Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Outside of UNIBROUE; the stuff I drank on my trip to Toronto last year; and the beers that got smuggled into the US by my shadowy Canadian friend, I don’t know a whole lot about Canadian craft beer. I suppose that’s because very few of them make it across the border, don’t ya think? Some that do come from Montreal’s BRASSERIE McAUSLAN, who export a few of their wares into the US under the subsidiary ST.-AMBROISE brand name. I picked one up the other day – the bottle looked nice or something, or maybe I just wanted to see what was going on in the great white north. I sprung for a ST.-AMBROISE APRICOT WHEAT ALE. This is a mildly tart, opaque orange-brown ale with a nice light haze to it. It has very little head, unlike the beer in this promotional picture, and all bubbles were gone the moment it settled in the glass. That said, it’s highly carbonated. It has a clean taste, with a strong malt backbone and a whisp of apricot flavor. It’s exceptionally decent, but no biggie, I have to say. I could have it again in the proper context. 6.5/10. Anyone have anything to say about their other ales?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Aside from the weather, which is universally acknowledged as being perfect (it is), I'm not a big fan of San Diego, California. There have been times in my life where the notion of moving there has loomed, either due to job prospects or proximity to my wife's parents - and every time we've reluctantly concluded that San Diego is a cultureless, semi-moronic, food-challenged, bible-thumping, lowest-common-denominator, mall-ified, Jimmy Buffet-ized beach & party town that would drive us absolutely batty. All apologies to San Diegans whom I know and respect. It's just not my scene. I know that there are many who feel my hometown of San Francisco is a modern-day mammon full of fruits, nuts and nut-clustered flakes. Now the fact that San Diego is a great beer town has gotten me a little more excited about our twice-yearly visits to the in-laws, but aside from a few trips to the La Jolla Beverages & More, I've never actually had a true "beer experience" in San Diego. Until Sunday night. This is the story of that night.

I'd read about THE TAP ROOM on the always-great Summer of Beer blog. He pointed out that they have this amazing keg-tracker that not only tells you what's on tap each and every day, but how close each beer is to running out (!!). I reckoned that any place that cottoned to that level of beer dorkery was my kind of place; it's also in the Pacific Beach neighborhood, a mere 5 or so miles from the in-laws. I corralled my brother-in-law and off we went. Upon entering, it was clear that this place was unfortunately going to conform to every negative stereotype I have about the town, to my surprise. I was hoping for a nice quiet place where a beer enthusiast could rest his frame and talk about barrel aging, hop varieties & limited-edition bombers with fellow dorkified travelers - alas, no.

THE TAP ROOM, at least this evening, featured thumping dance music at subhuman volumes, all the better to block out the multiple "whoooooo"s from the deeply tanned, twentysomething beach girl/beach dude crowd. Every bartender had a San Diego Chargers jersey on. Lame. ESPN blared from multiple TVs - all NFL football, all the time. All of the beers - Pliny The Elder, weird-ass barleywines, Stone Arrogant Bastard, you name it - were served in Miller Lite pint glasses. I will say they had a great tap list going for them, and that's it. This place is San Diego central casting, and exactly why we'll never live there.

I decided to go with the strangest local concoctions I could manage, San Diego being a "beer mecca" and all. I decided to go big early, and ordered the BALLAST POINT THREE SHEETS BARLEYWINE. I could not accept it in a Miller Lite pint glass with a Chargers logo on the side - I just couldn't. I instead made the young lass behind the bar tap it into one of their few Chimay glasses, which she seemed really perplexed about ("um, hello, you're not going to get as much beer this way, mm, hello-o"). Then I go on and taste this barleywine, and I'm just not that into it. Oh sure, it was drinkable enough, but for my first barleywine in nearly 10 months I was hoping for a nice kick in the tuchus. Thin, faily lifeless, bourbon/whiskey-soaked but still kind of a big "meh". Not enough flavor to really wet the proverbial whistle. 5.5/10. I moved on.

