Saturday, May 22, 2010

ProPho: Savor the flavor

How to make great beer even better
By JOSH SMITH May 5, 2010

Whether you only occasionally hoist a craft beer or carry a notepad to rate beer everywhere you go, we can all become better beer drinkers by following a few simple guidelines.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BEER, ESPECIALLY THE FOUR MAIN COMPONENTS OF APPEARANCE, AROMA, TASTE, AND MOUTHFEEL. You can tell a lot about a beer before it even touches your lips by observing its color, carbonation, foamy head, and lace. Trying to then put your finger on a beer’s aroma requires both creativity and practice. The payoff is successfully identifying the note of “buttered popcorn” or “children’s cough syrup” present in a smell — it’s a great feeling!

Now drink the beer! Look for sweetness, bitterness, and sourness in the taste, as well as those four staple ingredients of malts, hops, yeast, and water. This, of course, is the most important quality you’ll consider. And when drinking the beer, try to judge how it feels in your mouth. Is it thin or thick, smooth or sticky?

Beer is rated on these four components, as well as your overall impression of the beer. Here you account for what you think is most important; I look for the beer to be true to style, balanced and drinkable, and a decent value. I will hold off on the scoring system for another day before you too start taking notes while at the bar!

USE A GLASS, IDEALLY A PROPER ONE. If you are going to try any one of these suggestions, let it be this one. Using a glass makes good beer better, with all but one category that beer is rated on (mouthfeel) directly affected by pouring beer into a glass. To raise the bar: you shouldn’t just use any old glass. Proper glassware (whether it is mugs, tulips, pint glasses, snifters, or so on) is a lot of fun and adds greatly to the experience of drinking craft beer.

In Belgium, most beers have their own glass and some brewers go so far as to design the glass before the beer! You don’t have to be this obsessive; just go to Crate & Barrel or your local liquor store to pick up the proper glassware for your favorite style. You won’t regret it.

POUR YOUR BEER TO MAXIMUM EFFECT. To start you need one of those aforementioned glasses — and a clean one at that! Next, hold the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour into the center. About halfway through, return the glass to 90 degrees and continue pouring into the center. That’s it.

Now we aren’t following proper technique for the technique’s sake, but to produce an appropriate sized head for the beer. Roughly one-inch is ideal for releasing the aromatics of the beer and holding much of the beer’s flavor. And if you have to pour more vigorously throughout to get a one-inch head, so be it!

So, Scenario #1: Bartender serves your beer with a huge, overflowing head or, worse still, a rim pour with no head at all. What do you do? I hesitate to give this advice, but a bartender really should know how to properly pour a beer. Send it back; just try to do it nicely.

FINALLY, DON’T FREEZE YOUR BEER. All too often, bars will serve beer at subarctic temperatures, numbing the aroma and taste of any beer with even the slightest complexity. The basic rule here is simple: the higher the alcohol content, the warmer the beer should be served. Light beers should be served in the 40sºF and stronger beers in the 50sºF. I chill most dark beers for a matter of minutes, not hours.

Scenario #2: A prominent local restaurant and pub chain brings your imperial stout in a near icy state. This time, try not to freak out. Instead, warm the beer in a glass with your hands . . . and take it as an opportunity to savor your beer.

There may be growing pains at first for those of you who have become accustomed to the frosty temperatures found seemingly everywhere outside of England. Give it a try, though; there is definitely something we can learn from those Brits. Cheers!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Drinking for value

Research for my recent article on drinking on a budget for the Providence Phoenix required some price comparisons. Honestly, I don't usually pay enough attention to prices and only remember when they are outrageous. This was a pretty interesting exercise though and I plan to be more conscious of price in the future.

Most of these quotes came from a very reasonably-priced large-scale liquor store on Massachusett's South Shore. Value of course means that the quality of the beer is also factored in, alongside price. The article will be available in full on Wednesday at

Best Six-pack Value
Ipswich $8.49
Cape Anne Fisherman's Ale $8.99
Paper City $8.49
Long Trail $7.99
Saranac $7.99
Newport Storm $8.29

Best Twelve-pack Value
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale $14.99
Widmer Hefeweizen $14.99
Shipyard Export $14.99
Smuttynose $15.49
Brooklyn Lager $14.99
Opa opa $12.99
Newcastle $12.99
Victory $16.99 / mix-pack
Magic Hat $13.99

Best Bomber (22 oz) Value:
Stone IPA $4.99
Bear Republic $5.49
Lagunitas Hop Stoopid $5.49
Berkshire $4.49
Ballast Point Porter $5.25
Just Beer $2.99
McNeill's $4.29

Best European Beer Value:
Baltika #4 $1.99
Ayinger $ 3.49 / 16.9oz
Weihenstephan $2.99
Okocim #2.19

Best Regional Beer Value:
Yuengling $5.29 / 6
Pabst $4.49 / 6, $17.99 / 30
Gansett $4.99 / 6 16oz cans
Genesee $3.99 / 6, $11.99 / 30
Schlitz $6.39 / 6
Sam Adam's $16.99 / 18

Most Overpriced:
Rogue $6.49-9.99 / 22 oz
Hoppin' Frog $7.59-16.49 / 22 oz
Southern Tier $6.99-8.49 / 22 oz
Dogfish Head $10.99 / 6

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Quick hits

Baltika #4, Score: 6
dark pour, good flavor, easy drinking. good value.

