08/4/09

Liquefied Sweat Sock: The Geuze

One of the topics we intend to cover on this blog, which is not well understood by alot of American craft beer drinkers, is the insane beauty that is Belgian brewing. The Belgians do things a little differently than everyone else. The best way I can think of to introduce this concept is to talk about The Geuze.

We Punks always refer to “The Geuze” in a monolithic sense, with a simultaneous reverence and terror. This is a very unusual beer. In reality it is simply the most extreme version of the Lambic style of Belgian beer. Other examples of Lambic beer are far less extreme, examples including the fruit lambics such as Framboise (blackberry) or Kriek (cherry). If you’ve ever met a girl that claimed not to like beer, get them a Lindeman’s fruit lambic. They won’t believe it’s beer, but it’s sure to please; Lindeman’s Kriek tastes like black cherry soda in my opinion. Those of you that think Sam Adams makes a Cranberry “Lambic” might want to leave the room now. The beer may be tasty but it’s certainly not a lambic.

What sets Lambics apart from other beers is that they are not fermented by carefully cultivated, house broken Saccharomyces yeast. No, these beers undergo a process known as Spontaneous Fermentation. This is precisely what it sounds like: the unfermented wort is pumped into a kuhlship (an empty one from Allagash is shown in the image to the left) and left at the mercy of whatever little beasties happen to be present in the rafters of the brewery (or farmhouse as is often the case) or even blowing in through the open windows. This invites all kinds of species, not just wild yeast but even bacteria such as Lactobacillus to leave their mark on the wort. This brings us to the title (and one of the most pronounced flavor characteristics of The Geuze for many drinkers) – Lactobacillus is a bacteria that produces lactic acid, which is commonly found in sweat and gives The Geuze a sour odor that many people describe as similar to foot odor. Traditional Lambics are primarily brewed in a small area around Brussels, seasonally from October to May, when the weather limits the presence of undesirable bacteria. This reigns in this character a bit, but pick up any Geuze at your local liquor store and it will likely be unmistakable.

Spontaneous fermentation also gives rise to one of the more unique aspects of brewing a true Belgian Lambic: the art of blending. Just as different malts of scotch are blended, and in times of yore aged beer was cut into batches of new beer to “bring it forward” with a hint of aged complexity and tanginess (a tradition that Guiness still carries on in a way with intentionally soured batches for their Foreign Extra Stout), so do highly trained Belgians round out the differences in flavor from year to year by blending batches. If one year’s vintage got too much Lacto, that sourness can be offset by blending it into a previous year’s vintage that just wasn’t quite sour enough.

In this way, you can start to see why Belgian breweries have been around for so long and have not really changed much in the hundreds of years they have been brewing the same beer. Indeed there are stories of breweries that had to be shut down when it became necessary to move the old farmhouse the beer was brewed in; because the environment had simply changed just enough that they could not produce the same beer. There are also jokes about breweries whose beer simply didn’t taste the same after the old farmhouse dog died, because he wasn’t there to sneeze in the vats anymore.

And what about those fruit lambics? The sourness here tends to be undercut by the introduction of fruit after an initial period, which sets off a whole new round of fermentation. But if homebrewers are any indication, the insanity doesn’t end here. I have heard reports of otherwise sane and reasonable home brewers smashing their fruit and simply throwing it into the batch without any particular sanitation protocol, under the theory that any microorganisms on the fruit itself will simply add complexity to the fermentation character of the beer. Supposedly the results are quite good, if not exactly reliable.

As for tasting notes, the Punks have tried The Geuze on three occasions. First (always the guinea pig) I tried the Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene at home, and was unimpressed. The flavor was simply far too sour to get behind, though oddly (and disturbingly) the foot odor nose on it started to almost grow on me by the end of the bottle – almost. Maybe the worst of it dissipates with time, or maybe you become desensitized.

