Thursday, November 20, 2008

Texas Beer Odyssey Part 2

The only thing that's bad about these retrospectives is that I really wish I had a few of these beers right now.

Oh well, let's finish a walk through Austin-area brewing. Let me know if I missed anything good.

10) Real Ale Firemans #4 Blonde Ale
This slightly heavy concoction from Blanco is malty but is less about creating flavor than it is about just feeling big in your mouth.

11) Real Ale Rio Blanco Pale Ale
Accented with Czech Saaz hops, this is a European-style pale with a subtle, fairly quiet taste. But I drank it for breakfast, and I can tell you in that instance that it gives you a little kick to start your day.

12) Live Oak Pilz
This is the beer that I wanted St Arnold's Fancy Lawnmower to be: A very smooth, golden and yet filling brew. It comes at you with a very grainy, bread-y malt feel with just a little bitterness on the back, like it's fresh wheat swirling in your mouth.

13) Live Oak Big Bark Amber
The Austin brewers have created a slightly dusty, musty feel, though unfortunately it's not enough to create a unique flavor. It's not watery but it's also not gutsy. It's just your average beer, though I'm sure it feels good on a Texas spring afternoon.

14) Original Draughthouse Amber Ale
The Draughthouse Pub and Brewery is a wonderful place to spend a night quietly drinking their five beers - as well as the roughly 65 other delicacies from across the U.S. and Europe that the pub has on tap. I'd like to get that out up front and decline comment on the specific goodness of its fairly plastic-tasting amber . . .

15) Draughthouse Vanilla Porter
. . . However, it took only until my second Draughthouse beer that I was smiling ear to ear. Sharp and tasty but not drowned in vanilla, this dark concoction maintained its flavor and actually got more pleasing as it warmed.

16) Live Oak Treehugger Barleywine
Howdy, partner! This is an oak-barrel-strong, thick and woody drink that feels like it should be more about shootin' than about sippin'.

17) Draughthouse Amber Waves
If you're looking for British-feeling beer in Texas, this surprisingly bitter, grainy concoction should suit your needs.

18) Live Oak Hefeweizen
The weekend finished with a slightly mellow but very drinkable unfiltered wheat whose flavor grew increasingly lemony as it warmed.

That's my Texas story, partner. What's yours?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Texas Beer Odyssey, Part 1

I took a business trip to North Carolina last weekend and, as any good beer geek will, used my off hours to scout out the local watering holes. I was somewhat surprised to find, however, that in many of the popular pubs of downtown Raleigh, there were absolutely no local beers.

It reminded me of a trip to Austin earlier this year, except that I had the exact opposite reaction in finding the local goods there. Admittedly, I went down there to visit friends, and much of the weekend's purpose was to hit local breweries and taverns. But I remembered with great happiness that not only could I find the local beers, but I could spend the entire weekend doing nothing but drinking and enjoying them.

And, like any good beer geek, I took notes on my wanderings. And I kept them. So, here are my thoughts on the beers of Texas that I found, for anyone who may be headed down there soon or may even be reading from there. I'll divide it up over two posts, but I'm curious what everybody else thinks about the Texas selections.

1) Real Ale Full Moon Pale Rye Ale
Slightly hoppy with far-off flower overtones, this product of Blanco was a wonderful way to start the journey.

2) Real Ale Brownhouse Brown Ale
I grew to like this beer that came on slightly smoky but mellowed quickly into something that was less sweet than it was full and husky.

3) Shiner Bock
My first two years in college were spent in Fort Smith, Ark., at a time when the microbrew revolution hadn't really hit the South yet, and my taste buds essentially survived on Shiner. Twelve years later, I realize this is a little bland, but it's familiar enough to have a special place in my heart.

4) Live Oak Pale Ale
This English-style pale from Austin provides a full mouthfeel but ultimately is very heavy and takes on that English quality of tasting a bit like a wet rope.

5) Real Ale Phoenix Double ESB
A seasonal that is more flavorful than the average ESB, this is bursting with malt and a tinge of back-tongue sharpness, but it's not overly bitter.

