craft beer

I Hit Rock Bottom – Twice

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This one’s off my 83rd album …

“Oh, I’ve been everywhere, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

“I’ve tried a lot of beers, man.”

“I’ve tried a lot of beers.”

“Of beers I’ve had my share, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

“I been to Chicago, Seattle, Scranton, San Antonio,”

“Washington, Grand Forks, Raleigh-Durham,”

“North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota,”

 “Myrtle Beach, Montana, Minneapolis (four times)”

“Oh, I’ve been everywhere, man.”

“I’ve been everywhere.”

Thank ya. Thank ya very much.

As you can tell, I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately, which is why the number of posts on the Beer-and-Burgers blog has slowed considerably. But I really did go to all of those places – and all in the last five weeks. Can you say hectic? I thought you could.

The good news is I did get to sample a nice variety of craft beers in these locations. Here are the highlights:

  • Surly Brewing Company (Brooklyn Center, MN) – On a trip to North Dakota, I tasted the Bender and the Coffee Bender in Minnesota (which is just across the river from where I was staying). The Bender is a brown ale made with oatmeal that created a taste similar to a stout. Although it was somewhat dry, I liked the creaminess of the beer, and noticed a little caramel flavor at the end. The Coffee Bender is the sister beer. The addition of coffee to the Bender made it even creamier, making it feel like a coffee stout but with enough caramel sweetness to balance out the bitter coffee flavor. Delicious.
  • Two Beers Brewing (Seattle, WA) – Tried the excellent Sodo Brown Ale during a visit to Seattle in February. Heavy on the malt, this beer had a bit of cocoa flavor that wasn’t overpowering, but enough to make it semi-sweet and exceptionally smooth.
  • 406 Brewing Company (Bozeman, MT) – The Brown Porter is outstanding. It rivals the Pecan Porter from 512 Brewing Co. in Austin, TX. Obviously naming your brewery after the area code where you live means you can make an excellent porter. Lots of caramel flavor and malty goodness to counterbalance the smokiness at the beginning of the taste.
  • Tröegs Brewing Company (Hershey, PA) – The Mad Elf Ale may look like an everyday Amber in the glass, but this Winter ale is the perfect conclusion to anyone’s holiday season. I tasted a hint of chocolate and cherry, but lots of malt from start to finish. At 11% ABV, you probably only need one of these to kick off a celebration. Usually only available through February, so I was lucky to find one during a trip to Scranton, PA in March.

Of course, all the travel meant flight delays, missed connections, and plenty of time spent in airports.

So there I sat, in the Minneapolis airport for the second time, waiting for the same flight going to the same place leaving from the same gate. And both times, I had a four-hour layover. What to do, what to do?

Fortunately, there is a Rock Bottom Brewery in the airport. And even better, it’s right around the corner from the gate where the flight leaves at 8 p.m. for D.C.

Now, I’m not a fan of chain restaurants … nor chain letters or chain link fences, for that matter. (I’m OK with chainmail, if worn correctly.) But I’ve had several good meals and beers at Rock Bottom Brewery in the past. Took some friends to the one in downtown Chicago and had a great time. Used to visit the one in Dallas when it was open. And so I was OK with spending a few hours at Rock Bottom in the Minneapolis airport.

The first time, I was able to enjoy the Winter Warmer and the Chocolate Porter. Both were pretty good. The warmer tasted of molasses and nutmeg, while the porter was exactly as advertised – very chocolatey and sweet. The warmer was perfect with my Laredo burger, which featured a little spice in the cheese and toppings, and was cooked a perfect medium rare.

The second visit exactly one week later wasn’t quite as good on the beer or burger front. The Warmer was gone, and the Porter didn’t go well with that spicy burger. And I think this time the cook let it sit too long on the grill because there wasn’t any pinkness left in the meat.

Still, sitting there wasn’t exactly the worst way to kill four hours waiting for an airplane. So who cares if all I could get was an airporter. If you find yourself hitting Rock Bottom, this is the way to do it.

— Eric Van Steenburg

When in Doubt, Drink a Stout

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There was no doubt this was all about the stout. All the breweries with any clout had followed this route so they could go all-out about their stout. And anyone in a stout drought did not need to pout because it was time to shout for they were about to have a stout below their snout.

