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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Game Changers


It's time we got back to the America we all loved. When men were men and women were women and kids were kids and red, white and blue and flag and country and patriotism and rugged individualism and God...well, as long as we're talking about the RIGHT God.

God help us! The Silly Season is upon us. That time when hyperbolic hysteria reigns. We've already been steeped in God fearin', tax hatin', Etch-a-Sketch wavin' rhetoric to the point where you're ready to pull out your Constitutionally guaranteed six-shooter and blast a Real 3D hole through your widescreen TV (then post the whole thing on Youtube - now THAT'S a viral video I'd watch.) And this is just the beginning! This is just the Republicans firing broadsides at each other - a little family squabble. Wait til a winner is picked and the real un-civil war begins.

There's one thing I can absolutely guarantee - patriotism and nostalgia will reign. And among the plethora of political ads you will find images that look like they were taken right out of the 1950's, shot on Super 8 film: grainy, jumpy images. You know, nostalgic.

The truth is, while "new" is not always synonymous with "better" - neither is "old." For some things, the "good ol' days" may indeed have been good. But not when it comes to American beer. From post-WWII to the '80's, American beers all began to become boringly similar.

But after decades of dominance by the big brewers, "craft brewing" clawed its way into the beer drinker's lexicon. Suddenly there were options - something other than light and lighter lagers out there. Beers with flavor. So who were the game changers in this case? As early as 1965, Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco was able to cling to its own individuality thanks to Fritz Maytag, who purchased the brewery at that time. He flew in the face of the "blanding" of  American beer and resisted Anheuser-Busch monopolization of breweries by not selling out and continuing to produce Anchor's unique beers. Soon, home-brewers discovered that European ale recipes offered more variety and more taste than American mega-brews. There was a whole world of beers out there other than light lager. Brew pubs began to emerge and gradually micro-breweries. The early pioneers, besides Maytag, were Pete Slosberg and Mark Bronder of Pete's Brewing Company (Pete's Wicked Ale), Jim Koch (Sam Adams), and Larry Bell (Kalamazoo Brewing Company - now Bell's Brewing Inc.). Sierra Nevada Brewery opened in 1980 as well, and has been on the vanguard of cutting edge brews ever since. These companies started small in the 1980's and grew, for the most part, through word-of-mouth. If I had to guess, I would say that probably the first real micro-brew I remember trying might have been Pete's Wicked Ale (now contract brewed by Matt Brewing Company, maker of Saranac).

Craft beer sales grew through the '90's and continue to grow today. This past year (2011) volume has increased a whopping 13% while retail sales have jumped by an impressive 15% (thanks to BOTB friend, Jeff, for pointing us to for this info). More and more beer drinkers are experiencing the joy of choice. In 1900 there were 1,751 breweries in the US. Prohibition in 1919 all but ruined most of them (some survived by producing soft drinks). The post-Prohibition high was 498 in 1940. But by 1983 the number of US breweries reached its nadir  with only 80 active breweries. Worse still, 92% of the country's beer production was controlled by only six breweries: A-B, Miller, Heilemen, Stroh, Coors, and Pabst. Even worse than that, they all made essentially the same beer!

By February of this year, the number of  breweries operating in the US had topped 2,000.

Choice is a beautiful thing!

H-Block Brewery

In celebration of those aforementioned beer pioneers and home brewers, the beers we tasted this month are beers you won't see on your store shelves any time soon. H Block Brewery in Oswego (and Buffalo), New York is a brewery which is currently on the ground floor. Justin Pylak and his partner in Buffalo are in the process of putting together a workable business plan in the hopes of building their business into a viable regional brewery. Right now, the beer is brewed in Buffalo, then Justin carbonates and bottles it in Oswego for distribution in the part of the state. They hope to make serious progress early this summer. In the meantime they have been finding investors and getting their beers out to various venues for tastings. 

Both partners are college seniors right now. The plan is to open in Oswego. Justin dropped off a mixed case of some of their beers for our expert analysis. As usual with us, opinions were mixed and varied depending on the beer style. The unanimous favorite, as you might guess, was the IPA. So without further ado, here's what we found.

By the way, at the end of each style we have helpfully provided ideas for possible names. H-Block has yet to settle on a theme, so name choices are pretty up-in-the-air. Kind of like picking out a name for your first-born. Any of you are welcome to add any ideas you may have.


As you well know, faithful reader, this would not be the style of beer we would choose. We have often bemoaned both fruity beers and wheat beers. But as always we tried to keep an open mind.

      COLOR: Pale yellow, wheat.
      POUR: Not a big head, but nicely carbonated.
      AROMA: Scent of fruit mixed with hay. Very spring-like.
      BODY: Light, thin.
      TASTE: Light and sweet, with very pronounced berry notes.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: For us, we'd leave it on the shelf. It would be interesting to see what someone who liked this style would have thought.
      COMMENTS: "Bland. Tastes like a berry wheat; Best on a hot summer day served very cold; It's a light wheat beer; For those who like berry wheats it would score very well."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: Barry White Wheat; Berry Patch Brew; 
H Block Summer Cooler.

