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Anything but cloves

Pumpkin beers seem to be bigger than ever this year. Almost any liquor store I walk into has a large display with six-packs stacked to eye level.

But this headline: Anything but cloves sums things up nicely.

This week’s On Draft started as a comparison of pumpkin ales, but after five brews, I decided that pumpkin pie spice was the patchouli of the food world. How anyone can tolerate such toxic levels of clove and nutmeg in their beer is beyond me. Pumpkin is just a wee category of fall beers, anyway, so I decided to broaden my horizons.

In the end, though, the author does recommend a Pumpkin beer: Elysian Brewing Co. Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, a reminder that it doesn’t hurt to keep sampling and that the best choice could be a beer at your local brewpub.

Come on, NY mag, take beer seriously

New York Magazine – high profile in a high impact market – has a story about beer. Before you begin celebrating with hopes another mainstream publication gets it read what Stephen Beaumont has to say at World of Beer. (The magazine piece is online, but you should read his commentary, then use the link he provides to the article.)

Beaumont points out that this is not an altogether terrible story, but that the end result of rounding up what the magazine calls “untrained but enthusiastic drinking aficionados” can frustrate those of us who know something about the beers described. He writes:

Which makes me wonder if these same magazines would assemble a tasting panel to cast judgment on a mix of chardonnays, ports, Champagnes, sherries and first growth Bordeaux. Somehow, I think not.

Bingo. Quite honestly, I think it is easier for somebody to “understand” when they taste a great wine than it may be when they taste a great beer – because beer covers a wider spectrum of flavors. Certainly few magazines are likely to take a couple of chardonnays, a single viognier, a sauvignon blanc and lump them in a group with a catchy name (such as “Ordering in” – one the NY mag uses in “Ales in Comparison”).

I have a category here for beer and wine (and will file this post there), but the comparisons can make me uneasy. There are times when a glass of wine tastes better than a glass of beer (though I could add vice versa). A bottle of wine may have attributes than no bottle of beer shares. That’s why comparing Wine, the category to Beer, the category gives me reason to pause.

Attitudes toward the two, those can be compared, and that’s why Beaumont’s conclusion that “most of those procedural errors could be easily fixed if editors just instructed their staff to treat their beer tastings as seriously as they would a panel assessment of wines” rings so true. Also, if they had to foot the bill for 21 bottles of top-line wine (17 really, plus a few for Yellow Tail and friends) then they might have thought twice.

We just returned from Northern California, where we drank truly wonderful wine and equally wonderful beer. One difference is that the beer was cheaper. We’re not talking $300 and $500 bottles of wine (at the winery – forget the restaurant wine lists) but really good Sonoma County wines that cost $20-$35 a bottle (750ml).

Yet if you are looking for that “something else” in the bottle – could be terroir or whatever reason some people use to justify buying trophy wines – then nuance (or creativity or regard for tradition) is just at prominent in Sonoma Country beers such as Russian River Damnation or Bear Republic Racer 5 as it is in the best wines. Damnation costs $8 for a 750ml bottle, Racer 5 just over $3 for a 22-ounce bottle (and $7.99 for a six-pack).

Those beers should probably cost more, and do by the time they get to New York City. I’m not rooting for them to command wine prices just so they’ll be taken seriously, but it going to take something to keep one from being dismissed because it “looks like road tar.”

The magazine panelists dissed some excellent beers (be sure you read Beaumont’s detailed rebuttal), so it’s not like they weren’t getting the good stuff. That’s the discouraging part.

Another tale of dumbed down beer

Today’s Wall Street Journal (sorry, the story is in the subscriber only part of the site) examines the ongoing cutbacks at InBev.

The “hook” is that InBev is closing its brewery in Hoegaarden, which has been widely reported. You wouldn’t run out and buy WSJ to learn that, but there’s more to the story:

– How has InBev responded to cultural shifts are leading increasing numbers of drinkers to wine? “We don’t think it is going to reverse,” said InBev regional director Stefan Descheemaeker. “We have nicknamed Western Europe as the ‘mother of all challenges.’ ”

One initiative has been to close about a dozen breweries. “How many breweries do we need? It’s an ongoing study. “Technically speaking, we don’t need many,” Descheemaeker said. So much for the days when Interbrew liked to bill itself as the “World’s Local Brewer.”

– The company has launched Hoegaarden Citrons, flavored with lemon and lime.

– In Hoegaarden, David Duerinckx, a worker at the brewery, says the traditional the white beer has lost its original flavor. “Twenty years ago it was more acidic,” he said. “You used to be able to compare different batches. Now it is sweeter and it is standardized. This is our tradition that is going away.”

But the last word goes to Iain Lowe, a spokesman for CAMRA (Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale, but a defender of other traditions as well):

“InBev is debasing beer. By all means, come out with new beers but don’t abandon existing ones, [simplifying] the taste so no one dislikes it but no one really likes it, either.”

Drinking Notes: Lost Abbey Avant Garde

Can it be this easy? Move into a new brewhouse, launch a new brand, ship the first batch of what you expect to be the flagship beer and have Men’s Journal – a publication with 640,000 circulation – name it one of the best 25 beers in America.

