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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Irish Beers

Okay, back to beer. It's been a while since our last Beer Club meeting. It's often difficult to find a date when everyone is free. But this time we were able to get the whole crew together: Dan, Gerry, Hal, Herb, Mike, Ron and yours truly. Anyhow, this one was a little different. We decided to compare beers that have the name "Irish" in them - other than Guinness. It becomes a bit of a challenge because in essence we are comparing different styles of beer: ales, red ales, stouts and black lagers.It's the old "apples and oranges" deal. But what the hell, it's not like the beer police are going to arrest us for it. Hopefully.

We ended up with seven different beers all with claims of Irish heritage. The challengers were:
1. Beamish Draught Style Stout
2. McSorley's Irish Black Lager
3. McSorley's Irish Pale Ale
4. O'Hara's Irish Red
5. Paper City's Ireland Parish Brand
6. Samuel Adams Irish Red
7. Smithwick's Irish Ale

I know Smithwicks is made by Guinness, but it's not GUINNESS, you know?

The results were rather surprising. Again the tasting was blind with each beer identified only by a colored dot which later revealed the corresponding beer. We ranked them 1-7 (except for Herb, a kindly soul, who could not find it in his heart to rate anything under a three - so he gave a one and a two and then five threes. And that's okay, because you never know when you might be in a pub and the only drinkable beer is the one you ranked seventh. It could be awkward.) Below is how each beer finished (low score = best a la golf), its point total and some comments by various members.

#1. Paper City's Ireland Parish Brand - 20 quality points. Comments: "Nice hop, smooth," "Hoppy," "Yellow-dark color, nice frothy head," "Okay," "Best."

#2. Samuel Adams Irish Red - 23 quality points. Comments: "Malty...low taste," Good. Could drink this with NO problem," "Red to brown shading, almost fruity aftertaste," "Nice hops presence," "Well balanced," "Better."

#3. McSorley's Irish Black Lager - 25 quality points. Comments: "Strong malt," "A good breakfast juice," "Deep, rich color - bitter enjoyable taste," "More carbonated, well-balanced," "Artificial taste."

4. Beamish Draught Style Stout - 27 quality points. Comments: "Sweet. Stout-like, malty," "Very smooth, 'stouty,'" "Frothy creamy head - smoky taste," Smooth, creamy, nice head (can't go bad there), not real strong opening - does finish with a bit of a bitter bite." " A little chocolaty, creamy. Stout?"

#5. McSorley's Irish Pale Ale - 28 quality points. Comments:"Light, low flavor," "Cool, smooth, goes down easy. Brilliant!" "Pleasant reddish color; smooth taste," "Good balance," "Off taste, bitter - but not hoppy, maybe spicy."

#6. O'Hara's Irish Red - 29 quality points. Comments: "Malty - not hoppy, molasses," "A true kindred spirit Irish beer!" "Brown tone, dark color, brash taste," "Opens with a maltiness - then finishes with a nice bitterness," "Chocolate and spice," "Good."

#7. Smithwick's Irish Ale - 32 quality points. Comments: "Light - malt," "Blah. Not very impressive," "Amber-to-red color, light, cheerful," Lighter," "Neutral."

Biggest surprise for me was that Smithwicks landed at the bottom of the group. I would have expected it to have scored much better. Smithwicks is one of those beers that I always look at as a good fall-back beer, like Sam Adams lager, if a bar has no true craft beers on tap. I've found it a pleasant, drinkable beer. Sort of inoffensive and light-years better than the ubiquitous Bud Light etc. that can be found in pretty much every bar in the world.

On the other hand, Paper City's Ireland Parish Brand was a great find. This is honestly a beer I was totally unfamiliar with and found it really terrific. It probably had the strongest hop presence of all the beers, which would automatically skew it in a positive direction for most of us since we tend to be hopeless hop-heads.

Again, there wasn't a bad beer in the bunch, but I will certainly look for Paper City. Sam Adams was a perfect fit for this style as they tend to lean toward the Irish style beer anyway. And their Irish Red was very good.

Next up: Holiday Brews

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Road Trip - Burlington, VT - Land of Free Samples


On the Road

We took a quick weekend excursion with our friends Mike and Diane to Burlington, Vermont. I like to look at it as a kind of working vacation, if you will. Burlington has a fine array of terrific brew pubs and breweries. What is truly amazing is that you can walk into any restaurant in the city and find a good beer. Many places would have ten or twelve taps with nary a Bud Light in sight.

