Friday, November 30, 2007

ODELL BREWING – “90 SHILLING ALE”

This one found its way out of my brother-in-law’s fridge last week in Denver. “Wow, we don’t have THIS beer in California”, I cajoled. As I understand, it ODELL BREWING’s 90 SHILLING ALE is not only this Fort Collins, CO-based brewer’s flagship ale, it’s their take on the traditional Scottish ale – a style we are learning to love here at HBJ HQ – only lightened up a bit, delivered as a “light amber” rather than a heavy-malt Scottish beer. I found that it’s pretty much just that, and a little boring besides, but still decent enough. It’s highly carbonated, and has a fairly crisp and vaguely caramel-ish bite to it. You might say it’s similar in both style and in its ability to excite to its Fort Collins-based brother FAT TIRE, from NEW BELGIUM. I will say that this brewery probably has the most gorgeous labels in the business right now, and I might buy a few more bottles of ODELL product on that basis alone. But this “light amber” is probably about a 6/10.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A TRIP TO THE WALNUT BREWERY

So we went out to Denver for the Thanksgiving holidays, ostensibly to see my brother-in-law and to introduce my son to his first snow, but the ulterior motive, harbored deep within my cranium, was to enjoy some of Colorado’s finest beers. When I took my eye-opening “beer class” a couple years ago, the beer professor opined that Colorado, not California nor Michigan nor Oregon, was the place to be in the USA if you want to drink the finest beer. “Whatever”. We headed up to Boulder last Wednesday, the day that three inches of snow dumped on the region and temperatures dropped into the 20s. Our search for a compatible restaurant (my wife’s perplexing near-vegetarianism, my son’s rabid desire for french fries, my ravenous desire for great beer) led the family to WALNUT BREWERY in Boulder. I was unfamiliar with the brewery and its concoctions. I am no longer.

Actually, you’ll probably be disappointed in me, but I only had one lone pint on this bone-chilling day. First, the restaurant. A wide-open, massively high-ceilinged space, with exposed brew tanks and piping – very clean and somewhere between sports bar and high-end. I could see whiling away the better part of an afternoon here, the colder outside the better. Food was salty and satisfying. I ordered an appropriate-for-the-weather DEVIL’S THUMB STOUT, which I ended up being pretty goddamn happy about. A cask ale served “on a nitrogen tap” that was smooth, fresh and ultra-creamy, and surprisingly acidic at times. Obviously it was thin-bodied, and gave me a nice taste of Olde England. I wish I could have stayed longer. We then walked by a “hippie brewery” on Pearl Street – you know, rainbow lettering, obvious tilt toward the organic and the healthy – I subsequently learned that it’s called MOUNTAIN SUN PUB & BREWING. Next trip we’re hitting ‘em both. Oh, and DEVIL’S THUMB STOUT earned a nice 7/10. Give it a go your next time in Boulder.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

SOME MORE FELLOW TRAVELERS IN BEER OBSESSION

Get out there on that world wide web and you’ll find all sorts of strange nattering nabobs talking about beer. Here’s a few more of our favorites:

CRAFT BEER RADIO – I guess you’d call this the preeminent beer-related podcast on the web – as far as I know, it’s the most popular. I am partial to PACIFIC BREW NEWS myself, but that’s partially some "California love" talking. CRAFT BEER RADIO follow a similar format – two or more guys sitting around sampling beer in a thematic manner, i.e. hoppy west coast ales, Belgian dubbels, holiday beers etc. They’re engaging and certainly exceptionally well-informed, and they talk about California beers almost as knowledgeably as their local Pennsylvania ones. I believe both main fellas (Jeff & Greg) are homebrewers themselves, so you’ll get a little discussion on fermenting techniques and such, but mostly it unfolds as a great “consumer guide”, interspersed with all sorts of beer arcana. Definitely one of the two podcasts you obsessives should be downloading.

WHAT’S ON TAP – THE CALIFORIA BEER NEWSLETTER – I’ve never met local beer writer William Brand (by local I mean San Francisco Bay Area), but I feel like I should. He’s a great resource for local beer aficionados, and scouts out the area to let you know about rare beers in stores, new brewery openings, special beer dinners and events, and every week about one knockout beer he’s tried. His writings are all over the web, but I make a point of checking out this one every week for sure.

THE BEER RETARD – The proprietor of the blog and I actually have a bit of a history (though, again, we’ve never met), as he once listened to my college radio show in the late 80s/early 90s, and now we’ve gone off and gotten all into beer together. He brings an excellent Pacific Northwest perspective to the beer universe, and makes it pretty clear to me that Seattle is just as much a beer epicenter in the US as Portland is, a fact that was clear to me when I was getting my mind blown up there by ALASKAN AMBER and BLACK BUTTE PORTER in the late 90s. THE BEER RETARD is a frequent festival-goer and beer traveler, and if his exploits don’t make you just a little bit jealous then you have no soul, my friend.