6) Live Oak IPA
This seasonal has a rye-esque, almost flowery feel to it, but the flower feels just a bit different from your normal hops.

Note: One of the great stops we found was the Flying Saucer, a beer eatery chain that is growing throughout the South. It featured more than 200 beers and beer/cheese pairings. I was also impressed by the amount of Colorado products on the menu in Austin - including Steamworks, Breckenridge and Avery - though I stuck to the goal and avoided them.

7) St. Arnold Spring Bock
This Austin seasonal had a really nice caramel balance that created something strong and tasty, yet easily drinkable. It was the easiest drinking beer of the trip.

8) St. Arnold Fancy Lawnmower
Arguably Texas' best know beer outside the Shiner line, this is bubbly, crisp and light, all adding up to maybe too sweet a kolsch. But, man, does it have a great name.

9) Uncle Billy's Axe Handle Pale Ale
There's nothing like pulling into a great barbecue joint and getting beer made there as well. Somewhere in between the ribs, brisket and cole slaw, I found that this light, golden-hued version of the style was a wonderful companion to stuffing my face.

That's enough for one day. More tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Bitch is Back and Bigger than Ever

You have to appreciate the entrepreneur who can create a catchy beer with a catchy name, two ways to shout from out of the great beer cornucopia to grab the attention of prospective beer drinkers. Though American brown ale has never been my favorite style in the world, I've always believed that Grand Teton Brewing has pulled off that double-double with Bitch Creek ESB.

"XX Bitch Creek Double ESB" isn't quite as simple and catchy a name. But if a rose is still a rose by any other name, as that Billy guy said, then let's call this exactly what it is: An extremely powerful and impressive beer.

Part of the Idaho company's Cellar Reserve series, this dark and jolting concoction is everything that the name suggests. Twice the malt and twice the hops of what has become the brewery's flagship beer, it is a bitch on your taste buds . . . in a good way, of course.

What impressed me about this was the enormous hops taste that pervaded its darkness. To me, it's less a double brown than an English-style pale with some real American cajones, but the complexity is exceptional all the same.

Maybe I'm a sucker for beers with melted wax lids or for limited releases that just amp up everything you know about the original beer. And yet at 7.5 percent ABV, this is a beer you could enjoy two of in one night, remember it and be feeling the lingering hop backtaste for hours afterward.

Available in 11 western and Midwestern states - plus New York, for good measure - this is one of only two seasonal releases that has really caught my eye so far. (See my last scribblings for my thoughts on Left Hand's Snowbound Ale as well). But when I find something like this, I've got to shout about it. And in this case, the name even lets me swear a little.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Thoughts on the All Colorado Beer Festival

No beer festival should be expected to fully come of age in its second year. That said, Colorado Springs' All Colorado Beer Festival, which took place Friday and Saturday, made some positive strides and took a few small steps back this year too. Here's some Monday-morning quarterbacking thoughts on the well-run event, which you really should be putting on your schedule if you haven't yet:

*Because of the new setup of booths, I originally had thought there were less breweries there this year than in 2007. But in checking the programs from both years, I found the number actually grew - from 20 to 24. Some of the additions were very welcome. No festival calling itself "All Colorado" should be without Boulder or Lefthand, for example, and both newcomers added credibility to the show. Also, festival organizer Randy Dipner was wise to incorporate a number of places that either started up or ramped up greatly in the past year, namely Rocky Mountain, Trinity and Trinidad; festivals are times to show drinkers what's out there that they may not know about, and having the newbies on hand is great. However, it still concerns me that a show calling itself "All Colorado" can be without Great Divide once again, can lose Avery and doesn't draw in some of the hidden gems in Colorado brewing, such as Pug Ryan's or Bull and Bush. The Fort Collins festival, which is essentially a drunken keg bash, can get many of the aforementioned breweries; a festival like this that caters more to true beer lovers should be able to as well.

