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Monday, April 11, 2011

BOTB Guys Say Ahoy to Harpoon

This Month:
-The BOTB guys take aim at Harpoon! Do their beers hit the mark or does the Great White Metaphor get away?
- Ron and I travel to Puerto Rico to answer the burning questions: Is there craft beer in the Tropics? And does this mean I can write the trip off as a business expense?
-Mike and I check out a home brewing DVD. Top Chef look out, we're pitching Top Brewer as the next big reality show. And ourselves as the judges.

By Rick Sherman

There May Be a Balm in Gilead, But is There Good Beer in Paradise?

Just spent a week in Puerto Rico. It was nice to be able to get away from the winter weather that has stubbornly clung to the Northeast. We left thirty degree temperatures with just enough snow spitting from the heavens to know the weather gods were thumbing their celestial noses at us; and landed in San Juan with temperatures in the low '80's.

We stayed not too far from the shore (of course no place is too far from the shore – it is an island after all) and it allowed us daily walks along a beautiful beach only sparsely populated even on the warmest of days. It was about a two minute walk to a winding four mile stretch of beach with water the color of jade and a horizon painted with mist-shrouded islets that lent the whole vista a wonderfully mysterious quality. We took daily walks along the sandy shore, splashing through bath-water breakers. Large Coconut Palm trees lined the shore, completing the picture of  Paradise Found. There is something keenly primal about the pounding surf and the salt air.

The culture is interesting –  while the heritage is Spanish, it is a US territory so there is a schizophrenic mix of the two worlds. Most everyone speaks some level of English but Spanish is the predominant language. Speedometers are calibrated in miles per hour as are the posted speed limits, yet distances are measured in kilometers. Billboards and TV ads are a mash up of English and Spanish.

The cuisine is a bit of a mash-up as well. Most restaurants, including the small road-side types, offered a variety of dishes from Italian to New Orleans style alongside the more traditional Puerto Rican fare. And always present were plantains. Looking like mutant bananas, but starchy like a potato, they have a very mild flavor and take on the taste of whatever they are served with. And they are served with everything.

A tube of Sangria - alas not beer!
Alas, the only downside is a dearth of good craft beer on the island. Fellow BTOB'er Ron and his wife Vicky joined Les and me in our adventure in paradise, so we set out on a mission to find good beer. The primary beer of Puerto Rico is a lager called Medalla Light. It is as ubiquitous here as Guinness in Ireland or Bud in the US. We ordered one at our first stop. It is pretty similar to commercial American beers such as Bud, Miller, Coors. Yellow, pretty bland. It's a lager best served ice cold. Light beer seems to dominate the island. Every restaurant and bar had numerous light beers. One big display in a grocery store had nothing but lights: Medalla Light, Coors Light, Heinekin Light, etc. We were able to locate a sixer of Sam Adams Lager for back at the ranch, but that was it. So in between excursions to El Yunque and the Bio-luminescent bay we jumped on line and did a little research. What we found was that indeed in and around Humacao (the city on the Southeast side of the island where we were located) you were flat out of luck if you wanted good beer. The mecca of beer seemed to be San Juan. Stores and restaurants serving craft beer were all clustered around that city. Plus the only brew pub on the island was located there: Old Harbor Brewery.

Luckily we were headed for Old San Juan on Wednesday, so Old Harbor Brewery became one of the places we had to get to. And how fortuitous that we did.  Located at 202 Tizo Street in Old San Juan, it's definitely worth your while to stop in if you get to the island. Unfortunately for us we arrived at a time when they were down to only three taps: Cerveza Old Harbor Pale Ale, Cerveza Coque Golden Lager – a German Helle, and Cerveza Santo Viejo Pilser (winner of Best Pilsner of the South in 2008 and 2009). These are three of their year round offerings. All good, but for our money, the Pale Ale was the best. It's brewed with Cascade hops imported from the US and it is an excellent pale ale. Unfiltered, with a strong malt backbone and generous amounts of hops. It has a nice clean finish. Good beer.