OK, I’m just about out of words that rhyme with stout, so let me tell you about the Know Good Beer Festival that took place last weekend in Charlottesville. It was called the Siberian Express since its focus was winter beers. Finally, a beer festival made for me.

It is vital to keep your head covered and warm at a winter beer festival.
It is important to keep your head covered at a winter beer festival so that you stay warm, like these guys.

See, usually when my IPA-slurping friend and I attend a beer tasting, beer festival, beer anything, I spend the first 30 minutes walking around searching for any offerings that tilt toward the malty side of the beer spectrum. Typically I’ll find a couple of stouts, a brown ale, and zero porters. This time, the malt was on the other foot (or something like that).

There were 11 different malty falcons that I was able to sample. Meanwhile, the IPA-chugger was limited to just a couple of options. Aha! … So there! … How’s that feel? … Apparently not too bad because she made numerous trips to Get Bent from Parkway Brewing Co. Hmm. Is that something I should be concerned about?

Anyway, back to the stouts … and the other deliciously malty concoctions available to me at the chilly (it was outdoors in 30-something degree temps) winter beer festival. First, kudos to all the people — attendees, brewers, volunteers, photographers (check out Ron Rammelkamp’s handiwork), and musical performers — who realized the importance that the opportunity for good beer trumps the chance of being cold.

Here’s my take on what I tasted, and ranked, in reverse order, of the best of the best available beers:

11. Raspberry StoutHardywood Park Craft Brewery – Actually, it was delicious. I love raspberries. And I love stouts. This is almost like my personal Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (which I don’t particularly care for, by the way). But it didn’t  have the malty kick that I was looking for. A great beer, but not today, standing outside in the cold. Though at 9.3% ABV, it could easily warm you up. SCORE: On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it four stout shout-outs.

10. Anniversary AleWild Wolf Brewing Co. – A brown ale in the Belgian style. I didn’t taste the chocolate that it’s supposed to have, and the malt flavor was rather mild. At 5.6% ABV, this would be a great starter beer to kick off a day of winter beer tasting. Oh hey, that’s exactly what I did. SCORE: Four stout shout-outs.

9. Virginia Black BearLickinghole Creek Craft Brewery – A tasty Russian imperial stout that checks in at 9.3% ABV. I could taste the Russian, but not the imperial. This brewer-farmer also has a vanilla version of this beer, which I can’t wait to try. SCORE: Four stout shout-outs.

8. Cavalier Milk Stout – C’Ville-Ian Brewing Co. – A new brewery in Charlottesville (aka C’Ville) that made a solid milk stout on it first trip around the stout yard. Dry in the mouth, but full at the same time. And it was cool the next day to walk down Main Street and discover where the brewery is located. Brewery owner Stephen Gibbs gets an “atta boy” for this one. Nice job rookie! SCORE: Five stout shout-outs.

7. Little Red RooStarr Coffee Cream StoutStarr Hill – I remember that I tried it, but I don’t remember what it tasted like. Must have been late in the day. Good thing I could grab this milk stout at my local pub back in the ‘Burg. Just as its name indicates, it was creamy, but went down easily. And at 5.8% ABV, a couple or three of these might make for a nice evening on a cold winter day. SCORE: Six stout shout-outs.

6. DopplbockThree Notch’d Brewing Co. – So this dark German lager isn’t really in the stout category. But neither was the Anniversary Ale, and we let it crash the party. And because it’s from Three Notch’d, you have a pretty good chance that it’s gonna be darn good. The bocky beer had a wonderfully creamy finish that had lots of toasted caramel flavor. ABV = 7.3%. Just missed out on making the top five. SCORE: Six stout shout-outs.

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5. Black Me StoutChampion Brewing Co. – A solid, traditional stout. About as traditional as they come. In a blind taste test, one almost might think this is a Guinness. Almost. It was dry and light, exactly how lead brewer Levi Duncan said he wanted it to be. Nice job. SCORE: Seven stout shout-outs.

4. French Toast Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout – Terrapin Beer Co. – It’s got a long name, but I can sum up how it tasted in one word – yum-diddy-yum-yum. That counts as one word because I hyphenated it. But back to the stout. The coffee and oatmeal were extremely well balanced in that neither overpowered the other. Very easy to drink, but at 9.4% ABV be careful about downing too many because the alcohol will kick the coffee’s ass every time. SCORE: Eight stout shout-outs.

