Beer related

Calling All Hop-Heads to the IPA Challenge

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All you hoppy beer lovers out there — the ones I lovingly refer to as grass-drinkers — be aware that Capital Ale House in Harrisonburg, Va., is hosting its third annual Virginia IPA Challenge on Saturday, Sept. 6 starting at noon. This event allows the everyday craft beer lover to weigh in with their opinion on Virginia IPAs.

The cost to participate is just $10, and your entry fee allows you to sample IPAs from 28 different craft breweries, or until the keg is kicked, and then get a final pint full of your favorite when you’re done. That should do ya’.

The competition ends when that first keg is empty, so be there early enough to get a taste of all the breweries in the event. Plus you can hob-knob with the brewers as they hover over their beers and try to earn your vote — kind of like a politician but with an IBU kick.

So for those of you who like your beer well-hopped and well-made, get over to Cap Ale House this Saturday for the IPA Challenge.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A Salute to The Admiral

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High-fived a guy wearing a t-shirt with the University of Texas (my alma mater) Longhorn logo on the front. Traded Big D stories with a young JAG officer who was originally from Dallas (my adopted hometown). Learned when Jack Wilshere is going to get his act together from a fellow Gooner wearing his Arsenal FC (my favorite team) game jersey. And while any of these could have easily been the highlight of a typical day, this was not a typical day.

This was the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest, and we were there to discover, sample, and recognize the best the state has to offer in craft beer. More than 40 breweries submitted 222 different beers into the competition vying for gold, silver and bronze medals in 14 categories.

Hooked up with this Beer Goddess at the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest and took her home with me that night.
Hooked up with this Beer Goddess at the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest and took her home with me that night … which is OK because she’s my wife.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Three Brothers Brewing Co., the craft brewery in my new hometown of Harrisonburg, won gold in the Imperial IPA category for their tasty delight named The Admiral.

Interesting thing about The Admiral. While the Beer Goddess and I are on opposite sides of the beer continuum, or beertinuum, from one another, we each have a completely different response to The Admiral. She’s all about hop bite, and wants her IPAs to pinch her in the back of the throat. I, on the other hand, am malty and sweet (as my siblings would attest) and prefer a full mouth feel of velvety goodness.

Where we do agree is that The Admiral does the latter more than the former, which makes it possibly the only IPA that I can drink. Perhaps it’s so much IPA that it comes back around full circle to something my palate finds delicious. You know, sort of how Paris Hilton is so skanky she’s kinda hot.

So we must salute The Admiral, and Three Brothers, for winning what this beer purist believes is the pinnacle category of craft beer.

Of course, with so many beers to sample, we decided to divide and conquer – the Beer Goddess focusing on IPAs and me focusing on Porters and Stouts. I know, big sacrifice for both of us, right? And while the Brewers Fest handed out their own awards – sure seemed like there was some hometown scoring going on – here were the best in our book:

The Hoppy Award Winners

  • Gold — Hoptopus Double IPA (Beach Brewing Co.) — My IPA swilling friend says this year-round offering is the perfect IPA in that it’s heavy on the hops (108 IBUs) and full of flavor. I’ll take her word for it.
  • Silver — King of Hop Imperial IPA (Starr Hill) — The everyday IPA by this brewer is not one that the IPA drinkers I know particularly care for. So it was with some hesitancy that my designated IPA taster tried this brew. Boy was she surprised. A nice citrus flavor helped balance this hoppy offering. If the King of Hop was easily found, it could be the everyday IPA in our household.
  • Bronze — Bucktooth IPA (Rusty Beaver Brewery) — I’m told this one was clearly made with love. I guess I have no choice but to believe that. The Goddess says it has lots of flower in the nose and a big hop bite in the finish.
  • Honorable Mention — Expedition IPA (Adventure Brewing Co.) — Sometimes it’s hard to pick just three. Therefore the Expedition IPA gets Bronze 1A for being a mellow, but quality IPA. Notes of white wine in the taste.

