07/30/09

Jim Koch Responds to President Obama’s Beer Choice on CNBC

Earlier in the day it was announced that President Obama would be drinking Bud Light, Professor Gates Red Stripe, and Officer Crowley Blue Moon. The issue CNBC raises is that none of these beers are actually produced by a fully owned US company. Anheuser-Busch is now run by Belgium’s Inbev, Blue Moon is produced by the Molson Coors Brewing Company in Toronto, and Red Stripe is a product of Jamaica.

07/29/09

Tough Decisions: Can v. Bottle

In 2005, Jim Koch over at the Boston Beer Company (the craft beer magnate that brews Samuel Adams) released a controversial advertising campaign known as the “Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights.” What was the hub-bub all about? He dared take a shot at the nascent movement of putting craft beer in cans.

Craft beer in cans may sound like a contradiction for some people who are used to finding cans only at the gas station or grocery store, but this movement has only grown more visible in the past four years. Just off the top of my head, I know I can walk into Punk Fave the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston and find beers from Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment that are quite respectable. Mike has also had Pork Slap Ale from Butternuts and found it to be under-appreciated, and quite good for a relatively cheap craft ale. I’ve also heard that New Belgium in Colorado is in on the act. Even small, brand new breweries are eschewing convention-on a recent trip to Seattle Mike investigated the Fremont Brewery-small upstarts that were quite shocked to find him wandering into the warehouse that housed their brewery-and found to his surprise that they too were going with cans.

So if even the little guys are now brave enough to can their beer, how did cans get such a bad name? Basically, it comes down to startup costs. Bottles come empty and blank (with the exception of a few painted bottles mostly produced by mass-producers like Budweiser and Modelo), labels are printed cheaply and applied at the brewery. The fact that the bottles are manufactured blank makes it much cheaper to buy them in small volumes. Aluminum cans on the other hand don’t generally get a label at the brewery, so they are purchased preprinted and in bulk. Lots of bulk. Even a small, brand new operation-like Fremont-had to buy 500,000 cans just to get started. That’s in addition to more complicated and expensive equipment (take for instance the fact that homebrewers always bottle, never can…in the early days of a brewery, when capital budgets are tight, bottling can be done with cheap manual equipment, but canning cannot).

This meant that back in the formative years of the brewing industry in this country (post-prohibition) the mega-brewers that were producing large amounts of fizzy yellow stuff for nationwide distribution were the only ones who could afford cans. Over the years they gradually outmaneuvered or absorbed most of the competition and consolidated the market so that, for all intents and purposes, this was all there was. Indeed even today, for all the hullabaloo over craft brewing, all the craft beer makers in the US only have a 6.3% market share combined according to the Brewer’s Association, with the nations largest brewer by volume, Anheuser Busch, enjoying nearly a 50% market share on its own. So over time, everyone has begun to associate canned beer with the main producers of it: the massive goliaths that dominate the market.

The question is, are you tasting the can or the beer? Honestly, this is a tough question to answer scientifically. I’ve seen a few people try this experiment and it always seems to end in inconclusive results. They tried it once on the podcast Beer School, for instance, and were foiled by the fact that the cans and bottles had vastly different born-on dates and therefore one was skunked and the other was not (time is not a friend to the lager). Even had they been more diligent and gotten identical born on dates, one would have to wonder about the conditions encountered by the beer between the brewery and the store. So we won’t try to recreate this experiment. We can, however, examine the arguments made by each side.

On flavor, can proponents will tell you that the metallic taste once reported by canned beer drinkers is long gone, eliminated by the invention of improved can liners. Before the 1930s, cans couldn’t even hold beer without exploding, until a solvent-based liner was invented to sure up the inside of the cans against the pressure of carbonation. But in the 1980s this technology was improved upon, and now, supposedly, the trouble is gone.

When grilled about this in response to the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights, Jim Koch said that the problem was the areas of the can that are not lined: the tab and the lip that surrounds it. This is where you drink from, so it should have an impact on the flavor, right? Whoa there Jim, didn’t you read my post earlier this week? Item number one in the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights should be a glass with an opening big enough to invite their nose to the party. Even at the ballpark they could give you a dixie cup for crying out loud.

So on sheer taste I’m going to go out on a limb here and say its a tie. The fact that several sources attempting an objective test on this were unable to achieve a conclusive result leads me to think it’s too close for the average consumer to judge, and I’d say that the impact on flavor from instantaneous contact with uncoated aluminum will have less impact that cutting your nose off to spite your taste, so to speak. Just pour your beer into a cup and don’t really care where it came from before that. What about other factors?