20150124_160011[1]3. Dark Hallow Imperial Stout – Blue Mountain Brewery – I didn’t get a chance to taste it, but that was somewhat intentional. See, I can get the Dark Hallow at my local pub just about anytime. So I decided to save this one for last. But last it did not. In other words, they kicked the keg well before the four-hour drink-a-thon ended. Oh well, I had one last night at the pub and it was as wonderful as I knew it would be. Rich, malty, powerful. This imperial stout is a smooth drinker. Watch out, though, because it will knock you out. SCORE: Nine stout shout-outs.

20150124_145331[1]2. Biggie S’mores Imperial Stout – Three Notch’d Brewing Co. – Just as the name indicates, this sweet stout tasted like s’mores in a glass. And who doesn’t want that? Particularly when the s’mores come with an ABV of 8.0%. I was told this beer is made with pounds and pounds of Honey Maid Graham Crackers. Why didn’t anyone else think of this brilliant idea before? I will definitely partake in this one again … if I can ever find it again. SCORE: Nine stout shout-outs.

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1. Morning Bear Coffee Imperial StoutDevil’s Backbone Brewing Co. – Now this is one coffee that will have you saying “Good Morning!” within seconds after your first taste. Easily the best drinking beer at the festival, and that’s saying a great deal since all the beers were tasty. But this cask-conditioned stout was clearly on a slightly different level that the others. Too bad the cask was the smallest one I’d ever seen. My strategy was to not wander too far from this one. SCORE: Ten stout shout-outs.

I think that’s about all I can tout in regard to the stouts. But as your faithful beer scout, I’ll be on the look-out should a stout tasting suddenly sprout. Until then, when in doubt, drink a stout.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Another Festivus Miracle – Winter Beer Tasting Next Weekend

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I told you that I was on Santa’s “nice” list. And he apparently listened to my request for a winter beer tasting because next Saturday, Jan. 24 in Charlottesville, VA, the winter version of the Know Good Beer festival is taking place. You can’t turn down the opportunity to taste this many wintry style brews. And how can you turn down a beer festival that goes by KGB?

Therefore, as a dedicated beer blogger, it is my duty to attend. If you want to also, here’s the dirt:

  • Where it at: Ix Art Park – 963 2nd Street Southeast, Charlottesville, VA 22902 – inside and outside, but in a heated tent. Whew!
  • When: 12-5 p.m. That should just about do ya.
  • Who’s Pourin’: Breweries offering samples include Beach Brewing, Blue Mountain, Bold Rock, Champion, C’Ville-Ian, Devil’s Backbone, Hardywood, Lickinghole Creek, Old Hill, Pale Fire, Parkway, South Street, Starr Hill, and Three Notch’d. Is that enough?
  • Tickets Tickets Tickets: $30, plus a $2.64 inconvenience fee. Get ’em here.
  • Whatcha get: A dozen pours of four ounces each. Attendees can also purchase additional tickets inside the festival – four for $6. That’s a good deal.
  • Noshables: Blue Ridge Pizza Co. and South Fork will be providing munchies. Yum.
  • Beneficiaries: Funds raised go to WNRN, one of the best indie radio sources in the world. Seriously.

Any event like this needs sponsors. So thank the folks at Devil’s Backbone, Beer Run, Mellow Mushroom, and MoxBox for helping make my winter beer tasting dreams come true.

See you there.

– Eric Van Steenburg

It’s the Most Wonderful Time — of the Beer

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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.

I've been a good boy because look what Santa brought me.
I’ve obviously been a good boy, look what Santa brought me.

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 PorterWolaver’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 FantasySouth 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).
  • BlitzenBlue 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.
  • ChoklatSouthern 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 AleGreat 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-BockEinbecker Brauhaus – Lots of malt in this tasty bock made by real Germans in Germany. Watch out for the ABV.
  • Elementary PorterThree 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.

    Psst, hey bud. What will you give me for my GBS?
    Psst, hey buddy. What will you give me in trade for my GBS?
  • Hardywood ParkGingerbread 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 AleEvolution 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 NoireHeavy 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

Does Your Burger Joint Make the Grade?

