Sunday, October 21, 2012

Quick Sips: Flying Fish Exit 8 Chestnut Brown Ale

I love Flying Fish. Maybe it's bias. When I was first discovering craft beer in the mid-1990s -- we called it "microbrew" then -- Flying Fish was not only one of the early breweries that caught my attention, they were actually local! A brewery from New Jersey! That was novel at the time, since the only beers being brewed in New Jersey were either Budweiser in Newark and stuff like Rheingold.

Flying Fish, though, they started making great beers and pushing into the local market. Before long they became a staple in my regular beer buying. Their core beers are all solid brews, but the fun stuff is their Exit Series, a series of beers brewed with a New Jersey theme. That might mean local ingredients, it might mean a local theme, or it just might mean a simple twist that makes it Jersey.

The latest in that series is Exit 8, a chestnut brown ale brewed with Belgian yeast, with Jersey chestnuts and honey. and other than their Exit 4 (one of the best American trippels on the market), it just might be their best beer.

Pour this sucker and a nutty, chestnut-laden aroma hits your nose, though it’s not the roasted chestnut I expected. The Belgian yeast gives it a muddy, herbal quality that spins the chestnuts you expect into new territory. Give it a taste and you'll find that the honey is a pleasant note in the background, right at the finish. It’s the nutty flavor that dominates. Quite tasty, probably IDEAL for a winter/holiday release rather than the spring release this beer got.

This beer tastes great, though I wonder how this beer would be without the Belgian yeast. The character of the yeast gets in the way of the interesting stuff going on with the chestnut and honey, which leaves me wondering if an English strain wouldn't let the beer shine through more.

That said, how can I complain when the beer is so good, especially since the FF people know what the hell they're doing and I'm just a dude with a blog? This is a great brew that competes not only with the best of the Exit Series, but also with the best New Jersey has to offer. It came out earlier in 2012 and was released in limited quantities, so grab it if you see it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beer can bring people together

Beer brings people together, and that's one of the big reasons why I love it. When I wrote for the Philadelphia Weekly, I tried to point out how beer has been interwoven with our history, both real and imagined, getting right down into our myths and legends.

But what's really important is how it is interwoven into our lives on a personal level.

A fantastic example is this news story about a mini-mart -- a damn Wawa, really -- that serves great craft beer and around which a community has formed. It's a mini-mart with beer. The guy who owns it focuses on great beer. And the people in the community have made it a rallying point. Just go read the story to see what I mean, because it's COOL AS HELL.

More than any single part of that story -- more than the rare beer and selection and prices and did I mention the rare beer? -- the part that I love, admire, and respect was this:

Chung had larger ambitions when he tapped that first keg in 2009. "I didn't want the place to be just a convenience store, or a stereotypical convenience store," he says. He'd come to this very store himself as a child. It was part of his upbringing. He knew it had been an understated presence in West Seattle since the 1940s. "You know the old-time general store -- a drugstore that was a gathering place?" he says. "That's the type of feel I wanted."

The community seemed to crave that, too. With their pints, more and more people started to linger. Now in one corner of Super Deli Mart sits a thick fallen-cedar table courtesy of a regular that would look more at home in some Northwest-chic hotel. A regular group of up to 20 locals gather around that table every Wednesday evening to argue beer styles and grouse about the Seahawks' latest disappointment -- as if Super Deli Mart was some postmodern Elks Club.

"My wife and I have lived in the same house for 17 years, and I've never known the people on my street until we started coming here and drinking about one-and-a-half years ago," Cary Schroeder, 43, said on a recent Wednesday while having a beer with his wife, Jody. "It really has brought the neighborhood together."

That's powerful stuff. It's the kind of thing every community needs. Whether a watering hole or community cafe or merely a general store where you see the same people on a regular basis, these are the kind of places that knit people together. You don't know you need a place like that in your life until you find one, or until you've had one and lost it.

I grew up in a small town where not only were there several such places in one tiny community, each watering hole itself was a micro community within an already tiny community. I loved the town so much I wrote a book about it.

These days I live in the midst of suburban sprawl. Subdivisons and strip malls. Places like the ones I describe are few and far between, especially if you live in a neighborhood like I do, where walking or biking to the nearest place to grab a drink or have a sandwich and read the paper involves crossing multiple busy roads.

