Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Resisting Beer Snobbery (through math)!

A great recent forum thread on Beer Advocate got me really thinking about beer reviewing and hunting.  But before that, a little reviewing primer:

When I review a beer on BA, I give it scores out of 5 for appearance, smell, taste, "mouthfeel" and overall drinkability, which are then weighted to give me an overall score out of 5 for the brew.  My highest score so far is a 4.8/5 (an A+ for Schneider Aventinus Weizenbock and St. Bernardus Abt 12), while my lowest is a paltry 1.75 (an F for Berthold Keller Lager).  An extra little statistic BA throws in is the review deviation (rDev), which tells you how far your score differs from the average.  It's only so useful as a statistic, but it does let you know roughly how in line your opinion of the brew is with everyone else's.  If everyone happens to love a beer, and you hate it, your rDev is going to be incredibly low: probably a good idea to consider the possibility that your beer might have gone bad, or whether it's a style you just generally hate.  Or who knows: maybe you just generally dislike it.  That's okay!  Everyone's opinions differ, and that's part of the fun.

Normally, I'm not too far off the pack, usually within a few percentage points, but every so often I rate really high or really low.  So far, my highest deviation from the norm is 15%, based off a review for Kaiser, an Austrian lager.  I didn't even rank it that high (about a 3.2, or C+); it's just that everyone else seemed to really hate the brew and gave it low D's.  I happened to think it was okay: boring but drinkable.  My lowest is, again, Berthold Keller lager, at a whopping 51%.  I gave it an F; other folks have been less stingy towards this nightmare.  I don't give out D's or lower too often; to earn such a low score, the beer has to pretty much be a drain-pour - undrinkable, like Berthold was for me.   Everyone has these variations - sometimes a brew hits you just right, other times it doesn't. 

Back to the matter at hand.

The forum asked the question of whether you were a 'stingy' or a 'generous' reviewer, and the best way to find that out is to look at your rDev and see how many of your reviews are positive or negative.  No question about it, I'm a very 'generous' reviewer; of my 250 reviews, about 140 of them have a positive rDev, meaning I scored the majority of my reviews higher than the average.  Some folks were nearly the opposite.   A good little discussion followed from this comparing how one should approach beer reviewing.  Of course it got me thinking: how should I review my beer?

The beer reviewing community is getting larger everyday; the presence of sites like BA and  Ratebeer, coupled with ability of anyone with even the most basic knowledge of computers to blog/post about beer only guarantees that this trend will continue.  And, to be honest, there's been a bit of a backlash.  Some folks out there, including many on BA, argue that beer geeks are quickly turning into snobs, no different from the snooty wine drinking crowd we once railed against.  I think this is a valid point.   Sometimes when I read wine 'critiques' in the paper or online, I'm truly baffled by the kinds of flavors the reviewer claims he/she can detect (Zambian honeysuckle? Really??).  We scoff at the ridiculous language ("impudent", "presumptuous", "flirty") they use to describe what essentially amounts to rotting grape juice.   Then there are the contemptuous drinkers. There's this one girl at the Grad House that refuses to drink any Ontario reds, loudly proclaiming that all Ontario wine sucks.  If she wasn't such a good tipper, I'd be soooo tempted to pour an Ontario wine into an Aussie bottle and see if she notices the difference.  The funny thing is, she probably won't.  Apparently, humans are TERRIBLE at distinguishing tastes; so much of how we compare A to B comes down to how it's presented and what our pre-conceived judgements happen to be.   In a recent well-publicized study, Stanford researchers conducted a wine taste test.  Bottle A claimed to be a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, regularly retailing for $90 a bottle, while Bottle B was labelled a $10 boxed wine from Walmart.  As you might have guessed, the participants rated the $90 bottle far higher, noting subtle hints of this-and-that and marvelling at the delicate something-or-other, while slamming the $10 bottle as being uninspired and lacking.  As I'm sure you've also guessed, it was the same damned wine in both bottles.   We're so conditioned to believe that 'expensive equals better' that our brains will imagine differences between two versions of exactly the same thing.  After all, who wants to be the uncultured swine who can't discern a good wine from a bad one?

Yet, we see the same trend in the beer community.  Like with the wine snots, some of the beer reviews can be downright laughable, especially the ones that take a good paragraph to describe how the beer 'feels' in their mouth.  (For me it's either watery or thick, creamy or slick, over- or under-carbonated). The outright scorn some beer geeks display towards anyone they perceive to be drinking 'lesser' brews is embarrassing , and really pisses me off (Coors Light bashing is always acceptable, however).  Hype and limted output tend to skew things towards cool-sounding American craft brews, but I'm willing to bet that a blind taste testing would drastically affect how beer is rated on BA.  So much is based on where the bottle is from, the reputation of the brewery - even the label can alter our perceptions.