The Malty Award Winners

  • Gold — Wicked Nymph Imperial Stout (Adventure Brewing Co.) – Holy crap this was a great beer. Smooth with extremely slight hints of chocolate but with a wild stout kick. I know why they chose to put “wicked” in the name.
  • Silver — Pumpkin Ale (Aleworks Brewing Co.) – I love the fall season when we move away from the summer ales and start getting more bocks, Oktoberfests, and pumpkin flavored beers. This Pumpkin Ale was a great start with enough ale attitude that tamped down any chance to have the pumpkin flavor overpower the maltiness of the beer. It was like pumpkin pie in a glass.
  • Bronze — Gingerbread Stout (Hardywood Park) – Yum yum yum yum yum. An excellent balance of gingerbread and boldness from the imperial stout brewing process. Lots of spice flavors in the mouth including cinnamon and ginger. It’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas.
  • Honorable Mention — Virginia Vulgarian Bourbon Bock (Strangeways Brewing) – As those of you who have read my blog before know, I’m usually reluctant to recommend the rum and bourbon flavored beers. But this Virginia Vulgarian Bourbon Bock was an eye-opener. It was malty in the front of the mouth, and then had a delayed liquor kick at the end. Everyone who tried it could only say “Wow.” And at only 6.6 ABV, I think I’ll have another.

After a great day of tasting quality beer, the Beer Goddess and I took off for home, stopping along the way at Blue Mountain Brewery for a final pint and a bite. It was here that I was able to drop a little water on my burger drought with the brewpub’s special, the aptly named Hangover Burger.

This tasty concoction featured an almost-properly cooked burger (it was closer to medium than medium rare) with the usual lettuce, onion, and tomato. But this burger special came with a fried egg (over easy) and bacon on top. And while it might not sound terribly appetizing, and it certainly wasn’t a photogenic meal because I tried several times, it was yum to the yumth degree.

So here’s to the best of Virginia Craft Brewers, along with a special salute to The Admiral, as well as a tip of the hat to the best burger I’ve had in months. You all have plenty of reasons to be proud.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Living in Craft Beer Country

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I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life. Started in 1978 when my parents were foolish enough to let me attend the KISS concert in Kansas City. Of course, they were the ones who fostered a love of music in me, so they only have themselves to blame. Between that first show 36 years ago and the one I went to last week, I also worked at a trade magazine covering the concert touring industry. So I can’t begin to accurately count the number of concerts I’ve seen.

Linkin Park shares a craft beer with me at Jiffy Lube Live in Northern Virginia.
Linkin Park shares a craft beer with me for my birthday last week at Jiffy Lube Live in NOVA.

However, last week at the show featuring Linkin Park, Thirty Seconds to Mars and AFI, I saw something I’d never seen before — craft beer at an alternative rock concert. I had my choice of the Star Hill Grateful American pale ale, the Sweetwater 420 extra pale ale, or the Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, winner of the 2012 Gold World Beer Cup and 2009 Great American Beer Festival Silver Medal. Can you guess which one I had? (Did I mention that the Devil’s Backbone is an award winner?)

So why were craft beers available at a Linkin Park concert in suburban D.C.? Is it that Virginia is such a craft beer loving state that any public venue must now carry these carefully made mouth-watering delights in order to cater to public demands? Or is it that the craft beer revolution has taken hold across the entire United States of America, and craft beers are demanded by a beer-guzzling public coast-to-coast?

Since moving to Virginia in 2013, I have first-hand knowledge that this is a craft beer friendly state. Not only was Harrisonburg, the college town in which I live, named best craft beer town in all of Appalachia, but there are four craft breweries within an hour’s drive — the previously mentioned Devil’s Backbone, as well as Blue Mountain Brewery, and Wild Wolf Brewing Company, and the hometown Three Brothers Brewing Co. On top of that, a fifth brewery is scheduled to open in the ‘Burg later this year, and I haven’t even mentioned all the others in nearby Charlottesville and throughout the rest of the state. But according to the Brewers Association, Virginia ranks 15th in total number of craft breweries, and only 30th in breweries per capita, with just 1 per 100,000 people.

Beer MarketThen again, maybe the fact that connoisseurs of crafty concoctions are spread nationwide has contributed to the craft beer boom. The Brewers Association says there were 89 breweries in the United States in 1979, the year after former President Jimmy Cater signed the home brewers law, but by 2013, there were 2,416 breweries in operation (almost 400 more than just the year before), with 98 percent officially labeled craft breweries (which includes local breweries, microbreweries and brew pubs).

While it sounds good that 98 percent of the U.S. breweries are of the craft variety, they have only 7.8 percent of the entire beer market, according to the BA. That means the big three — who shall remain nameless here — still have roughly 80 percent of all beer drinkers swilling their colored water, with imports making up the difference.