SEVENPACK BEER BLOG – Updated even more frequently than our own HBJ, this one is pretty much reviews and nothing but, and appears to be a well-considered, unpretentious group effort. These guys live life the way that I do, trying just about every new beer they can get their hands on, since that’s more fun than drinking the same ones repeatedly. One day perhaps they’ll conquer them all, every single beer on the planet, and then have to come back for second tries.

One of our favorites highlighted last time we put up some links was HAIR OF THE DOG DAVE, but he seems to have entered a detox clinic or something. Dave, wherefore art thou?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

RAISE THINE GLASS IN JUBILATION

AVERY BREWING (the pride of Boulder, Colorado) beers are now distributed in Northern California, where I reside. That means that for the first time I can try their OLD JUBILATION winter ale – and in fact, that’s just what I did the other night. This holiday concoction has none of the spices generally associated with winter ales, “just a perfect blend of five specialty malts”, as they say. Perfect? Well I’ll be the judge of that. OLD JUBILATION has a medium-to-high level of carbonation, almost zero “head retention” (you know, the foamy stuff you gotta wait out before you can drink), and a deep clove and licorice taste. I was actually a bit startled to taste licorice in there, but it was what it was – and I liked it. It’s 8% alcohol, and in general is just a STRONG beer all the way around. Strong taste, strong ABV, strong strong strong – but entirely drinkable and very good. Maybe not AVERY’S best beer, but these guys are total champs, so getting a “mere” 7/10 doesn’t really knock them down from their perch as one of the US of A’s ten best brewers. That’s what we think, anyway.

Monday, November 26, 2007

SKUNKED YULESMITH, OR JUST A LAME BEER?

Around the time I started this blog (early 2006) & really dove headfirst into beer mania, one of the key breweries on every beer tastemaker’s lips was ALESMITH down in San Diego. I went out of my way to try a few of their products, and have generally been pretty impressed (but not overly so), “awarding” a 7.5/10 to their ALESMITH IPA and a 7/10 to their 2006 YULESMITH, the winter ale. I also had several glasses of SPEEDWAY STOUT one evening after the 2007 BOONVILLE BEER FEST, but was a little bit beyond rating beer at that point – but I remember it being quite good. So then what the hell was up with this 2007 SUMMER YULESMITH I tried the other night? Sweet jesus, it was awful! See, they make a summer version and a winter version, and mix up the secret recipe year over year. I can’t blame them this year, and am willing to believe that this tart, eye-wateringly hopped, strangly-malted double IPA was skunked, or otherwise befouled, but I couldn’t drink the thing. Steve over at SUMMER OF BEER had an entirely different experience. I poured mine out, and cursed in a most ribald manner, finding myself conjuring and spitting out words like “dagnabbit”, “pshaw” and “what in Sam Hill…” that I’d never actually use in polite company. Who can tell me that this was just a bad bottle? You?

MY FIRST OLD RASPUTIN

Don’t know why, I just never got around to trying an OLD RASPUTIN Russian Imperial Stout from NORTH COAST BREWING under a couple weeks ago in LA, despite its ubiquity and high profile as one of the hardcore, extreme stouts on the market. It was one of six beers on tap at the “beer hotel” that I stayed at for two nights – the Four Points Sheraton right by the airport – and it was the only one I’d never had before, so reckoned this was as good a time as any to take the plunge. While I recognize OLD RASPUTIN as a finely crafted beer, my six-word take on the thing would be “I don’t quite believe the hype”. We’re talking about a very roasted and perhaps smoky-tasting high-alcohol stout, the one they seem to go crazy for on the Beer Advocate Top 100 list. Old Rasputin has a very hoppy tang that just lasts and lasts and lasts. There are hints of both coffee and of chocolate, and it’s blacker than night, but somehow the whole package doesn’t add up to much more than a good, well-crafted and moderately difficult-to-drink beer. I’m going with 6/10, with the understanding and awareness that many of you have seen the great lord of magic himself within a glass of this beer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

AN INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN THOMPSON OF TELEGRAPH BREWING

I’ve only had a single bomber of each of their 2 bottled beers, but I’m willing to stake what minimal reputation I have on the fact that Santa Barbara, CA’s TELEGRAPH BREWING are one of the country’s finest brewers right now, and will soon be blazing a path to your esophagus by virtue of their creative, experimental, delicious ales. I was lucky enough to find their beer while on a trip to their hometown, but believe you me – the CALIFORNIA ALE and the GOLDEN WHEAT ALE are absolutely beers to trade for, and savor immediately upon arrival.

