Thursday, April 28, 2011

ProPho: Merry olde beer

A new look at some English styles
By JOSH SMITH April 13, 2011

In the increasingly specialized craft beer marketplace, fresh and edgy tends to trump tradition. The headlines are dominated by new brewers, unusual methods, and unique ingredients (I saw a beer made using hemp seeds last week!). So it shouldn't be a surprise that we don't hear much from England's beer scene these days.

This is a shame. Like many from Maine, I gained an appreciation for these beers from local brewers, such as Shipyard, Geary's, and Gritty McDuff's, that make English-style ales. But there's much worth emulating. English pubs are famed for selling beer at proper serving temperature — just below room temperature, closest to that of a cellar. England is also the birthplace of my two favorite beer styles, IPA and Porter, and the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA seeks to protect traditional cask-conditioned ales and, with more than 100,000 members, has been called the most successful consumer group in Europe. So yeah, the Brits take their beer pretty seriously.

The best place to start when talking about English beers is with a style you can drink by the frothy mug full: English Pale Ales. Indeed, some of these (BASS PALE ALE, BODDINGTONS PUB ALE) have been very successful in the US. I prefer SAMUEL SMITH'S OLD BREWERY PALE ALE for its deft incorporation of the two most esteemed English hops: Fuggle and Golding. However, I still have to give the nod to their supremely balanced ORGANICALLY PRODUCED ALE, one of the finest organic beers on planet Earth.

But the list of noteworthy English Pales rolls on. MARSTON'S WYCHWOOD FIDDLER'S ELBOW features citric hops and crisp wheat (with perhaps an off-note mixed in at the end), while GREENE KING'S OLD SPECKLED HEN is an unusual Pale Ale for its dark pour and enough toasted malts to give it a hefty medium body. And while I was tempted to dismiss BLACK SHEEP'S MONTY PYTHON'S HOLY GRAIL ALE as another gimmicky beer, it actually has a nice herbal bitterness that is balanced by its bready malt profile.

England knows how to do bitterness too. I've always loved the sessionability of English Bitters and find them to be one of the most under-brewed styles. CONISTON'S BLUEBIRD BITTER is the best known example, with a biscuity malt backbone and fruity citrus overtones. MEANTIME'S INDIA PALE ALE ups the ante with lots of fresh hops on the nose, a silky smooth mouthfeel, and a hint of the 7.5% ABV. That said, there is no mistaking it for an American IPA: bitterness is relegated to the background and the hops mainly just play on your tongue.

English Porters started as a blend of several styles, taking their name from London's street and river porters with whom the style was so popular. SAMUEL SMITH'S THE FAMOUS TADDY PORTER is a good example for its big flavor of roasted malts and dry chocolate. FULLER'S LONDON PORTER also has an unmistakable chocolate aroma and delightfully creamy texture. But my favorite might be MEANTIME'S LONDON PORTER, with a multifaceted flavor ranging from bitter to smoky.

FULLER'S 1845 is a dark beer with some kick to it at 6.3% ABV. An English Strong Ale, 1845 is extremely well-constructed with grainy malts, fruity hops, musty yeast, and buttery diacetyl all playing nice together. GREENE KING'S OLDE SUFFOLK ENGLISH ALE is a blend of an aged Strong Ale and fresh Pale Ale, making it a rather unique Old Ale. Caramel and toffee malts are on display here, with some various dark fruit flavors peeking through.

England has contributed much to the stout style as well. ST. PETER'S CREAM STOUT is heavier than most sweet stouts, with a syrupy texture and healthy dose of molasses. It's hard for any beer to measure up to YOUNG'S DOUBLE CHOCOLATE STOUT, with its velvety texture and enough chocolate to conjure up images of Baileys Irish Cream. Both Young's and Samuel Smith also brew an excellent OATMEAL STOUT, with unparalleled flavor and complexity. And don't forget the formidable SAMUEL SMITH IMPERIAL STOUT! Clearly, there are more than enough reasons to give some of these old styles a try once again.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Philadelphia Review

In lieu of Christmas gifts, my wife and I usually take a trip together each spring. Last year we spent a few days in Burlington, VT. This year: Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. What do they have in common? Craft beer.

