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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.

What’s good for Sam . . .

Speaking of the “big picture,” news today from Boston Beer bodes well for the craft beer segment.

The brewer of Samuel Adams beers reported core shipment volume increased 22.8% in the second quarter. It also indicated distributor sales of the Boston Beer brands to retail (depletions) increased approximately 17% from the second quarter 2005.

In a company press release, founder Jim Koch said: “We are once again pleased with our quarterly depletions growth. The continued growth of the craft beer category, in which Samuel Adams is the leading brand, demonstrates the consumer trend of trading up to more full-flavored, richer-tasting beers.”

Sam Adams commands about 19% of the craft segment (Sierra Nevada is second with about 8.7%) and its sales were up 8% in 2005 while craft sales grew 9%.

You shouldn’t be surprised if more small breweries report similar results.

Drinking notes: Brother Thelonious

Brother TheloniousLet’s cut right to the chase. Forget, at least for a moment, how Brother Thelonious pours, the various aromas that rise from the glass, the flavors, the finish. Instead go directly to the pairing: vinyl. Yep, serve this one with vintage jazz LPs (or even 78s).

North Coast Brewing in California wrote the recipe before giving this beer its name, so it wasn’t crafted with the idea it would be served in jazz clubs or that consumers at home might listen to Thelonious Monk or Monk compositions or jazz in general will sipping this strong dark Belgian-inspired ale.

But now it has the name, the fabulous label with piano keys circling Monk’s head, and the context in which you might drink this beer has changed.

It was more than 10 years ago that Stephen Beaumont wrote a story for All About Beer magazine about matching musical styles to beer styles. In revisiting the idea in A Taste for Beer he admitted that this was at time “a bit of a stretch” before deciding “sometimes a particular tune cries out for a specific beer.”

That connection begins in the head of the drinker. For instance, Beaumont wrote “I paired the deeply spiritual sounds of Bob Marley’s Uprising Album with the equally pious and reflective flavor of Chimay Grande Reserve.” Instead I might point first to the multi-level layers that Marley and the Wailers create and that Chimay Blue somehow finds similar depth (or did in 1995).

But what if we think about beer as music?

Consider another recently released beer: Avant Garde, the first offering in the new Lost Abbey line from Port Brewing. After all, Monk was a trailblazer for the jazz avant-garde. Though inspired by biere de gardes first brewed in French farmhouse breweries, Avant Garde also blazes a bit of its own trail.

It delivers the toasty/bready aromas and flavors we expect in a biere de garde – including a haunting earthy element – in playful harmony. It also provides surprising spicy notes that grab your attention without raising the volume. Perhaps not as riveting as the back and forth between Monk and John Coltrane in a composition such as “Sweet and Lovely,” but drawing upon the same sort of tension.

For that reason you might not want to drink Avant Garde while listening to Monk. You could prefer a beer that asks for less attention. (Personally, given that Avant Garde makes an excellent pairing with a variety of dishes, deferring to other flavors when need be, I think it works well with something like “Monk’s Dream.”) Avant Garde speaks to you without raising its voice.

Back to Brother Thelonious. The label and name give the beer – it is being released in conjunction with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz), and the brewery will make a contribution to the Institute for every case sold to support jazz education – a chance to speak to new customers. These are drinkers who may not usually order beer, and certainly some who wouldn’t consider a beer as bold, fruity (plums and raisins) and what many would call funky as a Belgian-inspired dark ale.

Brother T. is complex and challenging, though not nearly so much as a Monk composition. At 9% abv and packaged in a 750ml (wine-size) bottle, it’s a beer to sip and share – and probably one to stick in the cellar and see how it evolves.

As quickly as the dark fruits, some caramel and roasty flavors come upon you they are whisked away by a surprisingly dry finish. Sweetness and alcohol become a memory you can consider, or not – concentrating instead on the music (remember, that’s why we’re here).

This beer is a perfect example of why we shouldn’t assign numbers or try to rank beers. What’s inside the bottle is good enough, but there’s much more to Brother Thelonious.

Weiss beers and tradition

In one of its periodic forays into beer, a New York Times tasting panel tackled American-brewed wheat beers, looking primarily for the best “American versions of Bavarian-style brews.”

This can be a bit confusing.

As we expected, the American wheat beers were all over the map, with brewers taking great liberties with the style. This caused no small amount of consternation among the panel, particularly with those beers that styled themselves hefeweizen. Magic Hat Circus Boy, for example, calls itself a hefeweizen, yet it has a floral aroma that is wholly uncharacteristic of the style. Widmer Hefeweizen, which the panel rejected, was another beer that bore little relation to the style.

