Friday, August 21, 2015

Beer Abroad Vol. I: Dominican Republic

Ah, the Dominican Republic. Home to beautiful beaches, gorgeous waters and...

Well, I didn't actually know what else.

Admittedly, the island nation never made it onto my "short list" of countries to visit. Actually, it never registered on my radar. Once you've been to one beautiful island you've been to em' all, right?

Well, no, of course not - I'm not that astonishingly ignorant - but I truly had little idea of what to expect, aside from that oh-so-glorious phrase "all-inclusive resort".  The country burst onto my itinerary on account of my cousin's destination wedding (it was actually pretty awesome, thanks for asking), and away I went.

Completely hideous, obviously

So, how was it? Pretty great, actually, but I'll leave the travelogues to travel bloggers. My job is to talk about beer.

Well, in this instance, beer. As in, singular. Cuz' that's pretty much all ya can get. Allow me to introduce:

Uh-oh. A green bottle...

Presidente, and it's svelter brother President Light, are the apparently sole offerings of La Cerverceria Nacional Dominicana (The National Dominican Brewery), a pale lager of the pilsner variety that tastes exactly like how you think it does. Interestingly, Presidente started out as a darker beer before lightening up in the 60's into the golden shade it is known for today. It was then bought by a cigarette company.

And then AmBev.


But I suppose I'll spare you that soapbox for now - this one one isn't much of a loss.

It's clear that the Dominican Republic takes great pride in this label- signs, billboards, bodega fridges- all adorned the Presidente insignia. It is the figurehead of the movement to "build a successful international awareness of Dominican quality brands." Which is a noble ambition, I grant you, but that goal is ever-so-slightly hindered by the fact that it really isn't all that good.

There was, however, nary a Budweiser in sight. So that's something.

I'm being over critical, of course - when you care about beer to the somewhat alarming levels that I do, it can admittedly be difficult to be impressed - but Presidente represents a dearth of imagination and adventure in beer in this (and many other parts) of the world. Kinda bubbly, definitely timid, and featuring a flavor that I can't even really fully recall, it is an inoffensive beer that lends itself to mindless chugging as you wade around a pool. If you've had a Corona, you're in the right ballpark, though Presidente has a slightly more robust mouthfeel than its Mexican cousin.

But even that comes only after you realize that Brugal (a completely solid local rum) and Coke Light might be adding up pretty damn quickly and it's not even noon, you tourist heathen.

And, really, that's what it's designed for. Mindless chugging. Beer pong. Not getting wasted while you get a sun burn. And that's fine. Some beers are good for that. The problem with places like the Domincan Republic is the utter lack of variety. When the only variety your brewery offers is how clean the draft lines are (avoid drafts from the clubs. It's a disaster), ya tend to get fatigued very quickly, and go for things served in pineapples.

Not that there's anything wrong with that
One soapbox I would like to stand on for a moment, if you'll allow me, is the idea that beach and barbecue beer must be shitty beer. Shall we diatribe?

"Ben, you snobby beer bastard," people will tell me, "sometimes I don't want to drink the craft shit. Sometimes I want to drink 30 cans of piss water." I may be paraphrasing, but the point stands: 30-packs of the big-beer offerings make sense for things that involve mass-quantity day-drinking. And they're not necessarily (totally) wrong. I'm not so much an elitist that I recommend using Avery's Joe Pils for your next Flipcup Championship Games.

But if you, do please invite me.
But the misconception that craft beers are universally filling and inebriating is an antiquated one - session beers with sub-4% ABVs have been dotting the craft landscape for a few years now. Look around at your favorite beer store before picking up that 30-pack. You may be surprised.

Back to the theme at hand - the Dominican Republic. I'll readily admit I was not able to explore the country as much as I would have liked to, with much of my time being spent on a very tourist-centric resort. This fact could have obscured some more interesting options from me, but I'm not optimistic. All I know is that I had a Brooklyn Brewery Summer Ale on the flight home, and it was, however briefly, one of the biggest reliefs I've ever experienced in my life.

One of my favorite things about beer is flavor. Weird, right?

Furthermore, I completely recognize that not every vacation can (or even should) be about beer - I had a truly wonderful time in the Dominican Republic and certainly would recommend if you have a pulse and enjoy some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. But what I also recognize is the stranglehold that the sorta-cold, sorta-crappy, sorta-pilsnery have on many places in the world. What this means is that we're missing out on some beer in what could potentially be untapped reservoirs of creativity, and that's the true shame.

But hey. Enjoy the beautiful beaches. That sort of thing can't be ruined by a mediocre beer.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Fault in Our Festivals: How Craft Festivals Could Use Some Fine-Tuning

The Dreaded Beer Booth Babe.

We stood in some half-formed, wobbly line in the back of what had been callously labeled the "VIP" section, though I could see no obvious advantage that deserved this designation. The various tents that had been set up were obscured by the falling darkness, and did little to distinguish themselves from every other indistinct little green tent that dotted the sloping beach.  The lines writhed and murmured with a vague buzz of discontent.