*In my lauding of the ACBF last year, I noted that Dipner should push a little harder to get breweries to bring more experimentals to mix with their standard fare. And while some didn't get the message (ahem, New Belgium), others showed off their lesser-seen sides. Left Hand was gracious enough to break out its recently released seasonal Snowbound Ale, a clove- and ginger-heavy dark beer that is one of the more complex holiday brews of recent years. Trinidad rocked the festival with a 10.5 percent Wee Heavy Lassie that had the heavy alcoholic backtaste without the syrupy consistency of many other such big beers. And God bless the Colorado Springs gem Arctic Brewing, whose lineup included a peach lager, a chili lager and the only sour beer on the floor, all of which were tasty enough to inspire much conversation.

*I'll say this again: The festival has the best booklets that I've yet seen to describe to attendees what goes into these beers. A great idea especially for those geeks like me who tend to write down all of the qualities of the beer but find for this show that we don't have to.

*No two people in the Fearless Tasting Crew agreed on the beer of show. But here are a couple that left a lot of heads nodding: the butt-kicking Wee Heavy Lassie; the eye-opening Snowbound Ale, which tasted more complex than past versions; Arctic's Patientia Sour (though it is so sour that it makes others in the genre look mild); Twisted Pine's Big Shot Espresso Stout, which raises the coffee-beer genre beyond aroma and backtaste of the darker liquid and really feels like you're injecting sharpness and strength into your taste buds; and Rocky Mountain's Smoked Hefeweizen, which has a sweet aftertaste to give a unique compliment to its heavily smoked, almost barbecue-esque front taste.

*Finally, there was one last area of agreement from most of the folks to whom I talked: The music has got to be turned down. The small area at Mr. Biggs is wonderful in that you can survey the whole floor, walk easily in between booths and not lose friends even if you try. But a couple of electric guitars reverberate through the area very loudly and make you raise your voice to a point that you don't want to in order to talk to friends. Please, Randy, go acoustic for the entertainment or just let it go au naturale, as most beer festivals do. Then maybe we can even do more talking about the quality of beers in the room.

Thoughts from anyone else who attended?

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Friday, November 07, 2008

A Fresher Take on Pale Ales

Fresh-hopping is an interesting phenomenon. The idea is that instead of drying out the hop flowers, brewers take some of them right off the vine at harvest time, insert them into the boil and see what unique flavors they can produce.

And now the experimentation has become a craze. Fresh-hop ales that used to be set aside only for the geeks that hang out at breweries are now being bottled (in bombers, not six-packs) and sold at good liquor stores. I recently found no less than four of them at my local store, and that was after Falling Rock Taphouse had six of them on tap one day last month.

Each brewer that tries fresh-hopping seems to produce a different taste, but the general result is beers with bigger noses and slightly more bitter backtastes. It doesn't bring the pounding sweetness of a double IPA, nor does it leave any of the room for mellowness that you find in some regular pale ales.

Here's one guy's thoughts on four of the most readily available fresh-hop beers this season, in order of preference:

1) Deschutes Hop Trip
This is the smoothest of the quartet, a slightly sweet concoction that carries many of the characteristics of an IPA. Its hoppiness is the loudest of the fresh-hop genre, and it's lively in lighting up your mouth.

2) Port Brewing High Tide Fresh Hop IPA
The taste is mouth-enveloping, a beer that you feel should swamp you in bitterness, though it doesn't. Instead, it lingers in a pleasantly mild way. I can't say I fell in love with the High Tide, but I enjoyed it enough where I'd like to try it again.

3) Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale
Considering all of the gigantic, butt-kicking beers that Great Divide makes, you might expect the flavor to be bigger here. Yet, it comes on in a very approachable manner and never grows to be very bitter or overpowering. This is the easiest sipper of the bunch and a good way to wade into the fresh-hop fad if you're not sure you're ready to jump in head-first.

4) Sierra Nevada Chico Estate Harvest Wet Hop Ale
As a member of the Fearless Tasting Crew astutely put it: "This is not a beer that you drink and forget." But it certainly has the strongest bitter backtaste to it, and by the time you're 16 ounces in, it begins to sting your tongue just a little. To me, the taste resembled a parabolic curve: A huge floral nose led to a very strong bitterness on the front, which mellowed as you swirled the beer over your taste buds and then left its presence long after you swallowed.

Are there any other fresh-hop beers out there that anyone would recommend?

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