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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.

The view from my table at the Katy Trail Ice House in Dallas. Note the perfectly pink color of the burger, the beautiful amber hue of the beer, and the glorious sunshine on the backyard adjacent to the Katy Trail in the near distance.
The view from my table at the Katy Trail Ice House in Dallas. Note the perfectly pink color of the burger, the beautiful amber hue of the 512 Pecan Porter, the sprinkles of glorious sunshine in the backyard, and the very damn wildly popular Katy Trail in the near distance.

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:

Burger Measures

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Non-burger Measures

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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

Taste the beer, not the barrel

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My IPA-swilling friend used to joke that her morning java was really a mug of cream and sugar with just a touch of coffee added to it.

I can relate. When I eat my annual piece of pumpkin pie next week, it will really be a mound of whipped cream on a plate with a little pie somewhere in the middle.

The barrel-aged beers on the tasting list. It's pretty easy to tell what I thought of each one.
The barrel-aged beers on the tasting list. It’s pretty easy to tell what I thought of each one.

But I draw the line when it comes to barrel-aged beer. I don’t want my taste buds assaulted by the bourbon or rum or wine or tequila or whatever was originally in the barrel that the beer was aged in. Unlike the coffee or the pie which are secondary to the accompaniments, when I drink a barrel-aged beer, I want to taste beer, not the barrel.

That’s the principle I stood on as I sampled six barrel-aged beers last week at one of my favorite places to enjoy great craft beer – Capital Ale House in Harrisonburg, VA. For the rest of the story, I now turn to a playback of the event, with yours truly on play-by-play, and fellow barstool compatriot Griffin on color commentary. Take it away fellas:

Potter’s Oak Barrel Reserve Cider (bourbon)

   Me: I’m usually not a fan of ciders, but this one is almost drinkable.

   Griffin: Well, the bourbon really helps balance the cider’s bitterness.

   Me: Uh, right. (I take a second swig before pushing it to the left “discard” pile.)

Lickinghole Creek La Calavera Catrina Tripel  (tequila)

   Me: It kinda tastes like soap.

   Griffin: Well, about 25% of people experience a clove-taste in their mouths for certain flavor combinations. That’s probably what you’re experiencing.

   Me: Uh … OK? (I push it to the left.)

Three Notch’d Imperial Oats McGoats Stout (bourbon)

   Me: Now this one is good. The bourbon doesn’t overpower the beer. That’s the way it should be.

   Griffin: You don’t have to like it just because I work for them.

   Me: Really? Cool. (I push it to the right into the “keeper” collection.)

Epic Brainless on Raspberries (wine)

   Me: This doesn’t taste like beer.

   Griffin: It more like a wine cooler. But it’s part of their “Epic Brainless” Belgian-style series of wine-inspired fruit beers that they’re experimenting with. They have a peaches, and a cherries.

   Me: Um … yeah. (It goes left.)

2013 1st Batch Three Brothers Rum Dubbel (rum)

   Me: Wow. Uh. Wow.

   Griffin: That’s their medal winner from the Great American Beer Fest.

   Me: I can understand how it won. That’s a yum rum.

   Griffin: Well, it’s one of the last few barrels they have because it’s from 2013.

   Me: Wait, so their serving us stale beer? (I push it to the right.)

Hardywood Bourbon Barrel DIPA (bourbon)

   Me: Hey, that’s not bad.

   Griffin: Hardywood has really been making some nice beers, particularly considering how young the brewery is.

   Me: I had their beer for brunch one day. (It goes right.)

Thankfully my dinner arrived at that moment to keep me from sounding even less intelligent than I already was. And that’s another knock I have against barrel-aged beers – the ABV is usually so high that I can only have one glass before I become a babbling idiot. After sampling these six, I was done.

Still, it was a great experience. And thanks to Griffin for jumping into the conversation. I’ll let him bring it home.

   Griffin: When I drink a beer, I want to taste beer.

Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Get me a Porter — Stat!

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Somebody call me a porter.

OK, you’re a porter.

No, I mean get on the phone and order the best-tasting porter in the world. I’ll give you a tip on how to get started … dial 5 1 2.