"I can't believe they ran out of that one..."

"What line are we in?"

"Where's James?"

And so we stood, shivering slightly against the breezy chill of the water, doing our best to savor the remnants of swiftly-dwindling buzz. The line moved with a dull sluggishness, with everyone trudging onward like lazily programmed automatons, impatiently waiting for whatever mysterious brew awaited them at the end other end. It had become less about experience and more about getting your money's worth. Pick a line. Wait. Chug. Move along. Repeat.

I stood at long last before the hastily assembled direct line draw system before a saccharine-sweetened woman in a black bikini. "Hi!" she greeted me. "You can choose between...a...Belgian...
"(quick check of the label) Single and an "IPA!" She didn't speak so much as she chirped.

I gazed quickly around the tent for some semblance of details regarding the beer. The ABV? Flavor notes? The damn brewery? Perhaps I was buzzed enough to be foolishly optimistic, but I pressed on. "Which brewery was this from?

A quick label check. A generic brewery name I hadn't heard of.

"I haven't heard of them, any idea where they're located?" I hazarded. I shouldn't have.

"I don't know, but you know who would?" she gushed. "Google!"

And my buzz and joy flushed away.

The Fault in Our Festivals 

This is just one (albeit a bit dramatic) example that occurred in a recent Southern California beer festival, but it does exemplify some of the very real issues that are besieging many craft beer festivals, transforming what should be great showcases of the industry into maddening meltdown that evoke memories of the worst fraternity on your college campus.

It doesn't help when I dress like this, I grant you. "Beer me, bro!"

At this point I'm entirely aware that I'm reaching "crotchety old grandpa" levels of grumpy, and I see where you're coming from. "So what, dude," you're surely uttering, "Those things aren't supposed to be craft beer lessons. They're just big parties." But that's what I'm getting at: in many instances these craft beer festivals often fail at being both.

If your sole purpose of participating in a Craft Beer Festival is to get wasted, your methods are probably a bit misguided (and how did you find my blog?!). For one, it lacks some practicality; beer, especially in the quantities distributed at beer festivals (see: tiny vessel in photo above), isn't a particularly efficient way to get drunk. Besides that, while exceptions exist, breweries tend to offer their lower alcohol beers from their collections, with many Pilsners and session IPAs making an appearance (and rightly so- they're the perfect styles for outdoor adventures). Don't get me wrong. You'll get a good buzz. But it won't be an efficient buzz, if that's what you're looking for.

And, what's more, as the day goes on, you'll be fighting for each and every one of those samples, as each brewery tent will assuredly snake into ever-growing lines, which means that the process becomes:

1. Wait in line.
2. Obtain beer. Chug quickly without any consideration.
3. Repeat.

Which is fine, really, as it's a fun day doing something different. I'm not saying these can't be fun events (I'm particularly fond of the Los Angeles beer festival), but as a celebration of craft beer, and a way to get drunk, it sort of comes up short in both departments.

And really this is a failure on all the behalf of all parties: the festival organizers, and the breweries themselves. This was especially true of the latter in this particular example, where the breweries were so damn poor at representing themselves, it was difficult to say why they bothered.

When it comes to a showcasing your craft beer, it is of the utmost importance to present your brewery in the most positive light possible. Many of the little guys have little-to-no marketing budget, so it is events like these that serve as great opportunities to get their name out there. Of course, if it were up to me, I'd ban the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing Pseudo Crafts from participating but that's just me.

And, generally, that doesn't include a booth babe who knows zero about your beer, your brewery, your vision, or anything else that will help someone actually remember you. Almost as important as the beer itself is your presence at the event. A beer could be a veritable nectar of the gods and still manage to be completely forgettable if the experience surrounding it doesn't match. Beer served from a sad little cooler with no description about who you are, what the beer is, or where it comes from is a great way to play into the mindset that deteriorates beer festivals, in which guests systematically stand in lines in order only to get a bit more closer to their desired level of inebriated.

Not pictured: puddles of vomit. Photo source;

Instead, a booth should be manned (or womanned) by knowledgeable members of your staff, preferably those from the brewery itself if proximity allows. If not, sales representatives are suitable substitutes. If festival temporary staffing are the only options available (and, as you can probably tell, I'd advise against this if at all possible), they should be at least primed on what the hell it is they're serving. Your tent should advertise who you are well before I get to the front lines, and I should be able to quickly discern what you're offering when I do get there. I'm a beer geek at heart, so I'm going to be tempted to ask a question or two about the beer. Where can I get it? Do you distribute here? How's your tasting room?

I'll stop short of asking for your grain bill or hop profile (that's just a beer geek trying to show off.)

Ooh, and have stickers. I like stickers.