Now, Philadelphia still has a mixed reputation despite making tremendous strides over the past decade. We spent time walking up-and-coming neighborhoods, taking in some history, imitating Rocky, eating cheesesteaks, and, of course, drinking craft beer.

Philly's beer scene surprised me, both for its depth and quality. Honestly, after Portland, Oregon, this is probably the best beer scene I have experienced (Denver, San Diego, and Asheville, NC remain on my to-do list...) I definitely recommend visiting and would like to make it back myself during the famous Philly Beer Week. Here are the places we got a chance to visit, starting with the stops you cannot miss.

Monk's Cafe (Center City)
This world famous bar is deserving of its billing. We were lucky to snag seats at the very cool, darkly-lit back bar. Kelly was excited for Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Red Ale (9), which may be my favorite sour beer. Firestone Walker Reserve (7) was a nice beer, but slightly dulled after being served to cold. And, of course, I couldn't pass up the freshly tapped Russian River Pliny the Elder (10), one of the my favorite beers of all-time. In retrospect, I wish I had stuck around for the highly-billed mussels. A beer destination.

Kraftwork (Fishtown)
Very hip industrial vibe going on, with lots of metal and wood inside. Clearly they go through a lot of kegs here, with a list of beers on deck for every one of the 25 tap lines. Our sampler consisted of: Pennsylvania Brewing Fleur de Lehigh (7), Sly Fox Seamus on cask (5), Cigar City Maduro (8), and Cantillon St. Lamvinus (6).

Eulogy Belgian Tavern (Old City)
Sister bar of Monk's, and it shows. Well put-together menu and very cool decor. The upstairs bar was packed but we were lucky to snag a table near the bar downstairs. Kelly went for the tasty sour Rodenbach Grand Cru (8) while I started with the yeasty Eulogy Busty Blonde (8). Cigar City's Jai Alai (9) was an IPA with a very pleasant herbal bitterness. This is a great Belgian bar, about which I would have a lot more great things to say if I hadn't already visited the real thing at Monk's...

Tria (Center City)
This is a trendy restaurant focused on upscale cheeses and the like. One of two locations in the city. Dim, fashionable lighting and pretty crowded, especially around the bar. The food was fantastic, especially the La Tur whipped goat, sheep, and cow cheese from Italy. The beer list was very good, but one major complaint was that there was no way to distinguish between what was available on tap and in a bottle. A cardinal sin. I tried my first beer from Great Lakes Brewing, the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (9). Coarse, heavy roast that was both lively and smooth. Excellent. Kelly enjoyed Dogfish Head's Namaste (7). Better still was Allagash's Odyssey (10) a fascinatingly complex Wild Ale. A no doubter perfect beer and probably one of the ten best beers I have ever tasted. Find this beer.

Triumph Brewing (Old City)
My favorite of the two brewpubs we visited in the city. Big, open, classy place with a lot of metal and wood. We went to the bar upstairs and split a monstrous sampler. In order of preference, we had the well-balanced Belgian Double Rye Pale Ale (9), aromatic Gold IPA (8), flavorful Belgian Dubbel (8), surprisingly hoppy Amber Ale (7), heavily spiced Belgian Golden (6), slick Munich Dunkel (6), slightly watery Hefe-Weizen (6), and grainy Kinder Pilsner (5).

Standard Tap (Northern Liberties)
This is one of the few bars I have seen with with twenty plus taps, all of them from with 90 miles. An outstanding achievement. We had the gulpable, hand-pumped Sly Fox Chester County Bitter (8) and the-awesomely-named-but-less-than-delicate Pennsylvania Brewing Walt Wit (5). It's worth noting that they get great scores for their food but I didn't see anything too appealing on the menu...

