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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.

CLAP CLAP

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

What Makes a Good Burger Joint?

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My quest for the best burger joint started more than 10 years ago when my go-to place in Dallas (my hometown) changed its burger recipe. And if messing up the best tasting burger in the city wasn’t enough, the restaurant also changed its queso, salsa and guacamole. What used to be a slam dunk order – Swiss burger medium rare with chips all three, please – was forever quashed. It cut me to the bun.

So the quest began. But first, I had to determine what makes a great burger joint. Keep in mind I’m looking for the best place to eat burgers, not necessarily the place with the best burgers. In fact, burger quality is only half of the grading system to determine the best burger joint. But it is 50 percent.

For those interested in starting your own quest, or want to join me in mine, here’s how to rate a burger joint. Just remember that eating at a great burger joint should be a holistic experience.

Burger Measures

  1. Can you get it cooked to order? In other words, can you get it medium rare, and does it show up medium rare. Most places will allow you to request it cooked any way you want. Few actually deliver.
  2. Can you get it made to order? That is, can you order it with or without cheese, toppings, sauces, condiments, etc.? For me, I always need the option to ixnay the mustard.
  3. Appearance – Any top chef will tell you that presentation is key to a good meal. And while top chefs don’t typically work the kitchen at a burger joint, how the burger looks when it arrives does matter. A cook who takes pride in his work will want the burger to look great.
  4. Bun quality. Consider the following: Is it too hard or soft? How does it taste? What’s the bun-to-burger ratio? If it has seeds (sesame, poppy, etc.) do they serve a purpose beyond getting stuck between your teeth? Too many burger places overlook the importance of the bun.
  5. Does it taste good – do you get good burger flavor? Your taste buds should be in heaven. And in the future, your mouth should start to salivate every time you think of it.

Non-Burger Measures

  1. Are there other items on the menu besides burgers, and are they any good? Not everyone in your group may like or want a burger. Check for a marinated chicken breast sandwich or something similar.
  2. How’s the beer list? Variety and quality of beer makes for a better burger experience. Good frozen margaritas can work in a pinch, and will probably be the favorite of the non-burger eater in your party.
  3. Is there outside seating? Americans love to eat burgers outside. That’s why we stand over a 250-degree grill on a 110-degree day every 4th of July. But there’s nothing better than a burger joint with a patio or deck. A cool bar to at which to sit is a good substitute.
  4. What side dishes are available? Fries are a staple, and therefore a must-have. But top-notch homemade chips can make a good burger experience a great one. Perhaps the restaurant has a signature side, like mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans, or pig knuckles.
  5. Ambiance – this includes everything from the music (‘70s and ‘80s pop seem to work well in burger joints), to the table comfort, to cleanliness, to service. If all are strong, give at least a 20 percent tip. The reason? If you ever go back, the staff remembers the good tippers, and you’ll get an even better experience.

Rate each item on a 10-point scale, then add it up. Any place that scores more than 90 is an A-level burger joint. Just let me know where it is so I can meet you there next time.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Which way do you want to go?

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We all make decisions.

Some are crucial, like … what job to take … where to live … who to marry … what to name your first child (tip #1: NOT Adolf) … and so on.

Others do not seem nearly as important, such as … what shirt to wear … where to eat dinner … how to style your hair … etc.

I put what beers to drink and what burgers to eat in the first category. They are crucial decisions that have a significant impact on your life in both the short- and long-term. At least they do for me.

Which way do you want to go?
Which way do you want to go?

See, I’m a beer snob … and a burger snob. I just wish I had the bank account to support my level of snobbery. But if you want to learn about great beers, great burgers, and great places to find both … then you should enjoy my blog.

I’m a former professional journalist, so I can usually write a little (and without too many spelling errors). And I live in Harrisonburg, Virginia — recently dubbed the Best Beer Town in the Blue Ridge Mountains by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, and a place that I swear has more burger restaurants per capita than any place I’ve ever lived (and I’m an Army brat, so that’s more than a few places).

However, my posts won’t be limited to beer and burgers in Harrisonburg. I travel often, and when I do, I drink beer and eat burgers. I’ll be supplying insights, recommendations, reviews, and occasional meanderings from all over. In other words, if there’s a place that has great beer, great burgers, or both, I’ll probably find my way there sooner or later.

So enjoy this blog. And as you do, feel free to pop open a good beer and chow down on a good burger. Because I will be. And besides, beer and burgers are two of the three major food groups.

— Eric Van Steenburg