Thursday, March 25, 2010

ProPho: Irish Ayes

Don’t go green on St. Patrick’s Day
By JOSH SMITH March 10, 2010

Beer comes in a rainbow of different colors, but green is not one of them. Unless it's St. Patrick's Day, of course.

For craft beer drinkers, this is one of several inherent tensions with St. Patrick's Day, one of the biggest drinking days of the year. (Believe it or not, the single biggest drinking day comes the day before Thanksgiving, when all of those college students and extended family return home for the holidays.)

Generally, those who are all about the big drinking holidays and craft beer drinkers are at odds philosophically. Whereas many St. Patrick's Day revelers drink to get drunk, craft beer aficionados drink for the beer, the camaraderie, the experience. This seems a surmountable obstacle though, since we too can enjoy a good party with a sessionable craft beer now and then.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of highly drinkable beers to choose from coming out of Ireland. That number just grew a little bigger when STRANGFORD LOUGH BREWING started contract brewing out of the recently closed Buzzards Bay facility in Westport, Massachusetts. Their beers tend to be on the lighter side, with the LEGBITER ALE producing a nice, spicy hoppiness.

Now the Irish have contributed two major styles to craft beer, starting with Irish Red Ales. The style tends to be sweet and malty, with SMITHWICK'S, MURPHY'S IRISH RED BEER, and O'HARA'S IRISH RED as the most recognizable brands. The strong maltiness usually prevents me from drinking more than one red at a time, but a pint of Smithwick's is a perfectly reasonable option this St. Patrick's Day.

Of course, what Ireland is known for is its easy-drinking stouts — not a bad thing in this age of heavy and high-alcohol imperial stouts. Foremost is GUINNESS DRAUGHT, which is measured as the gold standard for many beer drinkers. While I have to disagree, Guinness knows what it does, and it does it very well: appearance and drinkability. That cascading nitrogen pour is a thing of beauty, perfectly framed with a billowy tan head. The nitro pour also imparts an unmistakable creaminess, making the beer silky smooth and easy to gulp down.

Ultimately, though, Guinness is too watered-down for my taste and the malts are kind of sour. Essentially, this is a light stout. If you're looking for flavor, try GUINNESS' EXTRA STOUT, with its bold coffee taste and astringent bitterness.

Guinness doesn't have a monopoly on Irish Dry Stouts, though. MURPHY'S and BEAMISH both put forward strikingly similar light stouts, albeit with slightly more roasted flavor than Guinness. Given my druthers between the Big Three, I pick Beamish for its note of chocolate malts. And O'HARA'S IRISH STOUT belongs in another class altogether, both for its world-class flavor and the fact it doesn't use a nitro pour like the other three.

Sacrilegious as it may be, I can think of several American brewers that do an even better job with the style. NORTH COAST brews their OLD #38 STOUT with a strong coffee taste and accompanying bitterness. AVERY'S OUT OF BOUNDS STOUT is almost equally well-brewed. Closer to home, Maine's SHIPYARD BLUE FIN STOUT has just as much flavor, with a balance that makes it very sessionable.

But let's close where we began, with that business of green beer. Though it may be fun and festive, dentists say those dyes can turn more than your beer green. The acidity present in beer softens the enamel in your teeth enough to make them especially vulnerable to penetration by these unnatural dyes. You've been warned.

Albeit mildly alarming, as a beer geek, my bigger concern is how adding food color tampers with what is an intentional creation by the brewer. In much the same way, I don't approve of bartenders floating blueberries in beer; one time I even saw a huge wedge of watermelon put on the glass!

Perhaps I'm being a little severe, but green beer is a definite pass for me this St. Patrick's Day. However, Smithwick's, Beamish, O'Hara's Irish Stout, and Shipyard's Blue Fin get the green light in my book.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ProPho: Mix-the-ultimate-six

72 ounces of beer bliss
By JOSH SMITH February 24, 2010

My entry into the world of craft beer came thanks to complete strangers. I had been placed in Portland, Oregon, as part of a volunteer program based on "simple living." And though there wasn't much of an entertainment budget, the "community" part of the program made up for it. Soon an endless stream of kind-hearted, former-volunteers were welcoming us to the neighborhood . . . six-packs of locally brewed beer in hand!

While it was the flavor and diversity of craft beer that originally drew me in, ultimately it was how this beer was consumed that kept me coming back. My newfound friends in Portland taught me from the start that craft beer is meant to be appreciated and shared with others. In this light, drinking craft beer managed to feel both counter-cultural and patriotic at the same time.

Five years and nearly 1000 different beers later, my enthusiasm for craft beer remains. My hope as a beer columnist is to share this joy with you, just as it was shared with me. So let's start with my ultimate mix-a-six pack, with the goal that you can make up one of your own at finer local liquor stores. Remember, though, I don't have an answer key here — drink what you like!

As a transplanted Mainer — and shameless homer — I must start with a beer close to my heart: ALLAGASH WHITE. Maine truly is "the way life should be," starting with a brewing scene that can go toe-to-toe with any other state. Allagash Brewing deserves a lot of the credit. The Belgian-style ales that Allagash specializes in are characteristically flavorful and easy-drinking, making their White a crowd favorite.