So why slam beer?  Beer is supposed to be a social beverage, a source of great joy and comfort; finding and drinking great beer only makes things better.  The advancements of beer knowledge and beer culture over the past two decades have been fantastic, but like with any hobby/passion, it can (and is) getting a bit out of hand.   By being an overly 'positive' reviewer, am I doing a disservice to the beer reviewing community?  I don't really think so.  Reviews are biassed and skewed enough as it is.  Moreover, my reviews are simply there to provide my own impressions which are usually for my own purposes.  I'm not a beer judge, although that would be a sweet gig.

I like to think that my reviews are generally positive because, lets face it, beer is good.  Very good, in fact.  So good that it's hard for me to truly get angry about a particular beer, as some reviewers do, because I tend to be pretty stoked that I happen to be drinking a beer at that particular moment.   I may sometimes play up my dislike of a particular beer on the blog, but I do that for effect (i.e., the laffs); I'm generally not angry at it; maybe just a bit frustrated that my $2.50 I spent on the can could have gone to something much better.   Indeed, despite about a year of serious reviewing, I still think that I generally like about 90% of the beers I drink - I just like some more than others.    A good thing I like to keep in mind: it may not be the greatest beer ever, but it sure beats the hell out of a glass of water.  

Any beverage that makes me look this stupid can't be a bad thing.

I like to think that my reviews aren't snooty (tell me if I am being snooty.  I'll stop - promise!), but if I don't like the beer or the brewery, I'll say so.  I also know that I'm guilty of rating craft brews high and macro brews low; this is why I tend not to review many big name lagers. I know I don't like them, or at least I know I'm biassed against them, so why review them?  But, if you happen to drink nothing but Busch or Canadian, it doesn't bother me in the slightest, though chances are I'll be bringing my own beer to your party and it'll be something I'll like.  If I offer you one of my craft brews to try, it's because I think it tastes better and I think you will find it does too.  If you don't like it, no skin off my nose (or, as my hero Norm Peterson famously proclaimed: "Would [whatever you're doing] raise the price of beer?"  "No." "Then what do we care?!") I review because it helps me keep track of the beers I've tried, if there's beers that I should avoid or ones I should keep coming back to.  It helps me distinguish between different styles and methods of brewing, which goes a long way to help appreciate a beer for what it is.  Every beer has its purpose.  I may not really love PBR, but if I'm at a party drinking it in great quantities, PBR might just be the ticket.  If it's hot as stink and I'm outside on a patio, even the world's greatest Russian Stout will still taste lousy and make you feel bloated. 

I started this blog because I'm passionate about beer, and I hope you are too.  If by keeping track of which beers you like and by being open to trying new styles, the end result is people drink better beer, then everybody wins.

And now, here are some of Matt's guilty beer pleasures, just so you don't think I've gone too far along the craft brew choo-choo.

1. Corona.  Is it a quality beer? Absolutely not; in fact, it's a pretty substandard lager.  Will I drink 10 of them right now? You bet.   Drop a lime in the beer and you've got summer in a glass.  It's funky, it's overpriced and overexposed, but it's just fine with me.

    b.  As a subset of this, I'll just say that I'm not above putting limes in any lager, especially in the summer. Fuck it - it's hot out, and limes makes a lot of crappy beers taste better.  Just as long as it's a REAL lime I cut myself.

2. Rickard's White.  It's not a sterling example of the Belgian wit style; it's pretty tame and one-dimensional (orange-dimensional?).   But on a hot day, its terrific.  Sure, I'd love to be drowning myself in a super-sized bucket of Hoegaarden or Hacker-Pschorr instead.  But load that Rickard's sumbitch up with oranges and I'll be a very happy guy. 

3. Cheaper beer, depending on the brand.  While I'd love to have a cellarful of nothing but Chimay Bleue, Russian River RIS or Pliny the Elder, we have to face facts - beer can be pricey, great beer even more so.  But I gots to have me beer, so a 2-4 of something on the low price-point scale is fine with me, as long as it's drinkable.  A beer I can just open and drink, with no well-rinsed glassware or concern for 'proper' serving temperature.  Ice cold, right out of the bottle.  A "fuckin' beer", if you will.   Despite having all these impressive-sounding beer reviews, I usually have a few Trailhead, Holsten, Red Baron or Maclays kicking around the fridge. 

4. Light beer.       Nah, just kiddin.'

Thursday, August 19, 2010

C'est What!

