Sunday, August 29, 2010

ProPho: The Beers of Summer

Mowing the lawn? Mow a few of these down
By JOSH SMITH July 28, 2010

In the country that gave birth to supersizing and the stretch Hummer, bigger is often confused with better. The world of American craft beer is no exception.

Jim Koch of Samuel Adams is proud to take credit for launching the era of extreme beer in 1994 with his 17.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) Triple Bock. That record as the strongest beer ever brewed has been broken repeatedly, along with other boundaries like the number of IBUs (International Bitterness Units) that hop monsters can top out at. While rarely to my own taste, extreme beer shouldn't be dismissed merely as a passing fad. Without extreme brewing, I doubt craft beer would contain such a wide variety of ingredients (like seaweed), techniques (aging in bourbon barrels), or styles (such as the newly-emerging black IPA).

That said, I think many craft brewers are ready to come back down to earth. Let's face it, beers with a blinding bitterness (think BrewDog's Nanny State and its 225 IBUs) are only going to scare off potential converts to craft beer. Even less extreme, malty standards like Bocks and Browns tend to turn off macro-drinkers as too filling. Sometimes you do need a lighter, more drinkable beer; perhaps for that upcoming barbecue or for when you're out mowing the lawn this summer.

What I refer to as a lawn mower beer is called a session beer in craft beer circles. Session beers contain no more than 5% alcohol, a critical consideration since obviously too many beers in a row with high ABV will result in intoxication (not the end goal of craft beer drinking, mind you). Almost as importantly, a session beer must be balanced; too many IBUs or too heavy a malt profile will overwhelm a drinker's palate. With these guidelines in mind, here are my favorite session beers for the dog days of summer.

Pale Ales are a great place to start for their balance and flavor. SMUTTYNOSE SHOALS PALE ALE is one of my all-time favorites for its bitterness reminiscent of a traditional English Bitter you could drink by the mug-full. BOULDER HAZED & INFUSED is certainly infused with a lot of hops, but is still drinkable pale ale. If you aren't a self-avowed hop-head like me, STOUDT'S AMERICAN PALE ALE is equally well-crafted but a lighter and better-balanced beer.

Less common but equally well-suited to summer drinking is the Blonde Ale style. SIXPOINT SWEET ACTION out of New York is my favorite, with a distinct fruity flavor that conjures up the sublime sensation of sucking on a giant peach. Two standard-bearers from Maine, SHIPYARD EXPORT ALE and GRITTY McDUFF's VACATIONLAND SUMMER ALE, offer a choice between light bitterness and a sweeter, malty profile, respectively. In Massachusetts, IPSWICH SUMMER ALE is far more flavorful than most other summer seasonals, and MAYFLOWER GOLDEN ALE pairs well with most any meal.

A few other notable session brews have a little farther to travel to get to Rhode Island. Oregon's WIDMER HEFEWEIZEN bears little resemblance to a traditional German Hefeweizen, but has a pleasingly light body and citrus flavor. The import HOEGAARDEN ORIGINAL WHITE ALE is another beer with remarkable thirst-quenching abilities and is a common sight on tap. And one of the oldest beers in America, San Francisco's ANCHOR STEAM BEER, is just as widely available and has a very unique earthiness to it.

It's worth noting that personal favorites, THETAP LEATHERLIPS IPA and SAMUEL SMITH'S OATMEAL STOUT, both qualify as session beers by weighing in at an even 5% ABV. However, given the robustness of the hops and chocolaty malts, respectively, I have never had more than two of either in a sitting. And while technically not session beers, I have to mention that THOMAS HOOKER BLONDE ALE (5.1% ABV), VICTORY PRIMA PILS (5.3% ABV), and IPSWICH ORIGINAL ALE (5.4% ABV) are some of my favorite summertime staples. Just beware that when multiplied a few times, those measly tenths of a percentage point can make a mighty big difference. So good luck in finding your own favorite session beer; once you do, mowing the lawn will never feel like a chore again!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Armsby Abbey

Armsby Abbey is a much recommended restaurant / craft beer establishment in Worcester. This past Saturday saw myself and a few friends finally make the trip out. I am glad we did.