Khyber Pass Pub (Old City)
As the last bar of a long weekend of drinking my notes here are sketchy at best. Dark, divey sort of ambiance with quirky movies showing above the bar. The tap list was inspired and kept up-to-date with chalkboards above the bar. Made for a great closer on a Eulogy, Triumph, mini-pub crawl.

Brauhaus Schmitz (South Street)
A traditional-looking German beer bar smack in the middle of touristy South Street. The array of glassware alone is worth a trip. I went for the Spectrum flight: Gaffel Kolsch (5), Jever Pilsener (4), Hofbrau Maibock (7), Spaten Oktoberfest (4), and Warsteiner Premium Dunkel (5). Kelly's Konig Ludwig Weisse (7) was a good, heavily cloved Hef.

The Abbaye (Northern Liberties)
Another Belgian-leaning bar, albeit with a smallish bottle list. The Chimay-marinated cheesesteak topped with Gruyere cheese and served with Belgian fries was actually one of my best meals of the trip. Yards ESA (6) was a great first beer of the weekend, served by handpump at cellar temp. New Holland Kolsch (7) was nice and sessionable.

City Tavern (Old City)
Was a tourist trap, as you would expect, with overpriced beer and food. That said, how many times do you get a chance to hoist the same brew that our founding fathers drank hundreds of years ago. The old furniture and rooms were cool, and historically-based beers brewed by Yards Brewing were very interesting. In order of preference, we sampled the George Washington's Tavern Porter (7), Thomas Jefferson's 1774 Tavern Ale (5), Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Ale (5), and Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce (5). The sort of place every beer lover should go, once.

Nodding Head Brewery (Center City)
The second of the two breweries we got to check out while in Philly. Very crowded by the time we arrived, so hung out in front of a massive display of bobble-heads. We tried the Saison (6) and IPA (4), neither of which were anything to write home about. Shouldn't be a priority unless you have extra time.

Jose Pistolas (Center City)
A well-regarded Mexican restaurant that didn't quite do it for me. The food was fine, but the beer list short and the crowd a little too frat-like. Bell's Pale Ale (6) was good. The fact this was the last bar on my list is amazing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

ProPho: Health 'n' hops

Is beer good for you?
By JOSH SMITH March 29, 2011

Thomas Jefferson once asserted that beer, when drank in moderation, "promotes health." Trappist monks in Belgium and the Netherlands referred to it as "liquid bread." And opponents of the Temperance Movement used to ask: "Why should mother go without her nourishing glass of ale or stout on washing day?" It turns out all of these people may have been right.

All too often, beer is associated with adverse health effects — an assumption not without merit. Abuse of any kind of alcohol can lead to addiction, liver disease, or an alcohol-related accident. But what about for those craft beer drinkers who consume in moderation — say, a beer or two at a time? Could beer actually be healthy?

Many people already accept the assertion that a glass of wine per day can be good for you. Red wine has been credited by some for the "French Paradox," the fact the French suffer a relatively low rate of heart disease despite a diet high in saturated fat. Indeed, numerous studies have indicated wine to be heart-healthy, among other possible benefits. Increasingly, though, studies are revealing superior health benefits for people who drink beer over wine.

Let's start with the four main ingredients in beer: grains, hops, yeast, and water. Malted barley — and other malted cereal grains like wheat and rye — provide much of your daily dose of fiber. Yeast is an excellent source of protein, minerals, and Vitamin B. Water, of course, contains no calories or fat, and more than a dozen health-supportive minerals. And hops are a flower! How bad could this stuff possibly be?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, when combined these natural ingredients bring with them: carbohydrates, protein, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, sodium, niacin, Vitamin B, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, zinc, thiamin, and polyphenol antioxidants. All of these nutrients provide health benefits, such as improved bone density. Unfiltered craft beers are even better since the yeast and its many nutrients are not removed.