We caught up with head brewer BRIAN THOMPSON over e-mail (that's him in the middle of this photo), and he was gracious enough to answer our probing questions for Hedonist Beer Jive readers:

HEDONIST BEER JIVE: What do you look for in a good beer, and what do you do to your own beers to make them turn out so well?

BRIAN THOMPSON: I think a good beer is one that stands out of the crowd. There is a lot of beer brewed in the world right now that, technically, is good beer, meaning no obvious flaws, but it often just strikes me as boring. Over and over again, I find the same flavors, the same ideas, and a lack of real creativity. But when I do come across a beer that has a real verve—even if it’s a riff on a common theme, like a pale ale—it stands out. You can tell the brewer took some time to think about what he or she was doing with that beer, that they took great care in their brewing process. You can taste their passion and that excites me.

As for our beers, I’d like to think that that’s what we’re bringing to the brewhouse: passion and a desire to introduce people to new tastes. I’m flattered that, at least to you, our passion for brewing comes across.

HBJ: Your outstanding California Ale is a re-creation of west coast ales of the 19th century. Please tell us a little bit more about these ales, how you learned about them, and what you’ve done to re-create them.

BRIAN THOMPSON: I don’t want to overstate any historical accuracy in our beers, because I don’t think any of us have any real idea of what a California beer tasted like 125 years ago. What we’re trying to do is not re-create those beers, but rather channel the spirit behind those beers, to bring a modern interpretation to that old seat-of-your-pants style of brewing. California brewers in the 1880s undoubtedly had a very tough time getting their hands on top quality ingredients, so they learned to make do with what they had readily available. They probably had to make do with minimal equipment as well. By necessity, they would have been very creative brewers. What I’m trying to do at Telegraph is bring that creativity to our beer. We don’t constrain ourselves by style—none of our beers really fit clearly into specific style categories—and we don’t constrain ourselves by process—we aren’t afraid to try odd ingredients or do something in a way other people would not. But that isn’t to say that we don’t take great care in areas like sanitation or yeast management or equipment maintenance—this is very much a modern brewery in that sense.

HBJ: I also loved the Golden Wheat Ale, and found it far more tart that most ales if its kind. What was your goal with that one?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Our Golden Wheat Ale arose from my desire to have an interesting, lighter bodied wheat beer that combined elements of three classic wheat beer styles: German hefeweizen, Belgian wit, and American hefeweizen. Telegraph Golden Wheat has some of the spicy phenolic character of the German weizen, the citrus-y refreshing zest of a wit, and the drinkability of an American wheat ale. It isn’t necessarily what everyone expects when they order a wheat ale, but for beer drinkers who appreciate complex flavors and sometimes look for something a bit lighter, our Golden Wheat fits the bill.

HBJ: What made you choose to go the brewery route, as opposed to the brewpub/restaurant approach?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Well, on a very basic level, I didn’t want to own and run a restaurant. The restaurant business is very tough and the failure rate is high. Start-up costs for a brewpub are higher and on-going operational costs are higher too. It’s true that a successful brewpub can generate a huge amount of cash flow right from the beginning, and that was something we considered from a business perspective. But, being a beer guy, I was much more enthusiastic about starting a production brewery with a smaller investment up front and accepting the fact it would take a few years to grow the business and start generating sustainable cash flow. That was all baked in to our financial projections and I’m happy to say that we are on track and meeting our benchmarks.

HBJ: What happened in the Santa Barbara area the past few years? I was there two years ago and it was the Santa Barbara Brewing Co., and that was it. All of a sudden there are these innovative brewers popping up and getting rave reviews. Is the market there able to support you all?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Santa Barbara is a great place to be a brewer. This is a city full of people who are passionate about supporting local businesses and are adventurous in their tastes. Whether it is locally grown produce or locally made cheese or locally brewed beer, Santa Barbarans look for interesting flavors and food and beverage experiences that you maybe don’t find elsewhere. There is lots of great beer being made in our area and absolutely the support is here to sustain all of us.

HBJ: Which of your beers are bottled right now, and are there more coming?

BRIAN THOMPSON: The only beers we bottle right now are the California Ale, the Golden Wheat Ale, and in very limited quantities, our Winter Ale, which will be available right around Thanksgiving.

HBJ: What sort of seasonals are you making, if any?

BRIAN THOMPSON: Our big seasonal is our Winter Ale, which is available in bottle and on draft from right around Thanksgiving until it’s gone—usually sometime in January. Additionally, we try to have a seasonal beer available at all times at our tasting room at the brewery; right now we have our Harvest Wheat Ale, which is a dunkelweizen; in the last year, we’ve also had a Belgian strong ale and an oatmeal stout.