With the unfortunate demise of the wonderful beer house that was the Castle on King (*shedding a single tear*...), there has been left a terrible void in the KW area for craft beer and cask tap options.  With the exception of Kickoff in the University plaza (and of course the Grad House, my place of employment!), there really isn't a whole lot around town for diverse craft brew selections, particularly cask-pumped brews.   Having read many a brew-review on Beer Advocate, I noticed that many of the rarer Ontario craft offerings - the kind unavailable in the LCBO or at any of my local hangouts - were being sampled almost exclusively at two downtown Toronto pubs - C'est What and BarVolo.  Apparently, these two are among the finest locations in Toronto to sample new and exciting beers: both of these pubs have been repeatedly nominated by BarTowel (and have received laudatory reviews in both the National Post and Globe and Mail) as having the best beer draught selection in the city.  With a mutual day off, Michelle and I decided a visit to such greener pastures was most definitely in order.  

We decided to go with C'est What this time around - it was closer to where we wanted to be in the city, and I find the name to be so very amusing.  (We also went this route because on a previous excursion to Toronto, our GPS utterly failed us, and we missed the bar entirely, leading to a great deal of yelling and cursing).  C'est What is located right in the heart of the city on Front and Church, just a few blocks from Union Station and the Rogers Centre.  The area has a thriving pub culture, with many a watering hole to be found in the vicinity.   Our destination was a basement joint tucked away in a brown building home to a variety of other shops and restaurants.  We descended to the bowels of 67 Front with no idea what to expect.

Our first impression was a good one - right at the entrance was an aquarium where fish darted about a sunken bottle of Steam Whistle (hopefully well-cleaned).  Cute.  C'est What is a long, narrow pub, with a plethora of beer posters and modern art gracing the stone walls.  Good mood lighting, lots of places to sit, dartboards and pool tables scattered here and there.  Eclectic music played at a reasonable volume.  Looked like a great place to spend an afternoon.  The place was only sparsely populated, so we had our run of the seating area. 

I knew we were in for a treat when Michelle found the beer menu.  That's right, menuOnline you can find the whole three-page listing of regular brew offerings, which are indeed quite impressive.  C'est What boasts an almost-exclusively Ontario craft beer selection, featuring some of the most difficult to find brews from the GTA and across the province.  It also has a regular rotation of cask taps, a truly wonderful way to experience beer - naturally carbonated and pumped by hand.  Aside from a slate of 'house' options (brewed by County Durham Brewing), C'est What has a great lineup of fare from Mill Street, Neustadt, Camerons, Church Key, Granite, Scotch Irish and Flying Monkeys, to name a few (unfortunately, their only Wellington brew was Silver Wheat, by far their weakest release).   Their food menu also looked good - a fine mish-mash of pub, ethnic and vegetarian meals.   After being overwhelmed by the sheer variety of beer to be had, we settled down for our flight of new brews!

Beer: Granite Hopping Mad (cask)
Brewery: Granite Brewing Co. (Toronto)
Type: English pale ale/IPA fusion
ABV: 6.0%

First up was a regular mainstay on C'est What's cask tap, an IPA from Granite brewing in Toronto.  Although the brewery and BA both refer to this brew as being an American IPA, it really didn't taste like one; rather, it possessed more of the characteristics of a well-hopped English pale ale, so that's what I'm calling it. (C'est What's menu also describes the brew as being a pale ale, so clearly the staff are in agreement!)

From the cask, Hopping Mad poured much like a Boddington's or Kilkenny - a orange jelly-coloured brew that took a few moments to settle.  The settling process left behind a remarkably creamy head that lasted throughout the pint, producing some impressive sheeted lacing.   Looked fantastic.

The nose was, as I mentioned before, decidedly not that of an IPA: instead of a rich hop aroma, I picked up more bread and malt notes, with only a hint of caramel and floral hops.  Still very impressive, but not what I had anticipated.  

Hopping Mad is certainly a fine brew, with the hops providing more of a presence in the taste than in the nose.   Like an English pale ale with American hopping. Creamy and malty, but finishing with a tasty, floral hop kick. I went into this expecting a Canadian stab at the American IPA style, and while this wasn't it, it certainly was enjoyable.  Boddingtons with a stronger hop character, is how I'd describe it.   Highly quaffable - I could certainly see myself drinking several of these in a night.  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Church-Key Northhumberland Ale
Brewery: Church-Key Brewing Co. (Campbellford, ON)
Type: claims to be a brown ale, I say blonde or pale ale
ABV: 5%
Again, problems with categorization - it claims to be a brown ale, but it is certainly not:  far too light in colour and not nearly malty enough.  The pub listed this as being among their cream ale selection, which is a bit closer to the mark. Unfortunately, this was our dud of the afternoon - neither Michelle nor I enjoyed it very much.
Poured a rich golden hue, very light for the style, with some visible carbonation and a thin head with some retention.