While there we met with assistant manager Minelly Amador and CEO Luis Diaz-Romero and chatted about craft beers and asked them why there were so few on the island. Luis said it seemed to be that throughout the tropics light beer seems to dominate.  But he added, “I don't understand it because my palate works in hot or cold weather.” We told them we were sorry they were out of the stout and the Taina (seasonal) as we would have liked to try those as well. They said the Korfresi Stout was still green and not quite ready, but we could have a taste if we liked. It was an excellent stout. Really full bodied with a rich taste of dark chocolate and coffee. Very complex and a little higher octane than most stouts. I can't imagine what it will be like once it has aged correctly.
We then met one of their brewers, also imported from the US – Woodstock, NY in fact. He then gave us another work-in-progress: Visitante 212 Rum Barrel Stout. Not yet carbonated this none the less was a very intriguing high octane beer. The rum barrel aging definitely gives it a distinct character unlike any beer I've ever tasted. Sadly we won't get to sample the finished product as the only place to get it is right there at Old Harbor Brewery.

As we left the city, we picked up two big bottles of the Pale Ale. We had planned on bringing one back to share with the BOTB guys, but alas were told that there were no preservatives in the beer at all and therefore it would not survive the flight. With a heavy heart, Ron and I polished them off Thursday night before we left.

Once we returned to Humacao, we did find a restaurant that had a limited number of craft beers. A place called “The Beer Garden” which was right on our property. While not sporting a huge number of beers, they did have Samuel Smith's Pale Ale. Their food was excellent as well, so we ate there a couple of times.

A Step By Step Guide to Doing it Yourself

Recently we were contacted by James Morris who had seen our blog. He emailed me and said he had made an instructional DVD and wondered if we would take a look at it and give our thoughts. I contacted our resident home brewer Mike and the two of us sat down to watch it.

Flowchart from PDF
I must say, if you are at all interested in getting into home brewing, this would make an excellent starting point. James lays out the process in an easy to follow step-by-step approach. It's done in a kitchen using for the most part everyday utensils. Obviously there are some initial expenditures, but he explains each tool and where you can purchase them. The whole thing is done in a very comfortable straight-forward manner as if you were sitting in his kitchen watching the whole thing. One of the neat things is that he provides options depending on your level of financial commitment and the availability of ingredients.

Included with the DVD is a CD-ROM  which contains a PDF file spelling everything out in detail, including precise measurements of all ingredients. It's as if you got the smartest kid in class to take notes for you. Take a look at his website at He's got a few freebies there that make the visit worthwhile. We'll be here when you return! 



Harpoon Brewery, located in Boston, Massachusetts and Windsor, Vermont was part of the first wave of craft breweries that helped kick off the American Beer Revolution which has transformed the U.S. beer landscape from one of copycat light lagers to the most diverse in the world. In 1986 the Mass Bay Brewing Company in Boston was incorporated; born, like so many of the microbreweries, out of a desire to bring some of the rich beer culture found in Europe to America. Rich Doyle, Dan Kenary and George Ligeti teamed up to form Harpoon Brewing. Harpoon has since grown steadily so that in 2000 the company purchased the former Catamount  Brewery in  Windsor, VT.

This month we decided to check out six of Harpoon's year round brews: Raspberry Hefeweizen, UFO White Unfiltered Wheat Beer, UFO Hefeweizen, Belgian Pale Ale, Munich Dark, and IPA (their best seller).
We used the same basic rating formula - looking at Color, Pour, Aroma, Body, Taste and Overall Impressions (ranging from "Leave it on the shelf" to "Can't get enough.")
Ultimately this line-up batted a respectable .500 with us. Keeping in mind that we are a bunch of unrepentant hop-heads (as I may have mentioned a time or two before) and three of the beers were wheat beers which tend not to have a strong hops presence, that's a pretty good percentage.

Raspberry Hefeweisen Unfiltered Wheat - 5.10% ABV - IBU: 10. Revealing anecdote: I once bought a mixed 12  a few years ago (not Harpoon) that contained a cherry wheat beer. Tried one of the cherry wheat beers and stuck the rest in the cellar fridge. Didn't like it all, but I hate to dump out beer no matter what, so they sat there for a while. Had a bunch of people over one day and I put together a cooler full of a nice mix of beers (Harpoon among others) and happened to mention in passing that I also had some cherry wheat downstairs and one guy just went crazy over that. "I LOVE that beer!" he said. So I happily gave it all to him. My point is taste is such a personal thing that maybe you, loyal reader, would LOVE Raspberry Hefeweisen, but I, alas, did not. It pours a reddish color, as you might expect and has a pretty decent head. The aroma that hits you right off is very sweet - like raspberry Kool-Aid. The taste is also very sweet. Made me think of raspberry soda. To me this tasted more like soft drink than beer - similar to those Seagram's malt beverages. I want beer to taste of those key beer flavors: malt and hops. If there are some subtle spices in there as well, that can be fun. I just found that those tastes were lacking. This was one we would definitely leave on the shelf.