The alcohol present in beer can raise good cholesterol, line blood vessels to reduce clotting, protect against diabetes, and reduce the risk of a heart attack by as much as 35 percent. The fact that alcohol can decrease the risk of heart disease makes it particularly beneficial to middle-aged drinkers who are overweight or have high blood pressure. In other words, a beer or two a day could help your heart and let you live longer.

However, nearly all health risks posed by drinking beer can also be traced back to alcohol (meaning beers with low or no alcohol provide many of the same benefits and few of the risks.) Heavy consumption is especially worrisome since too much alcohol in a person's system puts them at increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, obesity, osteoporosis, pancreatic diseases, and stroke. Sadly, while one beer may be good, more probably isn't better.

Let's consider another supposed side effect of drinking beer: the dreaded beer belly. Many so-called beer experts swear beer guts are a myth. The argument goes that a beer belly is caused by calories of any kind, not necessarily just beer. Now consider that alcohol makes you hungry and that you're often snacking on fried pub grub while drinking, and there's the source of your problem.

It's a convincing argument, but remember we are dealing with liquid calories. At an average of 153 calories for each 12-ounce beer, these add up quickly, often quicker than your stomach can tell your brain that it's full. I was always one of those annoying people who couldn't put on weight . . . until I started drinking craft beer. As with most things, the truth about beer bellies probably lies somewhere in between.

Most people understand beer is not medicine. No doctor is going to recommend that abstainers take up drinking for the health benefits. But along with a balanced diet and exercise, drinking beer regularly in moderate amounts is definitely not in opposition to a healthy lifestyle. So next time you crack open a hearty stout after a long day, don't feel guilty — enjoy!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

To every season, turn, turn, turn

With shelves growing increasingly crowded with every passing year, it has become especially difficult to keep up with the constant deluge of new seasonal beers. Not a bad problem to have mind you. Here are a few that I have run across lately: 21st Amendment Fireside Chat, Score: 4 a winter warmer. far too much spice for my taste. as ambitious a beer as i have come across in a can though. Cigar City Winter Warmer, Score: 7 i've been searching for something from these guys for a long time. gotta say though, part of me thinks that this was complex for complexities sake. good overall, though. Dark Horse Perkulator Coffee Dopplebock, Score: 6 a fall beer. surprisingly light in color and body. i'd bet money they cold-pressed this coffee -- it tasted just like a homebrew i made by the same process. interesting. Mayflower Winter Oatmeal Stout, Score: 8 a winter, go figure. nice enough flavor, but pretty thin for an oatmeal stout. Narragansett Porter, Score:5 i was surprised to see that narragansett only makes this available in the winter. had far more roasted goodness than expected. pretty good. Pretty Things Fluffy White Rabbits Hoppy Tripel, Score: 8 nice looking and nice tasting beer. more delicate than most tripel's you will come across. Samuel Adams Revolutionary Rye Ale, Score: 3 another dumbed down take on a good style. the name made me laugh out loud too. Southampton Pumpkin Ale, Score: 7 your standard pumpkin. they were clearly going for a pumpkin pie-like flavor. Watch City Spearmint Ale, Score: 3 tough to drink. my fault for ordering a beer with spearmint in the first place though. (P.S. I tried to format this properly several times but apparently Blogger has given up trying to run a proper website...)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Cascades Come East

Diving into the "Black IPA's"
By JOSH SMITH March 16, 2011

According to the latest Beer Style Guidelines released by the Brewers Associations, there are 73 styles of ales and 64 lagers in existence. That's 137 different styles of beer! Despite this plethora of options, the world's newest style of beer has created quite a stir.

While the style has been well-received by the craft beer community, there has been considerable controversy surrounding what to call this unique style. If you ask me (or more importantly the Pacific Northwest brewers who popularized the style), it is called Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA). Others prefer the more universal Black IPA (ignoring the fact that you can't really have a black pale ale . . .). And the official name designated by the Brewers Association is American-style Black Ale. At the very least I think everyone can agree that saying, "Hey, can I have an American-style Black Ale?" is a rather awkward drink order.