This is not a big place by any mean, with maybe a dozen tables inside and a few out. The bar itself is pretty classy with plenty of glassware on display. The bottle list is comprehensive, and the tap list, while hard to see from some booths, is completely up-to-date. Being able to order sampler trays is a huge plus, and their menu is filled with interesting local options. (The pulled pork wasn't my favorite but their cheese platters were excellent.) I thought the service was quite good, starting with water on the table and his ability to keep straight some complicated orders. Having a TV but refusing to put on the Sox-Yankees game was a little pretentious, but I understand they are trying to create a certain environment here. Overall, very high marks.

Lagunitas A Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale, 9 is an American Pale Wheat that registers at a shocking 7.3%. Hoppy and smooth, I was blown away by this beer. De Ranke XX Bitter, 7 is a beer I have had but never rated. The grassy bitterness is good, but it is far mustier than I remembered. Victory Helios, 5 was a sufficiently dumbed down saison, with little of the funkiness you would hope for. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, 8 is a beer that I have been searching for for some time now. It is usually hard to match those high expectations, and this was no exception. The sweetness was a bit too much for me, but very well put together overall. (I prefered the Smuttynose Big A IPA that followed with all of its grapefruit hops. I had to try North Coast's Old Rasputin on tap too. It was as fantastically smooth and flavorful as you would hope.)

Mikkheler Texas Ranger, 7 these guys have figured out how to name beers. They started with Beer Geek Breakfast and now this is what they come up with for their Chipotle Porter. Nice. Very roasty with the pepper working in the background and leading to a slightly spicy mouthfeel. Far more delicate and well placed than the chipotle peppers I used in my own homebrew... The Bruery Mischief, 7 poured surprisingly light colored for a beer with 8.5% abv. Surprisingly dull too though. De La Senna Taras Boulba, 5 was alright but had a funny note of antisceptic at the end. De Dolle Bos Keun, 9 was the beer I chose from the Abbey's extensive bottle menu, mostly for its semi-reasonable price of $10. Great aroma and complexity in this Belgian Strong Pale Ale, with a very well hidden 10%. Nice way to end a very enjoyable afternoon of drinking.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Rest of PDX

While the Oregon Brewers Festival was the highlight, we tried a few other beers while in Portland. Starting with a trip to two of my very favorite brewers: Deschutes and Hopworks.

Deschutes Sagebrush Classic Pils, 8 is a very clean, crisp German pils. Deschutes The Greens IPA, 7 has a nice piney bitterness without the harsh aftertaste. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA, 9 delivers citrus, as advertised. Very, very good. Deschutes Hop in the Dark Cascadian Dark Ale, 10 is a great example of this new Black IPA style. 70 IBU, 7% abv. Citrus hops dominate with some roasted coffee on the side. While the two contrasting flaors blend nicely, I wouldn't drink more than one in a sitting. I may have to brew one of these.

Hopworks What the Helles, 5 was a "light summer lager" without any umph. Hopworks Velvet Underground, 7 has some nice sweet, piney hops. Hopworks Noggin Floggin, 6 was supposed to be an "imperial black ESB." Dark as night and at 8.7% abv this seemed closer to a Russian Imperial Stout to me. Smooth, but you really taste the alcohol. It is worth noting that the other beers from the sampler were 8's, 9's, and 10's.

Full Sail Hop Pursuit, 7 was on cask. The grassiness reminded me more of an ESB than an IPA. Quite gulpable. Full Sail Saison A Pleine Voile, 4 is a saison, but too watery with a funny aftertaste. Pass. Lucky Lab Bavarian Crystal Hefeweizen, 6 was surprisingly clear for a hef. Not badly made with lots of yeast and cloves on the nose and banana's on the taste. Not sure I would drink a whole pint of this though. Lucky Lab Super Dog IPA, 6 heavy citrus hops with a raw bite at the finish. Not great. Caldera Pils, 7 was well made and made for a nice time shopping for bottles at Belmont Station.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

OBF: Another perspective

By Kelly Smith

Being married to a craft beer connoisseur, such as Josh, has its share of drawbacks. Every available inch of our garage is lined with hundreds of different craft beer bottles. Our house is known as Brewery North. The home office has been transformed into a beer storage facility. The aroma of wort frequently fills our home. However, it also has its perks. The Oregon Brewers Festival was certainly one of those perks! I was so inspired by this fine collection brewers with quality beers that I have decided to share my thoughts with you.

