05/31/10

Beer Run: Vancouver

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest. I’m hiding from the rain right now and decided to pen a dispatch from the field. I’m going to be visiting friends in Seattle next weekend but since they’re all away for the holiday I thought I’d explore our neighbor to the north a bit. On very little sleep, I drove north to Vancouver.

I was very excited about Vancouver, and not just because I had such a great time at Dieu Du Ciel brewpub in Montreal and was hoping that the Canadians know good beer. Everyone I know tells me Vancouver is a beautiful city, with plentiful nature close at hand, and clean, orderly streets full of good food and good times.

For the most part they are right. I’ve had a lot of great food here, and an awesome night of live music at the Railway Club. The streets are unusually clean. In fact the only litter I’ve seen since I crossed the border was inside my rental car. And the traffic appears far more cordial and orderly than I’m used to. Unlike Boston, when I cross the street, no one tries to run me over, and no one blocks the sidewalk by charging past the stop line (except me). And people actually wait for the walk sign at crosswalks (how quaint).

In short, I feel a little out of place here. Kind of like I’m in a modern, urban version of Mayberry or something. In Boston I’m thought of as too nice, too considerate; here I’m afraid I’ll be deported for jaywalking or vagrancy or something. Even the bums are polite; one was so busy asking me to have a nice weekend he forgot to ask for spare change. Another, finding I didn’t have 35 cents to spare, but noticing I did have a bag of beers, asked if I could spare a beer instead. I gave him the 35 cents.

But enough about Vancouver the city, how are the suds? Frankly I’ve been a little disappointed. I mean, you could do worse – the Granville Island brewery seems to be fairly ubiquitous around here with it’s Pale Ale ending up on tap at most establishments. There’s local beer all over downtown as far as I can tell, but it all just kind of ends up being fairly generic Brit-style ales and extremely boring light lagers. Today I visited the two dominant brew pubs near downtown, and things were starting to look a lot brighter, but at the end of the day I had to admit there was nothing on tap at either establishment that really, truly moved me.

First was brunch and a flight of tasters at Yaletown Brewing Company downtown. The food was amazing: a giant helping of applewood smoked cheddar soup with bacon, scallions, and crème fraiche, and duck confit done to perfection, with a crispy skin and meat so tender it melts in the mouth. Everything was not only tasty, but well presented, and the help was fairly attentive despite the lunch rush crowd. The place itself has a very sizable bar with lots of flat screens, so it seems like the place to be for both large groups and sports fanatics. Of which I am neither, so on to business.

The beers were pretty consistent threes on our scale of 1 to 5, which really only means they rank as craft beer, but aren’t exceptional in any way. This would include the Mainland Lager, Nagilia Pale, Hills Special Wheat (a hefeweizen roughly on par with Franziskaner and quite a ways below Ayinger), and the Warehouse Stout, which despite delightful notes of coffee and smoke and a nose to die for, fell quite short on body. The Downtown Brown faired a bit better, squeaking by with a four for its nutty malt character and velvety mouthfeel, not to mention quaffability. The Brick and Beam IPA is a bit less quaffable, with a bitter, hoppy aftertaste that lingers a bit too long for a session beer, but its respectable hop character and good balance still let it squeak by with a four as well.

The only real standout at Yaletown was the Wit, which is an excellent example of an underappreciated style. This is what blue moon should taste like: delicate malt character that is restrained enough to let the citrus, coriander, and yeasty character show through, without the spices needing to be overbearing. With a fairly light body and a finish that tails off quickly, this one is definitely a session beer, and though not one of my favorite styles, would be extremely appropriate for a summer day (if such a thing exists in the Pacific Northwest). I might appreciate this style more if there were better examples of it in the US.

Next I walked over to the Gastown district, the “historic” district according to my guidebook and the arch that welcomed me to the neighborhood. For the record, Lonely Planet, those are not cobblestones, they’re paving stones. Cobblestones are a lot more uncomfortable to drive or walk on, a fact that gives historic districts their charm. This place feels like you’re trespassing in someone’s back yard. I was also uncomfortable with the overwhelming presence of trendy clothing shops and the fairly contemporary looking street lighting. The area is named after it’s founder, a gold prospector named “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who in turn was named after his penchant for spinning tall tales. Gastown was apparently the oldest settlement in what would become Vancouver, but was founded in only 1867, which might explain the oddly contemporary flair for a historic district (mind you I’m visiting from Boston, founded in 1630).

That said, it was a perfectly pleasant neighborhood, clean and orderly (as usual) and with a wide array of dining and nightlife options. There’s also a steam driven clock that seems to be all the rage with the tour bus set, but I wasn’t moved. After all, I was on a mission.

I found my way to the Steamworks Brewery, which is downstairs when you enter the building. I was pretty stuffed so I didn’t get a fair sampling of the food, but it smelled delicious as I passed it a few times on my way to the restroom. I did grab some mushroom caps with cream cheese and crab, which were certainly a solid appetizer, so I suspect the food would pass. Speaking of the restroom, it posessed something rare: a Punk-approved air dryer for your hands. Up until now we’ve only approved of one, the Xlerator which I believe we first encountered at Ulysses in Manhattan. Anything else you might as well blow on your own hands, or just shake like a dog if there’s no paper towels. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Dyson Airblade, which puts out a squeegie shaped air jet that is perhaps more effective than the xlerator. It has a bit less horse power, though, so you don’t get that cool deformation of the skin on your hands while you are using it (Ever see pictures of people’s faces during freefall? Then you know what I’m talking about.)

