Month: December 2014
Here we sit smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. For example, Festivus was a week ago, and Groundhog Day isn’t until February. Why? What holidays were you thinking of?
The best part of the holidays for me is that we’re in the middle of the greatest season of beer tasting. That’s right, it’s winter beer time.
I love the build up to winter beer tasting season. It starts in late August when the beer carrier cartons start to change colors, from the yellows and greens of the IPAs and Pilsners, to the oranges and browns of the Oktoberfests and Bocks. It is always exhilarating to me when I walk into a grocery store around Labor Day and have my first sighting of the Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer. I know that cooler temperatures, and much cooler beers, are just around the corner … and down the hall and through the door on the left.
Of course, as most drinkers of quality beer know, the Oktoberfests typically disappear around October. At least the good ones do. And even though I was informed by a beer guru that pumpkins really don’t add anything to a fall brew, and that it’s really the spices added by the brewer that make the beer taste the way it does, I still enjoy the Pumpkin Ales that roll off the shelf … and down the street before getting smashed by a truck and then turned into pumpkin pie … as Halloween approaches.
But the most wonderful time of the year is when the nights start getting longer, and the air starts getting colder, and all the syrupy beers with their holiday spices that my IPA-chugging friend can’t stand start to make their way onto store shelves and pub pulls. Yes, baby, it’s cold outside. But these beers warm my heart.
And in case you’re in need of some winter warming, I’ll share with you a list, in alphabetical order, of fall and holiday seasonal ales that I’ve tasted thus far. Nothing naughty or nice here, just sweet, malty goodness that makes my mouth wish the winter would last forever.
- Alta Gracia Coffee Porter – Wolaver’s – An outstanding ale made with organic barley, organic chocolate malts, organic vanilla beans, and coffee from a Dominican Republican farm community in Alta Gracia. Yes, its certified organic by the USDA. One of the best coffee porters I’ve ever had … and I don’t even like coffee.
- Anastasia’s Chocolate Fantasy – South Street Brewery – The Charlottesville, VA-based brewery made this Russian imperial stout aged on cocoa nibs. What’s a nib? Who cares? This beer is like a brownie in a bottle. And I don’t even like brownies (the desert kind, not the human kind, which are OK with me).
- Blitzen – Blue Mountain Brewery – This Belgian imperial Christmas ale is a strong dark ale that is rather bold and in your face. Some hints of fruit and lots of malt.
- Choklat – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – OK, so you can get this imperial chocolate stout in the fall, but it’s not available year round. And if it were, you probably wouldn’t want it on a hot summer day. It’s chocolaty goodness, and I don’t even like chocolate. There’s a growler of it in my ‘fridge right now.
- Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Co. – I love beer made with honey, and this one has that plus some cinnamon to boot. It’s a multiple award winner, so grab some if you can.
- Einbecker Winter-Bock – Einbecker Brauhaus – Lots of malt in this tasty bock made by real Germans in Germany. Watch out for the ABV.
- Elementary Porter – Three Brothers Brewery – A lot of caramel and a little coffee make this a powerful porter. I wish it was available year round. As good as it is, I like it’s companion beer, My Dear Watson, even better. The Baltic porter is a little sweeter with tastes of toffee on the tongue. Alas, I couldn’t get a growler of it because the tap was acting up and it took 10 minutes just to pour a pint.
- Fairgrounds Fall Ale – Three Brothers Brewery – While there might be lots of flavor going on here, the brothers know how to bring it together into a nutty, malty concoction. Nutmeg and cinnamon lead the way, with a little allspice at theback end. Perfect after a day of raking leaves.
- Hardywood Park – Gingerbread Stout – This thing is being traded around my area, which I’ll call Central Virginia, like gold on the Swiss financial exchange. And let me tell you, it’s demanding quite a bit in trade (don’t even bring those Sam Adams winter lagers in here). I managed to get clued in early, and was able to smuggle one out of state to my Dad in Texas. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. Oh, and if you wonder why it’s in demand, imagine the entire Christmas season in a bottle. That’s the GBS.
- Homebody – Three Brothers Brewery – I don’t even like sour style beers, but this tart brown ale was easy to drink despite its bitterness. Probably because brown ales tend to have more malt characteristics, and this one was also made with cherries and vanilla beans. I like vanilla.
- Long Winter’s Nap – Blue Mountain Brewery – Belgian Triple Bock (lager beer) – I don’t know if this beer will put you to sleep or provide you a slap-in-the-face wake-up call. It’s cold fermented for more than two months before release into the wild. Very bocky. Could put a novice into hibernation.
- Polar Bier – Three Brothers Brewery – I’m not usually a fan of wheaty beers, but this weizenbock is so sehr gut, I picked up a growler of it at the brewery. You can definitely taste the allspice and orange peel. But I bet it’s the candied ginger that makes this a wintery wunderbar.
- Pumking – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – The best pumpkin ale I’ve ever had. I know, I know, brewing with pumpkins doesn’t add anything to the beer. Yeah, well tell that to the folks at Southern Tier. In addition to pumpkins, they add two kinds of hops and two kinds of malts to create a copper colored beer that tastes like pumpkin pie. And I like pumpkin pie.
- Secret Spot Winter Ale – Evolution Craft Brewing Co. – One of the more hopped beers I’ve had this season. Still lots of malty goodness to go around, though. The Salisbury, MD-based brewery calls this a nod to the altbiers of Dusseldorf. Jawohl!
- Siren Noire – Heavy Seas – I’ve gotten to know Heavy Seas quite a bit over the last year, mostly because it’s about the only craft beer served at Camden Yards. So whenever I go see the Orioles play, I’m sailing the Heavy Seas. And this one’s made with Belgian coco nibs (anyone know what a nib is?). It’s also aged in bourbon barrels for that extra kick, with vanilla bean flavors as well. I felt like I could part a few seas after having one or two of these.