10 Barrel Brewing Company, ISA: 7
Citrusy aroma, moderate hop bitterness, surprisingly decent flavor, 6.7% ABV

21st Amendment Brewery, Hell or High Watermelon Wheat: 2
This is a watermelon jolly rancher in a bottle. I love wheat beer. I love fruit beer. But this is a poor excuse for a beer.

Boulder Beer Co, Kinda Blue: 2
Ehhh. The best quality of this beer was that it was cold. (Too cold for most craft beer drinkers, but that’s how I like it!) Little blueberry flavor, light and easy to drink but with no taste, why bother?

Boulevard Brewing Compan, Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale: 7
There is a lot going on here. Nice citrusy hopped aroma, medium body, sharp yeast

Boundary Bay Brewery, German Tradition Double Dry Hopped Pale Ale: 7
Nice and hoppy with no sharp aftertaste. Not my favorite style, but I can still appreciate a well crafted brew.

Buckbean Brewing Company, Original Orange Blossom Ale: 8
With the aroma of a frozen ice pop, this is an inviting, fun summer beer. This medium bodied pale has a unique citrus flavor and is easy to drink.

Caldera Brewing Company, Hibiscus Ginger Beer: 7
Very pleasant floral aroma, pleasantly mild flavors with a floral taste, medium body, lightly hopped, unique beer, fairly easy drinking

Cascade Brewing, Summer Gose: 9
I don’t particularly care for anything sour, so the fact that I found this beer to be fabulous was a shock! This lightly sour beer is unique and refreshing. Surprisingly, with a ABV of 4%, it is also sessionable.

Collaborator, Sunstone Pilsner: 4
Slightly hoppy for a pilsner, stale in taste

Fort George Brewery and Public House, Vortex IPA: 5
Overly hopped northwest style IPA, fairly good balance and medium body. Not my favorite style, but I appreciate the ambition.

Great Northern Brewing Company, Wheatfish: 6
I love wheat beers but it is hard to find a fabulous one. This one is no exception. Low in bitterness and very drinkable but not very flavorful either.

MacTarnahan’s Brewing Company, Lip Stinger Farmhouse Ale: 4
Peppercorns do not, I repeat, do not belong in beer! They are very present in the aroma and distinctive in the taste. Medium body, a touch lemony.

Marin Brewing Company, Bluebeery Ale: 8
Yum! My kind of beer! Sweet (not syrupy) blueberry flavor, light, balanced, very drinkable

Maui Brewing Company, CoCoNut Porter: 4
Porter is not my favorite style. Perhaps this is a well crafted beer, but it is lost on me. Unique light coconut flavor at the end.

Natian Brewery, Destination: 5
The combination of the dark roasts and sweet bee sugar gives this beer a malty, sweet balance. A bit too malty for easy drinking, but interesting to try.

New Belgium Brewing Company, Ranger IPA: 8
Northwest hops through and though- yum!! From first taste to aftertaste, it is crisp and clean.

Pelican Pub and Brewery, Kiwanda Cream Ale: 4
Floral, citrusy aroma, creamy and smooth mouth feel, bit of stale lemon in the aftertaste- doesn’t linger too long but certainly doesn’t increase enjoyment.

Ram Restaurant and Brewery, Barefoot Wit: 8
Clean and crisp aroma, slightly citrus flavor, refreshing and easy drinking. A solid wit, although I would have enjoyed a bit more flavor.

Surly Brewing, Bitter Brewer: 4
Very bitter beer, which flavor lingers. If you like IPAs, this may make a good camping beer.

The Bruery, 7 Grain Saison: 6
Not nearly as complex as expected from this well regarded brewery with a solid line up. Moderately hopped, light body, creamy mouth feel

Upright Brewing Company, Reggae Junkie Gruit: 8
Heather tips make this beer floral in fragrance and taste. Slightly sweet, low malts. If you are up for a unique, easy drinking beer, then give it a try!