Bladder drained and hands dry I strapped on my second flight of the afternoon. Again, the bulk of the lineup was solid threes. The seasonal Hefeweizen was a little too clovey for my taste, and the banana was overpowered (though anybody who likes the Sgt. Pepper at my local Cambridge Brewing Company might not find this as offensive as I do), Lion’s Gate Lager (which is actually a pretty nice straw colored lager, but really serves no purpose other than providing a safe haven for Bud – or is it Molson – drinkers in a sea of craft beer), and the Coal Porter all fall in this category. I’d also throw the Empress IPA in this category because the malt character was a little boring, but IPAs aren’t really my thing, so many people might surely disagree with me on that point. The Nut Brown faired a bit better; it was a bit hoppy for a brown in my opinion but certainly well balanced, and the nose was really a standout with notes of maple syrup, and woody or smokey character (which is not to say it was wood aged or smoked, this was probably all from the roasting of the malt). It barely earned a four, but was certainly a step in the right direction.

The standouts for me at Steamworks were the Signature Pale and the seasonal German Pilsner. The Pilner had a very clean and fairly light malt character, quite restrained, which allowed a fairly robust hopping to shine through. The balance was good and the finish was clean, making it very quaffable. The Pale turned out to be my favorite here because it seemed to have the most assertive and interesting malt character of the entire lineup. I picked up lots of nutty and toffee notes, and even some woody and smokey character in the finish. There was a great balance, but also quite assertive hopping that lent a spicey, resiny flavor and aroma. Both earned a solid four.

As I finish this, the sun is shining again (for how long?) and I’m drinking a fairly decent “Springbock” from Phillips Brewing Company (one of the beers I saved from the homeless man about an hour ago). I’m pondering the state of the beer scene here in Vancouver and I’m seeing two things. First, most pubs and restaurants seem to carry local beer. The beer isn’t exceptional, but it is very accessible, and makes for a great session beer. There is a variety of styles on the market for the consumer to gradually trade up to – starting with the bland lagers, then progressing to hoppier and maltier English styles.

The second thing is that I havent mentioned the two best beers I’ve had in Vancouver: Big Rock’s Traditional Ale from Calgary (one province East, in Alberta near Banff National Park) and Back Hand of God Stout from Crannog Ales, on a farm in Sorrento, BC. Both were great beers, earning a solid four, and both come from outside Vancouver, but somewhere in the general region.

I feel both of these facts portend well for the future of beer in Vancouver, even if I’m not that impressed yet. I think that the revolution really begins when: 1) your average consumer is encouraged to trade up to craft beers, which seems very easy to do here, and 2) some mavericks in the sticks, heavy on craft and light on capital, start brewing exceptional beer and either kegging it up to put on tap in the city or putting it in big bottles to ship to high end liquor stores, while they slowly build their empire. If I’m right, you can assure that the revolution will not be televised, at least not in Boston, so be sure to check the scene in person from time to time and monitor progress.

Just wait til it’s sunny.

PS, I apologize to the city of Vancouver for the generally curmudgeonly tone of this article; but seriously, what’s with all the rain?

04/22/10

When Two Rights Make a Wrong: Flavored Saisons

Long time no see loyal reader. I’d like to try and get some momentum going again on the blog and shake out some of my blogging cobwebs before starting on another project, blogging on Boston area restaurants with some friends of mine. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately in the world of beer.

People who know me know that Saison is one of my favorite styles; an odd outlier in my repertoir of heavy, dark, roasty, thick-enough-to-chew favorites. Something about it just works. It’s crisp and light – or more accurately it’s percieved as light because it’s dry and usually a bit heavily carbonated. Like most Belgian styles, Saisons generally feature a complex yeast profile from the use of special yeast and generally warmer fermentation temperatures, which kicks up the fruity ester character, and sometimes adds a spicy phenol touch.

But more to the point, they are a relatively delicate beer, which further accentuates the yeast characters. Based on White Labs’ yeast profiles and the BJCP style guidelines, the attenuation of, say, a British style Pale Ale is something on the order of 70-75%, whereas a Saison tends more toward the neighborhood of 85-90%. This means more sugar is removed during fermentation and the result has a very light malt character that isn’t overwhelming. Then the hop character has to be restrained accordingly to keep the beer in balance (especially since the Belgians don’t really seem to care for hops anyway, they are known for aging their hops to remove the bittering and flavor characteristics before use-which I think I wrote about but was apparently never posted. We’ve got some catching up to do…) BJCP guidelines put the Saison at 20-35 IBUs (a measure of hop bitterness) whereas a Pale would be more like 30-50 IBUs. We’ve also talked about the BU:GU ratio before, which is a way to measure the balance of a beer based on the IBUs and the original gravity. Higher numbers are more bitter, lower numbers less. On this measure, Saison comes in around 0.4-0.5, and a Pale is more like 0.6-0.8.

So, science aside, what we’re talking about here is a relatively light, malty beer with a delicate flavor that allows the complexity of the malt and yeast character to really shine. And Saisons happen to be one of this beer snob’s favorite summertime options, not to mention a perfect stand-in for white wine or champagne with food, any time of year. For my favorite examples, see Brooklyn One (didn’t care for Brooklyn Two as much) or the classic Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Belgium. Other good examples include Southampton Saison, Victory Saison and Ommegang Hennepin.