My brother-and-law and I got into it over two very important subjects - the chances of the San Francisco Giants and their amazing pitching staff to compete in the NL West next year, and the future legacy of the outgoing President Bush. This called for a bold beer choice. This called for ALESMITH LIL' DEVIL. Now, I actually don't know all that much about the ALESMITH beers. I've had a couple (here, here and here) and they've generally been pretty good, yet nothing close to the hosannas rained down upon them by the Beer Advocate crowd. This one's no different - in fact, like my previous beer, it made me question my judgment in "going local" when Russian River Blind Pig IPA and Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA were on tap. But I'm a beer reporter, and I need to help let you folks know "what's what". Anyway, this one was similar to a Belgian witbier crossed with some mediocre pale ale. Light, a little fruity (apples?), somewhat yeasty and pretty thin in general. I was hoping for something closer to a tripel. I didn't get it. So I went home, and decided to make my brother-in-law take me further south to the new Toronado next time. 6/10.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Quebec's UNIBROUE continues to shock and amaze, even with a new, limited-edition, this-year-only beer that most people have been saying is below their standard. I say au contrere. Brewed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, a place that's in my Top 10 unvisited (by me) North American cities, QUATRE-CENTIEME is a fantastic, effervescent, yeasty ale by the masters of same. If you love La Fin Du Monde as I do, you'll find this to be a worthy sibling.

QUATRE-CENTIEME is available only in 22-ounce bottles, and then just barely. I'd read about it in a few places, but couldn't find it until I stumbled upon it at Ledgers' Liquors in Berkeley, CA. I quaffed it with a friend that very evening. It is a light, fruity, oh-so-Belgian ale, with peppery notes and deep banana creaminess being the dominant flavors. Yeast is really, really active in this one - it coats the tongue and perhaps gives it that "effervescence" I'm so friggin' fond of. Lively and zesty, and damn good. Don't believe the haters and the mediocre-raters, HBJ's got your back on this one. 8.5/10.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The past year has given rise to a new beer style, one borne of the relative successes of the Imperial/Double IPA and the Imperial Hefeweizen: the “Imperial Pilsner”. It’s really just the ticket to get the ale freaks excited about the pilsners they forsook long ago; pump it up with hops and strange malt varieties, jack up the alcohol, slap on an “imperial” label on it and there it is. I’m one of those who was brought into the fold this way, though I’m more excited about a good pilsner (Moonlight Reality Czech, Gorden Biersch Pilsner) now than I’ve been in a good while. Now the superstars at PORT BREWING have thrown their hat into the imperial pilsner ring with PANZER. PANZER!!!! This is indeed a big beer, stepping onto the scales at 9.5% alcohol, with an intense sweetness and hoppy bite to it. A pilsner? OK, if you say so. Pours a deep golden yellow, as you’d expect. The candied sugar is very pronounced, and given the proximity taste-wise to traditional Belgian beer, you’re likely to stylistically fool a lot of amateur judges when you plop this in front of them. Grassy and piney as well, with a little bit of alcohol burn. Hmm.

PORT BREWING PANZER goes into the “glad I drank it” category, but is likely to never set foot in the “I’ll buy it again” category. You know what I’m talking about. 6.5/10.

