Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Spas, tattoos & mystery lagers

We had another lovely few of days in Aachen, Germany, which as always included a trip to the spa. As I was relaxing in the waters, however, I had a rather disturbing thought about aging.

It occurred to me that I am from an era you might call BT, or “before tattoos”. Not exactly, of course, as tattoos are probably older than Sumeria, which surely dates back before 1968. But I come from a time before tattoos were ubiquitous.

Watching people in the spa very quickly tells me what generation I belong to.

Monday, 22 August 2011

HB Münchner Sommer

Among all the American beers we enjoyed on our summer holiday, there was one lone non-US brew: HB Münchner Sommer, which we tried at Loreley Restaurant & Biergarten in Manhattan.

It’s unfiltered, and it thus appears cloudy. The taste is wonderfully lemony and refreshing, just what’s needed for a shopping break in the summer heat. Very good.

Friday, 19 August 2011

American beers seem to be following me

Going away on holiday is great, of course, but really, we may have overdone it on the tasting notes from our US trip. With so many, I’d ideally use them to stretch out my blog posts on American beers over a couple months. But there are new American tastings on the horizon, some here in Belgium (more on that at the end of this post), so I’ve got to clear the deck.

Where to start, where to start...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Three American pale ales

Step by step, I am slowly clearing the back log of tasting notes from our holiday in the US. It would seem we sampled 61 different brands in the three weeks we were there, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty good innings.

When it comes to pale ales, I’ve already mentioned the very tasty Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale, the delicious Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale, and the lovely Captain Lawrence Fresh Chester Pale Ale, in addition to various labels of the sub-species known as IPA.

To that tally, let me add three more.

Not your old American lager

Not long ago, “American lager” meant a pale, thin, fizzy, soda-like substance. Compared to its Bavarian or Czech ancestors, the US brews seemed watered down, diluted to nearly homeopathic “no active ingredient” levels.

Then, in my personal timeline anyway, came Samuel Adams Boston Lager, offering richer flavours: deeper maltiness and an unashamedly bitter finish. Over the years, it has deservedly become a classic of the quality beer scene in the States -- so popular, in fact, and produced in such quantity, that some apparently started to wonder if it could still be called a “craft beer”. In any case, Boston Lager surely deserves the moniker, “gateway craft beer”, because for many people, this is the first step on a life-long love affair with quality brews.

But now, all sorts of things seem to be going on with “American lager”, and there’s a range of flavours within, from the solid, simple and traditional, to the wild and weird. Here’s a few we tried this summer.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Ending my anti-can snobbery

As anyone who’s ever read this blog before understands, I don’t really know a whole lot about beer. Even after sampling many hundreds of different brands, I still find myself struggling desperately in my amateur efforts to describe them.

Still, my deep ignorance hasn’t stopped me from becoming something of a beer snob. Indeed, it has probably accelerated the process.

Take my attitude toward beer in cans, for example. Despite my family connections to the home of such modern conveniences, I have always seen canned beer as a down-market, overly fizzy and taste-damaged product. I swore I could detect the metallic element to the taste. Even when I probably couldn’t.

You wouldn’t catch me with a can in my hand, no sir.

I was forced to reverse this prejudice a few weeks ago, however, when I tried Sixpoint Bengali Tiger IPA. It comes from a can, but there is nothing tinny about this one at all.

In fact, it’s a very fine IPA, with a lively floral aroma and pine notes in the flavour. It’s not too carbonated either. Super yum.

Despite being from a can.

Lagunitas backlog

The catch-up on tasting notes from our American holiday goes on... Today, let me add some additional beers from California brewer Lagunitas, makers of the fine Lagunitas IPA and the outstanding Hop Stoopid, reviewed earlier.

Lagunitas Imperial Stout pours darker than tar in a cave at night. Nona dubs it, “a black milk shake”. Indeed. Flavours include burnt malt, ripe fig, prune juice and, oh so amazingly, roasted ginger. Excellent stuff.

Lagunitas Wilco Tango Foxtrot seems to be a kind of light stout, with a very strong maltiness, trending into molasses and something medicinal. It’s got a sticky mouthfeel combined with a biscuit note, as well as hints of creamed spinach and candy canes, all ending in a sour aftertaste. I was struck speechless by this one, to be honest. Maybe its complexity simply overwhelmed me.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

More from Dogfish Head

On our summer trip to the US, we tried loads of beers from Delaware-based brewer Dogfish Head, one of the drivers of America’s great craft beer renaissance. There were super-hop IPAs like Dogfish Head Squall IPA and Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA; stranger offerings, like the historic beers, Theobroma and Midas Touch; and, of course, the astounding Bitches Brew.

But that was not all. Oh no.

We also tested Dogfish Head Raison D’ Être, which pours chestnut brown and has an aroma similar to Belgium’s Palm Royale. The flavour is not a million miles away from it either, though less sweet. Bob found a note of dark raisins, though the label says green raisins, while I was thinking it was more like blueberries. Bob also thought he detected an aftertaste of asparagus. The alcohol (8%) seems a bit too strong, that is burning and out of balance.

Much better was Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale. Already a favourite of Bob’s, it’s not brown so much as black and dark. The aroma first hits you with an old fruitbowl air, and the flavour darts back and forth between an IPA and a stout. There’s a definite pumpkin note in the middle -- nothing subtle about it: it’s like sticking your head into a carved jack-o-lantern. And then there’s a whiff of maple syrup. Very interesting. Very good.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA does not seem to do much on aroma, but it whacks you around the head and shoulders with the flavour of strawberries. The aftertaste is lingering, with something like a Sharpie pen hit of gorgeous, lasting hops.