Not only is 512 the area code for Austin, Texas, but it happens to be the name of (512) Brewing Company, crafters of the greatest porter ever made.

Of course, they have a huge advantage over other porter-makers out there. Their not-so-secret ingredient, the pecan, was falling off the tree right outside the brewery’s front door. So they added it to the mix, and voila, the (512) Pecan Porter was born.

Pecan trees are plentiful in Texas. It is the state tree, after all. But what the brewers at (512) do with it is special. And it’s not just pecan pie in a glass, though that sounds pretty darn good.

The Pecan Porter from (512) is a perfect blend of sweet pecans, dry malts, and just enough hops to balance it all out. The beer definitely ranks toward the sweeter side of the beer spectrum, but it isn’t what I would call a desert beer like the Southern Tier Crème Brule. No, it’s more for enjoying before, during, and after the meal.

In fact, everything from (512) Brewing Co. is delicious any time of day. Two weekends ago, we visited the brewery for a tour that began at 11 a.m. – the perfect time of day to start enjoying their porter, IPA, alt, and pale ale, which happened to be the four on tap during our visit.

Hugh trys to get that firkin barrel open.
Hugh works hard to get the firkin barrel open.

Check that, there was also a nitro Pecan Porter on tap, which tasted almost like the regular version, but with Champaign bubbles added. And at the end of the tour, or host Hugh pounded a tap into a firkin barrel of the porter, which had a more earthy taste than the standard version, most likely because of its fermentation process.

As many of you know, I’m a fan of the porter. My standard, go-to beer is the extremely partakable Breckinridge Vanilla Porter, which can usually be found in my fridge. Others that I really enjoy include the Anchor Porter, the Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter imperial porter from DuClaw Brewing Company, and the Shade Grown Coffee Porter by Real Ale Brewing Company. The latter was often on tap at our favorite pub in Dallas, Trinity Hall. And when the bartenders saw me walk in the door, they immediately started pouring one for me. But no one shouted “Norm!”

One of my favorite porters from the past was the Honey Porter that Sam Adams used to make about 20 years ago, and then stopped for some reason. Or at least I can’t find it anywhere. So when I visited the brewery in 2005, I filled out 14 comment cards asking what happened to the honey porter. I guess I should have filled out a few more.

Another one I can’t seem to get often enough is the Elementary porter from Three Brothers Brewing Company. That beer is so good, I filled a growler of it last year and drove it from Virginia to Texas and gave it to my Dad as a Christmas present. Upon tasting it, he promptly forced everyone in the room to have some, including my then 17-year-old nephew. Way to go, Dad.

If you ever find yourself in Austin, be sure to make a trip to (512) Brewing Company for the tasting tour. Perhaps the best part about the entire tour is the approach the employees at (512) have toward everything – drink more beer. Oh, and try the Pecan Porter … it’s the best porter in the world.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Brewery Crawl of Good Intentions

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Deacon Don once said to me, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I know he wasn’t the first person to say that, but it was the first time I’d heard it. And, of course, it came immediately after I apologized to him for failing to do something I’d promised. Nice guy, that Deacon Don.

Well, the brewery crawl in Washington, D. C. last Saturday was also paved with good intentions. Instead of making it to five breweries that afternoon we made it to … one. Well, one and a half. And we finished the day at a pub that had about 150 craft beers on tap and another 300 in bottles. So that counts, right?

At least the extremely unofficial brewery crawl started the way it was planned – with a trip on the train to Bluejacket brewery in Southeast D.C. near the once again prematurely quite Nationals Park. And if there was one place to go (no, not National Park) it was Bluejacket.

Ladies and gentlemen, here's Ryan, our Bluejacket brewery tour guru and co-owner of the space for the next 30 years.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Ryan, our Bluejacket brewery guru.

First of all, the brewery had 20-something of its own beers on tap. Now, often a brewery that has a high quantity in variety is trying to make up for a low quality of the beer. To demonstrate how it works the other way, consider Franconia Brewing Co. in McKinney, Texas. It has only has three beers on its rotation – a lager, a dunkel and a hefeweizen. But if you want the best true Bavarian-style beer west of Texarkana, then Franconia is your brewery.

