Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New destinations

Though the overall economy may be stuck with a stubborn case of anemia, the craft beer industry is clearly in vigorous health, growing by 12% last year, according to the Brewers Association trade group. In northern Delaware, that robustness is evident in the launch of three new businesses in nine months -- a neighborhood bar, a taproom, and a gastropub -- each proudly specializing in serving craft beer.

Two Stones Pub, a self-described "temple for beer," opened in April of 2011 at Chesmar Plaza in Newark, boasting 24 free-flowing taps of carefully selected craft brews and an equally enticing bottle menu.

Michael Stiglitz, the youngest and most adventurous partner in Rehoboth's Pickled Pig Pub, broke from that venture to open Two Stones and to bank on his sense that the beer culture in northern Delaware is ready to support a pub with a deep specialty in craft brews. In addition to the overall growth of the market segment, Stiglitz also cites Delaware's abundance of great local breweries and the state's general business friendliness as factors in the recent start-ups.

"You also have city people who are retiring to Delaware or moving here to find a less urban environment, but they've come to expect good beer," Stiglitz said.

Next on the scene was Ulysses American Gastropub at the Shoppes of Graylyn in Brandywine Hundred, also outfitted with 24 taps and a deep list of bottled beers. Its grand opening was on December 21, 2011.

General Manager Chris DiNuzzo agrees that the Delaware beer scene is hitting its stride. He left his job at the City Tap House in Philadelphia to come here and help it grow. DiNuzzo says being on the doorstep of the highly developed Philly craft beer market contributes to Delaware's fortunes, as does "our proximity to some of the most refined and progressive breweries in the world -- Dogfish Head, Victory, and Yards."

January 19 brought the beer scene its latest boost with the debut of Ernest & Scott Taproom on Market Street in downtown Wilmington. Its specialty will be cask-conditioned beers, small-batch spirits, and boutique wines.

Proprietor Scott Morrison, who also owns Chelsea Tavern just up the street, says, "I believe in the craft beer movement. Its growth has been phenomenal, especially in this bad economy."

But more than anything, his decision to start Ernest & Scott, with its unique cask offerings and exclusively craft beer menu -- sorry, no Corona or Miller Lite will be on sale here -- was influenced by conversations with influential beer advocate Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewing. "Sam was the one who really got me excited about cask beer, because it made sense to me as the natural outgrowth of the craft beer movement."

So it will be easier than ever for local beer lovers to try something new or quaff a previously obscure pint, but will this new wealth of destinations cause turf wars between the businesses? Not according Stiglitz, DiNuzzo, and Morrison, who were remarkably unanimous in their views.

"I think the greater good here is more important than competition. We all need to work together to help increase Delaware's access to beers, both from existing sources and new breweries," said DiNuzzo. Stiglitz feels similarly that his own work to forge better relationships with distributors benefits all Delaware beer bars. Morrison's philosophy is that "positive energy begets positive energy," and he embraces the mutually supportive approach of the New York restaurateurs he once worked among. " In the long run it's a net win."

But there are some differences between the three businesses that will distinguish them in the market. Two Stones, for example, works to create the feel of a traditional corner bar for beer lovers. "That's what we want to be," says Stiglitz. "A neighborhood bar with a really deep beer list."

For Ulysses American Gastropub, high quality food is a big factor. "It's a massive part and an intricate balance to make sure we're helping guests appropriately pair their beer with the meals they're having," says DiNuzzo.

The particular draw of Ernest & Scott, Morrison predicts, will be their cask beer program. His cellarmaster, Scott Witzlsteiner, has purchased a large batch of firkins (nine gallon casks that are usually drained using only gravity), which the breweries will fill with custom formulations of their standard releases. The current breed of well-informed beer connoisseur, Morrison says, "will travel long distances to taste and be part of something unique."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Demo (Magic Hat Brewing Company)

Magic Hat Brewing Company of Burlington, Vermont has been making enigmatically-named beers since 1994. By 2010 it had grown to be the 8th largest producer by volume of craft beer in the U.S., according to a list published by CNBC.com. Magic Hat's flagship beer is an apricot-infused "not-quite pale ale" called #9, which I have never been crazy about. Nor do I get a kick out of the "mystery meat navigation" on their website, which reveals things only when you click around, instead of allowing you to see everything at once and make choices easily. While it's not as obscure as it was 10 years ago, it still annoys to me.

But lest you think I have nothing positive to say about Magic Hat, let me tell you about sampling their black IPA, Demo. The bottle's "whimsical" artwork depicts a vinyl record with a hand-drawn label. Is the "demo" theme supposed to indicate that their recipe for this beer is unfinished? Not sure.

Anyway, when poured into my pint tumbler, the beer is deep, dark brown -- pretty close to black. Up comes an abundance of sturdy, picture-perfect light brown foam that leaves clumpy lacing all the way down the glass. The aroma is roasty and sweet, with a touch of mint and mineral.