CBC has a new(ish) beer on tap called Sgt Pepper, which is a peppercorn flavored Saison. I say newish because it’s been brewed in past seasons, and also because, well, I haven’t posted in a while. Since I love Saison, and I love peppercorns (mmm…Steak au Poivre…) you’d think I’d be all over this one. And every year I think the same thing, and every year…I’m wrong.

See, you try to take in the bouquet on this one and you sneeze. It’s just way too much peppercorn for a saison in my opinion. The Punks have a long standing bias against flavored Saisons for this reason, no matter what you put in them the flavor seems to overpower that delicate malt and yeast character which is the hallmark of the style. I thought we were alone on this one, and I don’t mean to second guess some of my favorite brewers here, but anecdotal evidence from my friends bears out that this one isn’t for everyone. Taste it before you get a full one.

There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Several of my beer and brewing gurus (see Charlie Papazian, or Stan Hieronymus) are quick to decry the practice of beer snobs like me judging a beer against style guidelines. That’s important for competition, but flavored beers are, by necessity, kind of unique beasts. This is why they created specialty categories at beer competitions to begin with; to encourage creative brewing rather than stifle it. So please, do try it, you might like it. Just do so with caution. And maybe don’t breathe too deep on that first sip.

07/22/09

Beer Run: Cambridge Brewing Company

DSC02585Lately our posts have portrayed us as globetrotting adventurers, largely ignoring our own backyard. Together Mike and I have taken you to the DMZ for North Korean beer, the brewpubs of South Korea, the only brewery in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and beautiful Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. This surely isn’t the end of our wanderlust; it knows no bounds and we will continue to hunt down tasty beer anywhere it might hide. But honestly, sometimes you just get homesick. That’s why this week we decided to explore one of our favorite watering holes across the river in Cambridge, the Cambridge Brewing Company. Public transit in Boston doesn’t exactly make it easy to get to this gem from my home in Brighton, so we aren’t exactly regulars there, but we are familiar enough, and the journey was worth it.

Inspired by my own recent article on Cask Ale, I decided to try my luck. I say try my luck because everytime I order a Cask Ale at the CBC, the cask seems to have mysteriously “just kicked.” This time I lucked out, they had an ESB with Columbus hops. The first thing I noticed was the sparkler tip on the spout, and the fact that a second beer engine next to it had none. You see sparkler tips are added to the end of the spout to agitate the beer on the way out. This strips some of the CO2 out of solution, giving you a nice creamy head. I believe this was actually the first time I ever had a cask ale with a sparkler tip, and the head held up much better than I was led to believe it would. It probably also contributed to a delightfully creamy mouthfeel. But what’s most important is that the beer engine next to it had no sparkler tip.

Sparklers are a bit of a touchy subject among cask beer aficionados. They do give a creamy head and improve on the presentation of the beer, but they also strip some of the delicate hop compounds and a good bit of bitterness out of the beer itself and deposit it in the head. This can throw off the balance of the beer (not only by removing hop bitterness, but also by removing dissolved CO2, which lowers the acidity of the beer). It also sort of mutes the hop character a bit. Neither of these is necessarily a problem though, as long as the recipe was formulated with these effects in mind. If a beer was meant to be served with a sparkler and is served without it, it may be too harsh. If it was meant to be served without it and the establishment ignores the brewer’s recommendations in the name of showmanship, then the character will suffer and the beer will be milder than it should be. The fact that they have one of each at the CBC tells me that they have kept this debate in mind and are consciously considering these issues when formulating recipes and serving their cask beers, and that is a very encouraging sign. I don’t have much experience with the ESB style, but the level of harshness and hoppiness was about what I would have expected – the hops were clearly present in the nose and flavor but not overly assertive, sort of punctuating a more assertive, slightly toasty, nutty malt. The serving temperature was also appropriate, so I’m going to add CBC to the list of Punk-approved Casks in the Boston Metro area. Mike, who’s not as into casks as I am, agreed with me that this had earned at least a four out of five.

I was certainly glad that I went straight for the cask as well, because Mike and I soon discovered why they’re always out. Apparently the CBC taps their cask Tuesdays at 5PM and they are kicked within hours. The reason? Even though it is being served from a barrel-sized vessel (about 31 gallons) there’s only about 5-7 gallons in the cask when it is tapped. I was shocked at this, since that’s the same volume most homebrewers work with, I expected far more from a brewpub as popular as CBC.

Most likely they are trying to have a quick turnover because, as I’ll discuss in more detail in a later post, casks are living beasts and need to be finished quickly before wild yeast infections and oxidation take too much of a toll. But personally, I would advocate that they either start tapping more than one cask a week, or fill the casks a bit more.

I’ve heard (though I can’t really confirm or deny it) that a properly stored cask is still usable for up to three days, and in fact the aging of the beer over that time period can actually be viewed as a positive thing, adding complexity. Go much past that and it goes downhill fast, but in the beginning the changes are slow and sometimes welcome. At any rate, CBC has made the list of approved Casks, and you should try to make it out there if you are in the area on a Tuesday. Just don’t dawdle!