But Bluejacket didn’t follow the typical quality-quantity mold. Of the beers our little group of three then six beer pros sampled that afternoon, none were poorly made. Oh sure, there were some that might not have been in our flavor palate such as the sour beer for me or the rum-aged something for Matt. But even those we could tell were like every piece of cooked meat in Oklahoma – well done.

We arrived right after the 2 p.m. Tasting Tour had begun, so we had no choice but to sign up for the 3 p.m. Tour, find a seat at the bar, and prepare for the next tour by enjoying some of the brewery’s finest offerings.

For me, it was the beer called Mexican Radio – a superb tasting stout that Bluejacket describes as spiced and sweet. I could definitely taste the sweet milk chocolate and a hint of vanilla in this well-balanced imperial stout. I did not taste the Ancho chilies that the descriptor claimed it has, which was fine by me. I’ve never cared for smoked or spicy beer.

My IPA-chugging companion chose to begin with the Spectre – an American IPA that had just a hint of citrus and white wine to counterbalance the relatively mild hoppyness (46.5 IBUs) of its IPA foundation. While my friend usually prefers her hoppyness about twice that much, she was highly complementary of the Spectre.

The large format Darling Buds Mosaic -- a wet-hop pale ale.
The large format Darling Buds Mosaic — a wet hop pale ale.

By the time 3 p.m. rolled around, we were joined by friend Matt and three others on the Tasting Tour. Our host, tour guide, and all-around good guy, Ryan, provided the perfect combination of beer knowledge, good humor, and plenty of tastes of their beer. In total, we got to try five different concoctions from the brewery – an IPA, a Porter, a Sour, a Lager and a rum-aged Brown Ale (at least, that’s what I think it was, but after five generous tastes, who can really tell … but I know it had rum).

As previously mentioned, each beer was extremely well made. The lager was one of the best I’ve had, with a full, rounded mouth feel that reminded me of the excellent Vienna Lager from Community Beer Co. in Dallas. The porter was so good, every single person on the tour liked it – even the IPA chuckers in the crowd. The sour was a huge hit with everyone in our group who preferred that style of beer – which was one person.

An hour later, we’d seen every fermenter, cask, mash tun, barley bag, yeast lab, storage locker, and refrigerated room of this multi-level warehouse-turned-brewery. We really couldn’t have asked for any more. But Ryan was kind enough to raise the bar (get it?), and handed us a large format bottle of their Darling Buds Mosaic – a wet hop pale ale. And if you want to know what “wet hop” means, just ask. I know because I’ve been on the Bluejacket Tasting Tour.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Extremely Unofficial D.C. Brewery Crawl

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About once or twice a year, my IPA-swilling friend and I have been known to create our own pub crawls. Typically we use public transportation to hit four to five different pubs, have a taste or two of the beers they have on tap that the other places don’t, then finish off the day with dinner out – a burger for me, of course. This coming weekend we’re taking it one step further.

Announcing the entirely and extremely unofficial D.C. brewery crawl.Logo - DC Craft Scenen

Based on my early calculations, forecasting, estimating, reviewing, scheduling and some well thought out guesswork, the plan for this coming Saturday afternoon is the following:

First, take the Metro from our Dupont Circle area lodging to Bluejacket brewery located in southeast Washington between the Navy Yard and the now empty until next baseball season Nationals Park. Bluejacket has free tours at the bottom of the hour starting at 10:30 a.m. But our goal is to get in on the 2 p.m. tasting tour (there is a $29 fee per person) that has a behind-the-scenes view of the brewery and five tasting pours, including one from a barrel. How could we pass up that?

Next it’s back on the Metro to head north toward 3 Stars Brewing Co., which is just a few blocks from our train stop. I’ve got my eyes on three of their brews – the Southern Belle brown ale, the Winter Madness winter warmer, and the Pandemic Porter, an American Imperial porter. I’m pretty confident that in the future the Pandemic Porter will be the mandatory preventative to curb the spread of Ebola.

From there we walk a little over a mile to Chocolate City Beer, where I will tell them the importance of updating one’s website. While the brewers and/or webmaster at Chocolate City are saying on their site that they’re ready for spring, the rest of us are pulling out our long-johns because we know cooler Fall and Winter is what’s up next. And because the website needs a refresh, here’s hoping the beer offering this weekend has also been updated. Check back next week and I’ll let you know.