Lake Placid Brewery and Pub

But first things first. On our way up we made a swing through Lake Placid to see the sights and stop at the Lake Placid Brewery and Pub for lunch. It's a cozy little unassuming pub with a friendly and knowledgeable staff. We ordered some tasty appetizers and a pint. They had five or six different brews on tap but we really only had time for one. I like their Ubu Ale, but we can get that around here. Hopheads that we are, Mike and I both opted for their Back Fence IPA. Very good brew with a strong hop presence. Went great with the nachos. Here's a neat little video on craft beers I found at the Lake Placid Brewery site: I am a Craft Brewer

Scenery Stuff

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay for more than one, since we had to push on to Vermont. The trip from Mexico, NY to Burlington is a long, twisty drive that yields some stunning vistas, especially in the fall with the leaves turning. We took the ferry across Lake Champlain, about a twenty minute excursion.

Mike and Diane waiting for the ferry

Les crossing Lake Champlain


Burlington - Vermont Brewing Company, Ben and Jerry's, Cheese and Chocolate


Our first stop in Burlington was the Vermont Brewing Company Pub where we enjoyed their excellent IPA.
Saturday we made a trip out to Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and did the tour there. It's worth doing. One of those things were there's a video showing how Ben and Jerry got started etc. You get to look in on the vats of ice cream, learn a little about the process. Interesting stuff and our tour guide was a fun and funky middle aged woman with the sort of ex-hippie laid-back attitude that befits Ben and Jerry's. Unfortunately, I wasn't thrilled with the flavor they had out as a free sample. One of those Cookies-and-Cream concoctions that many people just love. I find them overly sweet myself. But I seemed to be in the minority.
We then hit Cabot Cheese and tried a bunch of really tasty samples of cheese, crackers, condiments, dips. Went to a cider mill and got some free cider samples - delicious. Then hit Lake Champlain Chocolates for more freebees. Also bought some dark chocolate and some dark chocolate with hot pepper - really good.

Switchback Brewery


Finally, we were able to get to Switchback Brewery for their tour. We were greeted by a guy in his twenties, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt and a young girl eating an orange. The tour is a bare-bones look at the inner workings of a brewery. No videos, no frills. The guy, friendly and unassuming, just gave us a brief history of Switchback, took us through the brewing process, showed us how the brewery has been steadily expanding. Switchback makes one beer - Switchback Ale. You cannot get it in bottles, only on tap. It is sold regionally throughout Vermont and much of northeastern New York. However, they struggle to keep up with the demand. They have no intentions to ever sell it in bottles, though they are working on a Porter for the holidays. We ended the tour with some samples of the beer taken right from one of the big holding tanks. It is a very nicely balanced ale. Would make a terrific session beer.

Magic Hat Brewery - Beer Chotchkies and Free Beer


For contrast, we left Switchback and went down the road to the Magic Hat Brewery. Magic Hat is a much larger brewery (our guide claimed it was the 10th largest in the US, though when I checked this out on a beer info site they came up 18th) and as such, their tour has all the trappings - witty guide, video, large balcony that overlooks the facility and a large gift shop/bar where you enter and exit. The theme, being close to Halloween, was Night of the living Dead.
Again, a very informative tour, but the highlight was the big bar with endless free samples. I sampled Lucky Kat IPA (very good ale, good hoppy bite), American Sour Ale (not my cup of tea - very strong lemony flavor. Reminded me of a European Shandy), Belgian Stout (liked it), a Black Lager (surprisingly good) and Roxie Rolles (loved it - nicely balanced ale).
Bought a Magic Hat pint glass with their "Night of the Living Dead" logo on it.



A Couple Other Brew Pubs




We also had time to hit a couple of other Brew Pubs: 3 Needs Brew Pub and American Flatbread. We tried to get reservations for dinner at American Flatbread, but there was a two and a half hour wait!
At 3 Needs, we had their Chocolate Porter (nice rich flavorful beer), and their IPA which was also good.
At American Flatiron their IPA was outstanding. Very strong hops with a nice bitter bite. We also tried their ZG Helles Cask Ale. A good session beer, but we should have had it before the IPA rather than after as it rather falls flat by comparison.