Once Mike and I had kicked the cask (literally…we managed to snag the last pint) it was time to move on. Now the beer menu at CBC includes four house brews that tend to be pretty safe (if somewhat boring) beers styles: the Regatta Golden Kolsch, the Tall Tale Pale Ale, the Cambridge Amber Ale, and the Charles River Porter. Usually, Mike and I skip over these and go straight to the seasonals, looking for the biggest, Belgianiest thing we can find. But this time we decided to try the whole lineup for once. We got tasters of the four house brews, as well as two of the lighter options on the seasonal menu, the HalfWit belgian wheat and the Hefeweizen. It should be stated that I’m not a fan of tasting things from taster size glasses. For one thing, it’s tough to get a good nose off of such a small sample, filled to the brim because there’s nowhere for the aromas to collect themselves at the top of the glass. But we had alot to accomplish here, and both of us had to work the next day.

We found the four house brews were nearly all over-hopped for our taste. None were outrageously over-hopped, and many craft beer drinkers would likely disagree with us on this one. If you really like hops, you can’t really go wrong with any of the house brews. For Mike and I though, this kept most of them down to only a three out of five. The beers also shared a bit of creaminess in the mouthfeel which was very welcome.

The Regatta Golden Kolsch was the exception, which displayed an appropriate level of malt and no really significant hop presence, just a delightful citrusy flavor that could have come from either a light application of hops or yeast effects.

We both felt that the Pale would make a much better IPA than a Pale Ale. It wasn’t that it was a bad beer, but the hoppiness seemed a bit much for us to consider it a Pale, but I suppose that’s fashionable. One thing I noted, however, was that drinking the dregs of the Pale Ale taster after it had warmed was a bit more pleasant. There was some nice notes of butterscotch that came out as it warmed up, and I suspect this one would make a fantastic cask ale.

We also found the coffee notes in the Porter to be a bit too assertive, as was the hops in the aftertaste. But again, this is highly palate dependent.

The most interesting of the house brews, however, was the Cambridge Amber. Again it seemed over-hopped for an amber, but the malt complexity helped balance this and make it a very fine beer indeed. I picked up a hint of smokiness that I really latched onto and Mike and I both got welcome notes of peach, probably yeast derived. This was the only beer from the main lineup that earned a four out of five.

The Hefeweizen was interesting too, in that it seemed to suffer the opposite affliction of most American brewed hefeweizens. Usually American brewers tend to eschew the more phenolic yeasts used by the Germans in favor of estery american ale yeasts. The result is fruity, often overly citrusy, and wholly unpleasant to me. It seems CBC took the opposite extreme here with the phenolic notes being a bit too assertive for me. I gave it a three, but it might have warmed on me had I had longer with it.

The Half Wit was one of the drier Belgian White Ales I’ve had, but I think that’s appropriate to the style. The citrus orange flavor was a bit more mild than I’m used to as well. It had the expected coriander notes and a balanced flavor. It also went down quite smooth. Personally I had to give it a three because the dryness was too much for me, but Mike liked this one alot, and gave it a four.

After the dainty tasters it was time for what we love best: the big, the bold, and the Belgian. CBC really shines when it comes to the big, unique beers that Mike and I enjoy, employing lots of wood aging, Brettanomyces yeast, bacterial cultures, and anything else they can find to make the best beer possible. The higher alcohol beers on their seasonal menu are what keeps us coming back; they might not be for everyone but often seem tailor-made to our malt-and-yeast starved palates. Also, don’t let the fact that they refer to them as “seasonals” fool you. This portion of the menu is ever changing and if you find something you like, you need to take advantage of it as much as possible. Mike still feels the sting he experienced when hearing months ago that they had run out of the Kendall Weiss Berlinerweiss (codenamed “the Woodruff” by the Punks). Be forewarned, the best beers here will not stay around long and are often unavailable in growlers, so come early and often while you can.

Mike started off with the Cerise Cassee, a sour wild ale with cherries fermented slowly by a cocktail of wild yeast strains and bacterial cultures in French oak wine barrels. It was pretty aggressively sour, exhibiting some character that I’ve seen in CBC’s specialty beers before, reminding me a bit of sweet pickle juice. I’m a fan of pickle juice mind you, but not generally in my beer. The balance was a bit too sour for me and I probably wouldn’t order it again, but Mike really enjoyed the aftertaste, which reminded him of sour cherries, and it went down kind of crisp and refreshing due to all of the acidity. I gave it a two, Mike was more pleased and gave it a three. With a bit more sweetness in the balance I would have been more generous. One thing we could agree on, this one is not a session beer, but worth a try if you’re into funk.

The importance of balance was reflected in our more generous scores for the other two new specialty beers we tried. Both “YouEnjoyMyStout” and Arquebus had a detectable level of that same pickle juice tang in them, but both garnered four out five from at least one of us.

The Arquebus was referred to as a summer barleywine. Intrigued, I asked what that meant. The more familiar winter barleywine from CBC, Blunderbuss (which we’ve consistently placed somewhere between a three and a four) is a more typical barleywine: heavy, sweet balance, extraordinarily complex yeast and malt character, and very light on hops. The Arquebus includes honey and white wine grapes into the typical malt bill for a lighter, dryer character that is more seasonally appropriate. It also uses a bit more hops for slightly more bitter balance. Mike likened it to his much beloved mead (honey wine) that we often taste at the Sunset, but carbonated. I agreed – more specifically the flavor reminded me of a few samples of braggot I’ve tried (this would be mead with malt included along with the honey). There was a hint of tang to it as I said, but this was well balanced by the sweetness and hops. The nose was a bit harder for me to like, since there wasn’t as much hop and the sourness was thus much more assertive. On flavor alone I would have agreed with Mike that this was a four, but the nose was a little off-putting and I gave it a three.