Friday, December 12, 2008


A few weeks ago I tried my first beer from Orange County’s THE BRUERY, a young brewer who decided to tackle strange, experimental beers right out of the gate, rather than grow from the typical pale ale/amber/IPA beginnings. No, these guys throw yams into one of their beers – the AUTUMN MAPLE we reviewed earlier. That one might not have been a total slam dunk, but it was definitely “interesting”, and I gave them some major bonus points for thinking out of the proverbial box. Now they’ve come along with a beer that not only justifies the hype, it cements it. These guys are good. THE BRUERY ORCHARD WHITE is what it’s called, and it’s remarkable. A beautiful, yeasty, Belgian-style tripel ale (at least that’s what it tastes like to me) – ORCHARD WHITE is marked by its exceptionally creamy mouthfeel and its totally spicy end-of-swallow bite. It’s not harsh at all, and is leavened by a nice bready feel (that’s what gives it this intense creaminess that’s really unusual for the style). Like the “yam beer”, this one’s advertising a couple of curveballs that I can’t taste – namely oats and lavender (!). No, I’m getting pepper and lemon, no lavender to speak of. Smooth as hell and rich with fresh, intense flavors, ORCHARD WHITE is a total knockout. 9/10.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I’ve probably been drinking PYRAMID SNOW CAP once a year during the holiday season for a good fifteen years now, and DESCHUTES JUBELALE for at least 10. They are two of the most consistently solid Christmas ales on the market, and I’m reminded of such every November/December when I get to drinking ‘em again. Unlike SNOW CAP, DESCHUTES JUBELALE doesn’t tend to stay in one place. Their formulation is a bit different every year, and has even been known to go a bit cockeyed, much as ANCHOR “OUR SPECIAL ALE” occasionally does. That’s cool – it’s the price of innovation, and we at HBJ are down with that.

This year the JUBELALE 2008 stays the course. It’s a wonderfully malty, crisp and caramel-rich dark brown ale, with a very low head. Smooth, still and silently delicious. It’s accented by flavors of toffee and gingerbread, so it’s pretty much right in my holiday beer wheelhouse. As usual, it’s got some gorgeous artwork on the bottle that you can see above these words here. (The beer I consumed is also pictured to your right). An excellent holiday ale – one of the greats. 8/10. PYRAMID SNOW CAP also stays the course; but then, they always do. Also rich and malty and with a mild “roasted” taste. The spicing is redolent of nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s even easier to drink than the Jubel Ale, and could be dangerous at the office after-work social. I brought a 6-pack to a similar event and had to restrain myself from not sucking the entire thing down myself. A big 7/10 on this one. This Saturday I’ll be at the Pacific Coast Brewing Holiday Beer tasting/blow-out/overdose, and will have a report on some slightly more obscure brews afterward.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Last year I recall reading a piece in The Celebrator all about French farmhouse ales, and in particular a rundown of the best bier de gardes that were being imported into America. I made a note to try some of these, and sadly I’ve barely even made a dent. One on my list off the top of my head is JENLAIN BLONDE; I’ve seen it a few times and it’s always really friggin’ expensive. Recently I espied a $6.99 bottle of CASTELAIN BLONDE BIER DE GARDE, and since that was the other one on my list that I could pull from memory, I reckoned somehow that 7 bucks sounded about right for an exotic, highly-touted French country ale loved by beer dorks worldwide. Trouble was, it just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi for me, and I guess that’s a little embarrassing considering my enthusiasm for American knock-offs like LOST ABBEY GIFT OF THE MAGI or RUSSIAN RIVER PERDITION.

It is what it is, right? CASTELAIN BLONDE BIER DE GARDE is a grassy, lager-reminiscent yellow/pale ale, nice and fresh for sure, and with some tart, mild funkiness. It feels pretty light, almost like a white wine. That said, I found it off-putting – its “earthiness” and “grassiness” didn’t necessarily translate into something particularly enjoyable; in fact even this small bottle felt like something I needed to finish for the sake of this blog than for its own sake. Drinking alcohol in order to write about it. Something tell me Carry Nation would not be proud. 5/10.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


For a guy who’d never heard of TWO BROTHERS BREWING a month ago (that is, until I tasted their HOP JUICE), I have to say, I’m getting to be a pretty big fan. (The brothers themsleves are pictured here). I have now had 2 beers from this Illinois-based brewer at New York City’s GINGER MAN, the most recent being DOMAIN DU PAGE, a “French-style country ale”, or as Beer Advocate classifies it, a biere de garde. Not knowing that, my notes (pecked into a cell phone, as always) say, “What is it – a wheat wine – don’t know”. Check this out – I also typed “high ABV”, but it’s only a mere 6% alcohol by volume. How about that? It just goes to show, as some of the commenters in my most recent post have opined, “(I) need to have my taste buds recalibrated”. Perhaps so, my friends. Perhaps so.

