Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A token effort...

A sudden head cold/sinus infection has compromised the trustworthiness of my tasting faculties and threatened to disrupt my weekly publishing schedule. Instead of a full-blown review, I will merely note that I popped in to Ulysses American Gastropub for a sample of 16 Mile Brewing Company's Delaware Oyster Stout. (I was at the Rite-Aid getting saline refills for my Neti Pot, and it was right next door, so...)

This beer was created by the Georgetown brewery in cooperation with Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, and a portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to that group and help them advance their Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Project. It was a delicious stout, as far as I could tell, rich with chocolate and smoky, dark malt flavors, and featuring a creamy mouthfeel likely enhanced by the 100 Delaware Bay oysters that went into the brew kettle. This is a limited edition small batch, so I thought that tasting it with an impaired nose would be better than missing it altogether.

And just to round things out, here is a reproduction of Ulysses' current draft beer menu.

Featured beer:
Delaware Oyster Stout

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Beer Club (week 24)

Another nice lineup. Kid Wade contributed a bonus seventh bottle: "Brandywine Baltic Porter" homebrewed by himself and MB's husband, Danny.

• Aprihop (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)
• Heavy Seas Black Cannon (Clipper City Brewing Company)
• Hoptical Illusion (Blue Point Brewing Company)
• Kellerweis Hefeweizen (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company)
• Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale (Yards Brewing Company)
• Two Hearted Ale (Bell's Brewery, Inc.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Whole Foods Market's "Brew & Brau"

First there was sliced bread. Then came the iPhone. Now, another great idea whose time has come: a pub inside a grocery store.

It gets better. The grocery store is Whole Foods Market, a chain with more than 300 locations in the U.S. that is widely praised for its conscientious buying practices and wholesome products.

Better still, Brew & Brau, the in-store pub which opened March 14 at the Glen Eagle Square shopping center in Glen Mills, qualifies as a “tavern” under Pennsylvania’s archaic Liquor Code, which permits it to sell up to 192 ounces of beer for takeout – that’s anything from a 12-ounce bottle up to two 12-packs. (You’re forced to buy a minimum of one case if you shop at a Pennsylvania beer wholesaler.)

And this spot is a mere 1.6 miles over the Delaware state line.

Hang a hard left as soon as you walk into the Whole Foods and you will see the natural wood and plate glass enclosure of the Brew & Brau, a space large enough to comfortably house a bar with nine stools, high tables with seats for another 20 or so, and a walk-in cold room for bottled beer.

Out front, piled high on either side of the entrance, are stacks of six-packs – an intentionally brazen proclamation of beer for sale.

One wall of large windows in the pub looks out onto the bakery area of the store, beyond which lie a salad bar, wells of bulk olives, hot food islands and deli counters. A person could do all right on either side of those windows.

Consistent with the Whole Foods philosophy, the beer you’ll find on the eight taps inside the pub is fresh and local. Christine Meredith, the company’s wine and beer buyer for the Mid-Atlantic region, came up from Rockville, Md., to get the pub running.

“The Philly area has so much culture and pride around beer,” she said when asked about the decision to feature an all-local draft lineup. “And it fits with our mission in everything we do: We’re about recycling and reducing shipping distances, and we’re about freshness and supporting the local community.”

Dan Koltonuk, a Whole Foods cheese counter veteran and self-described “beer nerd” who will oversee the beer program at Brew & Brau, said “the taps will allow us to bring in breweries that don’t bottle, so they might not get as much exposure.”

The beers flowing on opening day underscored those ideas: a small-batch German altbier that Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Company custom brewed for Whole Foods; a rye IPA from Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia; the acclaimed HopDevil Ale from Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown; Krook’s Mill Pale Ale from Manayunk Brewery in Philadelphia; an IPA made with mango and ginger by Boxcar Brewing Company in West Chester; Insana Stout made with chocolate and soy bacon (!) by Prism Brewing Company in North Wales; Lucky S.O.B. Irish Red Ale from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md.; and the highly sought-after Nugget Nectar Imperial Amber by Tröegs Brewing Company in Hershey.

Discarding the geographic outliers of Flying Dog and Tröegs, the remaining six breweries are all situated within 40 miles of the Brew & Brau.

The bottled beer selection does make some concession to shoppers looking for familiar mass-produced brands, with about a quarter of the shelf space devoted to names like Corona, Heineken, Samuel Adams, and Blue Moon. But the rest of the cooler is stocked with, inch for inch, one of the most diverse assortments of craft beers and imports you’ll find in the area. Offerings from revered breweries like Bell’s and Founders that do not distribute in Delaware are likely to draw many beer-loving First Staters across the Pa. line, sales tax be damned.

Most of the stock is available as singles for building what Brew & Brau calls ‘Mix-A-Six.’ “We want to make it easy for people to try new stuff and see what they might like to buy more of,” Koltonuk said.