YouEnjoyMyStout (the long name of which makes it a nice sobriety check for the bartender near last call, for sure) was a barrel aged imperial stout. Looking back at our notes, we had an opportunity to taste an aged YEMS sometime around the 20th anniversary of CBC earlier this year. We weren’t that impressed; we found the wood character was a little overwhelming. So we were a little skeptical about this one, but CBC pulled through. The wood character was much milder (probably due to the shorter aging period? I don’t know if they rack this one out of the barrels at some point) and offered a delightful, delicate coconut aftertaste that lingered well after the initial burst of chocolate had dropped off. The flavor had notes of that same sour pickly tang, but was well balanced by the roasty malt complexity. Comparing this to other Russian Imperial Stouts we’ve had, it was a totally different animal; tangy and far less hoppy, with a much lighter body (possibly due to their typical wild yeast treatments? their description doesn’t describe the fermentation of this one in any detail). We gave the 2007 vintage a two, but in retrospect I feel this was unjust. We were comparing it against a baseline we were quite familiar with – the RIS style – when we should have been tasting it as more of a Belgian specialty. This younger version was fantastic, garnering a solid four out of five.

Finally, Mike and I finished the evening by returning to an old friend: the Benevolence. Benevolence has been available at the CBC for some time now; it’s a truly unique beer, roughly based around Belgian lambic and Flanders sour ale brewing methods, coupled with lots of fruit and honey additions, aging in used bourbon casks. The CBC website does a far more thorough description than I could, so I won’t bother with the plagiarism. Just know this one’s a doozy. Last time we did a tasting, the Benevolence earned a five out of five, with Mike likening it to Port (I, the uncultured slob, having no idea what port tastes like, said it was chocolatey and fruity). This time the chocolate notes overtook all else, with Mike likening it to a chocolate martini. Then I picked up some plum, dark cherry, and other fruit notes. Then Mike caught some chocolate covered cherries and rum. Really not sure how to put this one, except to say that this is a phenominally complex beer that will offer up something different on every sip. Still very worthy of a five out of five.

Heaven forbid someone in your party is not a beer lover, the CBC also carries wine from Sutton Cellars of Sonoma, CA, who share their same penchant for wild fermentations. I tried some on a previous visit, I won’t do them the injustice of trying to give tasting notes on it, but it was a very interesting wine that even I could enjoy. This is, I understand, a rarity in the wine world, as vintners do not generally share the brewers’ penchant for such things as Brettanomyces and bacterial cultures.

As for food, we were underwhelmed by the nachos (they could learn a thing or two from the Sunset Grill and Tap on that one) but the pizzas are fantastic. Specifically we had the one with Italian salami and Banana Peppers. We’ve also had a mean Chicken Mole at the CBC on a previous visit, but it wasn’t on the menu this time. From what we’ve seen coming from the kitchen, some of their bar snacks are lacking, but the pizzas and entrees appear to be a good bet.

In summation, with their beer menu split between the simple and the sublime, and some interesting beer alternatives like wild fermented wines, as well as a respectable food menu and very sociable, open atmosphere, CBC is a great option for diverse groups in the Kendall/Central square areas of Cambridge. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best option for excellent beer in Cambridge/Somerville, if not for the fact that I crave variety more than anything and CBC only serves it’s own beer. It does sit shoulder to shoulder with Bukowski’s for this honor, however.

07/20/09

A Seattle Beer-venture

On a recent visit to Seattle I took it upon myself to visit as many local breweries as possible within a single day. I was not happy about the time constraint, but due to scheduling issues it was all I could muster up. I eventually dubbed this mission my ‘Seattle Beer-venture’ (I think this was after beer 10 or 15). Thanks to readers’ recommendations and my own internet search skills, I started the day with a list of seven brewers. My cousin, who lives in Redmond, was not only an eager volunteer, but agreed to drive; a massive problem solved! It was around 11:30AM when we decided to shove off, with the first stop being Elysian Brewing Company for some beer and lunch.

Elysian Brewing Company: Located toward the far end of Pike Street away from the famous Pike Market, Elysian occupies a large concrete corner building clearly displaying the company’s insignias. The inside is separated into a restaurant/bar on one half with the brewery taking up the rest of the room, visible through clear glass windows. The food menu was pretty robust with several decent selections. But that wasn’t why I was there. As you would expect of most brew pubs the beer menu rotates, and the day I was there they had at least seven selections (I say seven because that’s how many I actually tried and I am sure there were more). They also have two sampler options the first of which is called the Elysian Sampler that includes their ESB, IPA, Porter, Pilsner, and Jasmine IPA. The other choice is the Bartender’s Sampler, and is akin an omakase of tastings, meaning the bartender selects what he believes to be the best choices during that season or day. I of course went with the Bartender’s Sampler. For me the sampler included the Loser Pale Ale, Saison Poivre, Son of Bete Blanche, Bifrost Winter Ale, and Hydra Hefeweizen. In addition I ordered taster size portions of the Perseus Porter and Dragonstooth Stout. Barring only a few exceptions, I really enjoyed my choices at Elysian. I rather enjoyed the Loser Pale Ale and the Dragonstooth Stout, while I found the Saison Poivre and the Hydra Hefwezein somewhat disappointing.

I found the Loser Pale Ale to have a bit of a hoppy/sweet nose with a light body, balanced flavor, and a clean finish. Pale Ales are not amongst my favorite category of beer, but if they were this one would definitely be a winner. I also believe this beer is a one-off production from the company, so get it while you can.