Smutty memories

About 25 years ago, I spent the summer on the Isles of Shoals, a collection of rocky outposts off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. I was doing courses in marine science on Appledore Island, to be specific, which is just across a narrow channel from Smuttynose Island, namesake of today’s beers.

The brewery is not on the island, of course. About the only thing out there, apart from the ghosts of the victims of an 1873 axe murder, are a bunch of seals. Smuttynose Brewing Company is located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which has fewer seals flopping around its streets, as I recall, and hopefully fewer ghosts as well.

I used to be rather excited by a life at sea, and for me, the Isles of Shoals were really inspirational, influencing so many of my study and work moves in the years immediately after. From there, I found my way on to research boats, then on to traditionally rigged sailing schooners, plying the waters between Newfoundland and the Caribbean.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Madison beer fest

No one will believe this, but by complete coincidence there was a beer festival in Madison, Connecticut, the very weekend I happened to be in town. I wasn’t looking for it. Honest.

I was visiting my brother around the corner, and we popped into the Madison Wine Exchange, where MWE’s Ted Satinsky spotted us poking around the beer shelves and struck up a conversation. He told us of the upcoming charity event, “From Hops to Hope”, and so, two days later, on 24 July, we went down to check it out.

See, coincidence. Beery things just find me, that’s all.

It was a great afternoon out, with dozens of craft brewers, US and international, pouring their goods. Brian and I managed to try quite a number of new beers. One of these, Dogfish Head Midas Touch, I’ve already written about, so on to the others...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Two historic brews

I like to try “historic beers” when I can -- that is, beers made to very old recipes that attempt to recreate the flavours of bygone days. They’re always very weird, and none of them are ever going to become regular tipples for me. But still, they are fascinating.

Those I’ve had before, including Gageleer and Dupont Cervesia, are recreations of the pre-hop era of brewing in Europe’s Middle Ages. If nothing else, those beers show you why hops supplanted bog myrtle and other herbs in brewing.

The following two beers, however, trace their roots back much further: with recipes originating in BCE times.

An evening at the Brooklyn Brewery

Our beer tour of Brooklyn could, of course, never be complete without a visit to the Brooklyn Brewery, one of the powerhouses of today’s quality beer renaissance in the US. So, Bob took us there for one of their Friday evening openings.

The bar area of the brewery is a lovely space, but the noise is incredible. There’s something about the acoustics in the place -- with hard-surface walls all around and nothing to break up the sound of people trying to talk with each other, everyone just shouts louder to their friends standing next to them, creating an upward spiral of deafening din. It was like normal crowded bar noise times ten.

Now, before you think this is just some old fart moaning about loud young people, let me tell you that my observation was independently verified. I took out my phone and opened an app to give me a noise reading. It said 95 decibels, which is apparently the “level at which sustained exposure may result in hearing loss”. No kidding. It was loud.

But we weren’t there for the sound; we were there for the taste.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Peppery bliss

One evening during our stay in the Brooklyn, New York, neighbourhood of Williamsburg, we went out to pick up a growler at the drugstore, but somehow got distracted at Breuckelen Beer Merchants around the corner.

Distracted, that is, by a flight of four beers.

One was Empire IPA, which I’ve already discussed, and two Brooklyn Brewery beers I’ll write about later. The fourth was Elysian Saison Poivre, which turned out to be one of the best beers I had on our US trip.

Elysian Saison Poivre is not much aroma, but the complexity of its flavour more than makes up for that. “Poivre” means pepper, and although peppery notes are not unusual for a saison beer, this one has it in bags. It overflows with a gorgeous spiciness. Then there’s something in the mid- to late taste that’s like maple syrup. The evolution of the flavours in your mouth is thus quite remarkable.

It’s produced by the Elysian Brewing Company, which, interestingly, got its start in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where I used to live back in 1990-91. Elysian opened in 1994, so I just missed it, sadly.

Had beer like this been around a few yeas earlier, I might have stayed in the States... How different my whole personal history could have been...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Williamsburg growlers

One thing that struck me on my recent excursion into the land of American beer is the ubiquity of the growler. The refillable glass jars, which people take to shops and bars for quality craft beer to consume at home, remind me of the Czech tradition of the džbánek, which though usually made of ceramic, is the Bohemian cultural equivalent in functional terms. Anyway, in the US, growlers seem to be everywhere you look.

Or at least everywhere I look.

In the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, for example, they have become so popular that an outlet of a major drugstore chain is now acting as a beer refueling station. The Duane Reade apparently took the move to overcome anticipated area resistance to a big chain moving into the community, and it looks like it’s worked. They seem to have won over the locals.

Or at least the locals I know.

Wanting to familiarise Fiona and me with local customs as smoothly as possible, Bob and Nona got out their growlers, and we headed for the drugstore. Several times, in fact, during the week we stayed with them. Here are five we tried...

Beer in the Garden State

Today, we’re again looking at some American beers, and readers, be advised that there are more on the way. This might seem strange for a predominantly Belgian beer blog. But hey, I’m also now a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Whitman’s final resting place, by the way, is in New Jersey, the source of today’s beers.

Times have, of course, changed since I lived in the US twenty years ago. It used to be that if you told anyone you were from New Jersey, the standard response was, “what exit?” Indeed, the “Garden State” was often known more for its highways than its green areas.

There was even a kind of attempt to develop this reputation in a virtuous direction, with service areas on the NJ Turnpike, for example, named after such New Jersey luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison and, yes, Walt Whitman.

Now, however, when I mention the state of my birth, people seem to think first of The Sopranos. Not sure that’s an improvement. There’s no service area named after Tony Soprano. Yet.