Nose was citrus, honey, light hoppage. Floral and fruit notes as well.  Not too bad.

A very fruity, grainy ale with something vegetable-like going on in the back.  Yeasty.  Had a very strange taste to it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, and certainly didn't care for.  As crazy as it sounds, I swear I could detect chicken in the beer.  (Seriously!)  Whatever it was, that shouldn't happen!   Northhumberland is a brew that is desperately out of balance; it needed either a bigger hop presence or better use of malts to bring it more in line with the style. Tasted more like a blonde ale than a brown.  Funny enough, I ordered a spicy dish for lunch that actually paired well with this, but for exactly the wrong reason: by numbing my tastebuds a little, I could actually finish the pint.  Otherwise I doubt I could have.   A strange-tasting ale (if one could ever call it an ale) not something I would pick up again. Something about the whole construction just felt off.  A big pass on this one.  (Grade: D+)

Beer: Duggan's #99 IPA (cask)*
Brewery: Mike Duggan Brewing (Toronto)
Type: IPA or Double IPA
ABV: 7.2%

Our gem of the day, but I'm still not confident on what it was.  The waitress said that this was the last of the cask of Duggan's #99 Double IPA (stronger than a regular IPA, usually even hoppier), but what we got didn't match with how the other BA reviews described it, so my writeup will have to be given an asterisk.   Because it was the end of the keg, this might have affected the taste, but whatever the beer was, I can say this - it was awesome.

A dark ruby-tawny brew, sporting a big, frothy head.  Loads of lacing, great retention.

The nose was simply spectacular.  In addition to a strong floral hop presence, this brew boasted a fantastic blending of delicious flavor notes, including chocolate, caramel, cherry, dark fruit and vanilla.   More in line with a barleywine or a Belgian dubbel than an IPA, but again, the fact that this was the bottom of the keg probably affected this. 

The taste was similarly impressive.  Drank more like a sherry than an ale, but that was just fine with me.  Rich and hearty, with a complex meshing of flavors, similar to what was detected in the nose.   Thick and slightly creamy, this brew was most definitely a sipper; the bold flavors and hearty consistency probably negates the possibility of having more than one of these in an evening. 

Whatever this mystery beer was, both Michelle and I really loved it.  A great little brew to sip over the course of our lunch.  Even though it didn't taste like an IPA, whatever Mike Duggan has done here, it was terrific.  (Grade: A-)


We would have loved to have stayed longer, but full stomachs and a hefty parking ticket (don't ask...) required us to move on.  If you happen to be in the downtown core and are looking for some great craft brews, be check out this little gem.  C'est What definitely lived up to its reputation as having among the best draught lineups in southern Ontario.  Good set up, fine location, decent food - a great place to bring friends who enjoy trying new beer.  Check it out! 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stoopid is as Stoopid does.

Beer: Hop Stoopid Ale

Brewery: Lagunitas Brewing (Petaluma, CA)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 8%

A friend of mine just got back from a trip to Nevada and managed to bring me back a new brew, which pretty much made my day (thanks, Lori!). It's amazing how many of my reviews come about because friends of mine make road trips and bring me beer, because it can be damned difficult finding new specimens in Ontario without tremendous effort. I'll suppress that LCBO rant for a moment, and get back to the issue at hand: new beer!

Lagunitas got on my good side right away, because it included a pronunciation key on its label. Few breweries do this, and I wish more did so. Nothing is worse than mispronouncing a brewery because you've never heard the name said aloud by someone who knows. I would have pronounced it La-goon-EYE-tuss. It's actually "Lah-goo-KNEE-tuss." Go figure.

Only in the USofA will you encounter breweries that have both regular IPAs and deluxe IPAs. (In Ontario, you're lucky to have either...) Lagunitas is one such brewery. Hop Stoopid is, naturally, their ridiculous IPA. Like I've said before, Americans love them some IPAs, and the hoppier the better - at least as far as beer geeks are concerned. Any West Coast brewer worth their salt will have at least one IPA that's hopped up all to holy hell. "Hop Stoopid" one is Lagunitas' entry, and the name is a bit silly, but I appreciate a good deliberate misspell.

Like many an American craft brewery, Lagunitas has some amusing names for its brews. My personal favorite: Wilco Tango Foxtrot brown ale. Spell it out - it's cute.

Poured into an ale glass for optimum deliciousity.

Light amber in colour, with a rich, frothy head that won't quit. Great retention, lots of lacing sheets. A first-rate looking brew.