One important thing to consider is the thermal characteristics. Glass is a much better thermal insulator than aluminum. One could view this as a double edged sword, however. On the one hand cans will get colder faster than glass bottles (one reason some of the mega brewers are now producing aluminum bottles as a hybrid solution). On the other hand, holding your beer warms it, so an aluminum can’s higher conductivity would mean that it gets warm quicker.

Not so fast-don’t just stand there holding your beer, pour it in a glass, remember? Preferably a glass with the same insulating qualities as a glass bottle, rather than a plastic cup. So it seems that on thermal qualities, cans win out as long as we continue to respect the beer rather than the packaging. Another wildcard here is thermal wraps that can be applied to the inside of cans by the manufacturers. I’m not sure how this would alter the equation, ask a packaging engineer.

Cans certainly seem like a more efficient mechanism for transporting and storing beer as well. They are much more uniformly shaped, allowing them to stack much better than bottles. The long neck on bottles is primarily headspace, containing no beer. The headspace on a can is much smaller even though they both hold the same twelve ounces. Cans are lighter, too. Much lighter. According to the same Beer School episode, transporting 1000 oz of beer in aluminum cans involves only 3 lbs of packaging, whereas the same amount in glass would require 27 lbs!

This would seem to imply much lower shipping costs and make cans the environmentally friendly choice. But when I started really looking into that, the answer gets alot more complicated. Producing aluminum cans uses nearly twice as much energy as producing a similar amount of aluminum. Considering recycling makes it even more complicated. I found two separate sources examining the debate from this angle which led to completely opposite conclusions: in one case bottles had a higher return rate than cans. In the other aluminum cans have as much as twice the post-consumer recycled materials in it (40% v 20-30%). But the other source seemed to feel glass was more recyclable than aluminum.

Then there’s the real wildcard: reuse.  As a homebrewer I can tell you that I have mountains of empty glass bottles around my house. I’m not saving them to recycle, I’m saving them to refill and cap. You see, the same bottle that you return for your 5 or 10 cent deposit can cost upwards of fifty cents to a dollar to buy brand new. This is why many breweries in Europe collect used bottles, sanitize, and refill them. This is probably one reason Grolsch-style bottles with their swing tops are so popular in Germany; even the tops are reusable. The Beer School podcast even related a story about “beer men” in some areas – just like the milk man of old, he would go door to door and swap out empty bottles for full ones (not sure if this story was true or not, but it was poignant and very amusing).

So what’s the environmentally conscious craft beer consumer to do? For one thing, recycle. Every can, every bottle, every time. If you are a homebrewer, do one better and reuse your bottles. If you’re not…become one! Honestly though, these questions of carbon footprints and environmental impacts are always too nettlesome for me, and always turn out to be more complicated than they seem on the surface. After all, how environmentally friendly is the poisonous mercury in that CFL bulb? Is it better to keep driving your inefficient clunker, or chuck it in a landfill and buy a hybrid, fresh off the dirty assembly line? The bottom line is that the only sure thing is to use less and find other uses for what you do consume so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

One final point that the can-pushers like to bring up is that cans are better at keeping oxygen and light at bay. This is certainly true of light, just looking at a can next to a bottle is all you need to prove that. I was unable to find actual data on the oxygen permeativity of cans vs bottles, so that could just be marketing hype. So I suppose cans nudge out bottles by a slim margin here, unless you consider green bottles. Brown glass bottles are perfectly fine for conveying beer so long as they are treated reasonably (don’t leave the pallet sitting in the hot sun outside the warehouse, etc). With more brewers paying closer attention to quality control, I’m inclined to believe that beer is treated better now than in the past, and I’ll never pass up a dark glass bottle. But green or-horrors-clear glass bottles…as pretty or retro as they may appear…are not a respectable home for beer. This is a constant source of conflict for me since I love Pilsner Urquell, but the brewers insist on choosing tradition over clearly superior transport mechanisms.

So what’s the final tally?

  • Taste is likely a wash if you pour it in a glass.
  • Thermal characteristics are marginally in favor of cans, again if you pour it in a glass.
  • Efficient storage and transportation goes in favor cans, big time.
  • Environmental impact is too complicated for this Punk.
  • Beer protection again falls marginally in favor of cans.

It would appear that cans are the superior option. But again, lets not forget the reuse potential of bottles, which is largely ignored by this country, unlike our neighbors across the pond. But the bottom line is this: you are drinking beer, not the container it came in. Good beer will taste good even if you sip it from dirty boots (I imagine…never tried this one). Just don’t let your prejudice against certain canned beers stop you from enjoying good ones, and for heaven’s sake, invest in a glass so you can put this debate to rest already!

07/28/09

HostOurCoast’s Visit with Dogfish Head

TheobromaOn Facebook recently, I came across an old college friend of ours Paul, who has been running a blog about travel along the Delaware/Maryland/Virginia coast. Paul just visited the Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware and apparently was lucky enough to get a personal tour led by founder Sam Calagione.