Beyond beer, the Brew & Brau offers six local wines by the glass and a variety of organic coffees, some locally roasted. The venue is prepared to accommodate coffee-seekers in the morning, a lunch crowd geared toward something more nutritious than fast food, and an after-work clientele ready to settle in for a pint or glass of wine and shed the day’s stress – perhaps before or after picking up a gallon of organic milk and a bunch of organic Peruvian bananas.

On opening day, a stream of the curious and the thirsty kept most of the stools occupied throughout the afternoon, but the crowd surged dramatically a few minutes after 5 p.m. Jason Kohser, a co-owner of Boxcar Brewing who was on hand for the festivities, happily joined Meredith and the regular Brew & Brau staff behind the bar, taking orders and slinging pints like a pro as the traffic picked up. Kohser’s IPA was selling nearly as briskly as the more established brands.

Kathy Koons, a customer from Chester Heights, sampled with approval a Boxcar IPA at one of the tables away from the bar. She said she was “just casing the joint” that day, but she liked the size of the store, and the prepared foods might be something to try.

Koons usually shops at the Whole Foods Market in Devon, but is excited about the new location since gas prices are becoming a factor. She said the Brew & Brau seems like “a good place to come after work, meet your friends and have a beer.” These last three words she emphasized with particular relish.

His post-work visit was the second trip to Whole Foods that day for Kevin Branin. He had also popped in at lunchtime to grab a salad. Branin, who lives in West Chester, works just down the road from Whole Foods at Arora Engineers, so he had been patiently eyeing the site as construction progressed. He was back after 5, still wearing his charcoal gray suit, casually enjoying a pint of Nugget Nectar. “I’ve got to pick up some tomatoes,” he said, smiling.

A group of Wilmingtonians nestled at the bar, sipping Paradocx chardonnay from Chester County. Among them was Kim Merkl, who thinks the Brew & Brau is a great idea. “What could be better than stopping by for a glass of wine before shopping?” she said. “You’ll be more relaxed and make better decisions!”

A little after 6 p.m., the crowd swelled again. For having been open less than one day, the atmosphere in the bustling room had a surprisingly relaxed feel, like it was already populated with regulars. At 6:45, the Nugget Nectar tapped out, and Koltonuk swiftly rotated in another sixtel.

“This is a limited-availability seasonal. This may be all we get,” he mused. Nevertheless, to sell out of it so quickly did not seem like a bad problem.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Palate Wrecker (Green Flash Brewing Company)

I had hardly finished reading the February 27th press release about the impending arrival of Palate Wrecker when I wrote to Green Flash Brewing Company requesting a sample for review. From my experiences with Hop Head Red™ Red IPA and Double Stout Black Ale, I knew the San Diego brewery to adeptly craft bold, flavorful beers, and the write-up made their latest one sound too intriguing to miss -- "the most complicated West Coast–inspired IPA we have ever brewed," they called it.

I was amused when the 750ml bottle arrived in a reused Keurig box, incognito, like illicit booty from a mail order catalog. Quite fitting, actually.

The name makes the (tongue-in-cheek?) implication that this beer's hop content will render your palate unfit for tasting anything afterward. Fair enough. If it's as good as what I know Green Flash is capable of, after 750ml of it I won't be needing anything else.

Poured into my pint tumbler, the beer is clear amber with loads of sturdy, off-white foam. The aroma is incredibly intense, with a pungency blasting straight through grapefruit into the territory of high grade cannabis, stopping just short of skunk musk. Ripe peach is also amply present.

The taste is pretty intense, too, as expected. Bitter citrus zest is my first impression, followed by pine resin, creosote, guava, and alcohol. Very pungent, powerful flavors up front. The beer becomes considerably more accessible as it warms, and only then do I appreciate the delicious caramel malt body that does the formidable work of supporting all of that hop action.

For all the enormity of flavor, the beer still manages to feel medium weighted in the mouth. The long-lasting aftertaste is an event unto itself, casually evolving through butterscotch, jasmine, and finally black tea.

To be honest, my palate seems no worse for wear. Nonetheless, this is officially the hoppiest beer I've ever tasted, beyond Nugget Nectar and even 120 Minute IPA. Make no mistake that Palate Wrecker is way over the line for the casual drinker and should never be offered to anyone uninitiated in the resinous mysteries of Humulus lupulus. But for those already of the faith, you will find no elixir more thoroughly devoted to celebrating hop flavor than this one.