The flavor is dark, round chocolate and coffee with a balance of floral hops that makes it really tasty. There is nothing spiky or bitter, and the pleasant smoothness is reinforced by the mouthfeel, which is just short of creamy. The roasted grain flavor is more chocolatey than the maltier Yakima Glory, a formidable black IPA from Victory. Demo's malt profile is almost like an Irish stout, but of course there's the more IPA-like hops activity here. (Apollo and Goldings are the varieties used.)

I'll probably never finish chiding Magic Hat for their too-clever website that makes it hard for me to learn about their products, but they have earned my admiration with this highly drinkable black ale. I have never been knocked out by their lighter beers, but their rich winter seasonal Howl (a lager) and now Demo have raised my interest in the darker end of their product spectrum.

Featured beer:

Honorable mentions:
Yakima Glory

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tweason'ale (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has built its considerable fame on creating "off-centered ales" that defy the conventional wisdom of what beer is. It has done this, ironically, by reclaiming and embracing the actual glorious and diverse history of beer.

Exotic ingredients and sometimes bizarre brewing techniques have characterized the brewery's releases over 16 years. Guided by the vision of founder Sam Calagione, they eschew the famous German "purity law," the Reinheitsgebot (which decreed in 1516 that the only permissible ingredients for beer were water, barley, and hops), in favor of obscure -- like, hieroglyphic obscure -- recipes from all of history and all around the world. The brewmasters of Dogfish Head wipe their feet on the Reinheitsgebot on their way in to work.

So, it shouldn't be surprising that Dogfish, of all breweries, has taken a swing at a beer with one truly challenging production requirement: Must contain no grains! According to the brewery's website: "The No. 1 thing Dogfish lovers ask for at our pub, in our brewery and on our website is a gluten-free beer." The barley, wheat, or rye content in traditional beers can have grave effects on the digestive tract of a person who suffers from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Dogfish has answered this challenge with its latest debut: Tweason'ale, a gluten-free, sorghum-based ale brewed with strawberries and buckwheat honey. They plan to release the beer in 12-ounce four-packs four times a year, interweaving it with their other popular seasonals (hence, the name).

Though not the first gluten-free beer on the market, Tweason'ale enters a niche with no dominant competitor. Surveying reader-submitted reviews of eight gluten-free beers on the website Beeradvocate.com, one finds they are not enthusiastically regarded, garnering an average rating of 2.76 out of a possible five. One critic summarized: "Drinking these beers always makes me grateful that I am not gluten intolerant."

Let's see for ourselves how Tweason'ale rates. Pouring the beer brings up big, fizzy bubbles that disappear straight away, leaving the crystal clear, pale copper-colored ale with no head. The aroma is very sweet, reminiscent of strawberry taffy, with an underlying darkness of husky grain.

Behind bright carbonation, the taste is surprisingly dense and flavorful, like a sour ale, offering green apple tartness backed by seedy strawberry sweetness before a quick, dry finish. Big tartness is definitely the main impression.

The flavor of Tweason'ale is distinctive, and certainly unusual in comparison with grain-based beers (apart from the Flemish sour ale, which it somewhat resembles). I would rate it a success on its own terms, but don't suspect it will become widely popular outside its niche. Hopefully the gluten-intolerant target audience will appreciate that Dogfish Head took another leap outside the box rather than brewing a neutered facsimile of a familiar style.

Featured beer:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (Terrapin Beer Company)

I believe that when you travel, you should sample the local beer, and you should try to find something to bring home that you can't normally buy. We took a trek down South after the holidays, and I picked up a six-pack of Terrapin Rye Pale Ale. I've testified enough about my love of rye here, here, and here that I guess I don't need to go into it again.

Terrapin Beer Company is located in Athens, Georgia, a town well-known as the home of the University of Georgia and a very vibrant music scene that spawned the B-52s, R.E.M., and many other national acts. As far as I can tell, Terrapin is the only brewery in Athens with any kind of distribution. According to the lore on their website, this rye pale ale was the brewery's first release.

On the label of the bottle is a picture of Terrapin's spokesturtle in full bucolic mode: standin' a field of rye, chompin' on a rye stalk, wearin' a bandana and a straw hat, and pluckin' a banjo. I am reminded of those free-spirited dancing turtles on the cover of the Grateful Dead's "Terrapin Station" album.

The beer pours a light amber-gold with not much head, and what little there is dies down very quickly to a thin film. The aroma is not hugely expressive: clean hops, maybe a slight hint of malt.

To the taste, there is a little zap of rye spiciness before the carbonation, then after, a fruity malt middle that levels off a little sooner than one hopes. Nicely carbonated, medium bodied, with about the right amount of substance to the mouthfeel. There is some nice hops flavor in the ride out, but not much of the peppery signature I look for when I've plunked my money down on a rye beer.

Measured against your average American mass market beer, Terrapin Rye Pale Ale is quite flavorful and not a bad drink. However, to my taste it is not zesty enough and lacks excitement at any instant along the flavor curve. In comparison with the best craft-brewed rye pale ales, it doesn't muscle its way to the top of the pack. My caveat would be, according to the freshness dating on the label, I missed the optimum consumption window by three weeks. Still looking forward to giving Terrapin's other brews a try.

