Thursday, November 30, 2006


I took a new job a few weeks ago in San Francisco’s South of Market district, only a mere block away from the 21ST AMENDMENT BREWERY – which most beerheads seem to think is one of this town’s 2 quality breweries (along with MAGNOLIA). So anyway, being a local and all, I signed up for their email list, and yesterday received word that they not only had a new HOLIDAY SPICED ALE on tap at the pub, but were bottling it in 22-oz. bottles for the “take-home” market. I did a fly-by after work and picked one up – and have to say, this is seriously one of the best holiday beers I’ve ever had. It balances 8% alcohol with the most lush batch of spices known to man – jeez, I don’t know what they are, but I tasted just about everything in there – cinnamon, nutmeg, toffee, and maybe even some cocoa dust or something. It’s got a medium body that makes it go down really easily, and yet is most certifiably a strong ale, made both for beer lovers and lovers of beer. I can see this going in a few stockings this year, and it’s big enough to crowd out any room for other things, thus reducing my holiday “spend”. I cry in howling pain for those of you who don’t live within driving distance of San Francisco. Perhaps you can call them up and have one shipped to you for $15? A knockout beer – 9.5/10.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I decided that this winter I’d do my darndest to taste as many of the 2006 holiday beers as I could within reason, considering that I’ll typically drink no more than 4-5 beers in any given week. My cause is helped along by the fact that San Francisco’s CITY BEER STORE encourages you to make your own assorted 6-packs from their vast selection, and actually pays you back 10% for doing so (!). That’s pretty refreshing, when my experience with bringing a single lonely 12-oz. bottle to the counter in most stores often leads to a lecture, chastisement & a long trudge back to the beer section. So anyway, I’ve been stocking up and slowly making my way through the goods. Here are a few from the past couple weeks:

1. NEW BELGIUM 2 BELOW WINTER ALE – This, unsurprisingly, is another fine beer from the New Belgium folks. A very malty, toffee-like taste and some strong, bitter hops make for a robust but very drinkable ale. It also has a great vanilla smell to it. These guys make beers to be sold in fairly large volumes but have not forgotten their small-brewing roots, and it shows. 7.5/10.

2. ANCHOR “OUR SPECIAL” CHRISTMAS 2006 ALE – Every year ANCHOR formulates a different recipe for their Christmas Ale, and just about every year it’s really, really good, the year it tasted like raw tree sap notwithstanding. Exceptionally dark and rich-tasting, with nutmeg and other holiday-themed spices all over the place. I found something a little bit out of balance, not sure if I can put my finger on it, but there was so much to be thankful for yet again I’ll still give this a 7/10.

3. SAMUEL ADAMS OLD FEZZIWIG ALE – Then there’s this one. I bought it as part of a holiday 12-pack box from Boston Beer Co./Samuel Adams, containing two each of six different types of holiday brews. This one was pretty rank – too strongly carmeled or something, and out of whack between the spices, the strong malts and the distinct lack of hops. Bitter, but not in a great way. Poured out the last bit – never a good sign. I hope there’s a winner in the other five. 4.5/10.

Just for the record, because I knew you were going to ask, here are our scientific rankings & ratings on the 2006 Holiday beers thus far. We’re only at November 29th, folks – we got at least 5 more weeks to go to enhance this list on a big way, and there’s a lot more waiting in my fridge & garage......