Oh, and it should probably go without saying but...don't run out of beer. This should be entirely obvious, but an astonishing number of breweries run out of one or both of their beers entirely way too early and it makes for quite the negative impression. One brewery I encountered had people scooping beer out of a large plastic bucket because "it was quicker that way." True, maybe, but the sort of thing I'd expect out of frat house party, not a beer festival.

All of this bitching sort of amounts to one major point: Best Festivals are fun, casual environments in which people can experience beers they might not otherwise have the chance to encounter. They're overcrowded, which means that it becomes a sort of arms race to get your money's worth. For me, I personally wish that organizers would reel in the number of allowable entrants by at least 10%. I recognize that these are of course means of making money, but the risk of overcrowding too much certainly deters people from repeat visits.

Or, at least, offer a Beer Snob ticket that lets me in an hour early, for a small bump in ticket price. The festival described in the beginning offered something like this, but what it actually got me wasn't particularly obvious - certain "exclusive" breweries didn't seem particularly gated from the general crowd. I don't need to feel special - just the opportunity to make the most of the beer showcase before the buzzed mob mentality kicks in. Hell, I'd pay double if I could go to a festival with a quarter of the total number of tickets sold.

Of course, I haven't been to every beer festival, but many of these themes tend to rear their ugly head at many of the ones I do  make it to. I don't imagine beer festivals will ever be able to offer what a trip to a tasting room could do, and I don't think it needs to- it's entirely acceptable that they maintain more of a casual demeanor. But what I do ask is that breweries treat their offerings with the respect they deserve. Because that's what Craft Beer is all about.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stock Check - How to Replenish Your Beer Standbys

My beer cellar is woefully empty.

And by cellar, I mean this guy:
No sex in the champagne room.
I live in a two bedroom apartment - a real cellar would be kinda decadent. But if you're like me, a craft beer fan who's ventured into the realm of craft beer evangelist, you like to have a standby collection for whatever sort of events you have going on. It's sort of like the bringing white wine to a barbecue thing. And for that, these wine fridges are great for starting a modest beer collection no matter what your living situation is. Or, you know, wine. I guess. 

A note of "warning" - some experts will advise against storing anything long-term on its side like this, as prolonged exposure to the cork (or, more likely for the sake of our conversation, bottle cap) can result in "cork-taint" - or, an off-flavor the beer can get from being in contact with the sealing mechanism for a prolonged period of time. I can't argue against that point, but beer collections, unlike wine (which can cross generations and decades), you're unlikely to be aging beer for more than a few years, though some are good for a decade or longer. So, really, it's a fair point, but I've never experienced any flavor issues with storing beer on its side.

But, what it comes down to, is that I needed to go shopping. This sucker is too empty. So, let's talk about the sort of beer that lends itself well to a collection.

Why Bother Having a "Cellar"?

The cellar keeps your beer in its happy place. I keep my wine fridge at "cellar temperature" - probably around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. That means, depending on the style, you may need to do a quick stint in the freezer before serving, but without exposure to light and a reliably steady temperature, the beer will maintain its integrity for far longer than your fridge or (God forbid) out in the open.

Obviously, you're not going to throw your favorite go-to six-pack in one of these guys - they live alongside, quite happily, alongside the thawing chicken you have in the kitchen fridge. It's more for your special occasion, rare releases, and collectibles. But I also try to keep a few casual favorites in there and some tried-and-true offerings that you know will pair well with whatever you have planned for dinner, but we'll go over that in a bit.

I can't really speak to having a collection for the sake of profit- there are certainly some very rare beers out there that people will be willing to pay a premium for, but I haven't spent much time accruing beer for the sake of selling it. If I obtain a bottle, I intend on drinking it. That said, if you're in the business of beer selling, you're absolutely going to want something to keep your beer in optimal condition.

I have a cellar because it's a dedicated space for my beer. And collecting is really just a fun hobby. So let's get to it.

The Before

As it were, the beer fridge isn't completely empty. Let's take a look at what we have now and why it's there.

The Aging 101 Standby

Aging beer is fun. I already went over some of the intricacies in a previous Ben Likes Beer post, but suffice to say, some aspects of the beer's flavor - such as the quieting of hop character and mellowing of spices, among others - change as they age.

Sierra Nevada's Big Foot is a yearly barleywine release that begs to be aged and is reasonably easy to come by. It's fun to pick up a four pack, drink one or two, and put the others away for a year, as I have done here. Upon release of 2015 (or beyond, if I'm patient enough) comparing the two will be a fun experiment.

If you're impatient, you can sometimes luck out and find older generations in specialty beer shops.

The Cake-and-Eat-It-Toos

Aside from being perfectly age-able, these entries fall into the category of "I really, really want to drink these but as soon as I do they're gonna be gone, so I'm gonna stick them in the fridge and hope they have little beer babies." Basically, I love 120 Minute IPA so much that I only bring it out for special occasions. Or the odd, "What? You haven't had 120 Minute?!" Event, where I then proceed to distribute the 16 oz beer across 20 shot glasses.
The other is Olde School, another uncommon barleywine offering from Dog Fish head that will be a completely different beer if I can give it a year.