H Block Bock

Bocks tend to be more malty than hoppy, they can have a rich flavor and complex notes. The BOTB Guys appreciate that.
      COLOR: Unfiltered amber to brown.
      POUR: Decent head with a fair amount of lacing
      AROMA: Nice mellow kind of maltiness you would expect from a bock.
      BODY: Medium
      TASTE: Tended toward the sweet end of the spectrum, with malty notes. It was sweet in a good way, however, and not like a fruit infused sweetness.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: Right in between the "I Could Drink This!" mark and "Can't Get Enough!" 
      COMMENTS: "Not a bad beer; Very drinkable; Nice; It's a good bock; I like it, it's good."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: H Block Bock is pretty good in and of itself (nice alliteration); Get Bock (ala The Beatles); Bock to the Future; Full Bock (thinking football, here - could be a whole line of bocks, from Quarter Bock to Half Bock to Full Bock - with the Full Bock name reserved for a double bock perhaps - just spitballin' here).

Red Ale

An appropriate beer for the day after St. Patrick's Day as red ales are generally associated with Irish ales. 

      COLOR: Unfiltered amber, and not quite as red as we expected.
      POUR: Decent head
      AROMA: Very faint aroma of malt.
      BODY: Thin to Medium
      TASTE: Initially balanced, but had a somewhat bitter finish. There were also notes of malt and nuts.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: Fell short of "I could drink this!"
      COMMENTS: "There is no big flavor here; It's smooth and malty; Pretty well balanced; Kind of like a Killian; A session beer; It's a pretty beer."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: Red Sun At Night; Scarlet O'Hara; Crimson Tide (continuing the Football theme).


An Oktoberfest in March is a rare thing indeed. But there it was and taste it we did.

      COLOR: Tended toward the golden side of amber.
      POUR: Less than a decent head, but nonetheless had a bit of a head with some lacing.
      AROMA: Fairly neutral - neither hoppy nor malty
      BODY: Medium
      TASTE: Primarily balanced, not overwhelmingly malty nor hoppy. There was a slight citrus-y hop note.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: Again, didn't quite make it to "I could drink this!" Very similar to most of the Oktoberfests we reviewed in the fall.
      COMMENTS: "Basically it tastes like an Oktoberfest is supposed to taste; I don't really care for it - the problem is it's brewed too 'middle of the road' for me; Not a strong beer - makes me think of a wheat beer; Another good session beer; Hit the expected Oktoberfest notes."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: Calm Before the Storm Oktoberfest; Harvest Home; Harvest Moon; Winter's Edge Oktoberfest; All Hallows Festivus, Kick-Off Autumn Brew).


No surprise here: this was our favorite of the bunch. Justin had wanted to send a Rye IPA as well, but it had not finished in time much to our disappointment. 

      COLOR: Nice buckwheat/honey color.
      POUR: Decent head with big bubbles, semi-lingering lace.
      AROMA: Definitely could smell the hops
      BODY: Medium
      TASTE: Somewhere between balanced and hoppy bitterness. There is a bitter finish to this beer with notes of citrus-y grapefruit.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: Can't Get Enough!
      COMMENTS: "Not a lingering hops taste, but a nice hops presence; Maybe the best beer he brews; The more of this I drink, the better I like it; I could drink this, actually; There is a fuller taste on the front of the beer than at the end."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: Blizzard of '66 IPA; Cold Front IPA; Lake Effect IPA; Ontario IPA; Nine Mile IPA; Atomic IPA; Nuclear IPA, Hale Mary IPA (what can I say, I like football.)

Oatmeal Stout

Our final H Block was a dessert beer of sorts, their oatmeal stout. One expects notes of malt, coffee, chocolate, toffee - a hearty dark beer.

      COLOR: Beautiful deep black and opaque
      POUR: Decent head with nice lacing
      AROMA: Caramel syrup/malt.
      BODY: Thick full.
      TASTE: Sweet, with notes of roasted malt and oatmeal.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: I could drink this!
      COMMENTS: "Holds to form - very recognizable; Tastes like an oatmeal stout; Pretty good stout; Not an overly sweet finish; A little watery in the middle where you expect a fuller flavor."
      SUGGESTED NAMES: H Block Breakfast Stout; Storm Warning Stout; St. Lawrence Stout; Fort Ontario Stout; Whiteout Stout, Linebacker Stout.

Many thanks to H-Block Brewery for providing us with these samples. We hope our critiques are helpful. Our advice to our loyal readers is the same as always - support local craft brewers. Every one of these brews is better than what you will find on the shelves from the mega-brewers.

A Little Unfinished Business...

When we reviewed Scottish Ales in January, our friends at Leinenkugel had none available at the time. However, their limited release Wee Heavy Scotch Ale - part of their Big Eddy Series - was available in March and they kindly sent us some. This was the first of the 2012 Big Eddy series. It was a big beer to kick off March's meeting, but we were thirsty and up for the task.

Leinenkugel's Big Eddy Wee Heavy Scottish Ale

      COLOR: Unfiltered brown to mahogany
      POUR: Scant tan head with some lacing
      AROMA: Very malty
      BODY: Full and thick. It filled the mouth
      TASTE: Quite sweet. It is brewed with eight malts and grains. Lots of malt was noted, with some caramel, and a hint of cherry or other dark fruit.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: "I could drink this!"
      COMMENTS: "This should be a winter beer; A good dessert beer; Definitely a good Scottish ale; Complex - hits a lot of the regions of the tongue."


Saranac's 4th Annual Prohibition Party - April 27th 6-9 PM. Tickets are $40 if purchased by April 20th ($45 after that). Half the price of the ticket is tax deductible as proceeds will benefit the St. Elizabeth Medical Center Foundation.
Admission includes:
-Saranac Beverages (worth the price of admission right there)
-Hors d'oeuvres
-a 1930's costume contest
-silent auction
-live entertainment: local musicians: Lawless, Strung Sideways, Crushing June, and Rocky Graziano

Up next: Double Bocks (or Doppelbocks)

The BOTB Guys

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