That’s what happened with Lost Abbey Avant Garde (No. 20 on the list). Perhaps Men’s Journal should have given a little more weight to track record. How about making a beer prove itself batch after batch?

However Port Brewing and brewer Tomme Arthur have a solid resume, and it turns out MJ got it right. (I’ve already written about how silly it is to name a “Best 25” – by right I mean they picked a very good beer.)

Lost Abbey corkIn one of my various beer jobs I try to describe beers in about 75-80 words (each) for All About Beer Magazine’s Beer Talk. I’ve considered posting those “tasting notes” here but prefer the idea of drinking notes and providing more context. I’m still struggling with how to do that, and mention that only because I tasted Avant Garde for the next issue of AABM. Here I don’t have to limit myself to 75 words.

I’m looking forward to what Michael Jackson and Charles Finkel, the others on my tasting panel, have to write.

Arthur sent us all the second batch, which I find better than batch one (friends hauled that back from San Diego). Maybe not a gigantic change, but enough to call it the difference between a brewer understanding what a beer should taste like and making it happen to his own satisfaction.

If a doctor told me I couldn’t drink beer this is one I could still buy, just to smell. It reminds me of sourdough bread pulled out of the oven a few minutes before it is finished.

Avant Garde takes its inspiration from the biere de garde style found in Northern France. Among their various attributes is an earthy cellar quality. These should be a product of the yeast used and extensive “garding” (cold storage), adding – as Phil Markowski points out in his book Farmhouse Ales – a rustic character.

Markowski writes that imports are as likely to shows those aromas because they are “corked” – a musty sometimes moldy presentation caused by a faulty cork. The character is totally undesirable in wine, and good reason to send a bottle back.

Arthur kids that to emulate the aroma he considered “dry corking” Avant Garde – that is tossing old corks into the lagering tank in a manner that ale brewers use in dry hopping. Instead he left the work to his yeast and time.

Unlike many imported bieres de garde, Avant Garde is bottle conditioned. The cork literally flew out of the 750ml bottle my friends brought over and would have dented the ceiling had we opened it indoors.

I apologize for using a descriptor that isn’t a flavor and certainly can’t be measured, but this is an example of the energy a beer can bring to the glass.

A beauty of this particular one is that it has such energy and doesn’t demand the spotlight. It shares the palate well. The label suggest pairings it with cheese and bread, but it would be an excellent addition the dining table. It would match well with poultry (even game), lamb and a variety of side dishes. Even seems like it would be a good addition to the Thanksgiving table.

25 beers you wouldn’t kick out of the fridge

Another list. This one from Men’s Journal.

It’s received plenty of attention on beer discussion boards – see Rate Beer discussion; Beer Advocate – because notice in such a high profile publication always seems like validation.

It helps that it is a list of very good beers:

1 Firestone Walker Pale Ale
2 Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
3 Stoudt’s Pils
4 Russian River Temptation
5 Avery Mephistopheles
6 Anderson Valley Boont Amber
7 Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale
8 Full Sail Session Lager
9 Rogue Brutal Bitter
10 Bell’s Expedition Stout
11 Southampton Double White
12 Smuttynose Big A IPA
13 Penn Weizen
14 Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale
15 Ommegang Hennepin
16 Samuel Adams Black Lager
17 Sprecher Hefe-Weiss
18 Alaskan Amber
19 Deschutes Broken Top Bock
20 Lost Abbey Avant Garde
21 Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bier
22 Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock
23 Allagash Interlude
24 Alesmith Speedway Stout
25 New Glarus Yokel

I like that it gives extra credit for striking a balance between innovation and tradition.

I like that they made Firestone Walker Pale Ale their No. 1, even if I might prefer the Double Barrel Ale, because the brewery wins medals right and left in blind tastings but can’t seem to get any love from online beer activists.

I like that it is cutting edge – with the funky little (4.6% abv) Bam Biere from the funky little Jolly Pumpkin brewery sneaking in at No. 21. And you can’t be much more up-to-date than Lost Abbey Avant Garde from Port Brewing (a beer that deserves a post of its own – in the next few days).

What I don’t like is the promo on the cover – “25 Greatest American Beers” – or the headline on the story – “25 Best Beers in America.”

What a silly notion. You need only compare the list Men’s Journal published in 2004 to the 2006 list (in 2005 the magazine picked the “Best 50” beers in the world, equally silly).

Only one beer – Alaskan Amber – made the 2004 and 2006 lists. Did everybody else forget how to brew?

No, 12 of the 23 breweries that were on the 2004 list (two breweries had two beers) also made the 2006 list. But instead of calling Deschutes Mirror Pond Ale No. 1, as in 2004, the authors listed Deschutes Broken Top Bock at No. 19.

Instead of honoring Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils – No. 2 in the U.S. in 2004, No. 1 pilsner in the world in 2006 – they singled out Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock (No. 22).

You can’t sell magazines publishing the same list every year. Of course, that’s not altogether bad for the breweries on the list, because it gives them more accolades to promote (one more thing I like about the list).

Still … 25 Greatest?

No. What they really published is a list of “24 really good beers we didn’t write about two years ago and Alaskan Amber.” A job well done, but a lousy headline.

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