Big beers like these will last a long time, and are  harder to come by, so they're sort of trophies. These are ones you're most likely to sell, if you're into that sort of thing. And their alcohol content means they'll remain in good shape for a long, long time. Treasure these. I do.

Seasonal Favorites

These beers represent the later parts of the year, notably Pumpkin Ales and Christmas Ales. Basically, drink through the masses and make notes of your favorites- buy an extra one to have ready and waiting for next Thanksgiving/whatever other holiday you have in mind. The same aging rules apply, of course; don't age a 5% casual pumpkin beer and expect much out of it. The compare the old with the new experiment applies here, too.

This particular one is Almanac Heirloom Barrel Aged Pumpkin. It's on a short list of my favorite pumpkin beers. It's hard not to drink it, but we're saving it for when my mom visits. In August. Whatever.
The Oddballs

Unique and quirky beer that doesn't necessarily fit into any of the aforementioned categories and just seemed like fun additions to the collection and I haven't gotten around to having them yet.

One is Avery's Samael's Oak Aged beer. I picked it up on reputation of Avery's small batches alone, I must admit I know very little about it.

The other is Stone's Enjoy After. A play on their own Enjoy By - a fresh hop IPA that advises you that  drink it before the date on its label, this entry is meant to be aged so that the funky renegade brettanomyces yeast have time to do their thing. Supposedly it's pretty good now, but I'll wait until the label tells me it's go time - Halloween this year.

Shopping List
So, that's an okay collection but there's some glaring omissions that need to be addressed.

To do so, I recommend you find a local specialty shop. You could do ok with a big chain, maybe, but it won't be the beer playground you want for this sort of thing. I'm in Long Beach, CA and discovered Lazy Acres...a phenomenal little market that's like a Whole Foods with approximately a quarter of the pretentiousness...and one helluva beer selection.

I took a quick trip today and filled those said gaps. Let's go over the fresh recruits.

The Belgian

Allow me, once again, to exalt the Belgian Abbey-style beer. Belgian beers are the tried and true work horse of the pairing world. Accordingly, every collection should feature one...or two, or three...

One of my absolute favorites is the Maredsous Tripel. Every bit as delicious as the aforementioned treasures and yet not nearly as rare, Belgian Tripels stand up to even the most formidable of meals without taking over. Have one on standby instead of a bottle of wine with your next steak. Or pork. Or chicken. Or because it's just excellent.

Have a few on standby. Period.

The "Because It's Tuesday"

Just because a beer is in a bottle doesn't mean it's "fancy." Some casual brewery entries don't quite make it to the six-pack format, so be on the look-out for some from your favorite breweries. Sometimes these are one-offs, sometimes not, but they're often fun experiments that are worth trying. Maybe they'll show up again, maybe they won't...but that's the fun of beer collecting.

I bought a Deschutes Hop Henge IPA, a juicy, fruity IPA that doesn't have any right being in my fridge more than a week or two. It's a delicious IPA that goes well with lighter salad fare, seafood and the like. It also goes very well with sitting around and being a lazy bastard.

It's important to have a few casual entries that aren't meant to be aged. Why? Because it's nice to go over to the fridge and be all "Oh man, I forgot I got this!" Because it's a Tuesday. And you deserve something nice.

The Business Casual

On the other side of the coin, casual doesn't need to mean quaffable. Sometimes an affordable option has every bit the right to be at your dinner table as the big Belgians. I present a recent favorite, the Jardinier from The Bruery.

This beer walks a unique line between elegant and approachable. Subtly floral and biscuity, it makes for a great pairing for your elevated Summer fare. Look for big bottles at affordable price points... chances are, if it's large format bottle in a style you wouldn't typically attribute to the style (it's somewhat odd, for example, to see a Pale Ale in a large bottle- though not impossible!), it's likely fair to assume it can be bought and saved for your next casual dinner.

The "Is It Christmas Yet?"
Related to the previously mentioned seasonal stuff. I always like to buy a Christmas beer and age it til next Christmas. If you can snag a bottle outside of the typical Yuletide season, even better- it means someone is doing the waiting for you. Just make the beer is well treated (preferably refrigerated and kept out of sunlight) as to not run into an unpleasant surprise on Christmas Eve.

I grabbed Delirium Noel- a Christmas favorite that I intend on sitting on until Christmastime 2015.

The Heavy
This guy - The Piraat - is a bully. At 10.5%, it's gonna get you buzzed. Which is why I picked one up...
Not to suggest that high alcohol is what makes a good beer. Not at all...but sometimes there is a place for it. Like a party! Strong Goldens like Piraart are tasty and formidable, and make for good sipping (or chugging...I won't judge) in a party setting. I like to have something like this around if we're planning on going to party, in lieu of a bottle of wine or spirits. A tasty buzz that has the benefit of not being wine.