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I’ve got a couple of pals who make anything from the SPEAKEASY BREWING corporation their default beers. Living in San Francisco as I do, where the brewery is located, it’s a snap to find their wares around town – a great many corner liquor stores stock PROHIBITION ALE or BIG DADDY IPA as their default micros, along with the de riguer Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam and Sam Adams (sometimes Anderson Valley’s BOONT AMBER as well – only one of the greatest beers in the history of recorded civilization). I really don’t quite get the Speakeasy thing. I ordered up another PROHIBITION ALE at a local tavern last night and had that “middling” feeling I get every time I try something of theirs. This amber ale is good enough to keep the palate moist & the brain from doing a lot of whirring during its intake, but this blandness is also its curse, in that the yeasty overtones of the beer are about the only thing that keeps it in any way different from its peers. What’s more, there’s sort of an acrid aftertaste that I also found when I sampled their DOUBLE DADDY IPA, and I don’t like an acrid aftertaste. Do you? I’d really like to see a San Francisco brewery bust out the way some of our friends in the counties to the north of us have, but I don’t think it’s going to be these guys. 6/10.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Morgan Hill is a semi-rural suburb of San Jose, California, famous for nothing much except for being the location of the EL TORO BREWING COMPANY. This brewery’s actually been around since 1994, and has flown under the radar for a while despite making some pretty fine elixirs, such as the satisfying EL TORO NEGRO OATMEAL STOUT I downed last week. POPPY JASPER has been the one of theirs flowing on taps around my parts (San Francisco Bay Area) for years, and I’ve always found it to be pretty good (though this English-style brown ale, which used to be ubiquitous, seems relatively harder to find the past few years – not that I’ve been lookin’). This was my first experience with their Oatmeal Stout, and my first oatmeal stout at all in maybe 2-3 years (this was another style I discovered early in my beer-drinking career that hooked me on micros, and though I can’t pin it on any particular brand, it was either the SAMUEL SMITH or the ANDERSON VALLEY variety). Anyway, EL TORO makes a real good one. It has the smell of molasses and other sweet things, and a very smooth drinkability that goes well with probably just about any foodstuffs. It had a big head of foam that died down relatively quickly, and I found that it was exceptionally easy to finish this one off quickly – a fantastic beer for the pub, and very reminiscent of something English. Yet it was made in the coyote-clogged wilds of Morgan Hill. I hope these guys raise their profile a bit with this one; if you read the comments on it in Beer Advocate you’ll find there are a few folks that believe this to be a little bit beyond merely “very good”. Me, I give it a 7.5/10, so I guess I agree.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Here's a holiday beer that’s been cranked out winter after winter for years now – and which is flat-out excellent this year. I’m talking about the 2006 version of MARIN BREWING COMPANY’s HOPPY HOLIDAZE, which is probably no more dumb of a name than most of ‘em out there now – oh all right, it’s a terrible name, but that’s about the least of my concerns. What I needed to know was that when I poured this 22-oz. bomber last Saturday, I was going to be getting a classic Holiday ale full of different malts and spices & balanced to near-perfection, and that’s what I got. 4 different kinds of malts and several hop varieties go into this one, and it’s spiced – but not too over-the-top – with “Nutmeg, Mace, Cinnamon, Vanilla and Orange Peel”. Mace??!? Is that what put me asleep on the couch after drinking it? Anyone who knows what mace is besides a keychain-based anti-rapist spray, please let me know. In any event, the only holiday beer to top this one so far this season is DESCHUTES’ JUBELALE, but then again, it’s a loooong way til December 31st, when these start disappearing from the shelves. Until then, grab this 8.5/10-rated beer and maybe even order one on the interweb if you’re not within Marin Brewing’s distribution area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Last week will be remembered by me as the week in which I learned that STONE BREWING, in fact, could do wrong. The DOUBLE BASTARD that I reviewed yesterday was bad enough, but this other recent foray into extreme/experimental brewing - the STONE 10TH ANNIVERSARY ALE - has me nearly as disappointed. Earlier in 2006 I had a slightly-aged 22-oz. bottle of their 9TH ANNIVERSARY ALE, and that was just a knockout beer - so what happened for the double digits, fellas? You calling this an IPA? Oh - a Double IPA? But why did you have to (again) make it so alcohol-packed that it tasted like you'd spiked it with Wild Turkey? Sure, there were a ton of hops, but why don't they dance on the tongue like your amazing normal IPA, or like MOYLAN'S Hopsickle? And "piney" is all well and good, but that's about all I have to recommend this one. It really strikes me as a "brewers gone wild" exercise or like a batch of moderately decent homebrew, rather than the high quality microbrews you've come to expect from the pioneers at Stone. I'm done bagging on these guys for the week, I promise - and believe me, no one's more dejected that I am that this brewer has descended with a thud from the perch of perfection. I still have many of their fine beers left to conquer - never had a Pale Ale, a Smoked Porter nor a Levitation Ale! - so the story has yet to wrap up on 'em. But for now, this one's a mere 5.5/10, and expert reports from two of my peers indicate that they too concur. So that's a majority.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Talk about a letdown. The beer blogs and bulletin boards (not that I check them.....) have been buzzing about the late October release of STONE BREWING’s highly-touted DOUBLE BASTARD ALE, a super-strong ale that’s an aggressive cousin to the outstanding ARROGANT BASTARD ALE. They’ve put these things out on a seasonal basis – not sure for how long. I bought one without a second’s hesitation at my local Whole Foods, and I was only in the store this time because I read on Stone’s website that they were peddling this one there. I thought it was awful, quite honestly, which is 180 degrees from what I was expecting (I think it was just last month that I typed something along the lines of STONE being the US’s finest brewer). This is an absolute alcohol monster, at 10%, and it does nothing to disguise this fact, so it tastes like something approximating a bourbon and a barleywine mashed together. It looks and even smells a bit like its namesake brew Arrogant Bastard, but where that one is fruit-filled and hoppy, this one brings tears to the eyes with every gulp. It’s that alcohol – that and the out-of-whack combo of flavors. Gross. I know that their packaging has all this malarkey about how you have to be tough & brave & strong and all that to enjoy the beer, but if it’s still lame at the end of the day, and this is, then I’ll just go back to other experimental beers that get it right. This heinous misadventure in “extreme brewing” seems to be pleasing many in the sometimes herdlike Beer Advocate community, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. 4/10, and a must to avoid.

