08/18/09

Beer Run with Billy Joel: Sunset Grill and Tap, Allston, MA

BeerIt was a weekday afternoon, and things at the Sunset were slow. The staff was killing time, no doubt talking about beer and pouring a lot of samples for the customers, as they sometimes do when there’s nothing left to do. Then it happened. In from the street walked a living legend…Billy Joel had entered the Sunset.

He took a seat at the bar, surrounded by an entourage, and asked for a beer list. He was ill prepared for what came next, as he was handed not a sheet of paper, but a book, with pages upon pages of beers from the world over, ever major style from every country imaginable. Flipping, flustered, through the many pages, he asked

“You..uh..got a lot of beer here, huh?”

“Yes, that’s kind of our thing…” the bartender replied.

“You got PBR?”

…As luck would have it, they did indeed have PBR; inexplicably since few people likely order it in this environment. So the story goes…

This is my own beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap, and I can tell you that the Pianoman’s story is far from unique. After all, who would expect such a wide selection of beer for all price ranges so close to the campus of Boston University, in the decidedly un-glamorous Boston neighborhood of Allston; this isn’t Back Bay or Beacon Hill after all. And yet there it is, like a diamond in the ruff (not to discount another gem, Deep Ellum, just down the street).

No, this is a very common tale; many’s the time that I sat at this bar taking notes on many a fine beer, and witnessed the confusion of a newcomer to this unassuming place when handed the beer list. I must look like I belong, almost like a permanent part of the decor, because questions often follow. Rest assured, I and many others here are more than happy to play tour guide, so if you find yourself here, don’t be afraid to ask questions, not only of the staff, but also the patrons. Who knows, if I had been there, poor Billy might not have gotten stuck with a PBR after all.

Just as you shouldn’t be intimidated by the clientele, don’t be intimidated by the list either. So many choices may be daunting at first, but in time you’ll come to understand that it just makes the place more versatile. If one can’t find a beer they like in the Sunset’s ever-evolving catalog of 112 taps and hundreds more bottles, you aren’t likely to find one anywhere. The beer menu is well organized (this is not a trivial point, because I’ve been to some places out west that could use some work in this area). The options are great in every category, with indications next to most of the beers showing what scores they’ve received in online polling, and stars next to the top choice in a given category. My only knock against the menu itself is that they need a “what’s new” section for regulars such as myself so I needn’t spend a half hour sifting through the menu every time I go there.

The bartenders always seem willing to provide free tastes of anything on tap (this would be all the beers on the back cover of the menu). I’d say as long as you order some beers to go with your samples, I’ve never seen anyone get turned down on a sample. They also offer a range of serving sizes, though I usually go with the default. Do be careful to watch the prices on anything you order though; I’ve been known to accidentally order a $20 bottle of Brooklyn Local One Saison one night when I’d had one too many and wasn’t paying attention. But as a budget conscious Mike was quick to point out in leaner days, they always have a great selection of fantastic taps at $5 or so. If you’re willing to step up just a bit, they’ve got many more for 6 or 7.

As I stated in a previous article, the Sunset is a fantastic place to try a cask ale, they serve up a mean Dogfish Head 60 Minute from time to time, especially. Another very special section of the list is the meads. These are fermented honey, sometimes with malt or spices and herbs added, and taste like something between honey and wine, but somehow better than both. The Sunset has a wide selection of them, which is rare no matter where I’ve been. Mead isn’t really my thing, but certain Punk’s have been known to exclaim “where have you been all my life” with the first taste. Truly something worth trying, even if it doesn’t stick.  It led us to brew our own batch, results yet to be seen…

The place also has its fair share of intimacy, with many nooks and crannies to choose from. In fact, this could be seen as either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on perspective; I’ve often complained that the large wall splitting the place in two limits the sociability of the bar area by taking up standing area around it and limiting movement and the cross-pollination of conversations from one side to the other, but at the same time it creates a much more intimate feel that can be welcome at times, either for dates or for deep discussion among friends.

As for the food, you tend to be safe with anything latin-inspired (gigantic nachos, quesadillas, fajitas, etc) and anything involving the hummus. Overall the food generally doesn’t disappoint, but I would stay away from the barbecue sauce; I’m not a big fan. Also, plan around huge portions for everything. A good strategy is to bring people with you and share whatever you get. If you are still hungry afterward you can always get another plate of something.

I should also point out that there is a pool hall upstairs (Big City) and a Tequilla/Margarita Bar just down the street (Sunset Cantina) that are both owned by the same wonderful people. Mike and I have been to the Cantina, it struck us as a slightly more sociable atmosphere than the Sunset G&T, and with a respectable 38 beers on tap. It offers a nice compromise for the group with a mix of beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers, if the two should ever associate. One word of caution, however: do not order the $50 or $60 margarita…the cost of the drink is the cost of the tequila shot that goes into it; just drink the shot. The bartender there told us they always serve the shot on the side for those and recommend drinking them separately (often being ignored). There is a good reason they do that. We’ve never been to Big City so I can’t say anything about that, but I’d be willing to bet their beer selection is second to none among pool halls in this city.