So that's my trip. I have a few spaces left that I can't wait to fill. And that's the fun of beer hunting- heading to the store, saying, "Oh, hey, this sounds good," and putting it in your cart. There are a few standbys, as was mentioned - a Belgian for your steak pairing, some Pales and Saisons for your casual pairings, your couch chugging beers, your social outing beers - but have fun with it. Your beer fridge is a representation of you.

Happy collecting :)


Sunday, December 21, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas Part IV: California Christmastime

Welcome back!

This marks the final chapter of Ben Likes Beer 12 Beers of Christmas 2014, a tour of the local guys - the Christmas gifts from the Golden Coast and my current place of residence, California.

These offerings are probably tricky to come by if you're not nearby (within a 20 mile radius, actually, for one of these...), but they represent three very different visions of Christmas beers that you'd only find in the United States. While Belgium is content to revel in the spices of the season, these creative brewers take what it means to be a Christmas beer and injects it with some California dreamin'.

Merry Christmas everyone :)

Santa's Little Helper 
Imperial Stout
22 oz., 10.5% ABV
Port Brewing,
San Marcos, CA

This formidable little hunk of coal is as intense as a cup of strong-brewed black coffee. Vividly robust and charmingly aggressive, Santa's Little Helper earns every syllable of its Imperial title.

 Fun fact- there's no Santa on this bottle, and you can thank Coke for that. They own the visual copyright to Santa on beverage containers. Scroogey bastards.

But as for the beer...

A gentle note of chocolate opens the flavor before plummeting into the deep, dark depths of this crazy holiday malt bomb. As you drink, though, you warm up to (or gain a tolerance, really) this aggression and it becomes a tasty beer in its own right. Stout lovers will of course be pleased with this guy, but those prefer their beers light and bubbly might be out of their depth.

Pair it with a holiday dessert, though, and the story changes. Balance that Mall-on-Christmas-Eve-level aggression with some cookies and you'll get some delicious balance out of it. I paired it with egg nog and it was heavenly, I tell you. Heavenly!

Approach with caution, maybe, but definitely approach it.

Magnificat 2013 Edition
Belgian-style Christmas Ale
22 oz. bottle, 10.1% ABV
Monkish Brewing,
Torrance, CA

If you live in the vague vicinity of Torrance, CA, I implore you to make the effort to visit. Covered in a previous blog post, Torrance is a mini San Diego of truly excellent craft beer breweries and it is absolutely worth your while to make a Saturday of it.

My personal favorite of the bunch is Monkish Brewing - a wannabe monastary of a brewery that specializes in Belgian-style brews and a mad-scientist-like affinity for the spice pantry (a Dubbel with peppercorn? Why not!)

Their seasonal offering is the inexplicably named Magnificat - a Christmas ale in the traditional sense, with your favorite spices all acounted for- nutmeg, cinnamon, some chocolate. Note, this write-up covers 2013 in particular; I have 2014 waiting for me Christmas Eve. If anything, this means that the spice flavors have been allowed to mellow, but I'll let you know the difference, if any!

Serve this one a bit warmer - the bottle advises 55 degrees or so that you get more of the fruity ale flavors and a hint of tartness at the finish.

As it were, this is everything I want in a Christmas beer.  Rich, smooth, playful and festive, Magnificat is nevertheless an elegant Christmas beer, and one I highly recommend.

2014 Holiday IPA
Triple Black Rye IPA
22 oz bottle, 11%
Black Market Brewing
Temecula, CA

The oddball of the bunch, Black Market eschews your silly notions of the holiday and say, screw it, we're throwing in about 4000 pounds of hops and calling it a yuletide. And I'm ok with it.

Most notable about this drunk uncle of a beer is the positively gorgeous aroma. The grassy, citrusy aromas evoke more summertime than Santa time, and the flavor follows along in kind. It's not toxic bitter, rather an excellent showcase of how different hops can truly have a different array of flavors. Malt balance is practically absent - this is all hops, baby - until the end, when the stout-like dark robust flavors do make an appearance. The alcohol is huge - 11% - but you won't find any booze burn here, which is good. The hops do just fine on their own.

Obviously this is not your average Christmas beer, but for mixing it up and bringing a new Holiday offering to the table, I applaud Black Market. Brew this sucker year round and I'll be pleased.

Hey everyone, thanks for returning to my blog. I look foward to reviving it even more in 2015. Have an excellent holiday and be sure to have one for me. Not that I'll be needing any more, probably. But one more couldn't help...

Merry Christmas/Whatever else you're doing this end of December. See you in 2015!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas: Christmas in Belgium

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

This time of year is magical, isn't it? Where we gather together, enjoy a lovely Kerststronk with our family, put our shoes by the fireplace, waiting for Zwarte Piet to leave candies and goodies there after we go to bed...