If you like-I mean really like-peppercorn then the Saison Poivre is for you. However, when I think peppercorn I can’t help but think of my perennial favorite Route Des Épices by Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal; Elysian’s Saison Poivre just can’t compare. The delicacy of the saison style just couldn’t hold up to the peppercorn; it works much better against the rye background chosen by Dieu Du Ciel. A more subtle application of the peppercorn would have been better received.

Like the search for the great American novel, the Punks have been on the lookout for the great American hefeweizen, but the white whale still eludes us. As a hefe fan I had high hopes for the Hydra Hefeweizen, but found the taste of banana to be somewhat overpowering leading to a slightly unbalanced beer. Schneider and Ayinger still make my favorite hefes.

The Dragontooth’s Stout had a great roasty and chocolaty nose, a smooth body, flavor punctuated with hints of chocolate and hops, and a slightly bitter and malty finish. My cousin commented that it would be a great burger beer, and I don’t disagree.

 

Fremont Brewing Company: After finishing up lunch we decided to head over to the Fremont Brewing Company. Now here’s the thing about this place, when I was doing my research I couldn’t figure out if they were actually selling beer yet. According to the internet, they were incredibly new and still in the midst of starting up, but we decided to take our chances. This risk paid off. We pull around an unassuming corner in a commercial/industrial neighborhood, and I get a quick glimpse through and open garage door of what appears to be a mountain of kegs and brewing equipment. We quickly parked and headed in. Once inside I was greeted by a somewhat bewildered and very busy staff. I introduced myself, and to my surprise they not only seemed happy for the intrusion, but eager to tell their story. I began speaking to Matt and Kemp, who to my surprise turned out to be the owners of the Fremont Brewing Company. I must admit anyone displaying this much enthusiasm toward the art is sure to succeed. I really appreciate the time these guys gave me as they were just about ready to finish up a big batch of their Universe Pale Ale.

Despite the fact they clearly weren’t quite ready to receive guests, I was still able to obtain a growler of their Universe Pale Ale, and even taste a sample of green beer right from the fermenter. It was a very pleasant beer, and I envy those people in Fremont who will be able to walk over to refill their growlers at anytime.

In addition to the Universe Pale Ale, Fremont will be offering an Interurban India Pale Ale, named after a nearby statue. Another aspect of this brewer I shouldn’t fail to mention is the fact that they try to utilize as many locally grown and organic ingredients as they can in a sustainable way. They will also soon open a tasting room on the second floor of their brewery with great views of Seattle and Mount Rainier; I recommend visiting if you are in the area. Fremont’s beer will be sold in kegs, cans, and growlers.

Hale’s Ales: Prior to leaving Fremont Brewing, Matt and Kemp, knowing my intentions for the day, suggested I try Hale’s Ales right down the block. How could I say no? Hale’s Ales is located between the Fremont and Ballard districts of Seattle in a large industrial/commercial area.
The building itself is spacious and contains both a brewpub and brewery serving a full menu of food. As you can tell by the name Hale’s Ales specializes in English style ales, and claim to have produced the first nitrogen conditioned ale in the US.

On that note the Hale’s Cream Ale was exceptional, and a must have if you visit. The bar staff seemed somewhat cold, but very knowledgeable. When I visited there were over 15 beers on tap organized by light, hoppy, malty, and dark. Unfortunately, being overwhelmed by the vast selection of beers, and realizing how many brewers I had left to visit, I was only able to sample four beers; the Troll Porter, Imperial Stout, Hale Cream Stout, and the El Jefe Hefeweizen. The Cream Stout was far and away the best beer of this selection, teetering on a 5 out of 5 on the Trappist Punk’s beer scale. My second favorite was the troll porter, while the El Jefe Hefeweizen was my least favorite.

Georgetown Brewing Company: Next we made our way over to the south side of Seattle and visited the Georgetown Brewery. Let me start off by saying this was without question was my favorite stop of the day. Nestled in an old refurbished industrial complex, the Georgetown Brewery served one of the best and most consistent lineups of beers I have ever tasted. The store itself is a small room in the brewery, which sells various logoed paraphernalia, and of course beer. They also offer free tastings.

The first beer I tasted was called Lisa’s Chocolate Stout, named after the brewer’s retail manager. It was fantastic. Quite possibly the best chocolate stout this mouth has ever tasted. Sadly, this beer was made for a special event, and despite being named after the retail manager, is not being sold. In fact, you can’t even purchase growlers from their store front; it is for tasting only, so get there quick! I was also told they use organic chocolate from Theo Chocolate in the brewing process. After tasting this masterpiece I had to try more.

Next on the agenda was the Nine Pound Porter, named after a neighborhood bar. Like the stout, this was another amazing beer. In a nutshell, it had a sweet nose, nice malty character, and an excellent finish. At this point I had to ask, “How can I get your beer in NY or Boston?” The answer, “You can’t…” At the moment Georgetown’s brews can only be found in Washington and Idaho, and maybe soon in Oregon. The owners are fearful of over expansion as they do not want to compromise the quality of their amazing beer; I can respect that, but wish I didn’t have to go all the way back to Seattle to refill that growler!

Finally, I tasted Manny’s Pale Ale and Chopper’s Ale and both were winners. The bottom line here is if you are in Seattle and looking for good beer you must go and seek out Georgetown Brewery…

The Pike Pub & Brewery: Next we made our way to The Pike Brewery located in downtown Seattle, very close to the famous Pike’s Market. I feared this brewpub would turn out to be nothing more than a glorified T.G.I. Friday’s, given its location near a tourist mecca. But, ever seeking diamonds in the rough, I had to give it a shot.