UFO White Unfiltered Wheat - 4.8% ABV - IBU: 10. While a major step up from the Raspberry, the UFO White was not a favorite. It's a cloudy pale wheat color with a decent head. The aroma was fruity, with a strong smell of orange or orange peel. It is a light bodied brew, quite carbonated, with a sweet wheat taste followed by orange - the orange zest flavor gives it a bit of a bitter zing. Definitely a summer brew.

UFO Hefeweisen - 4.8% ABV - IBU: 19. While none of us, as I mentioned, are particular fans of wheat beers, the general feeling about this one was that it was much better than most.The IBU's are a little higher (19 vs. 10) than the first two. A cloudy honey color with a respectable head and some nice lacing, there is a spicy (coriander?) aroma with a hint of banana and maybe cloves. The taste was yeasty with a hint of citrus, and a spice similar to that noted in the aroma. This one would be a decent summer beer. If you're a fan of Hefeweizens you will love this beer. It hits all the notes you expect from this style. A few of the comments: "A little more flavor than most wheat beers; better than those rice beers!; Good lawnmower beer; If a friend offered me one, I'd drink it."

Belgian Pale Ale - 5.8% ABV - 33 IBU - This is Harpoon's first new year-round brew since 2007 and it's a nice addition. Harpoon calls it a fusion of Belgian and American brewing styles. Brewed with Pale, Caramel and Munich malts,Belgian yeast and Amarillo hops, this is a nicely complex brew. Amber in color with a solid, frothy head, the citrus-hops aroma really comes through on the pour. With a medium to full bodied mouthfeel, the predominant flavors were malt and grapefruit with a hint of banana in the background. Overall impressions were very favorable with a strong "I could drink this!" seal of approval.
Comments: "Hoppy flavor right up front; A little bitterness to it - nice; A little hint of spice - cloves?; Much better than the wheats in my opinion."

Munich Type Dark - 5.5% ABV - 35 IBU - Harpoon's take on the Munchen Dunkel style of beer gives this traditionally malty, sweeter type a bit of a friendly hop kick that results in a very tasty brew. It is a rich mahogany color. The head is about two fingers and very lacy. The aroma had a hint of malt with stronger alcohol scent than you would expect. It's a slightly more than medium bodied brew with a flavor evocative of chocolate and malt. It starts out sweet and ends a little bitter.
Comments: "Pretty color and aroma; I kind of like that; Good aftertaste; Definitely deep roasted malts; Could have a few of these!"

Harpoon IPA - 5.9% ABV - 42 IBU - Harpoon's flagship beer and rightfully so. Our local Pizzeria Uno had this on tap for a while and what a treat that was. This is a classic American IPA with a wonderful strong hop aroma and taste. The beer is a golden copper color with a full head. The Cascade hops are plentiful and front and center, making the floral aroma dominant. While the initial taste is that familiar grapefruit-reminiscent flavor associated with Cascade hops, there is also a pleasing malt nuttiness that gives the whole brew a nice balance. It is dry hopped so that it finishes clean, without the astringent quality sometimes associated with hop-heavy beers.
Comments: "Now this is good beer!!!; I'll tell you what!!; Nice white lacy head; Once this is in a can - great for the boat or a golf cart; This is just a terrific beer!!"

NOTE: Harpoon plans to start rolling out their IPA and their Summer Beer in cans this summer. Our "Craft Beers in a Can" competition can't be too far off as more and more good beers are being produced in cans.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: On our way back from Puerto Rico we ate at New York Sports Bar in JFK while we waited for our connecting flight to the Cuse. They had a nice selection of beers including Harpoon IPA and Lagunitas IPA on tap so Ron and I decided a quick informal competition. Ron ordered the Harpoon and I ordered the Lagunitas. Both were very good - the first IPA's we'd had in a week - but we had to go with Harpoon. It had a much more distinctive hops presence. This beer on tap is absolutely marvelous. As good as it is bottled, it's even better on tap. Here's hoping our Uno's keeps it there.  

Sláinte and Salud!
The BOTB Guys

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