From the bottle's label:

Palate Wrecker was originally brewed for the Hamilton's Tavern 2nd Anniversary celebration. It's the most complicated West Coast-inspired IPA we have ever brewed -- mashing and sparging with hopped wort, in addition to our hop layering regimen for IPA. By popular demand, it is now released for the world to enjoy. -- Chuck Silva, Brewmaster

Featured beer:
Palate Wrecker

Honorable mentions:
Nugget Nectar
120 Minute IPA

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Duchesse De Bourgogne (Brouwerij Verhaeghe)

This is the Flanders red ale that Comrade Snoop Dogg bought for the Beer Club, not realizing until it was rung up that the price was $7 a bottle. We all had a good laugh at that one. From the cost, I figured the beer must be something special, so I have been waiting for an occasion to drink it when I knew I could give it proper attention. Decided to pop it open tonight.

The diminutive brown bottle is truly elegant in appearance, with its gently tapering shoulders and its label featuring a classical Flemish painting of the beer's eponym, Mary of Burgundy. (I haven't found out for sure, but the painting may be by Hugo van der Goes).

I see a lot of sediment in the pour, but the beer ends up surprisingly clear in the glass. It is a warm ruby color with ecru foam that is fluffy at first, then dies down to a film with a bit of clumpiness. The nose carries cider vinegar, a bit of banana, and a mineral quality like baking soda or seltzer water. Clearly something different going on here.

The flavor begins tart but not puckering. After the fizz, the taste is strongly fruity -- grape-like, but less like concord grape and more like slightly flat grape soda. The tartness comes back and really hugs the tongue, making the medium weight of the mouthfeel seem fuller. Further on in the taste, I find some sourness and a slight copper penny metallic tang. It ends somewhat musty, acidic, and dry but with subtle residual notes of grain, dried plums, and stale keg beer. I am surprised at how many subtle things are going on in the aftertaste, given the intense impressions happening in the main flavor.

I realize that almost every description I have used about this ale sounds negative (if not revolting), but the overall effect is actually intriguing -- I'm sure many consider it sublime. There is not much within my realm of experience to compare it to. It most resembles the few lambics I've tried, but also is surprisingly similar to Dogfish Head's Tweason'ale, though much funkier. Clearly the name of Science compels me toward more exploration in this part of the beer spectrum, but I have the feeling the exploration will be slow and expensive...

From the bottle's label:

Belgian top-fermented reddish-brown ale, a blend of 8 and 18 month old beers following the careful maturation in oak casks. Serve in range of 47 - 53° F

Featured beer:
Duchesse De Bourgogne

Honorable mentions:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Nugget Nectar (Tröegs Brewing Company)

I've just had a bottle of Nugget Nectar from only of my favorite breweries, Tröegs. The "nugget" in the name comes from one of the three varieties of hops used in the beer -- Nugget, Warrior, and Tomahawk -- so I thought this was a good opportunity for a long overdue digression about hops.

Hops serve two purposes in beer-making. Added to the brew kettle at or near the beginning of the boil, they add bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the grain sugars. Added later in the boil (or even in the fermentation tank, a technique called "dry hopping"), they add pleasant aromatic qualities that come across in the nose and in the finish.

Chemically, the resin of hop flowers contains one type of compound (alpha acids) that is good for bittering, and one type (beta acids) that is good for aroma. Different hop varieties contain these acids in different proportions.

Hops are known to have been used in brewing for close to a thousand years, both for flavor and for their preservative properties -- bacteria don't care for a substance called lupulin in the hop oils, it turns out. In a classic example, British brewers of the 19th century found that pale ales made with extra hops were better at surviving the long, inhospitable sea voyage to India. It is unlikely they foresaw the influence this reformulation would have on the future of beer in a certain ex-colony called the United States.

I would love to read a scholarly investigation of why the India Pale Ale style has captured the fancy of the contemporary American beer enthusiast. Perhaps it is a case of supply creating demand, and the preference is rooted in the success of hop farming in the states of Washington and Oregon. Perhaps it is a biologically-driven craving: hops have long been used in folk medicine as an antispasmodic and a sedative. Are we subconsciously self-medicating by drinking IPAs?

Whatever the reason, it is indisputable that, out of the profusion of styles the craft brewing movement has brought to the market in the last 20 years, IPA has emerged as the most popular. In fact, research by SymphonyIRI Group reveals that not only does IPA outsell all other styles in the craft beer segment, but the number of different IPAs for sale in the U.S. grew 43% between 2010 and 2011, from 177 to 253.

So, Americans have a taste for the hops. As a result, the botanical science behind hop cultivation is thriving, and new strains of the plant are being developed to produce cones with unprecedented levels of alpha acids -- we're talking three to four times the amount in traditional German and English hop varieties.

Which brings us to the hops used in Nugget Nectar. Nugget is the old-timer of the bunch, being introduced in 1983. It is the second most widely grown hop in Oregon, behind Willamette (which was more or less custom engineered for Anheuser-Busch), and it contains 10 - 14% alpha acids by weight, in comparison with 3 - 5.5% in the "noble" old world hops. Warrior and Tomahawk are relative newcomers branded as "super alpha" varieties, and a whopping 14.5 to 18% of their weight comes from alpha acids.