In the end though my hunch was correct. I had the beer sampler, consisting of a multitude of beers ranging from mediocre to bad, with the Kilt Lifter being the only exception. I sadly left the bulk of it behind; as I knew I had at least one more stop ahead and didn’t want to fill myself up with low quality beer. If you are in this neighborhood and are looking for a good beer, then I recommend going up the street a ways and finding the Elysian Brewing Company, you won’t be disappointed.

Black Raven (Redmond, WA): For the last stop of the day we found the relatively new Black Raven Brewery in Redmond Washington. The brewery was located on the outskirts of the city in an office/industrial complex. Redmonders and those who work for Microsoft can rejoice in the fact that within their midst has sprung up a superb brewery with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. According to my notes, and after several beers, I coined the Black Raven as “The Pride of Redmond”. It was clear from the moment I walked through the door that these guys knew beer; the beer list read was as large and varied as one would expect from any high-end European or American craft-brewer. Nor was the quantity out step with the quality.

I was even slightly astonished to discover that I thoroughly enjoyed their hefeweizen and Kristale Wheat (actually a kristallweizen; all of their core products are name after ravens from literature and folklore) , despite my bias against American hefes. Other notable beers included the Morrighan Stout and La Petite Morte. If you are in the Redmond area and in search of some excellent locally made craft beers, then look no further and head to The Black Raven immediately.
06/30/09

A Korean Beer Quest II: Seoul Microbreweries

While traveling abroad I found myself in Korea for two weeks with no real agenda. So one evening I decided to take a friend’s advice and explore the city’s Apgujeong district, known as ‘Apgu’ for short. Apgu is known to be the city’s high end residential, fashion, and restaurant district. To my surprise, mixed in amongst Seoul’s numerous soju tents (quite an experience), trendy martini bars, clubs, and dives, I found two hidden gems. I was lucky enough to stumble upon not just one, but two microbreweries, and only blocks apart.

The first of the microbreweries was a bit of an eclectic establishment referred to, on their card at least, as Cafe, Pops Cool. The small staff consisting of a manager, a waitress, and a cook were all incredibly polite, and this was despite my lackluster Korean language skills. Communication at times was definitely a challenge, but all part of the local experience. Nevertheless, beer is a universal language, and once the staff recognized I was an advocate I was offered a tour of the premise, including the brewery. The brewery was quite small, but still impressive. That night they were serving two options a light beer and a black dunkel; I had both. The dunkel was definitely my preference, but both were vastly superior to the Korean mass-produced beer Hite or OB. Cafe, Pops Cool is definitely a good option for a quality brew from a friendly staff while touring Apgu.

Next on the list was Platinum Microbrewery also located in Apgu (there are apparently two in Seoul). This bar/restaurant was clearly designed to be more modern and high-end when compared to Cafe, Pops Cool’s, and this showed in the prices. It was a rather large dimly lit space that would be great for a date. The food and beer list was quite extensive with seven beers on tap. The food was decent, and the beer was satisfactory. However, I preferred the dark beer from Cafe, Pops Cool to any of Platinum’s selections. But, if you do find yourself visiting be sure to try the beer sampler, its the biggest bang for your Won. If my memory serves me correctly, then I believe Platinum’s Belgium White, at least to me, was the most impressive option.

If you liked this article then you would likely find this posting from seoulgirl discussing Seoul microbreweries, especially Platinum, an interesting read.

Also, I will soon be visiting the Seatlle area, and hope to do some beer related touring and tasting, so please email me or leave some comments to this post with any suggestions.

06/29/09

A Korean Beer Quest: Into the DMZ


This may sound cliché, but this is how it happened… One Sunday evening while I was touring a famous section of Seoul called Apgujeong; I stepped into an unassuming bar aptly named Rock and Roll Pub. There I sat drinking very reasonably priced Leffe Browns when I noticed another American. Being friendly as I am I went over and said hello. This quickly led to quite a drinking session for a Sunday night. The other American, who was named Adam, turned out to be quite the worldly character with an array of exciting stories from across the globe. But, one story particularly caught my attention. He told me that years ago when he was touring the DMZ between North and South Korea, there in a little shop he found North Korean beer. I was shocked and excited. Might I as well be able to try the forbidden brew? All I knew is that I needed to find out. I could only imagine Hogan’s reaction if I had to tell him I passed on this beer-related quest. The next day I booked my tour.

I was a little unnerved to discover my pickup was scheduled for 7:00AM knowing in all likelihood I would be at least slightly hung-over, but there was no way I was going to pass on the chance to explore the DMZ and maybe try some of North Korea’s finest. The guide arrives at my hotel; her name is Choi, and it turns out I am the only person on today’s tour, a private tour! Now I really can’t complain. After some general chit chat I decide to ask her the question really on my mind, “Will I be able to purchase North Korean beer on this tour.” Her response, “Can’t say I ever heard of that.” My heart sank, was Adam wrong?

We arrive and after watching a quick introductory film on the DMZ, which oddly gives the impression that the place is something akin to Disney Land, despite the 10 million landmines. We start off touring the 3rd infantry tunnel. This tunnel was secretly dug by the North Koreans to accommodate a potential sneak attack on Seoul, scary when you think about it. Hopefully one day these tensions ease and the tunnel can be used for something more worthwhile like beer running.