Brooklyn Local 2, Score: 8
soft, flavorful malts. very well brewed.

Butternuts Porkslap Pale Ale, Score: 4
pretty bland -- even for beer in a can.

Cascade Sang Rouge, Score: 8
a sour, and a good one. 750 ml is kind of a lot to drink by yourself though... nice to see some of these oregon beers popping up all of a sudden.

Frosty Knuckle Ale, Score: 6
out of ispwich... surprising amount going on here: hops, yeast, and quite crisp.

Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Score: 6
got this at bleachers bar at fenway. pretty light though.

Goose Island Matilda, Score: 7
good but didn't blow my socks off.

Harpoon Belgian Pale Ale, Score: 5

He'Brew Jewbelation Bar Mitzvah (13), Score: 8
i will always give them extra points for such a brilliant name.

High & Mighty Two-Headed Beast, Score: 4
thought i would give these guys another chance, but just another slickly marketed beer afterall.

Hitachino Nest White Ale, Score: 4
a severe disappointment: medicinal aftertaste that i couldn't get into.

Just Beer Moby D, Score: 5
the successors to buzzards brewing. this mild is one of several unexciting styles now hitting the shelves. cheap to start though...

Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Score: 7
one of the best values you will find for a bomber at $5.49.

McSorley's Irish Black Lager, Score: 4
i added some of this to a black bean dip. definitely a beer you don't feel bad cooking with.

Okocim Beer, Score: 3
watery, fairly sweet macrolager. i hear their porter is much better and the same price...

Pretty Things February 27th, 1832 Mild Ale, Score: 7
a historic recreation, which is fun. nice to drink for 10.5%

Stone Smoked Porter, Score: 8
especially enjoyable alongside barbeque.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

ProPho: Eco-friendly

The second coming of organic beer
By JOSH SMITH April 21, 2010

Once upon a time, before the heyday of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all beer was organic. And now organic is back for good.

A case can be made that organic beer should not only be better for our planet, but better tasting. After all, superior ingredients make superior beer. Besides, a brewer that goes to the trouble of finding and using quality ingredients is obviously very intent on creating good beer.

This theory, however, hasn’t always been supported by the facts in these early days of organic beers’ second coming. And last year’s closing of Magic Hat’s Orlio line proved craft beer drinkers aren’t willing to waste time and money on poor quality organic beers.

Nevertheless, in the past few years organic beers have become much more widely available. Craft brewers tend to be a progressive lot but, more importantly, that word “organic” on the label is one more selling point in the uber-competitive craft beer marketplace. So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that some games are being played with the O-word.

In 2002, some of the industry’s larger brewers lobbied the government to consider beer organic even if non-organic hops were used. Consequently, some inorganic chemicals still make their way into organic beer — as long as 95 percent of the total ingredients are organic. Such is life, I suppose. While a handful of 100 percent organic beers are starting to pop up, today let’s explore seven brewers that make beer which meets the official organic designation and is available on the East Coast.

German brewer PINKUS-MULLER was the first to sell an organic certified beer in 1980. The UR PILS is still around today, grainier than most pilsners and very crisp. NEUMARKTER LAMMSBRAU ORGANIC PILSNER is another solid light German lager with heaps of pale pilsner malts. In the UK, the iconic SAMUEL SMITH offers several natural beers ranging from the well-balanced ORGANICALLY PRODUCED ALE to the tasty dessert beer, ORGANIC RASPBERRY FRUIT BEER.

However, it isn’t Europe but the West Coast that lays claim to the title of home for organic beer. California’s chocolaty EEL RIVER’S ORGANIC PORTER proves that organic beers can be more than light session beers. Even better is NORTH COAST’s flavorful OLD PLOWSHARE STOUT, which gives me hope that the quality of organic beers as a whole will continue to improve as more elite brewers such as North Coast join the fray.

And while many of their beers are not yet available on this coast, I must note that the Oregon beer scene has essentially gone organic; most every elite brewer now boasts an organic beer in its repertoire. Newcomer Hopworks Urban Brewery is poised to take the genre to the next level with an all-organic lineup, sustainable brewery, and some of the highest scores I’ve ever given to a single brewer. So for any of you beer distributors reading: We want Hopworks!

Sadly, Rhode Island and Massachusetts haven’t quite caught organic fever yet. I doubt that New England brewers hate Mother Earth so much as organic ingredients aren’t readily available. Otter Creek out of Vermont has impressively managed to put out a dozen organic beers with their WOLAVER’S line. The IPA and OATMEAL STOUT, in particular, get my seal of approval. Maine’s beer portfolio includes an all-organic brewer of its own: PEAK ORGANIC BREWING COMPANY. Both the NUT BROWN ALE and IPA are tried-and-true brews, but it is their ESPRESSO AMBER ALE that captures my imagination. I love the added depth the coffee lends to this typically one-dimensional style.

In the spirit of Earth Day, though, I have to raise the question: is being organic enough? Is an organic beer really good for the planet if it is then shipped a few thousand miles? I doubt it. For that reason, I can’t in good conscience endorse Samuel Smith’s organic beers (but I’d put moral concerns aside for a drop of some of those natural Oregon brews). While organic is good, you can also go green this year by supporting your local craft brewer.