Still, the small gains by the craft beer industry have had an impact. Bloomberg news reported earlier this year that the acquisitions of Goose Island, Blue Moon, Lienenkugel, ShockTop, and ZiegenBock by the big three are in response to the inroads made by craft breweries, and at the expense of market share by Bud Light and Miller Lite, their top brands. So craft beers are a threat to the mass brewers, but aren’t taking market share as the big boys simply schlep out their versions of craft brews to unknowing consumers.

What are we, the enlightened craft beer intelligentsia supposed to do? Drink more beer? Well, sure, that’s one option. But at some point we reach personal capacity. The better approach may be to introduce a friend who doesn’t drink good beer to the craft beers we know and love.

For example, earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the Three Brothers taproom with some of the wife’s co-workers. The one immediately to my left said she didn’t know what to order because she was “more of a wine drinker.” My response: “Let’s each get a flight so we can taste several.” Over the next hour she and I tasted six different Three Brothers beers and I imparted as much knowledge about beer as I thought she could take. Turns out, she liked learning about it all, and definitely found out there were at least two styles of beer she liked, and two she definitely didn’t.

Meanwhile, another co-worker sitting at the opposite end of the table had ordered a beer but wasn’t drinking it. When I asked why not she said it was because she didn’t like it (she’d ordered a session beer). I asked her what kinds of flavors she preferred, and after some probing, I recommended the Virginia Dark Ale — a black IPA that hits with plenty of roasted malt up front and finishes with a nice hoppy bite. “I don’t like dark beers,” she said after I’d made my suggestion. “Color has little-to-nothing to do with the flavor of the beer,” I replied with my auto-pilot response, and immediately got her a taste of the Dark Ale. Guess what? She loved it.

So, that’s two converts to craft beer. Now it’s up to the rest of us to continue the effort so that we really do become a craft beer country.

— Eric Van Steenburg

National Beer Expo – the Toyota Corolla of Festivals

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If the inaugural “National Beer Expo” last weekend was a state, it would be Missouri. If it was a planet, it would be Neptune. If it was a car, it would be a Toyota Corolla. If it was in a band, it would play the bass.

See, there’s nothing wrong with any of these. They’re just not the kind of things dreams are made of.

Question: Who plays the bass in a rock band? Answer: The guy who is second best at lead guitar. Noel Redding was a great guitar player. But he played bass in the Jimi Hendrix Experience because, well, the other guitar player (that would be Jimi) was just a tad better. And there’s nothing wrong with a Corolla. It’s just not the car every girl hopes is in her driveway on the morning of her 16th birthday. Missouri is a fine state. But it’s probably not the dream vacation destination you are hoping for on your honeymoon. And Neptune? Need I say more.

So the Capital Ale House National Beer Expo in Richmond, Va., was all of these combined. Yes, it was the Missouri-Neptune-Corolla-bass playing of beer festivals. There was nothing particularly wrong with it. It just didn’t make any distinguishing mark on the craft beer world … yet.

The creators of the Expo seem to have an idea of developing a four-day event that celebrates the best in craft beer and the food that goes with it. That’s why, on every day of the Expo, various restaurants served special Expo-themed meals to pair with specially chosen craft beer.

A sign outside On the Rox in Shockoe Bottom just east of Downtown Richmond.
A sign outside On the Rox in Shockoe Bottom just east of Downtown Richmond.

For example, on Saturday, the third day, we started off by enjoying a delicious brunch at On the Rox in the Shockoe Bottom section of town. We had our choices of eggs, pancakes, sausage, and other usual breakfast fare, but all the food was chosen to go with the flight of beers from local Hardywood Park Craft Brewing. We were able to sample:

  1. Hardywood Singel – I’m not a particularly big fan of Belgian ales, but this Belgian Abby-style blonde was quite mellow and easy to drink. It almost tasted like a lager (also not one of my favorite brews) but with more panache, like most blondes, I suppose.
  2. Hardywood Virginia Blackberry – Despite its name, this tasty beverage was not too fruity. The Belgian-style white ale actually drank more like a clean wheat beer, not too thick, with just a subtle hint of the blackberry used in its making. The only real giveaway of the berry-infusion was the cloudy, light purple color of the beer.
  3. Hardywood Sidamo Coffee Stout – What could be better with brunch than a coffee stout? Apparently anything, according to my traveling companion. I, however, found this Russian Imperial stout to be the ideal drink while nibbling on my beer-infused sausage and my jalapeno-stuffed omelet.
  4. Hardywood RVA IPA – One taste of this highly hopped IPA and I was more than willing to make a trade for my partner’s abandoned stout. Not that the IPA tasted bad. At 62 IBUs, it wasn’t so earthy that I couldn’t drink it. But why waste an IPA on me when we could easily cut a deal and get what we like best. Teamwork.