Where Allagash is one of the great technical brewers, Dogfish Head may be the most creative. When brewer Sam Calagione wanted to add hops continually through the brewing process for DOGFISH HEAD'S 90 MINUTE IPA, he jerry-rigged his old-school, vibrating football game to drop the hops into the brew kettle! As intended, this Imperial India Pale Ale is hoppy and sweet, without the biting bitterness of some other imperial beers.

I'm going out to Michigan next, but FOUNDERS BREAKFAST STOUT is relatively available on the East Coast. This is unquestionably my favorite label: a little kid, replete with bib, going to town on a bowl of oatmeal. Flaked oats help to give this beer an almost supernatural smoothness that is meant to be savored. I have literally spent two hours drinking a single 12-ounce bottle!

For two of my favorite styles of beer we can go back to New England. In my mind, New Hampshire's SMUTTYNOSE ROBUST PORTER stands out among other English Porters for its sharp bitter edge. While that may not sound too appealing, it actually balances out the roasted coffee malts. And balance is good. Although I love dark beers, I'm still an unabashed hop head. THOMAS HOOKER'S HOP MEADOW IPA out of Connecticut is a great example of what IPAs bring to the table: floral hop aroma, a flavorful, almost fruity bitterness, and smooth texture. I never pass this up on tap.

My last choice in this mix-a-six may surprise you, but I have to pick IPSWICH ORIGINAL ALE. This Massachusetts product has become my go-to session beer of late, combining drinkability with plenty of flavor.

You may find it odd that not a single international or West Coast beer made this list considering where this article started. I tried to keep these selections relatively close to home because while there are some amazing beers out there, there are also plenty of great brewers worth supporting in our own backyard. One of the best parts of this absurd hobby of mine is that by drinking local, you are doing something good by keeping money in the community and encouraging the local craft beer scene. Let's keep these special places around: mix-a-local-six.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Guy's Weekend, Part 2 of 2

Back in January, I posted an article about the Number 1 beer bar in the world (according to Ebenezer's Pub is a Belgian beer bar located in the backwoods of Maine, in the town of Lovell. And I can say, it was possibly the greatest beer experience of my life.

With three friends in tow, we made the drive (thanks to our Designated Driver Nate) and settled in for the next five hours. Below are the results and note the high marks.

Cantillon Gueze 100% Lambic
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
i had never had a beer from cantillon and was anxious to get started with this one. ebenezer's did a short pour on this one since it has such a strong taste. pours a translucent amber with a pretty sour nose. taste is closest to apple cider and very acidic. as dry as a white wine too. interesting, but probably ended up being my least favorite beer of the night.
Score: 7

Val-Dieu Grand Cru
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
planning for a session of drinking, i ordered what i thought would be a relatively light drinking beer. instead, i got a murky brown, 10.5% quad. i never would have guessed the abv though. all i could pick in the flavor was sweet molasses, and a note of coconut / vanilla. silky smoothness made this a pleasure to drink. the fact that the tap kicked 3/4 of the way through and this was on the house made it that much sweeter! thanks, guys!
Score: 10

Avec Les Bons Voeux
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
a saison from dupont. and just what you would expect: yeasty aroma and fruity taste. 9.5% doesn't prevent drinkability at all. nice if somewhat simple.
Score: 7

Duchesse De Bourgogne
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
a flanders red ale. has that sour cherry taste and is balanced by some candy sweetness. medium bodied. my friends weren't feeling it; too salty they thought. i'm going to have to agree to disagree on this one though -- i thought this was amazing.
Score: 10

Pannepot - Old Fisherman's Ale (2007 Version)
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
served quite cold, which was a little sad. dark fruit materializes as dates. burnt malt also present while hops are in mouthfeel more than flavor. nice texture.
Score: 9

Kasteel Tripel
Tap -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
has 11% of most tripel's, but fruity overtones dominate. a very good tripel that dan fell in love with.
Score: 9

De Proef Reserve Signature Ale (w/ Tomme Arthur)
750 ml -- Ebenezer's Pub, Lovell, ME
this will go down in history as my thousandth beer. i chose this beer since it was a collaboration between two legendary brewers: De Proef and Port Brewing. it being "a hybrid of American and Belgian brewing techniques" just seemed appropriate. brettanomyces flavor, biscuity malts, and healthy hopping make this a tasty brew. well-balanced too. a little steep at $25 for the bottle, but it was a special occasion, after all!
Score: 10

Beer number 1,000 ushers in a new era here at Josh's Beer Blog. First off, after writing the words malts and hops at least a thousand times, I am ready to cut back on my descriptions in ranking each beer. I will still keep scoring beers and adding them to my Complete Rankings, but will only do a full write-up on the most interesting beers.

More importantly, I have been offered a position to write a regular column about beer for The Providence Phoenix! What's Brewing will be printed every-other week in The Providence Phoenix and on their website. My first column debuted last weekend and can be found at: I will put up the whole article shortly. And you can look for a little more info on this epic trip to Ebenezer's on The Phoenix in the coming weeks...