If you like good craft beers, it's hard to beat Burlington.


Lake Champlain

Monday, September 28, 2009

ESB (Extra Special Blog)

Hey we're back with another beer club meeting for our second beer smack-down. This time we decided to compare a random selection of ESB's (Extra Special Bitters). First, a little bit about ESB's. While, of course, everything is a matter of taste, the "ideal" for an ESB is that it is a beer with a nice balance between the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops. The name is a bit of a misnomer in that ESB's are generally not that bitter. ESB's make for a nice "session" beer, one which you can settle into for an evening wherein you may imbibe in more than a couple. As is the case with many styles of beer, there is a great variance in color as well as taste. ESB's can run the gamut from a pale golden color to a fairly dark chocolate shade. Some emphasize the malty sweetness, while others tip toward the hoppy end of the scale. Alcohol content is usually not particularly high, ergo the session beer appellation.
The beers we choose for our taste comparison were: Middle Age's Beast Bitter, Fuller's ESB, Gritty McDuff's Best Bitter, Sierra Nevada's ESB, and Stoudt's ESB. Once again we used the totally subjective format of rating the beers 1-5 so that the low score wins. And again, you have a bunch of guys who have a distinct prejudice in favor of hoppy beers. As before, we were the ultimate winners because all five beers were quite tasty. All agreed it was a difficult task to rank the beers and found it necessary to sample each numerous times.
Our host this time was Mike and he color coded the samples - blue, green, orange etc. which will help explain some of the comments by Dan regarding some of the beers. Without further ado then, here are the results:

5th place - Gritty McDuff''s Best Bitter - It recieved 2 third place votes and 2 fifth place votes for a quality score of 16. (Herb choose to enjoy the beers without rating them - and who could blame him! He said, "They're all good." Bless his heart.) - Some of the comments were: "Balanced; not very heady" "Tasty, unassuming" "Orange you glad you came tonight?"

4th place - Middle Age's Beast Bitter - It received a second place vote, a third place vote and 2 fourth place votes for a total of 13 quality points. "Very similar in taste to Fuller's" "Sweeter, malty" and "Red Bull it's not."

3rd place - Stoudts' ESB - This beer was all over the place with one first place, one second place, one fourth place and one fifth place for a total of 12 quality points. "Darkest of the bunch" "Balanced, tasty" "Brilliant #1" "Lightest (taste) of the group."

2nd place - Fuller's ESB - Fuller's garnered two first place votes, but also received a fourth and a fifth place vote for a total of 11. "Not balanced; overpowered by hoppy tones" "Heartiest of the lot" "more bitter, hoppier" "Not a Blue Light for sure!"

1st place - Sierra Nevada ESB - Well, the West Coast did it again. With one first, two second and one third place vote for a total of 8 points it was the clear winner overall. "Delicious; good, lasting head" "Nice aroma" "the dark side of ESB" "Maltier than orange (Gritty's)."

Well, there you have it. Once we finished the grueling task of rating these fine beers we were treated to a meal that perfectly complemented the hearty brews, highlighted by a variety of stuffed peppers (both hot and mild) which Mike and Diane picked from their garden and prepared. It was a perfect evening.
Up next: Any beer with the word "Irish" in its name EXCEPT Guinness. That could include Irish Ales, Irish Reds, Irish Stouts etc. Should be interesting

And finally, a shout out to Southern Tier Brewery for their Harvest Ale. I picked up a sixer of this seasonal on a whim and I was pleasantly surprised. Not that I didn't expect something good from this excellent brewery located in Lakewood, New York. They produce a number of terrific brews (see: southertierbrewing.com). However a Harvest Ale or Octoberfest I expect to be more of a malty brew. With this beer they were not shy with the hops and the result is a wonderful, full-bodied ale that for me has a perfect balance of malt and hops. It starts out with a very pleasing, nutty sweetness and then a surprisingly strong hops presence bursts through for a satisfying finish.
Well done, Southern Tier!! I must stock up before the season is over.