What does it all add up to? Well, for one thing, Nugget Nectar is one hell of a bitter beer! But let's back up a bit and do this the usual way...

The beer pours a deep amber hue, with half an inch of clumpy off-white foam. The fresh, sweet aroma is evokes grapefruit, predominantly.

Take a swig, and you're hit with a bitter blast -- you can tell it's bitter in your mouth before you even swallow. This bitterness takes a long time to settle over the tongue. Next comes a fruit punch fruitiness edged with black pepper. The carbonation is more fuzzy than fizzy, and the beer is of medium weight.

I know there is a malt platform under there, but nothing that tastes clearly like grain can muscle its way to the foreground past the imposing hops statement, just some caramel sweetness. The beer has, of course, other hop flavors beyond "bitter," those being mainly citrusy and slightly piney. Surprisingly, Nugget Nectar is designated as an "imperial amber," not even an IPA. Sure tastes more like a hopped-up IPA than a bigged-up version of Tröegs' delightful HopBack Amber, one of my very favorite beers.

In lieu of the obvious caveat that this is a drink for hop-heads only, I'll observe that on BeerAdvocate.com, after 1,998 user-submitted reviews, Nugget Nectar has an average rating of 97 out of a possible 100. And, in a sense, Tröegs has the British Empire to thank for that success.

From the bottle's label:

Hopheads Nirvana. Experience a heady Trifecta of Nugget, Warrior, and Tomahawk hops. 93ish I.B.U.'s

Featured beer:
Nugget Nectar

Honorable mentions:
HopBack Amber Ale

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beer Club (week 23)

This week the Beer Club bids farewell to Snoop Dogg and thanks him for his generous contributions to the cause. We also warmly welcome the small but dynamic KT Peril to the group, and look forward to exploring the world of beer with her.

• Dominion Millennium Ale (Old Dominion Brewing Company)
• Harpoon Celtic Ale (Harpoon Brewery)
• IPA (Southern Tier Brewing Company)
• Mendocino Seasonal Bock Beer (Mendocino Brewing Company)
• Phin & Matt's Extraordinary Ale (Southern Tier Brewing Company)
• Raging Bitch Belgian-Style IPA (Flying Dog Brewery)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Schlafly Coffee Stout (The Saint Louis Brewery)

When I spoke to Two Stones Pub owner Mike Stiglitz back in January, I asked him what breweries he thought were underrated or that folks should keep an eye on. One of those he mentioned was The Saint Louis Brewery, which makes beer under the Schlafly brand, so I picked up a bottle of Schlafly Coffee Stout, their winter seasonal release.

If you're like me, you have to overcome considerable apprehension before touching to your lips anything with the name "Schlafly" on it -- and, yes, brewery founder is related to Phyllis, although there is no reason at present to believe his company is associated with reactionary political ideology. For now I'll pretend this stout I'm about to taste is just another beer from another brewery.

Pouring raises half an inch of tan foam that quickly settles to a thin film. The beer is black in my pint glass, with a deep mahogany tint when held to strong light. The aroma carries dark chocolate and undertones of espresso.

To the taste, there are coffee and roasty malt flavors in equal parts. Hops support is unobtrusive. The mouthfeel is not as creamy as other coffee stouts I've had, especially ones with oatmeal in them. Don't know whether this is because the percentage of oats in this beer's grain bill is low, but for whatever reason, the body fairly thin, which seems to bring out the hard edge of the coffee -- not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

There is some complexity in the flavor, but even though the malt is pretty well represented, instead of a captivating weave of rich espresso, kiln-fired grain, and exotic chocolate threads, the focus keeps resolving pretty squarely back to the coffee. It occurred to me is that this tastes almost like a Saranac release, which is not usually another way of saying "it is extremely complex." Still, they may have intentionally crafted it with strong emphasis on the coffee note, and it is not a bad tasting beer in the end.

Overall, I would describe this as a distinctive if not amazing coffee stout, and a respectable addition to the field. I'll need to sample another Schlafly beer before I can make a judgment on the overall genius of this brewery. For my money, Tröegs does the style better with their JavaHead Stout.

From the bottle's label:

This Fair Trade espresso is brewed using the cold toddy method for an exceptionally delicious, fresh flavor.

Schafly Coffee Stout This Oatmeal Stout with natural flavor added uses locally roasted Kaldi's Coffee.

Featured beer:
Schafly Coffee Stout

Honorable mentions:
JavaHead Stout

Coming up...

A heavy workload at my day job has me behind on my publishing schedule, but coming up in the next few days I have a review of Tröegs Nugget Nectar, Schlafly Coffee Stout, and preview of a new triple IPA from Green Flash called Palate Wrecker. Very excited about that one!