The nose is, to no-one's surprise, tremendously hoppy. Hops to the max. It's a West Coast brew, so naturally, I'm getting a West Coast hop - Cascade - which produces some lovely lemon and citrus notes. Fighting for space is a bread and biscuit character, with a touch of flowers and spice to boot.

Wow, does this one hit you hard! Americans sure love their hops, and this brew is no exception. At 102 IBU (bitterness units), this brew packs a wallop, but it does it well. Starts off with a powerful burst of citrussy hop goodness, with the malt profile coming in a bit later. Breads and caramel, primarily. The hops turn on the jets once again for the finish, and despite the citrus entry, leave with a bitter, resiny finish, more in tune with the British/East Coast style. A great demonstration of the hop profile IPAs are made for.

Slightly creamy, with lighter carbonation. Leaves a strong, puckery taste in the mouth for quite some time after sipping.

Just a stand-up IPA, one of the better American IPA's I've come across. It's not hoppy just for the sake of being hoppy (despite the name); rather, it demonstrates the diversity of hop flavors a brewer can encourage in their brews. Citrussy, yet earthy.

A great blend of hop profiles makes for a stand-up IPA, and Lagunitas has hit it right on the mark. With such a potent hop character, it's probably not a brew I could have more than two of in an evening (the high ABV makes this difficult as well), but it's still a tremendous beer and a great example of the style. (Grade: A)

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Best of Matt's Florida Beer Haul!

As promised, here are some of my favorites from my Florida beer haul! I decided to whittle things down to the very best (and one notable dud) just to keep things interesting - after all, my total new brews added to my tally was 27 - and that would be one hell of a big post. Huge, even. And while almost everything I tried was good, only a few could be described as remarkably good. For example, I think I ended up trying 6 different IPAs (the US is nuts for IPAs right now), and though each brew was tasty and enjoyable, there wasn't a great deal of difference between them, at least not enough to warrant a massive review and write up for each.

With this in mind, I give you: the Great Florida Beer Haul Round-Up!

Beer: Terrapin Hopsecutioner
Brewery: Terrapin Beer Co. (Athens, GA)
Type: IPA
ABV: 7.3%

I selected this one among the many IPAs because, quite simply, the label is AWESOME. I mean look at it: it's Donatello brandishing a torturous instrument, executing beer hops with a guillotine. How cool is that? Even the lettering is Ninja Turtle Green, which will ideally be the colour of my next house. I also went with this IPA because it's fairly local to Florida, hailing from northern Georgia. It wasn't the best IPA on the trip - that distinction went with Jai Alai's White Oak Barrel - but this was the best I could easily find in shops.

Poured amber-copper, slightly opaque, leaving a thin head. Good lacing and retention.

The nose is typical American IPA - woodsy, with leafy, resin-flavored hops competing with citrussy notes, namely grapefruit and lemon. Binding the whole thing together is a sweet, bready malt character.

Goes down well. The hops aren't too potent, but provide a nice, balanced flavor. Earth meets citrus. With the hop content not so pronounced, the malty, caramel sweetness is given a chance to shine. For big hop-heads, this brew might seem a bit tame, but I found it to be quite flavorful and easy to drink. Cracking through a 6-pack of this would be a pleasure, not a challenge.

Hopsecutioner is by no means a unique IPA, but it's a good'un, and worth picking up if you come across it. I mean, how amazing would it be to show up at a party with a 6-pack of Ninja Turtle beer? (Grade: B+)

Beer: Ommegang Abbey Ale
Brewery: Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY)
Type: Belgian Dubbel
ABV: 8.5%

A fantastic number from a brewery based in Cooperstown, NY, the Mecca of baseball fans everywhere. Ommegang specializes in replicating the traditional Belgian style of brewing - abbey ales, dubbels, tripels, Belgian pale and dark ales - and does it incredibly well. A New York version of Quebec's Unibroue, if you will. The kind of brewery I would return to again and again, based on this one brew alone. Of course, thanks to the LCBO and Ontario's oppressive liquor import rules, it's easier to find Ommegang in Florida than it is in New York's Canadian neighbour.


Poured into a wine glass from a tall, 750mL corked bottle. Just like a Chimay. A tawny red brew, slightly opaque, ruby when held to the light. Thick, spritzy head that displays some fine lacing and retention. Looks like your classic dubbel.

Nose is comprised of bread, dark fruit (cherry, plums, black currant, pear) malt, brown sugar, and yeast notes.

A delicious, stand-up dubbel, among the world's very best. Boasts an incredible flavour, wonderful to sip. Similar tasting notes as in the nose and they work together brilliantly. Because it was such a big bottle and I had such a small wine glass, I decided to leave the bottle on the counter and compare how Abbey Ale tasted at different temperatures. Sure enough, this was textbook example of a brew whose flavor opens up tremendously with a bit of warmth - the taste just got better with every sip. First rate stuff.