HBJ: Have you ever had the opportunity to contract brew for others, and if so, what is that process like?

BRIAN THOMPSON: We’ve done some limited contract brewing, a few batches for a brewpub that is fairly capacity constrained. As for the process, it’s very straight forward. They give us an idea of what they’re looking for and we develop a recipe based on our brew system. It’s our ingredients, it’s our yeast; basically they are buying kegs of beer from us just like any other bar or restaurant, it just happens to be a beer that we don’t brew on a regular basis.

HBJ: Are there other brewers in the US that you’re drawing inspiration from?

BRIAN THOMPSON: When I look at other brewers for inspiration, it’s less about the beers they are making than the businesses they are running. There are lots of breweries out there that I admire for various reasons, one that immediately comes to mind is Dogfish Head. They have built an incredible brand around their being, as they describe themselves, “off kilter,” and everything about them, their beers, their website, their t-shirts, their ads, everything hews to that off-kilter image and attitude. It’s a very cohesive message they get across. Another brewery that inspires me is Firestone Walker, right here on the Central Coast. Their head brewer, Matt Bryndilson, has an incredible focus on quality and consistency and I think every brewer out there should aspire to that. We certainly do.

HBJ: What sort of distribution plans do you have outside of the California Central coast?

BRIAN THOMPSON: We just started working with a distributor in the L.A. area and our beer is now on draft at several places in Southern California including Father’s Office in Santa Monica, Stone Brewing’s World Bistro and Gardens in San Diego County, and a few places in Hollywood. We’ll continue to push harder in the L.A. market in the coming months. We also just purchased a bottling line, so starting in early 2008, our 750-ml bottles will get wider distribution including a few select retailers in the Bay Area.

HBJ: Finally, what are your personal favorite beers for drinking only, not necessarily for “inspiration”?

BRIAN THOMPSON: I have lots of perennial favorites: Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Orval, Fuller’s London Pride (although it’s impossible to find fresh here on the West Coast), La Fin Du Monde, Saison Dupont, Hitachino Nest, Allagash White, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Craftsman 1903 Lager… should I go on?

Monday, November 19, 2007

BJ’S JEREMIAH RED ALE – YOUR NEW GATEWAY BEER

It seems that anyone who spends time at any of the dozens of BJ’S locations around the US always comes back with the upbeat & cautionary admonition to not treat BJ’S like just another chain brewpub. So I won’t! The scuttlebutt is that each of the BJ’S locations, the ones that actually brew on-premises, that is, are given creative license to come up whatever the hell they want, and you’ll therefore see these folks being just as aggressive & wild with Belgian styles, strong ales, and imperial whatsis as their single-location brewing brethren. Me, I’ve never been to a BJ’S – I’ve sampled ales from Rock Bottom, I’ve drained multiple glasses at Gordon Biersch, but I was a BJ’s virgin until last week. I was traveling yet again for work, and “magically” found myself staying at the self-style beer hotel, the Four Points Sheraton at LAX. Now how did that happen? It was a good thing, too – I had every intention of getting out into the beer community and trying out bars like FATHER’S OFFICE, LUCKY BALDWIN’S, THE LIBRARY ROOM and such – but at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively, it was far easier and safer to just park the car back at the hotel & head into their bar, “T.H. BREWSTERS”.

They had BJ’S JEREMIAH RED ALE on tap, along with selections from Port Brewing, North Coast, Bear Republic and others. I didn’t think BJ’S stuff made it outside of their restaurants, but I guess I was wrong there. I felt after a pint of this that I’d chosen very, very well – and I applaud the move that many are making toward more aggressive amber/red ales; it’s a style that was already great, and some tinkering will keep it relevant for the beer cognoscenti. I compare this one favorably to PORT BREWING’s SHARKBITE RED – another hoppy, crisp red ale with a bite. JEREMIAH RED ALE is really tingly and surprisingly hops-forward, and has a much higher alcohol content than your typical red – over 7 percent. It’s the sort of gateway beer you’d want to serve to a curious friend who typically drinks, say, MAD RIVER JAMAICA RED or ANDERSON VALLEY BOONT AMBER, and wants to move into your rarefied realm of beer. This excellent, strong, red ale will help ease the transition and make ya both very happy in the process. HBJ says 8/10.