Cheers!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Road

When traveling, it's always fun to find a brewery or brew pud that produces a beer you can't get anyplace else. We were in the Detroit area recently and happened upon the Arbor Brewing Company and Eatery. It's one of those casual restaurants where the tables are situated around an enormous bar which is the centerpiece of the place. The atmosphere is sort of New-Age Bohemian with tattoos and piercings apparently the de facto uniforms for the wait staff and dishes featuring such things as free-range chicken.
Our waitress, Ericka, was a delight and very knowledgeable when it came to the house beers. The beer menu is extensive and as far as I could tell included only beers produced on the premises. The meals were all quite tasty, but the real draw is the beer. Because they offer free samples of any of their beers, I was able to try a number of different ones. I'll run down the list of those which I had the opportunity to try and my impression of each.

1. Big Ben House Mild - 4.25% - 25 IBU (International Bittering Units). The name says it all - mild. Light colored with some hints of hops. Easy drinking but not particularly memorable.

2. Bavarian Bliss Heferweizen - 5.6% - 14 IBU - Typical of most Heferweizens, this was light and fruity and for the most part unoffensive. It had a strong banana fragrance which was a little off-puting. Citriusy and no real hops presence.

3. Red Snapper Special Amber - 5.5% - 37 IBU - This was a very balanced beer with a nice combination of hoppy bitterness mellowed out with a malty sweetness. Dark in color - looking more like a stout or bock than an amber - it had some nice chocolate notes as well.

4. Sacred Cow Cask Conditioned IPA - 6.9% - 71 IBU - This was my particular favorite. Slightly cloudy with a very strong hops presence. As with any good IPA, the hops are dominant giving it that characteristic bitterness that all devoted hop heads look for. This was a very good beer.

5. Batch 1000 Smoked Lager - 5.5% - Very different as the name implies. There is a very definite smoky fragrence to it - reminiscent of good smoked meat. There's a very pleasant nutty/malty taste to it. I only had a small sample, but found it very interesting.

6. Faricy Fest Irish Stout - 4.5% - This is their answer to Guiness and it is a very impressive imitation. There is a slight burnt malt taste with a creamy head.

7. Brasserie Blonde - 5.5% - 7 IBU - This one surprised me because I didn't expect much. I'm not a big fan of Blondes (beers that is, let's be clear on that) because they tend to be rather tasteless. However I found this to be much more flavorful than I expected. While it would never be my first choice (or second or third) there was a little hint of hops there that made it a very drinkable beer.

8. Olde #22 German Alt - I mentioned to our waitress that I wanted to try a few samples because I write a beer blog and after bringing a few over that I had pointed out in the menu, she came over with this one. She said it wasn't on the menu today but they wanted me to give it a try. It was a real nice smooth dark beer. A pleasing chocolate undertaste with just a hint of hops. A very enjoyable beer.

As with many brew pubs, their beer menu is ever changing. My brother-in-law, who had been there before, said that the selection this time was far superior to the last. It is definitely a place I would return to again if I happen to be in the area. If you're ever out that way, here's the address:

Arbor Brewery Co. and Eatery
114 E Washington St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Enjoy!

Monday, July 13, 2009

IPA's - The True King of Beers

THE BEER CLUB - MEETING ONE

The idea for this sprang up, amazingly, over a few beers. Several of our wives are members of a monthly book club and someone suggested the guys needed a club of our own. One common interest we all share is good beer - as in beer with actual flavor. Not the yellow, watery beers mass produced by the big three beer makers. We're talking about craft beers. Beers that don't spare the hops. Beers that aren't afraid to boldly go where the big three dare not tread (until, that is, it looks like they might be able to make some money by going there.)
Though merely getting together and drinking beer seemed like a pretty good idea, we decided we needed some kind of a format. Ergo, each meeting would be built around a particular style of beer or some kind of beer-related theme. And to kick things off, we decided to go right for the real gusto - IPA's or India Pale Ales.

A LITTLE QUICK HISTORY, OF WHICH THE READER IS WELCOME TO SKIP
IPA's came about because of the problems inherent in shipping beer over long distances (i.e. from Britain to India). Beer had a nasty tendency to go flat and sour. The solution, developed by George Hodgson around 1790 was essentially to up the alcohol content and the hops. For a terrific and much more in-depth look at this go to http://www.brewingtechniques.com/library/styles/2_2style.html.