Another 30 minute walk should land us at Atlas Brew Works, where I will congratulate them on having a great social media presence, but explain the importance of having at list of all the beers they make on their website. So what we’ll be tasting is a mystery. However, the brewery is open until 8 p.m., so if we start running behind, we’ll make this our last stop and simply switch the order with …

DC Brau Brewing Company. The reality is the last three are all within about a mile and a half of each other — walkable for us, or an easy cab ride if necessary. I am sure my hoppy half’s eyes will light up when she sees On the Wings of Armageddon, an Imperial IPA that the brewers claim has an “intense hop character.” For me, the Penn Quarter Porter looks to be up my alley, though I’m willing to take a chance on the mystery beer that is the current “on-tap draft-only release.” And speaking of alley, DC Brau makes a point of mention on its website that the brewery is it located behind the post office and “you will need to go down the alley and turn right.” Roger.

After that, it’s a manageable walk and then another train ride back to our Dupont Circle headquarters for either dinner or a place to quietly pass out.

So if you’d like to join us on our pilgrimage this Saturday, drop me a line and we’ll make it an “all-play.”

— Eric Van Steenburg

Beer Beer Everywhere, And Not a Drop to Drink

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The challenge: Cover a beer festival for your beer blog without drinking any beer. Wasn’t that one of the Labors of Hercules?

If not, it could have been. For I have sniffed the hop … seen the foam … stared down the barrel of the beer … and emerged sober. Thank you.

More than 30 breweries were on hand at the Rocktown Beer & Music Festival, the first time it has been staged in both the fall and the spring.
More than 30 breweries were on hand at the Rocktown Beer & Music Festival, the first time it has been staged in the fall.

Unfortunately, an old back injury has curtailed my beer drinking for the moment. Oh, codeine, thou art a heartless bitch. Unless, of course, you’re my brother, who strongly recommends consuming alcohol while on codeine for that “extra kick.” To each his own, I guess.

For me, it was better safe than sorry. So off to the Rocktown Beer & Music Festival I went last Saturday, knowing there would be no tasting in my future. Still, I had my designated drinker alongside, and she’s always game for trying a pint or three.

No pints at this Festival, though. Instead it was miniature plastic beer mugs that the volunteers were more than hoppy to fill to the top. That easily made up for the fact that the $35 entry ticket only got you 12 tastes. But each tiny mug looked to be about 4 ounces. So that meant three pints of delicious, high ABV, craft beer for each Fest-goer.

Based on the crowd’s actions by the end of the festival, it seems a few people might have found a way to extend their 12 tastes a little longer. And that’s one of the benefits of attending a beer festival and not drinking any beer – crowd watching.

In fact, enjoying the antics of the attendees was as much fun as tasting all the delicious beer. I lie. But it was still fun. And I got to mix and mingle with lots of cool people.

Talking Heads tribute band Start Making Sense had the crowd rocking by the festival's end. Or maybe it was just the beer.
Talking Heads tribute band Start Making Sense had the crowd rocking by the festival’s end. Or maybe it was just the beer.

There were former students Allyson and Katie. There were current students Alexa and Nikki. There were colleagues (all from Management, hmm) Brad, Bill and Eric in attendance, the latter two clearly having a good time throwing French fries at unsuspecting festvalees despite their lack of aim. And there were cool bands.

As I predicted, Start Making Sense, the Talking Heads tribute band, stole the show. Not only did they sound close to perfect, the lead singer even worked hard mimicking David Byrne. The crowd loved it.

Of course, by that time, the festival was winding down and everyone had had their fill, and then some. My IPA-swilling friend, for example, got to taste her 12 samples, and made a pretty good dent in my pristine quota. And it was obvious D.J. and Tyler had found a way to flex their muscle to get a few extras here and there, and there, and there, and there.

As for me, I had a blast. And that’s what makes the burgeoning U.S. craft beer scene so freakin’ great. You don’t even have to be a craft beer drinker to experience the joy of what it means to finally have great beer in this country. And that joy is contagious.

Fortunately, the reason of my codeine dependence is not. So in a few weeks, I’ll be squeaky clean and ready to jump back on the wagon, uh, off the wagon … um, DRINK BEER.

Cheers!

– Eric Van Steenburg