Paul posted a video in which Sam spoke about the process that went into Midas’ Touch and the new Theobroma. Fascinating story here, archeologists analyze the traces of chemicals left on pottery found at ancient sites including King Midas’ tomb and a site in Honduras, and find out as much as they can about the liquids that the vessels used to hold. Then they bring this data to Dogfish Head-which seems to be the de facto leader in the field of Archeological Brewing-and they try to brew a beverage to the same specifications. The new Theobroma (which translates as “food of the gods”) is based off of the oldest known use of cocoa, in an Aztec beverage containing honey, chilies, and annato seeds.

The article also makes mention of Santo Palo Maron, which as we pointed out in the ACBF post a few weeks back, is aged in barrels made of pseudo-endangered rain forest wood (presumably old barrels, not fresh ones) and tastes divine.

Anyway, check out the article. I hope sometime in the near future to get some samples of these beers, do some tasting notes and try to research some more about them, because I find this whole thing really cool. I had heard they could do this sort of thing but didn’t realize Dogfish Head was the leading expert in the field.

07/27/09

A President, A Professor, & A Police Officer Walk into a Bar, What Do They Order?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the start of a joke.  As many of you know President Obama has recently invited Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Officer Jim Crowley to the White House for a beer to resolve differences stemming from Professor Gates recent arrest.  This Punk has no intention of supplying any additional social commentary, but may have found the perfect beer for the occasion.

Let’s start with something all of these men have in common, that’s Boston (or more accurately Cambridge).  President Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law, Gates is a Professor at Harvard, and Crowley is a Cambridge Police Officer.  Now we all know Boston has its fair share of great beers.  The beer which immediately comes to mind, and most people’s obvious choice, would be Sam Adams,  but despite my love for Sam this beer isn’t really brewed in Boston anymore. The showpiece Boston brewery is only used as a research and development facility, with most of their brewing taking place in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

So we move on, the next choice would likely be Harpoon, another solid Boston brewery, but somehow this just doesn’t seem to fit the bill.

This brings us to my nomination…

The Cambridge Brewing Company produces a beer not only aptly named for the occasion, but holds a complexity of flavors that merge together to make for a wonderful outcome. This beer is Benevolence

Benevolence: (noun) a desire to do good to others; goodwill; charitableness.

Is this not precisely the President’s intention for the meeting?  So there we have it.  A beer from Cambridge, complex in its flavor, with a fantastic finish.  For me a clear winner for the matters at hand.

07/27/09

The Nose Knows: Why you should NEVER drink beer from the bottle

This is just a quick one; let’s consider it Beer Appreciation 101. Most of our readers don’t need this, in fact this is really more of a warning to the proprietors of drinking establishments.

Anheuser Busch (and all other makers of the fizzy yellow stuff most likely) have a single output from the brewery floor. All of the beer coming from the brewery is identical. Substantially identical. And yet how often do you hear someone spread the vicious untruth that beer tastes better from a keg than from a bottle or can? How can this be?

Picture yourself taking a sip from a pint glass, fresh from the keg. Where is your nose? It’s down over the beer, where it belongs. How about when you drink from the bottle? Floating in the air. The lip of a pint glass is bigger than the mouth of a bottle or can, and the latter simply will not accomodate your lips and nose at the same time. Go ahead, try…We’ll wait.

Why is this important? The human nose can detect thousands of distinct smells, often in infinitesimal amounts. The tongue can taste only five (six if you count capsaicin I believe). The rich tapestry of flavors in our food (and our beer) comes from the combination of these two senses by your brain; by not inviting your nose to the party you are missing out on all of the complexity. You can see this at work with any beer by simply pouring half into a glass and drinking the other half from the bottle. It is an astonishing difference, even with fizzy yellow lagers. Supercharge the difference by letting them each sit for a few minutes to let the aromas build up in the headspace and then breathing in as you drink (though this step is often unnecessary to see a real difference).

So I guess what I’m saying is, if you are trying to respect beer, never drink it from the bottle. EVER. If you are in a bar that serves you beer in a bottle without a glass, don’t be ashamed to ask for one,  send it back, or to walk out and never come back. Bar keeps, consider yourselves on notice. Anyone who disrespects the beer they serve is not worth our hard earned beer money.

Later this week – inspired by Mike’s discovery that the new Fremont Brewery in Seattle will be canning, rather than bottling their beer – we’ll delve into the debate on whether cans or bottles make more sense as a distribution mechanism for good beer. This was, however, a necessary prerequisite. Stay tuned.

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.