The POINT, which I left a long time ago, is that beer probably lends more texture to your world than you even realize. Usually for the better. EMBRACE it. Go have a beer at your local watering hole, even if their beer stinks. The beer isn't the important part, it's that you'll be closer to your community and the people in it. And that's not a bad thing.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Snobbery, beer, beer geekery, and you

Beer is not a weapon to hold over someone's head or with which to judge them. It is a beautiful social lubricant that ties people together, even if they like beers "inferior" to yours.

And don't you forget it.

Like any niche community seeing increased mainstream attention, the craft beer community is populated by a small but loud segment of people who more than anything else are disgusted that Their Thing is reaching a wider audience. It's no longer their cherished secret, you see, and that kind of stings. Suddenly you're surrounded by strangers who are way into this thing you've been into for years and years. I've seen it in many other communities, music being the one that hits closest to home for me. It's unavoidable.

More than that, though, is that for many -- mostly the folks only a few years into their new interest -- it's easier to express disdain and negativity than it is to express positivity. It doesn't take much thought or energy to say, "Yuengling sucks." It's a little more difficult to bring your enthusiasm for something you love to other people and infect them with that same enthusiasm.

That's one of the reason why I think "ha ha ha coors light tastes like piss" jokes are tired and lame, even if I agree with them that Coors Light is tasteless. Because those jokes are mindless and easy. It's also one of the reasons why I'll always encourage celebrating the beers you love over slamming the beers you don't. Because getting other people excited about stuff you like is fun and enjoyable and rewarding, while running down beers you hate is nonsense better left to kids only just starting their beer journey.

Beer is awesome. Beer is social. You can become fast friends with someone over a beer. I've done it many times. Why would I or anyone else want to dwell on what sucks when there is so much that is AWESOME in the world of beer?

You don't like Dogfish Head or think The Bruery is highly overrated? That's cool. Then pour me one of the beers you like and we'll drink that instead. You don't really like beer and only buy Corona? Fine, stick in a lime and give me one. I'll deal. We'll talk badly about our jobs and boast about the size of our manhood and dream up an awesome business plan we'll forget by the morning.

Because I love beer, and I seriously don't give a damn about what beer you hate. I want to know about the beer you love.

And I want you to pour me some.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Quick Sips: Cricket Hill Reserve Series #15

Cricket Hill Brewery is one of New Jersey's little secrets. On a national level they don't get much attention, and heck, not even locally, what with Kane and Carton stealing all the recent spotlight and Flying Fish being seen as the gristled veterans.

But Cricket Hill is very quietly making some excellent beers, both approachable and experimental. One that falls in the latter category is #15 in their reserve series, a sour porter aged in bourbon barrels.

Allegedly, only nine cases or so were produced of this beer. I don't know how accurate the number is, but I do know I paid way more for this bottle than I normally would (mostly because I didn't check the price before getting to the register). It's limited as hell, so you'll pay for it. And take note, it came out last year, so if you see one GET IT because it's one of the last bottles in existence.

The beer is certainly intriguing. There is a sour tang on the aroma but it is not strong. It overpowers the porter -- no chocolate or roast to speak of in the nose -- but it doesn't overwhelm the senses. If there is some bourbon in the nose, it's subtle. The head retention is for crap, though. Ignore my photo. The head you see disappears quickly and doesn't stick around for long. While that's not highly unusual for sour beers, it happens particularly fast here.

But a beer is all in the taste, and this one ... is challenging. Challenging, but worthwhile. The sour in the taste is a wonderful balance between pronounced and yet not so dominant that it's all you can taste. It's sour, yeah, but there is brown malt that comes through in the middle, with a nice yet gentle wash of bourbon at the finish. There is sour dark fruit in here, too. Quite complex and for damn sure a beer you'll mull over.

New Jersey's craft beer scene is better than people give it credit for when it comes to nice, drinkable beers, but is low on the "wild and offbeat" list. Cricket Hill makes a good go at it with this beer. It's complex, challenging, tasty, but not for everyone.

(If this sounds like a beer you want to try, drop me a note or email. I can still get my hands on some, but not many bottles are left.)