Outside the tunnel I notice a small gift shop; I start to wonder. However, as I walk through the door hope fades quickly. I immediately notice all the typical touristy wares: postcards, T-shirts, etc… One unique item was a small paperweight like object featuring a piece of barbed wire from the original DMZ. By this point I was sure even if there ever was North Korean brews sold in the DMZ they were long drank, it was time for me to just enjoy the day…

I called a last minute audible and decided to pickup some water before we left, so I headed over to the small fridge. My eyes lit up like Ponce de Leon discovering the fountain of youth; there it was… the prize, Taedonggang Maekju! I couldn’t believe it, there it sat unassumingly surrounded by bottled water and North Korean Soju. I immediately rejoiced and made the purchase. I didn’t however imbibe the beverage until I reunited with Hogan, so by this time it had become somewhat skunky, but was still rather refreshing; overall we both thought it would be a decent beer. But by this point it wasn’t about the taste it was about the journey.

Here is a great article from Reuters discussing the background of this beer in pretty good detail.

06/28/09

American Craft Beer Festival 2009 Part Two: Tasting Notes

Now that we’ve gone over some of the practicalities, lets get to the beer. Remember, we were only able to cover a small subset of what was at the festival, and we were focusing on beer we can’t find locally, so New England microbrews will be underrepresented.

First, the most consistently fantastic breweries. These are breweries that we tried multiple beers from and consistently scored high marks (4 or 5 on our scale from 0 to 5) by each of us.

  • The Duck and Rabbit Brewery (NC): they describe themselves as the dark beer specialists, how could we resist? The RIS scored a 4, and the barleywine a 5. I also tried something else from D&R on Friday night but my notes are unintelligible as to what…all I knows is that (thankfully) I liked it enough to drag Mike and Helen back to them on Saturday.
  • New Holland Brewing Company (MI): It’s a rare brewery that makes an Imperial IPA that gets rave reviews from the Punks, but New Holland managed to pull it off. The only thing that kept Imperial Mad Hatter from a five was a slightly harsher pine resin aftertaste than we like. Their Night Tripper Imperial Stout had no such affliction, the finish seemed so much smoother than our standard-bearing Stone RIS that I could knock them down all night (though it might make for a short night). In all fairness, I didn’t care much for the Saison I had Friday night, the body was a bit light for my taste. But that’s not out of character for a Saison, so I can’t really blame them; this is a case of the style not matching my palate rather than the beer not matching the style.
  • Weyerbacher (PA): This was the one exception to our “try something new” rule. This is a perennial favorite of ours but is a little expensive at our local watering hole and had a relatively short line. The Old Heathen Imperial Stout had an intense chocolate flavor and a fantastic nose, though we were wanting for a bit more body (the Punks feel it isn’t a stout if you don’t have to chew before you swallow). This didn’t keep it from getting a five on our scale. XIV, their Belgian Wheat Wine was also a favorite of ours simply for its uniqueness. Pairing the unique spicy character of wheat malt with the complex sweetness of a barleywine earned them a four.
  • Southampton Publick House (NY) – I’ve tried Southampton’s Saison before and was quite impressed. So impressed that I thought it was a Belgian brewery. Apparently they are based out of Long Island and make far more Belgian-inspired beers. I tried the Publick House 12 (Abbey Dark Ale) and was blown away (again my notes aren’t really intelligible on this point). I was so impressed that I returned for the Imperial Porter, which was equally impressive. Unfortunately Mike and Helen didn’t make it to this one so you’ll have to take my word on it, but suffice it to say there is a trip to Long Island in store for the Punks at some point.

Next, some musings on ingredients. We had a watermelon beer from Opa Opa that earned a four from everyone but me; I have a well known prejudice against fruit beers. For the record, Mike and I have tried the Watermelon Wheat from 21st Amendment (Come Hell or High Watermelon) on two occasions in the past (not knowing it was the same beer) and had radically different conclusions. We suspect it is because the quality of flavor in the watermelons used varies throughout the season; on one occasion it tasted somewhat artificial, on the other it was more natural. We both agreed that the Opa Opa beer had a more natural watermelon flavor than either of the 21A tastings, but that may have been influenced by the fact that they included a watermelon wedge that was nearly as large as our tasting glass. Note to brewers…nice gimmick but please don’t garnish a taster. I tried the dregs of the taster, trying to figure out what the base style was, but found the body was thicker than usual, because I was drinking watermelon pulp by that point. I wasn’t pleased.

I was, however, pleased and intrigued with the various beers containing rye as an ingredient. Several Rye-based IPAs were present, most notably two from Terrapin Beer Company in GA (The Rye PA single IPA, and Rye Squared, a Double IPA). I loved the way the spicy rye character played with the hop character and can’t wait to try playing more with Rye in his own brewing. The balance was relatively light on the bitterness and quite malty for an IPA (especially the DIPA), which is another well known Punk prejudice, earning both beers a four.

I also got a chance to try Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Maron when the line was actually managable on Friday night. The thing that drew me to this beer was that the wood it was aged in is apparently designated a potentially endangered species. Make sure you get some while you still can, it was a fantastic beer: thick creamy mouthfeel, wonderful smokey nose, and a flavor reminiscent of a Russian Imperial Stout but more sour and less roasty (the actual style was Imperial Brown Ale). The finish was a little harsher and more bitter than I like, which kept it just shy of a five, but a very solid, respectible four.

Until next time, slainte!