Friday, November 16, 2007

LET’S GO….DRINKING IN CHICAGO

I came home from last week’s Atlanta trip for two nights, then turned it around on Thursday with a trip to Chicago, a city I wish I could spend more time enjoying whenever I’m there. This was my fourth time in town – once for a trade show in, like, 1991 (!), then one night when I was the “road manager” for a band in 1993; a strange night spent in a suburb doing a focus group for the now-dead Disney Mobile service in 2003, and then this magic night last week. I vowed to find the best beer bar in town after my event was done with – and by gum, I did. Not only is Chicago’s MAP ROOM the best bar in town (sample size = 1), it might be my favorite bar ever. Seriously. Wait, you must be saying, what about THE TORONADO, in my hometown of San Francisco? Well, for those of you who’ve been to the Toronado, picture if you will a Toronado with bartenders who talk to you like you’re an intelligent but curious beer drinker, and who’ll spend some time helping you with your selection, rather than grunting at you, flexing their tattoos, and rapping on the bar w/ their knuckles. Picture punk rock (The Damned’s first album, anyone?) played at medium volume, rather than ear-splitting, I-can’t-hear-what-you-said volume. Picture having a place to stand or sit, picture over a dozen Belgian beers on tap, and a bottle selection to rival Toronado’s. Sure, Toronado rules now and always will, but THE MAP ROOM is where I’d rather spend a couple hours if that were, in fact, an option.

So anyway, I could not help myself when I saw that they had THREE FLOYDS ALPHA KING on tap. You may recall that we awarded that incredible beer “the full magilla” the one time we enjoyed it, a big 10/10, and THAT was from a bottle. Getting to slowly savor this elixir from a tap was worth whatever my employer had to pay to get me to Chicago in the first place. This is by all accounts a “pale ale”, but one of the most smooth, hoppy and juicy pale ales I’ve ever had, and quite possibly the best. I was proud to drink it in its home region. Did I stop there? Nay, nay! I wanted to go for something else local, and I asked the friendly fella behind the bar to grab me something called NOSFERATU by the excellent GREAT LAKES BREWING, but alas, they were tapped. OK, then what about that DE PROEF LA GRANDE BLANCHE I’ve heard so much about? Nope, tapped as well. These Chicagoans don’t mess around – no LEINENKUGELS in the pint glasses of these folks, no sir.

One beer on my must-try list was a new Belgian called GROTTEN BROWN, put together in tandem by the famed brewer Pierre Celis and the ST. BERNARDUS brewery in Belgium. I’d read enough to reckon that it’d be a good one – but I didn’t realize quite how good. Wow – this dark ale was incredibly non-fragrant, and yet had the taste of all sorts of dark fruits like plums & figs, and was smooth as velvet. I could not believe my winner’s luck in getting this one as opposed to the ones that were out of stock – this GROTTEN BROWN is one of the finest beers I’ve had all year, and easily the best from ST. BERNARDUS. I’d have had eight more had I not driven. 10/10! Two in one night – unreal. I called my wife and told her how great the Map Room was, and she got it in her head that I was trying to move the family to Chicago. Must’ve been the Grotten Brown talkin’.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

SANTA IS A BELGIAN

ST. BERNARDUS are one of those Belgian abbey-style brewers that make those obsessed people constantly on the hunt for the finest beers weep with joy. Their beers are quite easy to find in the US, and a jump around the beer blogs and beer forums online & you'll find that their maybe one of the highest-regarded brewers in the world. Their biggest announcement in years is that this year, for the first time ever (or so I understand it), they've released a CHRISTMAS ALE. We at Hedonist Beer Jive got our grubby hands on a bottle, and sent a reporter into the field to try one & report his findings. Here's what he had to say:

"Dude, I can't drink this thing by myself! This is a monster 10% ABV, high-octone whomper...oh wait, here's someone carrying some Belgian tulip stemware. OK, cool. Wow, this is one dark beer, black as darkest Africa! Wait, can I say that? Hmm, not as spiced as I would have expected, and that's good. It is sweet, though. That must be the alcohol talking, ya know what I'm sayin'? Medium carbonation, and hey, it's actually really easy to drink. Caramel-ish tastes, as well as the usual dark fruit suspects. Maybe even some brown sugar. You think this is a holiday beer, and not just a reformulation of one of their dubbels? Hey, I don't care what you call it, it's damn good. Maybe not for everyone - this guy sure seem to be drinking it slowly - but I'll go with an 8/10".

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

INTO THE BOWELS OF HADES WITH VICTORY BREWING’S HOP DEVIL

My only other experience with the products of VICTORY BREWING was not a pleasant one; I tried the STORM KING STOUT after hearing many raves about it, I was confronted with an oily, high-octane extreme beer that was notable mostly for how difficult it was to drink (and enjoy). Subsequently I’ve heard some big-ups for their PRIMA PILS and the HOP DEVIL IPA, so I pulled the trigger on the latter and ordered it up from Liquid Solutions.