Even the style's origins are contentious. The term Cascadian Dark Ale was coined by Oregon home brewers Abram Goldman-Armstrong and Bill Wood. However, brewers from Oregon to Colorado to Vermont have claimed to be the first to brew the style. Though others have brewed black, IPA-like beers before, Goldman-Armstrong and Wood have the strongest claim of ownership by bringing together experts to define the style in 2010.

What is agreed is that CDAs are characterized by aromatic, citrusy hops like Cascade, Amarillo, Centennial, Chinook, and Simcoe. The malts used should be dark and roasty, but not heavy or burnt as in a stout. This unique pairing of malts and hops can result in some unusual flavors like rosemary, mint, or ginger, as well as healthy levels of bitterness and alcohol. Medium-bodied and easy to drink, CDAs are the perfect beer to challenge that friend who "doesn't drink dark beers."

Unfortunately, some of the style's best examples are out of our reach in the Pacific Northwest. DESCHUTES HOP IN THE DARK CASCADIAN DARK ALE is my favorite for the way the citrus hops and roasted coffee harmonize rather than contrast. The good news is that now plenty of other top-notch CDAs can be found in this area. In no particular order, here are eight Cascadian Dark Ales worth looking for:

• STONE'S SUBLIMELY SELF-RIGHTEOUS ALE started as Special Release until a cult-like following demanded it be brewed year-round. One of the hoppiest CDAs I have encountered, it is exactly what you would expect from this extreme San Diego brewer.

• SIERRA NEVADA'S BLACKBIRD BLACK IPA has a considerably lower profile for some reason — I've only seen it on tap once. Not exactly sessionable at 8.7% ABV, it's still considerably smoother than its rivals.

• And you know CDAs are here to stay when they start showing up in a can! 21ST AMENDMENT'S BACK IN BLACK is a little thin for my taste, but would still be an enjoyable companion for that springtime picnic.

• Out east, VICTORY'S YAKIMA GLORY is a winter seasonal that deftly meshes the opposing flavors together. The body is almost creamy, making it easy to drink a couple in a sitting.

• Some of the smaller breweries from Massachusetts have also taken a swing at the style. CLOWN SHOES HOPPY FEET 1.5 DOUBLE BLACK IPA is enjoyable as long as you don't mind some aggressive hoppiness.

• BLUE HILLS' BLACK HOPS, on the other hand, falls on the maltier side of the spectrum. Still an easy drinker though.

• ELEMENT BREWING, a nanobrewery out of western Massachusetts, interestingly refers to their CDA as a cross between a Schwarzbier and IPA. DARK ELEMENT is dark and complex, with both sweetness and bitterness emerging throughout. Best to take your time with this one; you can drink it near-room temperature.

• NEWPORT STORM'S '10 special release would also have to be considered a Cascadian Dark Ale. As mentioned in this column a few weeks ago, this big beer is definitely worth seeking out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beer Dinner Review

My birthday beer dinner last weekend was an unqualified success. If the pictures make you jealous, that is not the intention. Instead, this is meant to demonstrate that you don't have to drop $75-100 on a beer dinner... host one of your own! Course 1: The simplest course was one of the best received of the night. Goat, smoked gouda, blue cheese -- they all matched well with the Duvel for different reasons. Personally, the goat was my favorite. A delicate cheese for a delicate beer. Course 2: The idea here was that the earthiness of the mushrooms would mesh well with the earthiness of the farmhouse's yeast. More importantly, you needed a beer with a big flavor to hold its own with the mushrooms. It worked well.
Course 3: Here are the remains of our spectacular main course. The Allagash Dubbel was a little heavy for all of this food, but I thought the malty backbone was just what the pork needed. Not to brag but my Cherry Dubbel homebrew that followed held up well against this formidable opponent. Course 4: These chocolate truffle tarts served with whipped cream and raspberries were a huge hit, go figure. I was a little disappointed with the Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence, however. It tasted a little sour to me, but you still did get that chocolatey taste. This was a fantastic beer dinner, through and through.