Wait, what?
Now I'm uncomfortable.

That's right. In Belgium (and many other parts of Europe) Santa (Sinterklaas) is assisted by a dude in blackface. It's as controversial as you'd hope it would be, by the way.

But aside from the aforementioned inane tradition, Belgium is  a country that takes its Christmastime very seriously, and its beer, as ever, is a fine showcase of that. Heavy handed with the spices to begin with, Christmas allows many brewers to really embrace the season with all of spices of an entire bakery.

Of course, not all breweries take the potpourri approach; others simply do stronger versions of their other year-round offerings. Here are four of some of the season's offerings (including one local homage).

Christmas Ale
Corsendonk and Brasserie du Bocq
Purnode, Belgium
8.1% ABV, 22 oz Bottle

A classic favorite of mine, Corsendonk's Christmas offering is probably the first "very" Belgian Christmas beer I had ever experienced, and as such has become something of a Holiday tradition. Available in large format bottles as well as smaller 4-packs, this beer should actually be reasonable to track down. But should you?

Certainly! Especially if you fancy yourself a red wine drinker - a lot of similar flavors are at play here. Dark fruits in particular - plum and cherry mix with a chocolate quality to compose a rich, silky brew that does evoke the season, but not from its spice profile; think more wassail, less snickerdoodle. There's also a slight tart quality that comes along with the cherry flavor. A solid and wonderful representation of Belgian Christmas beer, but as far as favorites so, it may have lost its crown to:

Noel Christmas Ale
Affligem Brewing
Opwijk, Belgium
9%, 22 oz Bottle

Affligem brewery was scooped up by Heineken, but has largely retained its robust abbey-style profile. And this beer could very well be the crown jewel of its lineup; it's that spectacular.

The soul of Belgium resonates in every facet of this beer, from yeast to malt to spicing. Fruity and caramel notes abound, like one of those candies you actually like picking in those huge boxes of chocolates. The spicing - vanilla and cinnamon - is great, but not obnoxiously festive. To continue the desert theme, I did get a creme brulee vibe - even the smooth texture, which is one of my favorite aspects of this beer. Elegant, warming, and delicious, this is probably my favorite beer I've had this season.

Thanks Colburn!

Christmas Ale
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale 
Watou, Belgium
10% ABV, 22 oz Bottle

Christmas redemption! 2 years ago when I did this feature, St. Bernardus had a spot on the list and, sadly, didn't fair well. It's (unintentional) banana candy flavors meant that somewhere along its quest to get to me, the beer was allowed to become too warm. And tasted like it could have cost a quarter and came in a tiny plastic capsule in a grocery store. Not the case this year.

This offering is the least innately "sweet" of the four, being kept in check with a robust, roasty bitterness in addition to distinct amount of tartness. We're in Flanders Red or Brown territory - markedly more tart, but not approaching the levels of a wild ale, but certainly nodding toward it. What it lacks, though, is anything distinctly Christmas- it lacks anything that would establish itself as a Christmas beer, which is a shame. A solid beer in its own right, but if you're looking for something that's the equivalent of drinking a fully decorated Christmas Tree, then you're better off trying one of the other options. But there is a chubby monk wearing a Santa hat on the label, so that's something.

7 Swans-a-Swimming
Belgian-style Quad
Placentia, California
11%, 22 oz Bottle

Heading back home, 7 Swan-a-Swimming counts because it calls itself a Belgian-inspired beer.

And therefore, by the very strict nature of this blog, it fits the criteria!

As you can probably discern, 7 Swans-a-Swimming is the latest in a series of beers that draw inspiration from that eternal (in terms of status of perceived length) Christmas song. Two years ago's 5 Golden Rings is certainly one of my favorite Christmas beers ever. Last year's 6 Geese-a-Laying was a somewhat interesting beer that made clever use of gooseberries. This year's is...a Belgian Quad.

That's it. Making use of swans in beer is pretty difficult, I grant you, but there's something a touch disappointing about being "merely" a quad. Sure, quads are somewhat uncommon - they're more or less Belgian tanks with big sweetness and formidable ABVs, a modern style created by La Trappe in 1990. And that's what Swans is - the label tells you so. I'm a Belgian-style Quad. Which is fine.  But to eschew anything remotely Christmasy is sort of a bummer. Give me a quad with vanilla and cinnamon. Give me a quad with pine-centric hop profile. Give me something. It lacks a special oomph that makes it worthwhile. Get Alesmith's Decadence (should be available now, too, actually) or the aforementioned La Trappe. Swans is good, sure, but a missed opportunity.