Believe the hype, brothers and sisters! This is a fabulous beer. Emanating from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, HOP DEVIL is an amber/orange pour, with a medium foamy head. It has some of the most delicious hops you’re ever going to encounter. After minutes, mild hop bitterness from a single gulp was still lingering on the sides of my tongue, and I used that as an occasion to drink it as slowly as possible (we can’t get VICTORY products in Northern California unless we have ‘em shipped here). It wasn’t really a “hop monster” per se, but that certainly was the most defining characteristic. I can imagine that finding a balance this even is a total art form, and I salute the brewers of VICTORY for their fine work with HOP DEVIL. Grab a bottle of this where you can. 8.5/10.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

LET’S GO.....DRINKING IN ATLANTA

With this new job I managed to snare a few months ago, all of sudden I'm back on the road for a work adventure every few weeks. What a great opportunity to discover the beer drinking pleasures that await in every American city, and when there's time, a willing co-worker and/or some "me time", that's exactly what I do. Last week I was shipped off to Atlanta, Georgia for one night. I only had a few hours before my flight, so I consulted Beer Advocate's "Beerfly" beer-n-travel resource, and tried to figure out if there was gonna be anything halfway decent near the event I was attending. Turns out there was. Beerfly contributors had mostly good things to say about a restaurant/bar called THE VORTEX in midtown Atlanta, and wouldn't you know it, that was 3 blocks from my thing.

THE VORTEX is a place that might not fly too well in San Francisco. Gazing down upon you from every wall are "Vortex girls", who are magenta-haired, pierced-tongue hotties dressed primarily in dominatrix wear. The whole theme seems to be a gaggle of “Suicide Girls” who overlord over beer dork nirvana. Strange, too, because these girls seem to only exist on the wall and on flyers scattered around the club. I got my dinner served by a hippy (male). The food is standard pub fare - burgers, wings, unhealthy salads - that sort of thing. Beer selection is fantastic. Not only do they have at least a dozen Southern microbrews, many on tap, they have a great Belgian menu to boot. It was a hard call, but I decided to go "all Atlanta".

First up was something from SWEETWATER BREWING, the only Atlanta brewery I was at all familiar with. Because it was pre-event, and I didn't want to roll in with my buzz on, I ordered a SWEETWATER BLUE, their, um, "blueberry wheat" beer - which I quickly regretted. Remember in the mid-90s, when everyone was trying out fruit beers for the first time in a bid for the "female market"? Well, this reminded me of what many called "girl beers" back then (many of which I secretly liked) - a bland, watery, ultra-pale beer that tasted like something Michelob would have made. It wasn't even sweet enough, to add insult to injury. Seriously one of the most anticlimactic beers I've ever downed. 3.5/10.

After the event was over, I returned to The Vortex for a nightcap. This one went much better. I tried an imperial pint of RED BRICK WINTER BREW from the so-local-it-couldn't-be-more-local ATLANTA BREWING. The barkeep told me they just got these in, and man was it good. A deep reddish-brown ale, with really heavy malts and a long, lingering aftertaste. I tasted caramel, and it worked well with high carbonation. It was almost like a souped-up, hardcore brown ale, not necessarily a "holiday" beer per se. I'd absolutely have one again should I ever make it to "the windy city" again. 7.5/10.

Come back later this week and you'll find out where my work sent me later in the week, and what I drank once I arrived!

Friday, November 09, 2007

A PREGAME VISIT TO THE TIED HOUSE

I’ve written before about my yearly sojourns to San Jose, CA’s TIED HOUSE before San Jose Sharks hockey games – it’s pretty much the designated pre-game gathering place for every Sharks dork who needs to get his or her game face on with a pint or two, what with a free parking garage located just across the street. I think their beer is perfectly passable, and sometimes it even rises to pretty above-average. Wednesday night, as I prepared for an eventual Sharks loss at the hand of the hated Dallas Stars (too many of those this year already), I tried a couple of TIED HOUSE standbys, and figured you’d want to hear about it. By the way, their brewery name is REDWOOD COAST BREWING; the restaurant in which they’re served is called THE TIED HOUSE. Hope that clears things up.