Friday, November 10, 2006


I'm always game for a trip to a new brewery or brewpub, so there I was a couple weeks ago, living large at the SEBASTOPOL BREWING COMPANY in Sebastopol, California. We have some pals that live in town there, and I was quite pleased when they suggested that we start some pre-Halloween festivities in the hallowed halls of said brewery – which meant I’d get to try out a beer that no one but those who’ve visited this location had tried before. Whoa. Sebastopol is located in the heart of California microbrew country, only 15-45 minutes away from some of your favorites like RUSSIAN RIVER BREWING, LAGUNITAS BREWING, BEAR REPUBLIC and MOYLAN’S – so you gotta figure that the folks that opened this one would have to come up with a pretty magic recipe in order to compete with the firebreathers that are all within striking distance. The great thing about this area a little over an hour north of San Francisco, though, is that great beer is the default, not the exception. I get the feeling that people who saddle up the bars in Marin and Sonoma county sneer and stomp out if the best thing on tap is Sierra or Sam Adams, whereas in other locales they’re jumping for goddamn joy. So there’s probably room for more comers to high-end beer in these parts, because that’s what the locals are drinking (remember too that California Wine Country is located in or near here as well).

I tried out SEBASTOPOL BREWING’s WHITE OWL IPA, as well as their 4-pound hamburger (give or take). This IPA was far more amber in color than I expected, and while it lacked the overpowered hoppiness of the modern American IPA, it pretty much did the trick for me nonetheless. A much more smooth IPA than most folks make, and I liked the unique tastes I was getting out of this one: not fruity, but perhaps a little grainy, like this had been fermenting next to a batch of fresh country bread or something. No complaints – I rolled the dice, and got a 7.5/10 out of the deal. The brewery itself was quite inviting – upscale enough for a date or night out with your ladyfriend, but not so much that you couldn’t take two hyped-up 3-year-olds, as we did. And the burger wasn’t bad either. If you’re headed through “the ‘Pol” (as the locals call it), I recommend a stopover here – it’s right downtown, walking distance from pretty much everything Sebastopol has to offer – and that IPA’s pretty solid too.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The holiday/Christmas beers seem to have all hit the shelves this past week or two, and I couldn't be happier. This "style" - which can of course be many styles, characterized by nothing so much as spices & a general comforting malty robustness, is among my very favorites, and I'm counting the days until PACIFIC COAST BREWING's Holiday Ale festival in less than a month. The first two out of the gate for me were the first two I saw on the shelves - ALASKAN BREWING's 2006 WINTER ALE, and a perennial favorite of mine, DESCHUTES BREWING's 2006 JUBELALE.

The ALASKAN stumbled a bit out of the blocks, I'm afraid. I was hoping for the deep malts and rich aromas of a classic Christmas brew, and what I got was something on the mediocre side. This brew felt a little thin and a bit underspiced – but at the same time still had some intense malt flavor that saved it from relegation to a middle-of-the-curve-of-all-beers-in-the-known-universe rating of below 6. I’m going with 6.5/10, but with so many other choices on tap the next couple of months, I’m predicting I won’t head back to the Alaskan Winter trough before New Year’s.