Tart, aggressive carbonation, which helps the flavor notes really pop. Medium-bodied.

Certainly, one of the finest dubbels produced on this side of the Atlantic. I'll definitely be back for more of this, which might necessitate a trip to New York State. Well done Ommegang! (Grade A+)

Beer: Stone Imperial Russian Stout
Brewery: Stone Brewing (Escondito, CA)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 10.5%

One of the few bottles to make it home, I was able to sample this one in a proper glass. I would have drank it there, but at 750mL, it would have been a struggle to get through in one evening, especially after a hot day standing in line at Walt Disney World. Best to savor this one at home.

Stone is a giant among American craft brews; their massive slate of popular offerings are available in many areas of the United States and sometimes creep into BC. Aside from producing some quality brews, they feature some great beer names too; my personal favorite: "Arrogant Bastard Ale".

After letting the brew warm up a bit, I poured it into my favorite glass, a Duvel goblet. As an aside, I truly love the Soviet Cossack Gargoyle imagery. An inky black hue, hard to detect any other colour but black here. Leaves an inch-high mocha head, leaving some flecks of lacing. Survives well as a ring, with a few islands drifting about.

Nose is roasted dark coffee, cream, very dark chocolate (75% cocoa at least!), dark fruit. Rich and inviting.

Tastes like a terrific stout, wonderful to sip over the course of an evening. Brought to a proper temperature, this RIS achieves a wonderful balance of chocolate, toasted malt and caramel, finishing with a slightly bitter taste accentuated with warming alcohol. First rate. Almost syrupy, the mouthfeel of this viscous brew is greatly aided by its light, but ever present carbonation. Oily and velvety, with a slight warming alcohol burn that affects the back of the tongue. A terrific RIS, one of the best I've had the pleasure to enjoy. Surprisingly drinkable - the ABV is high, yes, but such a meaty stout is worthy of slow savouring.

Beer: J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, Port Cask (2008 Vintage)
Brewery: J.W. Lees (Manchester, UK)
Type: English barleywine
ABV: 11.5%

My lone pick-up in Knightly Spirits' barrel reserve section. You know you've got a fine liquor store when you have a "vintage" area for beer...

Poured into an ale glass. A brew such as this truly deserved better glassware, but when you're in a hotel, you work with what you have. Better this than a Shrek 4 mug though...

An amber, slightly opaque brew, with a dusting of sediment on the bottom. A thin white head, leaves a ring after a few moments. When settled, it looks a great deal like sherry, which is awesome, because I loves me a good sherry.

Nose is very potent and delicious: caramel, grapes, sugar, port, a touch of oak.

Like a proper barleywine, J.W. Lees tastes and feels just like a glass of sherry. The big caramel and fruit flavor is offset but a smoky, oak backing, which prevents the sweetness from running away with things. Alcohol is difficult to detect, balanced nicely within the flavors of the brew. Very tasty, and with only a slight alcoholic bite to the finish makes for an enjoyable sipper. Great stuff, one of the better barleywines I've come across. Would love to check out the older vintages.

And at last, we come to the dud...

Beer: Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic
Brewery: Cantillon (Brussels)
Type: Lambic-Fruit (Kriek)
ABV: 5%

Some tastes are acquired, taking years of practice and sampling to finally "get it." Michelle, for example, is a huge fan of super-dark chocolate, (90% cocoa or higher), a taste she developed by slowly working her way up the cocoa scale from the very low milk chocolates to the extremely bitter pure cocoa bars. I can't stomach the stuff, but I can see how a gradual progression of tasting would lead me to appreciate it better.

But other times with food and drink, things are a great deal simpler: either you love it, or you hate it. Black licorice is a good example of this - I don't know anyone who "kind of" likes black licorice. You're either with us or against us, dammit! Authentic krieks are one of those styles.

As mentioned in an earlier post (St. Louis Gueze), lambics are brewed by yeast cultures that exist naturally in the brewer's local environment. As is more commonly done, fruit (usually cherry, raspberry or peach) is added to the brew to make the product more palatable and marketable - adding sugar or aging can also be done to smooth things out for the consumer. Sometimes, the product will taste a great deal like a fruit cooler, sweet and smooth with a big fresh fruit flavor. Other times, the brewer will opt for the traditional taste, which is a great deal more sour, acidic, musky and, believe it or not, "horse-blanket"-y. Cantillon's Kriek counts itself among the latter. Boasting an 'A' ranking at BeerAdvocate, this beer has developed quite a following, and I was excited to try my first authentic lambic.