After brunch, we headed off to the Walk-Around Grand Tasting at the Richmond Convention Center. At it, a little less than 50 different brewers offered samples of their craft beers. Our strategy was to try beers from brewers that we’d never had before.

That was the easy party. Finding beers that we’d want to drink on a regular basis turned out to be a much bigger challenge. Many of the highly-hopped beers that my drinking buddy prefers were, uh, not really drinkable. And because it was summer, the number of malty beers that I prefer was somewhat hard to come by. There were some unique efforts by some brewers, like the habanero-infused pale ale and the peppermint flavored nitro stout. But most were rather unremarkable.

My favorites were the Mean Ole Tom American stout from Maine Beer Company and the Sweet Josie Brown from Lonerider Brewing. Both were wonderfully malty, with the offering from Lonerider the only brown ale in my book able to challenge Elle’s Brown Ale from Avery for overall brown ale excellence.

On the other end of the beer continuum, my IPA-swilling friend preferred the SweetWater IPA from SweetWater Brewing Company and the Detour Double IPA from Uinta Brewing. Each provided hoppyness in a glass.

Several craft brewers were on tap that we’d tried before, with the efforts from Blue Mountain Brewery the only one to hit both of our sweet spots with their Full Nelson Pale Ale and the Dark Hollow Artisanal Ale, an imperial stout, making it difficult for us to wander too far from their tasting booth by the end of the day.

Unfortunately, the end of the day did come, and it was off to Capital Ale House, the sponsor for the whole shebang, for the after party. The highlight for me at the pub was the James Brown cover band known as The Big Payback (check out a sample of one of their songs on YouTube here).

My traveling companion was fairly happy with the beef, lamb and veal sliders that were complimentary to all post-tasting attendees, though the passed hors d’oeuvres didn’t really constitute much of a meal for me.

In the program introduction, the event organizers said their vision for the National Beer Expo is to create a signature, national event for craft beer and food that makes everyone in the craft beer industry proud. To be fair, we did not attend most of the options made available over the four days, such as the multiple brewery tours, the numerous restaurant special meals, nor the seminars on everything from how to pair craft beer with goat cheese to how different hops affect the flavor of the IPA. So there may be much more for us to explore, and partake in, at next year’s event.

And even though this particular festival was more like a drive through Kansas City in a Corolla than a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mustang convertible, it was a decent effort. Here’s hoping the organizers learned a great deal that will allow them to trade in their Toyota for an Audi.

— Eric Van Steenburg

What (not) to Wear to a Beer Fest

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The fact that the beer festival had an entry on its website for “Dress Code” was rather unusual. And the description of what to wear – “chic, smart, or comfortable casual” – was somewhat confusing. But some of the choices attendees made were downright strange. So here’s a snapshot of the best and the worst from the National Beer Expo last weekend in Richmond, Va.


  • Pink Floyd prism as a beer can and the words “Wish You Were Beer” – Please ignore the fact that Pink Floyd’s album “Wish You Were Here” is not the one with the prism on the front. Details, details.Runs With Beer
  • Saw two shirts that said “My Indian Name is Runs With Beer” – Mom, how do Native American’s get their names? Why do you ask, Two Dogs F%&#$ing?
  • Pain white T that simply said “I Know the Muffin Man” – Yes, but do you know where he lives?
  • At least three shirts had “My bucket list includes: 1) ice, 2) beer” – ‘Nuff said.


  • The guy in the red pants with red tennis shoes wearing a red-and-black Taylor Swift concert T-shirt – You’ve got to be comfortable with your masculinity to hang out with beer drinkers in that get-up.
  • The guy wearing the “Top Gun” T-shirt – OK, we get it, you’re into fighter jets and military heroes. But why did you choose the shirt with a picture of a bare-chested Val Kilmer playing volleyball?
  • Viking helmet complete with horns – It was funny when two guys showed up wearing them. But then we soon realized there was a vendor on-site selling them, and 115 people wearing Viking helmets isn’t nearly as funny … until the horns started falling off.