From the bottle's label:

One of the more unique beers coming out of the South, the Terrapin Rye Pale Ale offers a new twist on a classic style. By using an exact amount of rye this beer offers a complex flavor and aroma that is... IN TUNE WITH YOUR TASTE

Featured beer:
Rye Pale Ale

Honorable mentions:
Hop Rod Rye
Red's Rye PA
Hop Head Red Ale

Monday, January 16, 2012

A shadow falls...

Part of learning about beer involves learning about history -- the origin of styles, the evolution of production technologies, and the sociology of consumption. Hence, I point out the beer-related significance of January 16: on this day in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. The Volstead Act, which laid out the legal specifics enforcing the amendment, kicked in a year later, effectively prohibiting the production, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages in the United States.

Kind of boggles the mind, doesn't it? The era that followed is notorious for its turmoil and violence, and for popularizing compound words like "bootlegging," "speakeasies," "rum-running," and "AlCapone." The social experiment of Prohibition, while arguably "noble," was a miserable failure, achieving essentially the opposite of its aim to reduce crime and strengthen social order.

Fortunately, reason eventually prevailed and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st, but we will always have this fourteen year chunk of American history to contemplate as an example of the dangers of unbridled reactionary zeal (even if it did masquerade in this case as "progressive").

Another reason to detest Prohibition: the criminalization of the country's thousands of traditional local breweries laid the groundwork for the rise of the giant corporate macrobreweries when production resumed in the '30s -- a stubborn problem the craft beer movement has only begun to chip away at in the last couple of decades.

Recently the era has been hauled into the public eye by Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary, as well as the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Hopefully its lessons are clear enough to the contemporary observer. As Tom Regan toasts in Miller's Crossing before knocking back a shot of whiskey: "To Volstead!"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Headwaters Pale Ale (Victory Brewing Company)

Headwaters Pale Ale, a member of Victory's year-round product line, has showed up in a Beer Club mix-pack, and also in a sampler that beloved former coworker Kelly sent me after she went to work for the brewery. About time I posted a review of it.

The beer is an attractive pale orange color and is quite clear. An aggressive pour brings up about an inch of head, and only very slight tracing is left by the clumpy foam. It carries a pungent, "skunky" nose detectable at a distance of ten inches from the glass, with notes of sap, grapefruit zest, and vulcanized rubber. (Fear not: "skunky" is usually a term of endearment with me.)

The taste threw me a slight curve from the expectation of the nose: minimal sharp hops to begin, rolling almost immediately into quite a mellow, light malt body, then through lively carbonation into an intensely bitter, guava-tinged finish. Aftertaste is not astringent, but almost tongue-puckering in its bitterness.

To me this is lighter in weight and maltiness than the American IPAs, but a little more citrusy than an English pale ale. Very quaffable, but will put off folks like my wife who shy away from bitter things.

From the bottle's label:

Malted barley, hops and yeast are the building blocks of beer. But none of these elements would exist without water, the essence of life. The waters that feed out brewery begin just over a dozen miles away, making for spectacularly pure and vital water for brewing. Having worked with waterhshed advocacy groups since our inception, we value our headwaters, our source in many ways. We think you'll value them as well when you taste this firmly crisp and aromatically arousing pale ale.

Featured beer:
Headwaters Pale Ale

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Blogger bucked me.

My last review was posted on October 30, 2011. I didn't really intend to take a long break from updating the blog, which is a hobby I enjoy very much. But there was sort of... an "incident."

I had been working on a big Oktoberfest post -- I dare say the most ambitious review I'd ever undertaken. It included several paragraphs of carefully researched information about the fascinating history of the Oktoberfest style, as well as reviews of four very different beers (Stoudt's Oktober Fest, Paulaner's Oktoberfest Märzen, Spoetzl's Shiner Oktoberfest, and Clipper City's Heavy Seas Märzen), and the remarks of a special guest taster. There was also a nice outdoor group shot of the four bottles, and close-up bottle and glassware photos of each.

I worked on the piece for nearly a week, and was quite eager to post it. Then somehow, as I was making a few final tweaks before I hit the "publish" button, an awful thing happened. I'm sure it was my fault, since I had several other Blogger tabs open with drafts of other reviews, but my laboriously crafted Oktoberfest review got overwritten with a blank template.

I frantically toggled between tabs trying to find my work, but it was gone. I carefully did a control-Z on each page, but nothing returned. Surely the previous revision would be in cache or cookies, I figured. It was not. Even Google's seemingly promising suggestions ("recover previous revision of blogger post") did not summon the lost text.

Well, after that I sort of lost my enthusiasm for a while. Like a jilted lover, I just didn't want to risk getting hurt again, and the thought of having to save every work-in-progress into a file outside of Blogger seemed like such a hassle. For days I sulked. Then days stretched into weeks, and weeks into a de facto hiatus.

But I couldn't stay away forever -- too much delicious beer to drink and write about! I'm going to try to post a new review at least every Tuesday, and I have some ideas for other mini-features that should help me keep the blog fresh without sucking up too much time. So, here's to gettin' back on that mean ol' horsie that bucked you off...