Frankly, I thought it tasted disgusting.

Poured into a goblet. A lovely, sparkling light cherry-red brew. No real head presence, but this is common for the style.

Nose isn't too bad; actually, it was quite inviting. Sour cherries, sugar, citrus and cream with the strongest flavors I could detect.

Then came the tasting... Suffice to say, this was, without a doubt, the sourest drink I have ever tasted. It tasted like the love-child of Sourpatch Kids and vinegar, with the love-making having taken place in a hayloft. I thought I was prepared for such an astringent brew, but I was certainly mistaken. A real palate cleanser. Sour, sour cherries with vinegar and oakey, musky flavors. An absolute chore to get through. It's really amazing: some reviewers rave about the "delicious flavor of sour ripe cherries" and go on and on about how wonderfully tart it is. I think it tasted like vinegar beer. This was just too much...

Medium-bodied, with a light carbonation to deliver the oppressive sourness right to your door. The acidic quality provides a real burn that I'm not enjoying. Probably going to get heartburn from drinking this. (I did.)

As high a quality of lambic beer that this is (this was exactly how it was supposed to taste - it's not like I even got an old bottle), I have to say I really didn't understand it. Not an enjoyable experience whatsoever. This was just oppressively sour and was a chore to get through. Instead of sour, fresh cherries, I just got...well, sour. Well-made, but definitely not my thing. I might try it again in the future to see if a different batch works for me, but as for now, I'll have to count myself among those who just don't dig authentic lambics.

Other beer roundup highlights included:

St. Bernardus Abt 12 - one of the finest abbey ales I've had the pleasure to drink.
Orval - the tartest, driest of the Trappist ales, but still quite enjoyable. Like a dry cider.
Magic Hat #9 - From Burlington VT, the Ben and Jerry's of breweries. Goofy labeling, but a decent fruit beer.
Dogfish Head World Wide Stout - the new record-holder for the highest ABV% brew I've tried - a staggering 18%! Good thing I wasn't driving anywhere that day...

An exciting beer roundup to say the least - the trip really enhanced my understanding of American and Belgian brewing. I can't wait for my next visit to the States, hopefully to the northeast or West Coast for another grand beer haul!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Visit to Cigar City Brewing!

Without a doubt, one of the beer highlights of the trip to Florida was our trip to Cigar City Brewing, one of Florida's up-and-coming new entrants to the brewing scene.

And I mean new. Like 2008 new.

Hoping to challenge Florida's reputation as a "beer wasteland", CCB owner Joey Redner built upon the Tampa region's rich Hispanic heritage, and the expertise of head brewer Wayne Wambles, to help bring new focus to the Florida brewing community. Indeed, Spanish and Cuban culture is a big part of what CCB is all about. The brewery's name reflects Tampa's former status as the nation's largest manufacturer of cigars, no doubt a consequence of Tampa's sizable Cuban population. Many of the brewery's flagship beers have names with a Hispanic origin (Jai Alai, Maduro, Chaveta, Bolita), and patrons are encouraged to pair these offerings with traditional Cuban cuisine.

Despite only being in production for just over two years, Cigar City has generated a great deal of enthusiasm and anticipation amongst the craft beer community. In June of 2010, Entrepreneur Magazine rated CCB 1st of their list of 10 "Hot Startups", a rare feat for a craft brewery. Wambles' brews have initially received high marks from both online reviewers (like yours truly) and award-givers, giving craft brew aficionados yet another reason to be excited. As is the case with most new craft breweries, the development of a strong bottling distribution system takes time (requiring not only the bottles, but a delivery system and a retail market), and so a great deal of CCB's focus is on its in house brews. Though their distribution range is small now, it's optimistic that this will increase in the near future.

According to Beer Advocate Magazine, one distinguishing feature of CCB's brewing vision is their flair for revisiting their standard brews, especially their IPA, Jai Alai: "Wambles does a lot of experimentation with his flagship recipes. He's fond of blending his staple IPA with fruits like pineapple, papaya, mango and coconut," and aging these brews in differing wood barrels to achieve unique and tasty results.* Other experimentation has been done with their other flagship brews with many successes; Hunahpu Imperial Stout (based off their original Marshal Zhukov RIS) has quickly become a beer community favorite.

Sounds like a worthwhile trip to me!

The only problem with such an adventure is not having a working GPS in state I've never driven in. So naturally, I typed in 'Cigar City Brewing' into GoogleMaps, only to be directed to Ybor City Packing. Another GoogleMaps fail. 30 minutes later, we managed to find the brewery. Turns out I arrived on the busiest day they've had in months....just my luck.