8 Maids-a-Milking better be a milk stout. It's a no brainer.

Phew, 3 of 4 done. Stay tuned for The final chapter - small format local bottles! Specific enough for you? Let's find out!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas Part II: 6-Packs-A-Packin'

Part 2! Tis' the season for a furious flurry of beer purchases, artsy amateur photos (it's ok, though because it's not food), and then thoughtful chugging and note taking. Seriously. I actually take notes. It's what distinguishes this whole thing from a drinking problem.

This mini section is about Winter 6 packs; unlike the bomber bottles of the season (stay tuned), I still have 5 more to go after the first one. Joyous day! I'm sure there's a joke in here about this being the only sort of 6 pack I'll have at this (FINE, ANY) time of year, but it's eluding me. The pieces are there. Put something together and I'll assume it's funny.

Note that I said winter - many breweries take the secular route with their offerings, but not always. Many simply offer a winter seasonal without any specific allusions to Christmas, though the flavor profiles are often the same; roasty notes in particular shows up in many of the offerings, though others aren't afraid of loading in the baking spices, particularly nutmeg and cinnamon. Of course, others eschew that concept altogether and put a Christmas tree on every carton. We'll take a look at both.

Regardless of the style, it's dependable truth that practically every sizable craft brewery will offer a winter seasonal. From Sierra Nevada's Celebrator to New Belgium's Snow Day, any of the bigger craft brews will usually offer a 6 pack varietal for the season. Smaller breweries will often go the bomber (22 oz) route, but we'll save that for another episode. Pick a favorite, though. They're crowd pleasers for your holiday events.

So, with that, let's go over three that I haven't covered before.

Hullaballoo Winter Beer 
Hangar 24 Brewery
Redlands, California
Winter Ale, 6.5%

This wintery bloke is American made but inside its malty, bready body beats the heart of a true English gentleman. The site claims that it starts as a Scottish ale, but I think it lacks the noted sweetness that often comes with that style.

Instead, we have a bready, biscuity, roasty malt showcase of a beer. Something of a halfway point between an English bitter and a traditional porter, Hullabaloo's British hops manifest quickly in the finish, meaning you won't be chugging too quickly (but a modest ABV means it won't be a problem if you do). But fear not, hop-phobes, it's a far cry from a "hoppy" beer. Its dark body belies a light and crisp body that practically begs to be enjoyed fireside. Bonus points if it's in an English pub.

Worth checking out.
Obligatory Caveat: Hangar 24 is a local California brewery with distribution only in California.

Old Jubilation 
Avery Brewing Company
Boulder, CO
English Old Ale, 8.3%

Formidable and yet equally kindhearted (sorta like your grandpa!), Avery's Old Jubilation is a Christmas staple for me; I say without hesitation that is one of my favorite beers of the season. And that's because it offers something very different than many of the other offerings of the reason (aside, actually, from the aforementioned Hullabaloo...which could fairly and endearingly a "Old Jubilation Light"). Forgoing Christmas spices, OJ (a better use of the acronym than many alternatives) is instead a celebration of specialty malt. Every robust flavor from your favorite dark beers are accounted for and in fine rhythm: coffee, chocolate, biscuit and hazelnut.

A bit stout-like, perhaps, but not nearly as dry, with a touch of nutty sweetness at play throughout. It's also a gorgeous  beer - cola-colored with a ruby shone - meaning I can make some sexy, sexy beer porn (see above). It's a sophisticated and alluring brew, sure to stand up to any bone-warming winter meal offer in December. And it'll last for years in your cellar. Grab a 6 pack and put a few away, if you can muster the restraint.

Highly recommended (and available nationwide).

Merry Christmas 2014
Anchor Brewing
San Francisco, CA

Sequoiadendion giganteum!
That's a type of pine- the Giant Sequoia. Or maybe a Harry Potter spell. Hopefully both.

It is certainly the tree adorning this year's Christmas Ale from Anchor Steam, a tradition that has reached its 40th year.  Each year, a different tree represents the brew, which likewise changes unpredictably with each new Christmas. Every aspect is labeled TOP SECRET. Speculate away, but it won't matter - it'll be a different beer next year.

This year's iteration walks an interesting line between Belgian Dubbel and Irish Stout, with some Christmas spices playing nicely, and quietly, with both. The roasty notes are distinctly wintery, but kept from being overbearing by a slight sweetness. It's lower ABV means you can go through the whole 6-pack quicker than you'd assume, but that's ok. It's a tasty beer that truly celebrates what it is to be a Christmas beer.

Also worth picking up - and better yet, should be relatively easy to find.

So...there you have it. 3 worthwhile winter 6-packs. A cop-out, perhaps, but I do believe that if you have allegiance to a certain brewery, you can pick up their winter offerings with confidence. But if you're a bit stuck hunt down that Old Jubilation. You won't regret it.

Stay tuned for Part 3! We're going to Belgium!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas 2014: Part I - Gingerbread Stouts

It truly is the season of miracles.