THE FIRST BATTLE - EAST COAST VS. WEST COAST - SORT OF

Obviously, it would be impossible to compare all of the various craft brewed IPA's out there in one sitting. Which means we'll have to revisit this style. Hey, someone's got to do it. To be honest, our approach was somewhat random. We assigned each member (Dan, Hal, Gerry - unable to attend the first meeting but kindly supplied Stone's IPA -Mike - a home brewer, Ron - our historian, and Rick - that would be me) an IPA to bring to the first meeting. We decided we would do a blind taste test and tabulate the results. Basically we ranked the six beers 1-6 using a completely subjective criterion: namely, which we liked the most.

The competing beers were:

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - Dogfish Head Brewery, Rehobeth Beach, Delaware

Saranac Imperial IPA - Matt's Brewing Company, Utica, NY

Stone's IPA - Stone Brewery, San Diego, CA

Stone's Imperial IPA - Stone Brewery, San Diego, CA

Syracuse ImPaled Ale - Middle Ages Brewing Company, Syracuse, NY

Unearthly Imperial IPA - Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, NY

Alright, so you probably noticed two things: first there is an East Coast / West Coast divide, second there are several beers from around Central New York. I don't apologize. Like I said, we all just choose an IPA we liked without regard to where it was brewed. We live near Syracuse, NY, so we ended up with half of them from the general area. We just wanted to start with some brews from the area first. I promise we will expand outward later. As for Stone Brewery - just pick up a bottle and read the back. You gotta' love that kind of bravado.

The results were tabulated as follows: a first place vote garnered one point, second place two points etc so that it was like a golf score - the lower the score, the better. If you're looking for one of those in-depth mid-palate-grapefruity-overtones-with-caramel-notes type of ratings, you won't find it here. We're just a bunch of guys that like good beer. Here are the results:

1. Stone's Ruination IPA - 12 quality points. Though it only received one first place vote, it garnered three second place votes. This is an outstanding beer, very hoppy with a satisfyingly bitter finish. At 7.7% it packs a nice punch. Dan choose this as his number one pick.

2. Stone's IPA - 15 quality points. Yes, the West Coast brewery beat out the East Coast in this small sample. But if you like a truly bold, take-no-prisoners beer, it's tough to beat Stone. I selected this as my top choice.

3. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - 16 quality points - The only beer to receive two 1st place votes. But it also received two 5th place votes. This beer has some stronger citruisy notes than the others (yeah, I know I said we wouldn't go there, but I think that's why the Jekyll and Hyde results). At around 9% it is the strongest of the bunch. It has a real nice hop punch to it. It was the top choice for both Hal and Mike.

4. Saranac Imperial IPA - 19 quality points - Though it came in fourth, everyone agreed that it was comparable with the top three. It is also much more affordable than the top three. It's got a solid 8.5% kick to it. Strongly hopped with a real inviting aroma. Kind of piney. Good beer. It got Ron's nod as the number one.

5. Southern Tier Unearthly Ale - 23 quality points. Compared to the other IPA's this, along with the Syarcuse ImPaled Ale did not have the strong hoppy kick. Much more subtle, which may appeal to many people. Somewhat sweeter and lighter than the others.

6. Syracuse ImPaled Ale - 23 quality points - Essentially tied with Unearthly. More of an English Pale Ale than an American IPA. Perhaps their Dragonslayer Imperial Stout would have fared better, but since it was a Stout, we'll save that for another time. It was perhaps not fair to compare this to the top four, which are strongly hopped. This is a much more balanced ale, very drinkable with a nice dry finish.

IN CONCLUSION...

The truth is all of us had a difficult time with the top four beers. We agonized at length and found it necessary to keep tasting one after the other. Then going back and starting again. All are top notch IPA's. The other two were very good beers, but we were really looking for the knock-your-socks-off punch of kick-ass hops. The Impaled Ale and Unearthly were both much tamer in that respect, but are both very good beers especially if you intend to have a few. They are very drinkable and nicely balanced.
There was talk of doing an NCAA type bracket, pitting the top 16 or 32 IPA's against each other in a series of one-on-one match-ups. Might be fun. Not sure how we'll seed them though.


THE BEST BEERS IN THE WORLD

In my humble opinion, the best beers in the world are now being produced in America. And not by the big three who continue to believe that light makes right. It's pretty exciting to see the rise in craft beers. For years if you wanted anything other than the same lager in a different bottle you had to look at imports. Not so anymore.