My team (which consists of two) wore matching grey T-shirts that said “Craft & Growler Filling Station – Dallas, Texas” on the front. We were chic, smart, and comfortable casual.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Off to the National Beer Expo

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There’s a four-day National Beer Expo taking place in Richmond, Va. that started on Thursday and ends on Sunday. Today we’ll be starting off with Flapjackass: The Craft Beer Brunch on the Rox from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., followed by the Walk-Around Grand Tasting from 2-6 p.m. We’ll finish up with the Expo After Hours party at Capital Ale House, the title sponsor of the whole shebang.

I’ll post details about great beers we taste and any burgers we run across worth mentioning in a couple of posts next week.

— Eric Van Steenburg

I’m as Hoppy as Pharrell. Or not.

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When you’re hoppy and you know it, clap your hands.

clap clap

When you’re hoppy and you know it … clap your hands.

Clap Clap

When you’re hoppy and you know it, then your IPA will show it.

When you’re hoppy and you know it, clap your hands.


The reality is, unlike Pharrell Williams, I am not a hoppy person. I am malty. My preference in beer will always tilt toward porter and stout, and away from those overly-hopped IPAs that make my tongue feel like it needs to be mowed after just a few sips. OK, maybe that’s a little hopperbole. And it’s just one man’s hopinion. But you get my point.

Behold ... the Hop.
Behold … the Hop.

But … I certainly understand the value of the hop in the beer-making process. Without it, beer would not be beer. After all, hops are one of the three ingredients allowed in beer according to the Reinheitsgebot, aka the German purity law.

Therefore, when presented with the hopportunity to help out a local farming family with their new hop yard, I was hoptimistic.

So last Saturday we went to visit Jane, Jason and Juli-Anna. Our mission? To find the leaders (or “bines”) of the hop plants and attach them to a string that we tied to an overhead wire and anchored in the ground next to the plant.

Motivated by the thought that these flowers would someday fulfill their destiny in a kettle of boiling water that would hoptimately become beer, we put in a hoptimum effort. Two hours and two rows later, our task was well hopsecuted. So much so, that Jane invited us back for the fall when it’s time to pick the hops. Who could be hopposed to that?

— Eric Van Steenburg

The hop yard at the halfway point.
The hop yard at the halfway point.

Why the Netherlands lost

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I’m to blame. It’s true.

I’ve been a fan of Dutch football since I began playing soccer as an 11-year-old in the 1970s. Back then the U.S. national team was practically non-existent, while the team from the Netherlands, from whence my ancestors departed so long ago no one in my family remembers, was so good I immediately glommed on to Total Football. While I do cheer for the USMNT faithfully, I must admit my heart is with the Dutch boys.

So naturally, last Saturday we had to suspend our vacation and find a pub from which to watch the Netherlands play Costa Rica in the World Cup quarterfinals. Fortunately, Max’s Taphouse in the Fells Point section of Baltimore was happy to oblige.

The stout that helped the Dutch to victory over Costa Rica.
The stout that helped the Dutch to victory over Costa Rica in the World Cup quarterfinals.

A Max’s bartender, seeing me in my oranje KNVB football jersey, recommended that I try the Emelisse espresso stout, a coffee-based beer from the Netherlands. It was just as the extra time was ending, and the game was headed toward a penalty kick shootout.

Now, anyone who follows Dutch football knows the boys from the Netherlands never fare well when it comes to the PKs. I still have nightmares about the semifinal game they managed to give away in the European Championships in 2000 … on home soil. So needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled to see the game go to penalties.

But then I tasted the Emelisse espresso stout. It was delicious. While it’s listed as a coffee-infused beer, it smelled and tasted more like a bourbon-barrel aged style. Its dark color and tan head, while it lasted, made for a nice appearance. It was smooth and easy to drink, despite the liquor flavor slightly overpowering the taste of coffee. More importantly, as I sipped this delicious concoction, the players for the Dutch team slipped perfect penalty kicks past the helpless Costa Rican keeper to win the PK shootout and advance in the WC.

And that leads me to that semifinal game against Argentina. Once again, I was wearing my KNVB jersey. And once again, the game was scoreless after extra time and went into the penalty kick shootout. For once, I was feeling confident. But … I didn’t have an Emelisse espresso stout, nor any beer from the Netherlands, to sip on while the PKs were taken.

Alas, the Dutch boys found a new way to lose in the shootout. One can only conclude, therefore, it was because I didn’t have the right beer in front of me. The lesson here? Choose your beers wisely, because it does affect how your favorite team plays.

— Eric Van Steenburg