One of their perennials is the OATMEAL STOUT that we wrote about once before. I truly enjoy this beer, despite it being a lighter, low-carbonated stout that perhaps goes down a little too easy. “Refreshing”, you might say. It has a true oat flavor that comes through with every smooth gulp, and not that Malt-O-Meal stuff, I’m talking Quaker 100% Natural here. Very good – I’ll change my score from a 7.5/10 to a 7/10 this time around – just because. My other tap-pull this evening, since they hadn’t started serving their winter beer yet, was the HEFEWEIZEN, which they have as a seasonal, believe it or not (most places, especially restaurants, tend to make that a “main pull”). This was exceptionally unexceptional. In all the conversation and pregame planning, I noticed that I hadn’t actually noticed anything about the beer. I might as well have been drinking water. 5.5/10. San Jose, a city of 1 million people, only has this place and the Gordon Biersch chain for brewpubs, and to the best of my knowledge does not sport a single decent beer bar to speak of. If anyone knows otherwise, please raise your voice!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

BUT WHAT OF THE WINE?

Beer has been making great strides of late in its ongoing battle for respect vis-√†-vis wine. Even as I type, while seated on a US Airways flight to Charlotte, NC, I’ve just finished watching a soundless short program on the complexity and diversity of beer, featuring Garrett Oliver of BROOKLYN BREWING, on what is normally a half-hour wine program called “Fine Wine with Andrea Immer”. (Soundless because I didn’t pay their kings’ ransom of 5 bucks to rent headphones). I’ll leave it to other writers to wax poetic about how it wasn’t always this way, and how beer is still fighting an uphill battle yadda yadda. To me, it’s just a drink, like wine’s just a drink, and it’s a moderately engaging hobby. I do, however, find myself having to sneak it into routines that might otherwise call for wine, and that is often a minor struggle.

Now don’t get me wrong – I enjoy, and have long enjoyed, wine. Unfortunately, I find it almost completely impenetrable, unaffordable, and wholly uninteresting. Wine is what I drink with my wife; it’s what I drink on a nice dinner date with her, when there are no great beers on the menu (which is most of the time); and it’s what we drink at home when she’s made a big meal. Note the “female” slant to each of those occasions. Beer is what I drink with my male friends, by and large, and the thought of me and my pals hitting a wine bar is almost ludicrous. When I go out with larger groups of mixed males & females, while it’s getting to be more normal for beer to be ordered (usually by the guys), the women get a glass of red 99% of the time. Of course, that’s a complete generalization and probably more reflective of my advanced age, urban location (San Francisco, 90 minutes from Napa/Sonoma), and perhaps socioeconomic factors as well (for once, buying something besides the cheapo glass of “house red” is sometimes an option). I find that good wine can be extremely pleasing, but I’m not a “sipper”, and I have a difficult time drinking it sloooowly and contemplatively as others might. A nice pint of porter is more my speed.

Though it’s almost clich√© to say it, I also believe wine suffers from tremendous self-importance. I read an interview with Charles Shaw, Mr. Two-Buck Chuck, and he said something to the effect that there’s no reason even the best wines need to be over $10 a bottle; cost of materials are roughly the same in every wine-growing region. As an ardent capitalist, I applaud anyone who can create demand for a $70 bottle of wine, or get people to pony up $100 in a nice restaurant for a bottle. To me, it’s all artifice, and sooooo not worth the piece. Know what I paid for the most expensive bottle of beer I’ve ever bought? $13, just this week, for a bottle of DE PROEF/PORT BREWING’s SIGNATURE ALE. I know it’ll be great, because I tried it once before, but I only went that high because I had a gift certificate, so it “wasn’t really my money”, right? I love beer because, among many other reasons, the barriers to entry are very slight – just three or four dollars, and you can be connecting with a drink that not only spans the ages and the cultures, but is easily as pleasing to the tongue and the mind as any wine you care to throw at me.

Here’s what I do enjoy about wine: the wineries themselves. Those located in Napa and Sonoma (and undoubtedly in Italy and the South of France) are so visually alluring, they conjure up visions of the gastronomic best-of-everything. I leave the region wanting only to eat heirloom tomatoes, try strange cheeses and chocolates, consume free-range foods, and drink only the finest beverages. Loads of free tastings at VALLEY OF THE MOON and CLOS PEGASE will do that to you. Then I get home and look for whatever’s in the freezer. Back in the real world – my world - one can buy 5 of the most amazing Belgian beers for the price of one slightly-above-average bottle of Napa Valley wine. That’s where MY head’s at – um, except when my wife does the nightly pouring, before I’ve had a chance to get to the fridge.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

THE SHOCK, THE DISAPPOINTMENT: JUBEL ALE ‘07

Holiday beer time! Man, did that sneak up on me; it means a frenzy of buying and trying is upon us, and you can expect HBJ’ll on the front lines of whatever the 2007 holiday beer season has to throw at us. The big news of the ‘07 season so far is a whopper: DESCHUTES BREWING ’s perennial winner JUBEL ALE hits a bum note, maybe for the first time ever! I’ve been buying a bottle or more of this annually for god knows how many years now, and last year, 2006, I thought it was pretty much the belle of the holiday beer ball. I decided to try it first this year, before any of the others, because I reckoned it would not be my last taste of it by a long shot. Now I must reconsider. Allow me to elaborate.