That said, I will probably buy one of more six-packs of DESCHUTES JUBELALE in a hurry and sock them away for the winter – or perhaps drink them in rapid-fire succession. Wow. This one is closing in on perfect – while fairly uppity on alcohol (6.7%), general feel of this one is pure holiday warmth, like chestnuts & eggnog & forty gifts for me under the tree. If you know what you’re looking for in a classic holiday beer, trust me, it’s all here – with the injection of a bit more of a “fruit” taste to boot, as well as a rich roasted malt flavor. Love it – 9/10. Even my local Safeway has three more brands I’m itching to try, so expect more holiday hoopla in these pages in coming weeks.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I was first told that there existed “beer podcasts” back in March, and my first instinct was one of extreme skepticism to the form. Initial dives into the form (just get into iTunes search and enter “beer”) were underwhelming – lots of yahoos sitting around shuckin’ and jivin’ about whatever beer they were drinking at the moment, with a lot of extraneous drunken commentary – that is, until I discovered PACIFIC BREW NEWS. This might be the most “intelligent” (all things being relative of course) discussion on beer you’re going to hear, with 3 opinionated guys who are well-steeped in beer knowledge holding court on beer, and beer only. They secure loads of great interviews with west coast brewers, pub owners and beer aficionados, and never condescend to their audience in any way – though they have exceptionally deeply-held opinions about what makes a great beer. My particular favorite host is a guy named “Big Mike”, who talks the least of the three, but can be counted on to weigh in with a cranky gruff aside whenever called upon. Naturally, this thing’s for true beer dorks only, but if you’ve read this far, then you’re one of us. Check them out by clicking here.

Monday, November 06, 2006


I have been negatively taken aback recently at a couple of beers I've been sampling from ROGUE lately, leading me to question the depth of my allegiance to the brewery. No more. The AMERICAN AMBER ALE is an excellent return to form. It is a stunning-looking deep, deep amber/brown in the glass, and smells of sugars and fruit. In fact this is a much sweeter beer than I expected - not cloyingly so, but in a pleasing way that interacted with the 5.6% alcohol level very well. As opposed to say, ANDERSON VALLEY BOONT AMBER, I'd call this one a much more "juicy" and less malty version of the classic American-style amber beer. Really great, and one to add to the list of beers to stock early and often. 8/10.

Friday, November 03, 2006


I recently stopped writing a music blog called AGONY SHORTHAND; a few months before its end I decided to join the kool kids & put together a MySpace promotional page for the site in an effort to connect with the 16-25 demographic. Right before I packed it in, a fella from a Vancouver garage punk band called LADIES' NIGHT sent me a missive "on my MySpace", promising to bring me a fancy Canadian beer if I attended his band's show in San Francisco. I accepted the challenge - problem was, he held up his end of the bargain, and I got sick and wussed out (honestly, I was sick and in bed, you guys). But being a good guy, the gentleman from Ladies' Night sought out a friend of mine in the crowd, and delivered this big-ass bomber of EAU BENITE, from the heralded Quebec craft brewer UNIBROUE. This is the story of that beer.

EAU BENITE is the classic example of a beer that "improves as it warms" , and after some initial trepidation upon first sips, I was seriously diggin' it halfway in. Delicious yeasty mouthfeel, and a really robust orange/lemon taste is all over this thing. It's a Belgian Strong Pale Ale that's frothy and intense but still quite smooth at the end of the day. And I have to say - it's the first beer I've had from the Unibroue family (they're not cheap!), but it was a fine way to start. 8/10 - and a big thanks to Ladies' Night. If you're into exploding, ear-aggro garage punk, download their excellent track "Call Me Your Legs" right here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Careful readers will know that I used the word "serviceable" another time I reviewed a DESCHUTES BREWING beer - the Cinder Cone Red Ale some months ago - and I guess that sorta disappoints me, because I used to think their beer was so much more than "serviceable". But perhaps I've just been seeking out and finding the best of the best recently, and while eveything Deschutes touches is far better than average, beers like Cinder Cone and this new HOP TRIP HARVEST ALE are only "good enough". Hop Trip is noteworthy because it's the first fresh hop beer I've ever tasted. This is a style gathering much attention lately, and I have to admit I was pretty excited to give it a whirl. Read about it more in this Wall Street Journal piece.

Anyway, HOP TRIP has a very classic pale ale taste to it and it extremely crisp. There was this sort of murkiness and deep, cloudy taste to it that was interesting, and very different than most beer I've had. Not "light" but not overwhleming either. There was no head whatsoever - it dissapated before it even got going. And yeah, of course it was hoppy but not like an IPA at all. I guess you could color me disappointed, but not so much that I can't still give it a 7/10, which is pretty effin' good, right?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Check out this new site called “MICROBREWS: A 10 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE”. The idea is to review those beers listed in a 10-year-old book called “Microbrews: A Guide To America’s Best New Beers & Breweries” to see which ones are still alive and kicking, and what’s changed about them in the interregnum. You do realize that ten years ago was only 1996, right? I’d imagine there are a lot of outstanding survivors from that era – I guess we’ll find out as the saga unfolds.