- Space Heater – Three Brothers Brewery – Winter warmers might be my favorite this time of year. Sam Smith first opened my account for these beers. The brothers have made a malty English ale with the usual spicy suspects – allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. But this mix is their best. Terribly disappointed I can’t get a growler of it anywhere.
- St. Bernardus Christmas Ale – One must file this under “St. Bernardus” instead of just “Christmas Ale” because it might be the most famous Christmas ale of all. The quadrupel is known worldwide and anticipated by adults as much as Santa Claus is by kids. The good news for us older people is that this Belgian ale made by real Belgians is real. (Sorry, kids, spoiler alert.)
- Winter Solstice – Anderson Valley Brewing Co. – The other winter warmer I’ve tried this season is also delicioso. Tastes of honey and allspice, along with a malty mouthful. It’s the winter compliment to the brewery’s Summer Solstice. I’m just glad it’s my season now.
Of course, the holiday season isn’t over. After Groundhog Day we have Presidents Day, Arbor Day, Flag Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day (celebrate the latter by drinking more Heavy Seas).
So I’m off to see the folks at Three Notch’d because there’s a Maple Vanilla Porter named “Mathia Sugar Shack” waiting for me with my name on it.
– Eric Van Steenburg
Just got finished grading 19 projects, 19 presentations, and the semester-long participation efforts of 79 students. You would think I’d be sick of grading. But no. Because now I get to grade what I really want … the world’s greatest burger joint.
OK, the Katy Trail Ice House might not be the best burger joint in the world. But it’s pretty darn good. And I was fortunate enough to be there two days before Thanksgiving, sitting outside on their huge backyard space, eating a delicious burger, drinking a delicious beer, basking in 68-degree sunshine, and watching the beautiful people of Dallas getting their mid-day exercise on the Katy Trail.
I have to admit feeling a twinge of nostalgic remorse as I sat there enjoying myself and watching the world go by. Two reasons for this: 1) I helped build the Katy Trail when I was its executive director from 2002-2009; and 2) restaurants with backyards adjacent to the Trail was an idea I’d pushed on every developer during my tenure, but none would ever support my vision.
Now the Katy Trail Ice House is so popular, the City of Dallas features it several times in its official promo video (look for it around 2:02 and 2:27). It’s location along the incredibly successful Katy Trail is part of the reason. The other is that the place has great beer and great burgers. How great? Let’s find out by putting my How to Rate a Burger Joint grading scale to work. Here we go:
- Can you get it cooked to order? – My preference is medium rare. I want quite a bit of pink in the middle of that slab of meat. Most places are either afraid to serve it that way, or have cooks who don’t know how to do anything but burn it to a crisp. The Katy Trail Ice House delivers. Perfectly. Score: 10.
- Can you get it made to order? – I will never want mustard on my burger, so we’ll always need to 86 that. And if I order the jalapeno burger, it had better not come with sour cream. What Mexican do you know who eats anything with sour cream? Again, the Ice House met my demands. Score: 10.
- Appearance – You can’t just slap down a burger on a plate and expect people to eat it. Presentation does count for something, even at a burger joint. Katy Trail Ice House puts your food on a small tray covered in aluminum foil, chips on the side. It’s probably not what they teach at Le Cordon Bleu, but it works. Score: 7.
- Bun quality – Outstanding bun-to-burger ratio here. Not much else to consider in this bun, however. It’s more or less there to keep you from looking like an animal if you were to simply hold charred beef between your fingers. Score: 7.
- Does it taste good? – Yes, my taste buds were in heaven. It always helps when the burger is cooked to order. But the combination of goodies on top made the whole thing a mouth-watering delight. Score: 10.
- Are there other items on the menu? – My lunch companion often prefers a chicken something to a burger. The Ice House has a grilled chicken Swiss sandwich, a chicken salad sandwich, and a chicken salad salad. A few other options sprinkle the menu, but this place caters to the burger lover. Score: 7.
- How’s the beer list? – In a word, excellent. There are about 50 taps with a range of craft and mass-produced beers. Most are Texas beers or others in the region. I was able to get the 512 Pecan Porter, and my IPA-chugging friend got the Lakewood Hopp Trapp. Would love to see the list expanded to great beer-making states like Colorado, Oregon, and Virginia. Score: 9.
- Is there outside seating? – Holy crap, yes. And the Ice House did it the way I’d recommended to many a developer – throw some gravel on the ground, put out some picnic tables, and serve coffee, water, and beer. In addition to glorious outdoor seating, the Ice House has garage doors that can be opened or closed based on the weather, and lead to the inside seating with a dozen or so TVs filled with every game being played that day. The place even keeps water jugs next to the Trail for the exerciser in need of refreshment. Score: 10.
- What side dishes are available? – Katy Trail Ice House has a few options for chips and dips. We started with the jalapeno bottle caps, which are simply jalapeno slices dipped in batter and deep-fried. Yes, I had jalapenos as an appetizer and the jalapeno burger. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first said “You can never have enough jalapenos.” Grade: 7
- Ambiance – Well, the music is mostly country, which is a demerit in my book. But at least it was classic country and not the pop-country-crap that Nashville has been pushing on us for the last 20 years. The servers are usually quite nice. And the whole thing reeks of casual chic. Excellent place to hang out for a while. Score: 10.
Now we add simply it up. And the Katy Trail Ice House burger joint score is … 87.
That’s pretty good. But hey, I’m a tough grader. Just ask 79 students.
— Eric Van Steenburg