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

06/30/09

Harpoon Boston Brewery Tour Notes

Harpoon, the venerable South Boston brewer of Harpoon IPA (one of the few earning a solid four out of five from the Punks) and UFO (which earns somewhat lower marks but we’ll get into that in our next article on yeast) got it’s start in a bathtub in my own current home town of Brighton in western Boston. Maybe that’s why I’ve had a soft spot for them all this time and was greatly disappointed some months ago when I found that they offered no tours, only tastings.
After the ACBF last Saturday, I attended a session at my beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap and met Kate, a newcomer to the Bay State, who was also a fan of the brewery. We decided to take a trip out to see them. It wasn’t until I checked the times that I found they had finally starting offering not just tastings, but also tours as of April. Perfect timing!

The following weekend, after an arduous journey down town, including three transfers, a threat of thunderstorms, and a bitter cold wind that we were not prepared for, we arrived…and were promptly turned away, as they had just sold out the last tour. Defeated, we walked away from the brewery trying to figure out what to do now, when to our delight the guy at the door (our new best friend) chased us across the parking lot to inform us that they had just decided to run an extra tour that afternoon. Score one for Harpoon!

This was the first brewery tour I had been on since I started actively brewing, which I must say is a very different experience. In the past, being unfamiliar with brewing terms and the brewing process, I had a difficult time keeping up with everything and didn’t really absorb anything because there was too much new information to handle all at once; now having been engrossed in the process for so long, the terms were familiar, which left me with enough spare brain cells to actually think critically and ask questions.

The tour started out simply, with a typical overview. Taste the grains, smell the hops pellets, try politely not to laugh while the casual beer drinkers in the group taste the hops or cringe when the aroma burns their nostrils. This is the grain mill, that is the mash tun, then we lauter, boil, … None of this was anything I hadn’t seen before on other tours, or done on my own a dozen times. Then we descended to the floor, where we could see the lower parts of the conditioning tanks, and they did something I’ve never seen a tour guide do. They started pouring samples of the green beer.

For those who don’t know, “green” doesn’t refer to the color of the beer, it’s just what they call beer that hasn’t finished conditioning yet. This means it is the freshest beer you will ever drink; it hasn’t been filtered, it hasn’t been carbonated. It contains yeast, larger proteins and polyphenols, and possibly even some sediment from the spent hops and grains (though that seemed to have settled out of this particular sample). The reaction to this was even more dramatic than to the hops, with most of the participants actively seeking a trash can or bucket to spit into. It was nothing new to me, as I always sample what’s left over after bottling, and drink the samples I use for hydrometer readings (more on hydrometers in a later article). Frankly, it’s one of the things I love most about brewing, and something that until now you really had to be a brewer to experience.

But a few among the group did seem to enjoy the green beer, despite not being homebrewers (for the record, Kate was one of them). To anyone who takes the tour and likes the green beer, I recommend seeking out cask beers, which in many places are available (if at all) only at the finest beer-oriented bars, but are well worth the effort of finding. The only difference between the green beer served on the Harpoon tour and a properly served cask beer is that the flavor has matured slightly, and that cask beer is served warmer, at cellar temperatures in the fifties rather than the low thirties at Harpoon. Cask beers are among my favorite, so look for at least one later article singing their praises and explaining to you why on earth you’d ever want to drink your beer cloudy, warm, and flat.

Having passed the high point of the tour for me, they continued on to talk about how the beer is filtered, then force carbonated, and either bottled or kegged. Harpoon has two breweries, one in Boston the other in Vermont, apparently Boston is the only site with an automated kegging machine, so the Vermont brewery only kegs beer if needed to supply the tastings. The tour guide also related a story of how the mix packs are produced…apparently it is a manual process of filling boxes with two bottles of each variety, and occasionally takes place in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Finally convinced that a career in brewing was not for me…we moved on to the warehouse, which was quite a site to behold, two long rows of palates stacked over 30 feet high with cases of beer. The brewery had just had an event, apparently, but when fully stocked, one can walk down the aisle and touch beer on either side of them; quite a sight to behold, I’m sure.

After about a half hour on the tour, we were brought back up to where we started for a half hour tasting, just like the old days before they started giving tours. It was here, staring at the wide selection of beer, made from a single yeast strain, that the brewer in me started to wonder how they do it…they even make lager beers (like their Octoberfest and Munich Dark) with an ale yeast! This is homebrewing 101, match your yeast to the style you are brewing, people…

In my next article I will explore how they did exactly that, the advantages and limitations that a single yeast strain creates for the brewer, and finally why that has doomed the UFO series to such low esteem among us Punks.

Practical note: tours are only offered on the weekend and cost 5 dollars, 3 of which goes toward your tasting glass (which you can keep) the rest of which goes to charity. During the week no tours are offered, but there are free tastings, but no free glass. The brewery store also has lots of merchandise, though some is near heinously overpriced (fifty dollar hoodie anyone?), and you can also buy beer, cider, or soft drinks, including the somewhat rare Leviathin and 100 Barrel Series, and growlers of anything (I believe) they have on tap.