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Monday, May 24, 2010

The BOTB Guys Explore the Middle Ages

Salute, Slainte, cheers, skaal, prost to our Faithful Followers. I want to kick off this edition with an interesting and perhaps telling anecdote. We (the judges and jury - and occasionally executioners - who make up Battle of the Beers) decided to play around with our format a bit. We thought it might be fun to look at different craft brewers and rate their line-up of brews. We sent out a letter to thirty or so brewers across New York State (we decided to start with our home state) seeing if they would be interested in having us evaluate their beers. Middle Ages Brewery was the first to jump on board - and we'll get to that soon - but I wanted to talk about one of the replies we received.

I used Lew Bryson's "New York Breweries" as a guide. One of the breweries listed was Brotherhood Winery out of Washingtonville, NY. Despite the fact it is a winery, Bryson raved over the beers they brewed there, mentioning that their resident brewer, Nat Collins, has quite a reputation among New York State craft brewers. Intrigued, I decided to include Brotherhood Winery in our list of breweries and sent them a letter. I received what I can only describe as a curt response. They returned my letter and wrote across the top, "We do not brew, sell or import beer. WE ARE A WINERY!!"

Okay, so my information was perhaps outdated. Those things happen. But what struck me was the implied indignation over my assumption that they would sink so low as to BREW BEER. That got me thinking about the whole wine vs. beer thing and the superiority of the vintner over the brewer (personally I like wine and beer so I am of the opinion that, since this is not Congress, there's no reason why the vintner and the brewer can't be friends). If you're talking about the mass produced stuff affectionately known as "lawn-mower beer" (a good beer to stick in the cup holder on your riding mower) then the wine producers might have a point. But with the growing ranks of fine craft brewers out there, more and more beers are being produced with rich, complex flavors. Enjoying a good beer involves the sense of smell and taste, just as is the case with a good wine.

All of this brings us to this month's Beer Club tastings. As I mentioned earlier, Middle Ages Brewery out of Syracuse, NY was the first to respond to our challenge. And respond they did. We arrived at Herb Clark's place at Port Ontario to a couple of heartwarming sights. One was the fact that we set up shop in a bucolic location - outside, on the water, on a warm summer-like evening. The other was the sight of six growlers of Middle Ages brews: Middle Ages Pale Ale, Duke of Winship Scotch Porter, Old Marcus Ale, Kilt Tilter Scotch Ale, a test batch of Double Wench, and the final production version of Double Wench American Strong Ale.

The Middle Ages Brewing Company located in Syracuse, NY is everything you want in a craft brewer. They make a bunch of interesting, often bold, beers. They work around a theme (the middle ages) and have some fun with the names. The beers are based on traditional British brews which are then tweaked according to the brewer's whim, creating a wide array of full flavored beers.

Middle Ages Pale Ale

This is Middle Ages' signature beer, available only on tap. It started life as MacGregor's. It can be found around the region under various names (the Candlelight in Parish, NY has it on tap as Candlelight Ale for example). We started out with this beer. We changed up our format somewhat, creating a sort of round table discussion of each beer, looking at appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and general impressions.

The pale ale is a beautiful amber color, relatively clear as it is not an unfiltered brew. It has a solid head that hung in there for a bit.

The aroma was what struck us all first. Very intense aroma of bread and a sort of herbal hops underneath.

Flavor was very balanced, leaning more to the malty side. Neither overly sweet nor overly bitter. This would be my idea of a very good session beer. The hops aren't going to knock you over, but they are present. There's a creamy mouthfeel and is pleasantly carbonated. We all noted a long finish, with a very enjoyable aftertaste. In general we felt this to be an ideal summer beer, a great one for kicking back and having a few at the end of the day. At 5% ABV it was the mildest of the evening's offerings.