Like many a brewery, Cigar City is housed in what could very well pass as a seatbelt factory. Just a large, nondescript grey building in the middle of nowhere. And yet, when I walked into the tasting lounge, I was floored. The place was hopping, absolutely packed with folks slugging pints and chowing down on shrimp and vegetable cocktails. My initial fears that I had wandered into a private party were quickly allayed by the bartender (one of three) who said that earlier that day, they had released their bourbon-barrel aged edition of their Marshal Zhukov Russian Stout, and were serving both draught pints and growlers to a select few. Only I was about 3 hours too late for each. Damn. Despite the chaos, I was still able to swing a seat at the bar and arrange for a sample flight of four brews. I would have gladly stayed for more, but somebody had to drive the chariot home, and Matt's Beer Den is all about responsible drinking! With my lady at my side ready to partake in her half of the sample glasses, I was ready to roll!

They are, from L-R: Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale; Humidor IPA; Marshal Zhukov Russian Imperial Stout; Jai Alai IPA (White Oak Barrel)

Beer: Jai Alai IPA (White Oak)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 7.5%

The original Jai Alai is truly their flagship brew, an above average American IPA, of which I picked up a few bottles at a liquor store across the street. Yet the IPA style has become somewhat overdone by American craft breweries; pretty much every brewery has one, making it hard to distinguish them from each other (at least I find it to be the case). By aging his standard recipe in a white oak barrel and adding local fruit and flowers, Wambles was able to take the IPA to a new level. This stuff was all kinds of terrific - in addition to the citrussy and earthy hops and malt character, the White Oak version was delightfully tropical, with notes of vanilla, grapefruit, orange and even coconut. Crisp and satisfying, a treat to drink. An absolutely perfect Floridian beer, and a great start to the sample flight. (Michelle's favorite too!)

Beer: Marshal Zhukov Russian Imperial Stout
Type: RIS
ABV: 11.5%

The reason for the night's festivities, although this was their standard version and not the barrel aged fare my seat-neighbour from Atlanta was raving about. A typical Russian stout - high in alcohol, thick n' hearty, and bursting with roasted malts, coffee and dark chocolate - but easier to drink than some of the others I sampled on the trip. Like the IPA, American breweries are OBSESSED with Russian stouts, almost to the point of over-competitiveness. It's a great style to be sure, but it's not my favorite - it can be hard to drink, particularly in the summer, and the ever increasing alcohol content and robustness (two big points of competition amongst brewers) can be a bit daunting. This one I found a great deal more reasonable, and a real pleasure to drink, so much so that I helped myself to a Marshal Zhukov shirt (as seen in the pic above). Now, no matter where I go, Komrade Zhukov has got my back.

Beer: Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale
Type: American Brown Ale
ABV: 5.5%

Reminded me a great deal of Fuller's London Porter. Instead of a nutty, malty brew like other brown ales I've had before, Maduro was rife with dark chocolate, caramel and coffee notes. Finished with a slightly hoppy bitterness and a touch of roasted coffee bean. Similar to the Zhukov, I suppose, but a great deal thinner and less potent, as a brown ale should be. Indeed, after the Russian Stout, this brew felt quite mild so it may not have been the best tasting pair, but the Maduro was still a fine brown ale - a brew you could have three or four of in an evening and not feel bloated.

Beer: Humidor Series IPA
Type: IPA
ABV: ?

I'm a bit confused about this one. According to the tap label, this was "Humidor IPA", but according to BeerAdvocate and the brewery itself, there is no such brew with that exact name. There is a Jai Alai Humidor Series (two of them), but I can't state with confidence which version this was. In either case, it was earthier than the White Oak, with juniper berries and a more aggressive hop character. After falling in love with the White Oak Jai Alai, I can't say I was too impressed with this one, but it certainly weren't bad neither. Smooth and drinkable, just not as invigorating as the White Oak.

Based upon the flight I was able to sample, I can safely say that the hype surrounding Cigar City was fully justified. With so many American craft breweries offering overly-potent Russian Stouts and hyper-hopped IPAs, it's wonderful to see a new brewery explore and expand the possibilities for each style. Although I didn't take pictures of the inside (too many drunken patrons in the way), it was certainly a fine tasting room as well. While I didn't get the personal experience I had hoped for, the bartender did his best to chat me up about the brews and offer me samples despite the increasingly frenzied crowd. With two new T-shirts and a souvenir snifter glass in hand, I left the CCB tasting house feeling elated and excited, ready to take on the rest of the samples awaiting me at the hotel room. Well done, lads, well done.

*P. McMorrow, Beer Advocate Magazine, Issue #42 (July 2010)