Yet I’m gonna say that TWO BROTHERS DOMAIN DU PAGE is still a fantastic beer. Smooth, no carbonation, with a sweet aroma and light spicing of unknown origin. Perhaps some slight bittering and funkiness, but way off in the far distance somewhere. The hopping was light as well, with a sort of perfumy and biscuity quality to the thing overall. Smooth as shinola, and a real beautiful, fresh-tasting ale. I’m thinking that Two Brothers need to get their stuff out onto the west coast as well. Who’s with me?? 8.5/10.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


I’m not sure HBJ’s ever been accused of being too “positive” in its reviews, but I’ve taken myself to task for excessive positivity at times – with the caveat that when you buy beer from renown brewers or that others are raving about, you’ll tend to drink some pretty excellent beer. This is not one of those excessively positive reviews. On the contrary – recently we’ve encountered two utterly foul India Pale Ales that we thought it made sense to steer you away from. After all, 5 bucks is 5 bucks (except when it’s 7 bucks), and if you could be drinking something delicious with that hard-earned coin rather than some gross mockery of an IPA, you’d damn well wanna thank the fella that helped you do so.

The first IPA to disappoint to so thoroughly is from HAIR OF THE DOG in Portland, Oregon. Now we’ve told you before that we think Hair of the Dog’s beers are sub-par, but after reading a few reviews of their BLUE DOT Double IPA I thought, “well – maybe these guys can at least do an IPA”. They are from the Northwest and all. Alas, HAIR OF THE DOG BLUE DOT is kind of a boozy mess. Its enormous head of foam just kept bubbling up for minutes after it was poured – maybe not their fault – but it took forever to dissipate; once it finally did & I could dig in, it was – ugh – way too bitter. Piney, biting hops, just totally raw and intense, with no citrus aroma or balance of any kind in sight. It’s like they just half-heartedly ground up a bunch of virgin hops and sprinkled them into the mash and said “good enough”, then pumped up the alcohol to eye-watering levels (though it’s only 7%, it totally tastes like 10%). Tastes like an amateur homebrewer’s idea of a Double IPA by the numbers. I’ll never trust Hair of The Dog again. 4/10.

There’s also this brewer in Marina, CA called ENGLISH ALES whose wares we’ve sampled before; they’re not bad. Their DRAGON SLAYER IPA, on the other hand, is. This has the exact opposite problem that BLUE DOT has; this IPA is clear, pale, yellow and very weak. It’s thin and watery with very low hopping, and its head was flat and lifeless. I saw a couple of bubbles struggling to the top, but that’s about it. The flavor is a mild, distant fruitiness that has to be strained at to even notice. Woe be to the beerpub crawler who spends his/her hard-earned cash on this gruel when a robust and hearty macro-micro is on tap next to it. Another 4/10 here.

For IPAs to truly reckon with & do brave battle with, try clicking here, here and here.

Monday, December 01, 2008


…..and this time, we’re not waiting to discover its glory in January at a Golden State Warriors game. My second holiday beer of the season we’re currently in is the 2008 SIERRA NEVADA CELEBRATION, which is truly one of the great beers of our time. What’s funny about this ale is that the only thing really “holiday” about it is the label. It is a flowery, dry, intensely hoppy India Pale Ale, and it’s one of the best around. You smell it (it being rich, aromatic hops, woodsy pine needles, orange zest & flowers) way before the first gulp – this is a beer where you’ll probably want to hide in a corner and give it a big whiff with your pinky finger extended. Just don’t let any girls see ya. I drank mine on tap at San Francisco’s Revolution CafĂ© and immediately demanded a second pint upon finishing my first – but they’d already tapped the keg, brah. So I went out the next day and bought a couple of bottles. I suggest you do the same. This intense, juicy IPA is truly deserving of all the praise rained down upon it, and while it’s about as “holiday” as a glass of pale ale, it’s the thought that counts, right? 9/10.