JUBEL ALE 2007 tastes like a “broken batch”, like something that was too far gone to keep from bottling with fingers crossed. Way too hoppy, with a punch of strong malts to back it up – a total tongue-tingling holiday hop monster, without any subtlety, and far too much bitterness. Strong tastes of toffee and figs, but these are aftertastes left in the mouth after the watery brew has gone unpleasantly down the pipes. I dare say it was almost a “pour-out”. Let’s talk about the positives, though, because I normally love JUBEL ALE. First, everyone gets to have an off year. This year it’s DESCHUTES’ turn – now you have a little extra room for a holiday ale you’ve never tried before. Second, the label might be the coolest one I’ve ever seen – sort of like Paul Klee does Christmas. Very nice. Makes me almost want to forgive the fact that Jubel Ale ’07 = 4.5/10! Ouch!

Monday, November 05, 2007

LAZY BOY’S PERFECTLY GOOD IPA

I have to admit, I probably ordered this one because of the LAZY BOY logo on the bottle. I even fired an email up to Everett, WA and asked the owner if they had any t-shirts available with this happy grinnin’ beer dork on them (they do). I think I remember this guy skulking around the taverns and garage rock clubs of Seattle when I lived up there in the late 90s. Jeans, ill-fitting t-shirt, Chuck Taylors, pasty skin, soggy hair, and always a pint in hand. He was usually found at Kent III or Makers shows. Anyway, back then he was my brother, and in homage to him I had this 22-oz. bomber IPA from LAZY BOY BREWING shipped to me a few weeks ago.

Busted this open at a Halloween party, and all of us who partook in it – all two of us – agreed that it was a perfectly good west coast IPA. It was far more pronounced with citrus tastes (think Ballast Point’s IPA) than with pine tastes (think Stone’s Ruination). Quite restrained, in fact, and very drinkable, possessing a lot of the qualities that make LAGUNITAS IPA so popular with the rank and file, but far tastier and certainly more hoppy. I imagine it to be a great one to pair with barbequed chicken and a starch of some kind, maybe outdoors during that six-week magic period in the Northwest when it’s not misting or pouring. I’m going with 7.5/10 for this bad boy.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

GOLDEN VALLEY'S "RED THISTLE ALE"

This is one of those ales that I picked out somewhat at random in my big Liquid Solutions order a few weeks ago. A brewery I've never heard of - GOLDEN VALLEY BREWING - from a state renown for great brewing - Oregon - and an amber ale, perhaps my vote for most underrated beer style. Hey, I understand why it's underrated - it's hard to stand out when your defining qualities are smoothness, drinkability and maltiness. These guys, though, have a really good amber called RED THISTLE ALE that they're understandably proud of. It's their "flagship ale". I like it because they've added just enough "bitter" to make it interesting, and it's a hell of a lot more bold than many beers of its ilk. Like my favorite from Anderson Valley Brewing - Boont Amber. Sure, Boont's the best amber in the land, but it surpasses all the others because it tastes - especially on tap - like it was made from arctic water, hops picked 5 minutes ago, and malts that only a king could afford. RED THISTLE ALE, on the other hand, is a cut above because of the highly-hopped taste and the incredible aroma, which is apparent from time the cap is popped, and smells of caramel and chocolate. It may not be an "imperial" red (so what, right?), but it's damn good. 8/10.

Friday, November 02, 2007

REITERATING THE GREATNESS OF TRAPPISTES ROCHEFORT 8

Sometimes I get too caught up in trying new beers to actually take time to enjoy the ones that blew me away the first & second times I tasted them. It’s probably unforgivable that the bottle of TRAPPISTES ROCHEFORT 8 I enjoyed with dinner two nights ago was my first taste of it in a year, floored as I was with it the first two times I tried it. I believe I proclaimed it “Belgium’s best beer”, as if I’ve tried even 0.5% of them all. Hard to imagine that’s too far off the mark, though. It’s not only “ranked” as a 10/10 on the Hedonist Beer Jive scoreboard, this latest bottle makes me wonder if it isn’t my favorite beer anywhere. (Time to buy another bottle of MOYLAN’S HOPSICKLE to decide). This rich, smooth dark Belgian ale is the foremost example of a “dubbel” that I know of. Wonderful toffee aroma, and it tastes like a really smokey caramel, minus the sweetness you’d expect if there were something that existed called a smokey caramel. If you haven’t tried this, it’s really a flat-out must. 10/10.