“You’re trading on the good name of an actual, established style to sell something that’s different,” (panelist Garrett) Oliver said, likening such uses of the term hefeweizen to labeling American white wines as Chablis. “It’s confusing and frustrating.”

As a quick point of order, American Hefeweizen has become pretty well recognized – with its own category at the Great American Beer Festival – as a separate style, with beers from Widmer and Pyramid labeled “hefeweizen” considered benchmarks.

The beer rated tops by the panel was Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyner Weisse, where Oliver brews. He’s a frequent participant on these panels and Eric Asimov writes “Mr. Oliver didn’t identify it as his own beer, but was unembarrassed by the panel’s unanimous approval.”

This certainly doesn’t call to question the validity of the results, because the tasting was “blind” and Brooklyner Weisse is an outstanding beer. In-Heat Wheat from Flying Dog in Colorado (a beer that has its own reserved spot in our fridge), Samuel Adams Hefeweizen and Magic Hat Hocus Pocus ranked just a notch lower.

The panel also tasted a few German versions – although they didn’t know that during the blind tasting and those were not rated with the others. One, from Erdinger, did not make the cut, but the other two, from Schneider and Franziskaner, “might well have been our top beers of the tasting.”

Since the discussion here often turns to the importance of tradition in brewing, it is interesting to see that the way brewers of Schneider (G. Schneider & Sohn) and Franziskaner (Spaten, owned by InBev) produce weiss beers has changed.

Schneider leans heavily on tradition – George I founded the brewery in 1872 and according to the company’s website the first words from George VII (born in 1995) were “Schneider Weisse” – and that extends into the brewhouse.

Schneider still employs a decoction mash (where part of the mash is removed, boiled and returned to the original mash), but five years ago Spaten abandoned the traditional method and now uses a single infusion mash. Spaten also uses a lager yeast when bottle conditioning its beers. Schneider uses yeast taken from billowing open fermentation and krausens with speise (unfermented wort) to add the zesty carbonation for which Bavarian weiss beers are known.

Spaten, of course, is much larger, brewing 2.3 million hectoliters (1.2 million of that wheat) a year, compared to 300,000 at Schneider.

Open fermentation

“It is a very traditional system, and we are a little bit proud of it,” brewery director Hans-Peter Drexler (pictured beside an open fermenter) said last December while showing off the fermentation room. “We are the only one of this size (meaning as large) still doing these things. It is not easy to keep consistency. Each bottle is its own system.”

Dr. Jörg Lehmann of Spaten explained the decision to use a single infusion mash (which is less time consuming and labor intensive) was made because “the malt quality has improved very much.”

Schneider continues to buy much of its barley from farmers in the region of the brewery and often starts with less modified malt. (You don’t want more brewing science, right? The point here is that barley becomes malt, that less modified malt and decoction often go hand in hand, and that the process is less modern.)

“To me the raw ingredients are very important. I like to go talk to the farmers,” Drexler said. “They are doing the hard work, giving us good materials. The soil is poor and outside in the hills the weather can be hard. Maybe that is good for our malt.”

And, in turn, for the beer.

Firestone Walker’s ’10’

Will the project Firestone Walker Brewing has going now earn the Paso Robles, Calif., brewery more respect at the beer ratings sites?

The brewery won Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company (encompassing all breweries producing between 15,000 and 2 million barrels) in both the 2004 and 2006 World Beer Cup – but few of its beers reach the 90th percentile at Rate Beer and Beer Advocate.

The brewery plans to release a beer called “10” in October to help mark its 10th anniversary. The beer will come from a blend of 10 individual ales made over the preceding 10 months. Firestone Walker uses its own unique Firestone Union system (somewhat like Burton Union at Marstons) for fermentation. The 10 beers that will make up “10” are then aged in oak bourbon barrels.

Components in the final beer will include an imperial oatmeal stout and barley wine. Brewer Matt Brynildson sent samples of both to the National Homebrew Conference last month for a presentation Todd Ashman gave about the use of wood in brewing. Both beers are intense, already delightfully complex – showing differing effects from time in wood – and would surely get high marks at the beer rating sites.

The individual components of “10” are also periodically available for sampling at Firestone Walker’s taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton on the Central Coast.

“The beer is being brewed in pieces, which will be put together like a puzzle to make the final blend,” Brynildson said. “It is similar to a winemaker’s job of blending different lots of wine. In the end, the beer will resemble a Port wine in complexity, alcohol and sipping pleasure.”

The brewery is in the heart of one of America’s hottest wine regions and winemakers often drop in at the tasting room. Brynildson plans to invite some of them to help determine the final blend.

We already know it will be a “10.”

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