Maybe I exaggerate a bit- there's nothing miraculous about a dude returning to a blog after being away for (garbled noise that sounds vaguely like a unit of time), but it's a pretty big step for me. Life interrupted a bit, with some of the wind being taken out of my beer-soaked sails in favor of a "big boy" job. But none of that is particularly interesting...there's beer to drink.

I hope you've been ok without me - craft beer is a big scary world. I like to think you've missed me terribly, that without my concise wit and brew guidance, you've been in a constant state of panic, standing in the beer aisle with streams of terrified tears rolling down your cheeks as you throw oddly named six-packs into your cart and pray to the goddess Ninkasi that maybe, just maybe, you got something halfway decent.

No, actually - what I really hope is that you've been quite ok on your own, that you've upped your craft beer game and make grown up decisions that aren't swayed by ads featuring golden retriever puppies (I know they're convincing, but stay strong! I believe in you!). Craft beer is becoming the main source of beer goodness, and my little (fascinating, well-articulated and joyous) blog has little to do with it.

But, onto the crux of the matter! It's Christmastime again! And that means we have access to a whole new slew of both weird and wonderful libations for us to enjoy until we can't feel that nagging cold anymore (or, you know, live in Southern California like I do and wistfully wait for just one night I could wear that damn sweater I bought back in July). It's one of my favorite times of the year, and that the whole beer industry embraces it so readily means I'm one festive happy dude with a great beer buzz.

The season comes chock full of flavor staples and beer varietals that no other time of the year even hint at, including playful examples like the Gingerbread Stout. 

The stout is a wintery staple of its own accord, with roasty flavors that practically beg to be drank by fireside. Their willingness and eagerness to be kicked up a few notches in the ABV territory further invite winter friendliness, as the slight warmth of alcohol is never unwelcome on chilly nights. Add their fondness of winter spices and you have a style ripe for season.

So put down your Session IPAs - we're getting hearty and spicy.

Back Home Gingerbread Stout
Golden Road Brewing Company
Los Angeles, CA
4 Pack Cans, 8.5% ABV

A west coast darling that has skyrocketed into prominence in a very short timeframe, Golden Road brewing offers a lineup of beers (that is, in true Cali-style, IPA heavy) in summer-friendly tallboy can 4 packs. Several of their beers, especially the delightfully named Might as Well IPL, have become casual favorites of mine and showed up at many-a-barbecue this past summer.

But, the winter has arrived and Golden Road brewery has shown it isn't afraid to pull on a pair of mittens and be fricking adorable with their Back Home Gingerbread Stout. Between its packaging - an inviting maroon box that looks like a little wrapped present, with cans with golden titling and little silver icons of the season - and whimsical flavors, Golden Road has shown that it takes just fine to the season, even if it longs for the beach.

And it fits right in - Back Home is a solid stout in its own right, with some festive additions and a sturdy ABV. The beer is immediately likable, a playful take on the tried-and-true Irish Stout. Ginger is, thankfully, the key player here, arriving first and foremost but not overstaying its welcome. More dessert sweet than overly spicy, the robust roasty-warm flavors of the chocolate take over at the end. In other words, it's a whole cookie platter in a glass.

You probably won't want more than one - the flavors do become a bit heavy by the end of your glass (not to mention the alcohol content), but it's one of the more playful beers, Christmas or otherwise, that I've had in awhile, and I certainly believe it's a success.

A (not-so) small caveat: this guy is pretty local- it was big beer news when they expanded into San Francisco, let alone the rest of the county. So while this beer might not be part of your Christmas this year, please keep tabs on this brewery; it almost certainly will be in upcoming years.

Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout
Sam Adams
Boston, MA
1 Pint, 6 Fl Oz. Bottle, 9.0% ABV

I've become a beer snob. It's not my fault, it comes with the territory when you call beer a hobby. As such - and it pains me to say it - Sam Adam's offerings don't typically do it for me anymore. Celebrated as they should be for creating a world in which craft beer isn't a ludicrous proposition, I have nevertheless found their offerings, especially seasonal ones, underwhelming, registering as little more than slight alterations on the typical Boston recipe.

Their single bottle offerings do admittedly tend to be more inspired, and one such example, the Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout, does a fine job proving it.

Compared to Golden Road, this one is a bit more straightforward, being a stout first and something gingery later- the flavors are a bit more reserved, even timid. The sweetness of the beer is more forthcoming, perhaps owing to that extra .5% ABV (which it hides very well).

Nevertheless, I do believe that Back Home benefits from it's more aggressive flavors - more spice, more roast, more bitter all mean more interesting.  Merry Maker, with its blanket sweetness, is more friendly, perhaps, but I found myself missing the layers. A bitter bite does accumulate as you go, but I never got that fun cookie vibe.

 If you're lucky enough to have access to Back home, I invite you to go for it. If not, this is one is more readily available, and is hardly bad. There's just better stuff out there.

Merry Christmas Beer Season everyone! Check back soon for the next entry.

(It's good to be back)

Ben Likes Beer