Eager to share the unpleasantness, I talked Mike into trying a Cantillon Geuze, also at home. Mike was forever changed. He said, and this is an exact quote, “I may never be able to drink Belgian fruit beer again.” (Remember, the Belgian fruit beers are built on a Lambic base, so some of the same flavor characteristics were present, but in a far more pronounced way in The Geuze.) He has largely kept good on this, as I have never seen him order a Belgian fruit beer since, and this was one style he would often try, before he met The Gueze.

The third occasion, however, brings us to the heart of the matter. Once at the Sunset I heard someone order a Cuvee Rene, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman. He said that he really enjoyed The Geuze, they had a certain dry complex character that reminded him of wine. Lindeman’s website describes The Gueze as cidery, winey, and reminiscent of dry vermouth. Tasting the Cuvee Rene with that for a new point of reference, I could almost (not quite) see what some people like in the stuff. Frankly, it’s not my thing, but it almost made sense to me, for a fleeting moment. This is why when the Punks refer to The Gueze, it is with both fear and reverence. This is, perhaps, the Mount Everest of beer appreciation, and the complexity of producing it is surely the pinnacle of insane, beautiful brewing.

08/3/09

China’s Growing Appreciation Toward Beer

ChinaBeerI was perusing the internet the other night, as I usually do, and began to notice a trend.  It all started with this headline: “SABMiller Halts Beer Volume Drop on Chinese Demand”.  At first I didn’t think too much of it, so I moved on.  Several minutes later, on a completely unrelated site, I come across this headline “Net profit in China’s major beer producer Yanjing up 25% in first half”.  Now I was convinced something was up, and I wanted to know more.

To my surprise, it turns out that by volume China is the world’s biggest beer consumer.  But, on a per capita basis China’s beer habit appears far less impressive at just 22.1 liters per year, this compares to 81.6 liters per year in the US.  However, both pale in comparison to the Czech Republic, whose residents imbibe an astounding 156.9 liters per capita–that’s roughly 41 gallons of beer per person per year!

This chart shows 2004′s annual beer consumption by volume for the top 15 countries, along with their per capita beer consumption:

Beer Consumption

Source: Kirin

Once my mind synthesized the headlines I mentioned earlier, and these beer statistics, I realized the global beer industry could be at the dawn of a new age, especially in China.  China’s population is currently estimated at around 1.3bn, compared to just 0.3bn in the US.  China’s rapid economic expansion has created a burgeoning middle class, whose tastes have shifted as incomes have risen.  Not only does this expanding middle class palate now crave things like pork over just vegetables, but also beer.

With this in mind lets run a simple exercise; let’s say as China’s economy develops, its per capita beer intake catches up with its nearby neighbor South Korea at 38.5.  This means China’s total beer consumption would rise to   50,050 ML–more than 2x the total US consumption…  Taking it one step further, if China’s per capita consumption catches up to that of the US, then China’s total beer consumption could equal that of the rest of the world combined.  I won’t event get into what happens if they catchup with the Czech’s, but I hope you have a stockpile!

450px-TsingtaobeerbottleMy point is that the Chinese beer industry’s potential is far from being realized.  In fact a recent report by Citigroup pointed out that China’s beer sector has bucked the recent economic slowdown with volumes up near 10% y/y in May. Major players in the domestic Chinese beer market include Tsingtao, Zhujiang, and Yanjing.  Tsingtao should stand to benefit quite nicely from increased consumption, based on its strong domestic brand name–I’ve thrown back more than my fair share while living there.  Numerous local brewers are also spread out across the country mostly catering to smaller geographical regions; consolidation is inevitable as the industry continues to develops.  Potential for brand-name foreign brewers is also off the charts, whether through local acquisitions or other types of investments.  I can’t imagine anything will slow this trend down, so just in case, here’s how to order a beer in Mandarin:

“Wo yao yi bei píjiu”

In case you need two…

“Wo yao liang bei píjiu”

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)