Duke of Winship Scotch Porter

The Duke of Winship Porter poured with an impressive head with great staying power. Dark brown auburn color. The aroma was not overpowering (or perhaps it was the allergies) but we all felt we could detect a hint of coffee. A more intense flavor than the Pale Ale as you would expect, it tended toward the sweet end of the spectrum with hints of coffee and perhaps caramel notes. I detected a distinct chocolate finish to it, though not everyone agreed. A tasty, full-bodied brew that is very drinkable. At 6% ABV it is mild enough to warrant the "when you're having more than one" label. This was not part of our Porter competition of a couple of months ago, but Mike mentioned that this one might well have won it. Nice one to have in front of a roaring fire.

Old Marcus Ale

This strong English ale had a beautiful pour - foamy, thick head with long-lasting lacing. It has an earthy and somewhat citrus-like aroma with a nice taste of grain. The hops in this one began to move to the forefront, though again, not overpowering. A very complex, full bodied beer. Real nice finish that stayed with you. A few random comments from our judges: "Clean finish," "Go to picnic, have a beer with your brother beer," "Tastes like another!" 6% ABV, so another would be possible - and was!

Kilt Tilter Scotch Ale

Okay, first of all, you gotta' love the name! Seriously. And this one will tilt your kilt. At a hefty 9% ABV this one made us all sit up and take notice. This is a big, bold beer. A "Helmet Beer" to be sure (as in "strap on your helmet").

The flavor is full and rich. Very complex - we argued over whether we detected undertones of toast or nut. I said nut but was outvoted. But there was definitely a distinctive flavor, perhaps toffee, which gives it a warm, unique character. The alcohol content comes into play, accounting for the "warming" mouthfeel. This is a beer you want to roll around in your mouth a bit, letting all the taste buds have a chance at it. This beer and the next two are great examples of what I was talking about earlier when I compared the crafts of brewing beer and wine making. These are beers to be savored not simply swallowed.

Double Wench - Test Batch & Production Version

Okay, so check out the new and improved Wailing Wench above (Double Wench is on the right). Just when you thought something couldn't be improved...
Double Wench is as bursting with flavor as the new wench logo is, well, bursting. After trying Kilt Tilter we were dubious that the ante could be upped much more. We were wrong. We started with the Double Wench test batch. Double Wench is to be Middle Ages' 15th anniversary beer, to be celebrated in August. Apparently it was considered too sweet. Any question that these guys don't have discriminating taste is dispelled once you taste the REJECTED version of this beer. I won't spend a lot of time on this because basically it's not available other than to say we couldn't believe it was rejected. A delicious beer about which Dan said, "They should make life savers that taste like this."

So, the production version was obviously similar to the other only less sweet. It is a robust, very complex American Strong Ale. 12% ABV gives it a lovely warm, intense opening. It's a deep copper, almost red, color with a wonderful pour. Rich, full head with lots of staying power. Like the Kilt Tilter, notes of toffee seemed to be the underpinning, while the hops really jump out at you. As noted by one of our members, "The only fault, it's too strong to drink for a long time."

It's another one of those you really want to roll around in your mouth awhile to hit all the notes.

According to Dan, "One you can puff your chest out and be proud of!"

In Conclusion...

In an informal poll of the members, the general consensus was that Old Marcus Ale won out as the choice for a session beer. Though this was not unanimous. Some called the pale ale the quintessential session beer, while The Duke of Winship got the nod by at least one. All agreed that any of them would work quite nicely, thank you.

As for the which beer was the flat out favorite - Double Wench won the day.
This was a very small sampling of Middle Ages impressive line-up of beers. Their website ( lists 22 regularly produced beers. Some are on-tap only. The brewery has an ever changing line-up on tap for tasting or growler refills. August 1st is their anniversary party celebrating 15 years, with live music, food and of course beer. It'll be at Leavenworth Park, right next to the brewery. Hope to see you there!


Monday, May 17, 2010

Charleston Pub Tour

Cheers from Charleston!

