've heard your entire message. (I like to think I know geeks, what with being a coauthor of Geek Wisdom and all.) So let me say this up front: Dogfish Head fans, I am a fan, too. I like their beer and will explain why. Dogfish Head critics, I am not a DFH fanboy. Their beer is often flawed and I will explain why.

So with that out of the way, let's just get into it. Let's try to take an honest look at Dogfish Head, a brewery with fans more rabid than even Stone and Rogue, and beers that are just as divisive as both.

DFH's shtick, to use a term more dismissive sounding than intended, is to break the rules. To do so-called "extreme" beers. To throw out the rulebook and, to paraphrase founder Sam Calagione, to let their freak flag fly.

That's not a bad thing. Hell, it's the thing I most admire them for and it's what makes their most interesting beers, well, interesting. They brew with ingredients people just don't brew with and resurrect ancient recipes (as best as they can guess them) and push things to extremes just to see if they can.

But it also means their beers can run very hot and cold. They can divide people like few others. When they do great beers they do fantastic beers. Their Bitches Brew (a big imperial stout blended with honey-based Tej), Palo Santo Marron (a giGANtic brown ale aged on rare wood), and Sah'Tea (an old Finnish beers with a Chai-based twist) are some of the most intriguing beers on the market. I'd put them up against almost any beer I've had. Yet when they're bad, let's be honest, they're bad. Beers like the ginger-laden Pangaea are overpriced and gimmicky (even if that now retired beer did drink okay), Black & Blue is an unlikable fruit drink that doesn't know if it's beer or champagne, and in my opinion Black & Red is the most disgusting, vile beverage ever put in a glass, a concoction of chocolate and mint that tastes like a mouth full of dank toothpaste. I genuinely couldn't even finish a 2 oz sample at their Rehoboth, DE brewpub.

Keep in mine, those are only my opinions. Part of the fun of all this is that people will disagree with my views, and strongly. With Dogfish especially, these beers are so far off the beaten path that there is rarely any middle ground with them. You love 'em or hate 'em.

In between the above extremes they have excellent beers that challenge and delight you, or gross you out, or leave you thinking they're overrated. The 90 Minute IPA is an example of the latter; some think it's divine, others say it's a hot, malty mess. For the record, I like it, but I also don't think it's a great double IPA. It's a strong ale ... but we're getting into geeky terminology here. The bottom line is, these guys experiment a lot and few brews are what you expect. If they do a beer, it's with a twist. If they do a Belgian, they muck with it. If they do a stout, they go big. (Really frickin' big!) If they go for an older style, do they a freakin' Aztec chocolate beer that tastes like no other chocolate beer on the market. Yeah.

And yep, sometimes this stuff falls flat on its face. Hard.

None of this is a bad thing. Not if you're willing to accept the bad with the good. Not if you're willing to accept the idea that if you experiment hard you'll sometimes stumble. These guys often take chances. They even rope respected brewers into it. Sure, even their basic quirks aren't always great. For instance, I love their 60 Minute IPA, but in the world of IPAs it's honestly just 'pretty good' rather that GREAT. Really well balanced thanks to their innovative way of adding hops, very tasty, but among the best IPAs in the country as some would have you believe? No.

Yet that doesn't matter. Not really. Because the whole point of checking out this brewery is to drink something way off the beaten path. To blow the doors off your expectations ... and yeah, to sometimes have something that sucks on wheels.

The bottom line is, Dogfish Head makes really freakin' good beers that are often unlike anything you've had before. And sometimes they make bad beers that are too damn hot with alcohol, or are too imbalanced with offbeat ingredients, or that are just plain boring for the price. It's true, fans. They really do. Some of their experiments suck.

And that's okay.

The reason we (meaning "I") admire them is for their willingness to experiment. Yeah, sometimes the results stink. And sometimes the cult of personality surrounding Sam gets to be too much. (That's a subject I avoided in this post like the coward I am, but for the record, he seems like a personable, down to Earth guy to me, the sort of dude you'd love to drink beer and talk music with. Especially music.) But DAMN, when they nail a good beer, it's really damn good!

So it's like this: It's okay to say they get too much hype among some beer geeks because that's probably close to true when you consider the many awesome brewers who don't get a fraction of the attention, but if you think they have nothing to offer when it comes to beer because they're all based on hype, you're wrong, wrong, wrong.