07/22/09

HopHead ThrowDown at Publick House in Brookline, MA

I found something from Beer Advocate in my inbox the other day that nicely illustrates the point I was making in our recent article about IBUs, so I thought I’d just share it.

It’s an invitation to a benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Society being held Sat 7/25 at the Publick House in Brookline, near where I live. I fully support the cause and encourage any hop heads out there to attend and do your part, and greatly respect that BA often throws together and promotes events like this in support of various causes.

What I’m less enthused about is the way it is being presented. “Enjoy insane IBUs and food that burns” … “demonically inspired, insanely-hopped abominations” … “depraved self-abuse of your palate” … honestly guys, who finds this appealing? Not to pick on BA here, because they aren’t the only ones guilty of such transgressions, they’re just catering to a subset of beer drinkers, and I’m just trying to enlighten those same drinkers as to what IBUs and bitterness really mean in the greater context of beer.

Again, please come out to support this cause, especially if you are a hop head, but while you’re tasting these abominations, remember that there is a difference between hop flavor and bitterness, and that balance goes much farther than intensity when it comes to good beer; at least that’s this Punk’s opinion. Ignore the numbers, just taste the beer.
Here’s the details for anybody who didn’t get it:

Join The Publick House in Brookline, MA _this_ Sat, Jul 25 as they host year six of this epic assault on your palate! Enjoy insane IBUs and food that burns … all in a benefit for The Multiple Sclerosis Society.

# DETAILS

* 20 (or so) tongue-numbing IPAs!

* Super spicy menu!

* Special guest appearances by the brewer, who will be laughing at the depraved self-abuse of your palate, lovingly inflicted by their demonically inspired, insanely-hopped abominations!

* Noon to 5pm. $15 charity cover at the door. Cash bar.

* 100% of the $15 cover goes directly to the MS Society, as does all proceeds made by the donated kegs.

Prepare to ThrowDown!

For updates, the list of beers, to tell other BAs that you’ll be there, and to see who else is going …

http://beeradvocate.com/events/info/26397

Cheers, hope to see you there, and spread the word!

Respect Beer.

Jason & Todd (Alström Bros)
Founders, http://beeradvocate.com

07/22/09

Good Beer Month & Good Beer Seal Comes to NYC

Earlier this month New York City Mayor Bloomberg declared July 2009 as ‘Good Beer Month’ in NYC. I didn’t think too much of this at first, but looking a bit more into it I discovered the idea was petitioned by a group who are establishing a new rating system for the big apple. To be specific, they have created what they are calling the ‘Good Beer Seal’. The ‘Seal’ will be given to beer bars throughout the city matching a certain set of criteria.

The requirements are as follows:

1. Have 80% craft domestic or special imported beer.

2. Serve a good portion of their beers via draft or cask ale program.

3. Maintain a strong ‘pub’ vibe as a nice, local place to drink a beer and visit with friends.

4. Active community presence, as well as being independently operated.

5. Good beer should be a strong feature if not the focus of the operation.

Will this catch on? I don’t know… Do I want it to? I am somewhat mixed about that; part of me would enjoy a nice comprehensive list of great beer bars in the big apple. But, some of the allure that comes with being a well-traveled New Yorker is showing your out of town and in some cases local friends that hidden gem, which you hope isn’t terribly crowded. But, in the end both friend and foe should have a chance to drink good beer, so I wish the program lots of luck. I just hope they remain diligent and stick to their core values while awarding the ‘Seal’; I would be rather upset to see TGI Fridays pop up on the list… By now most of you are aware of my disdain toward TGI Fridays, it all started when they got rid of their Nachos Grande 8 or so years ago…

Current bars on the list in Manhattan include:
Jimmy’s No. 43
Burp Castle
DBA
Standings
East Village Tavern
Blind Tiger
Against the Grain
The Pony Bar (One of my favorites)

Several bars I suggest they look at:
David Copperfields (and yes to my dismay the magician guy does own it)
Peculier Pub
Rattle N Hum
The Ginger Man
Vol de Nuit (as a Belgium bar it might be a stretch)

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.
07/20/09

Starbucks to Start Serving Beer?

Starbucks will be opening a new store in Seattle, which will serve coffee, tea, beer, and wine, according to an article by the San Francisco Business Times. They also plan to serve wine and beer at two additional stores in the Seattle area over the coming months. If successful, then the chain may begin selling alcoholic beverages nation-wide. The first store will be called “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”, and serve a half-dozen types of beer and wine, from $4 to $7. I don’t know about you, but I personally think this is a desperate attempt to improve sales, and well outside of the company’s scope. I hope to find out this news is a joke, but I am fearful it is not. One site I read said they were attempting to create a forum for late-night open poetry where they can serve both coffee and alcohol. Feel free to leave your opinion.