Les and I just returned from a terrific week in Charleston, SC. What a beautiful, fascinating city this is. We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast-ish inn called The Anchorage. It is located in the city's "French Quarter" area just a short walk to the waterfront. Charming would be the word to describe both the place and the people who worked there. Continental breakfast, wine and cheese at 4:00 and Sherry at 8:00. How cool is that? We walked (or biked) everywhere (didn't even rent a car - only bikes) and everywhere you turn there is history. Charleston was such a key city during the Revolution as well as the Civil War and is steeped in tales of pirates (both Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet met their ends here).
On top of all this, they produce some pretty good beers down there. Right next door to us was a bar called The Griffon which has a nice bunch of craft beers on tap and most everywhere you can get some decent local brews. And we stumbled upon the best way to sample these - it's the Charleston Pub Tour. Imagine kicking back with some good brews as you listen to a guy with a wealth of fascinating stories about the city and often about the very bar in which you are drinking. That gives you some idea of the Pub Tour.
The Original Pub Tour of Charleston is owned and operated by Becca Lesesne, who has been involved with craft brewing for some time. Right away we were greeted by her and her friendly staff. As it turned out, this particular tour included us and another couple. Our guide, Dave, was about as easy-going and laid back as could be and by the end of the tour it really felt like the five of us were old friends, laughing and joking and completely drawn in by Dave's tales of old Charleston.

We Begin At the Church of Our Lady of Beer

We started out at the Mad River Bar and Grill. A very interesting bar since it was originally an Episcopal Church. All religious artifacts were removed when the building was converted, although the stained-glass windows are still there. The ambiance was pretty cool, with Kayaks hanging from the vaulted ceiling and various college and pro athletic team banners hanging about. Excellent nachos. The beer selection was so-so if you're a hophead. They had Long Hammer IPA on tap - but they were out when we were there. The other options besides the typical Bud Light/Coors Light/Miller Lite line up were Newcastle Brown Ale, Shock Top and Guinness. I went with Guinness. Went well with the warm atmosphere and Dave's tales of pirates and Colonial politics.

The Griffon - Cool Bar - Nice Selection

Next we went to The Griffon. The bar is literally papered with dollar bills. Goes back to a tradition of sailors about to ship out leaving money with their name on it nailed to the wall so when they returned they would be sure to have money to buy drinks with. The bar has a kind of neat biker-type vibe to it. This place had an excellent selection of beers on tap: Harpoon, Fat Tire, Palmetto, Avery's, Dogfish Head, Sweetwater and others. I choose Rockhopper's IPA from R.J. Rockers Brewery out of Spartanburg, SC. I found it a nice, solid hoppy IPA. Good hop flower bouquet, golden color, wonderful hops presence with grapefruit notes. Good beer. I could have stayed there a while longer and sampled a few more, but we did have a schedule to keep.

A View to Drink By

We moved on to the Rooftop Bar and Restaurant. A great view of the city and Dave was able to fill us in on the history of several of the buildings we could see. There were no drafts and the bottled beer selection was somewhat limited but I was able to get a Palmetto Amber Ale. Palmetto Brewery is right there in Charleston. The Amber Ale is an excellent session beer. Nice balance of malt and hops. Palmetto is available most everywhere in the city. Good solid beer.

You Gotta' Love American Ingenuity

The last bar was the Blind Tiger. Cool backstory here too. At one point it was illegal to sell booze in the city, so at this establishment they advertised animal performances - a tiger often. People paid an admittance fee for the "show" only to be informed that the tiger was ill and couldn't perform. Perhaps they could compensate them with a drink? Of course everyone who came in knew the routine and the "show" was attended by Charleston VIP's including the mayor.
I had the Palmetto Pale Ale. Actually, I liked the Amber Ale better. The Pale Ale was fine but not particularly memorable. Again, a decent session beer.

Below - Courtyard at Blind Tiger

Soutend Brewery - Good food, Good Beer

I might also suggest if you visit the city to make a stop at the Southend Brewery. It's a really nice brewpub with a pretty impressive array of beers. Most tend toward the malty (Oatmeal Stout, Scarlet Ale) or lighter (Blonde, Blonde Light, Ironman Wheat) but their Bombay Pale Ale was very good (in a hoppy vein). The Oatmeal Stout was excellent - more carbonated than the typical stout. Deep black in color, big tan head, nice lacing. And a really bold flavor.
Inside Southend Brewery