craft beer

Countdown to Rocktown

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We are officially less than 48 hours away from the first ever Fall version of the Rocktown Beer & Music Festival, happening this Saturday, Sept. 20 in Harrisonburg, Va. But if you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, you’d better hurry because sales end at 11:30 p.m. on Friday.

Typically a Spring event, this year organizers decided to put on a Fall edition of the Beer & Music Festival. And who can blame them? With more than 3,000 craft beer fans descending on downtown Harrisonburg each year, it wasn’t really a question of whether there should be a second one each year, but when it would finally happen.

Well, this is the year. Already, 32 breweries have registered to share their crafty concoctions with grateful attendees. You’ll be able to sample beers from Three Notch’d to Three Brothers, from Bold Rock to Stone Brewing, and from Blue Mountain to Starr Hill to Anderson Valley.

Tickets are $35.84 when you add in the service fee. Designated drivers and those underage can get in for $23.54.

In addition to the great beer, you can enjoy music from Nikki Lane and Carl Anderson. Personally, I’ll be waiting for the Talking Heads tribute band “Stop Making Sense” to take the stage.

Bring a lawn chair, some pretzels to nibble on, and a good attitude. If the lines start to get long, you’ll likely need all three.

A big thanks to Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and Three Brothers Brewing for sponsoring the event.

— Eric Van Steenburg



Chucking IPAs

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With apologies to all the woodchucks who regularly read, today’s question is:

How many IPAs does an IPA drinker drink

if an IPA drinker dare drink IPAs?

And the answer appears to be 24, because that how many IPAs were served up at the Virginia IPA Challenge last Saturday at Capital Ale House in Harrisonburg, Va.

It was originally going to be 28 IPAs, but apparently IPA drinkers can’t chuck that many. Besides, if my designated drinker is any evidence, 24 IPAs was enough to taste.

What a rating sheet looks like after tasting 24 IPAs.
What a rating sheet looks like after tasting 24 IPAs.

The way Cap Ale had the contest orchestrated was cool. Each IPA chucker who wanted to get in on the tasting paid $10 for a card that had numbers 1-24 in a column on the left side. Next to each number was a line for drinkers to write any comments they wanted to make about each different beer, and presumably to help them remember what they’d tasted as the day wore on. To the right of each line was a place to rate the beer from 1-5 stars. And finally, at the far right was a box to mark off so each drinker, and more importantly our heroic bartenders, could keep track of which IPAs each person had already tried.

Participants got to sample four beers every time they went to the bar, which meant six trips to the bar. Each small taste – and thankfully that’s all they were, small tastes – was poured in a small plastic cup with a number on the front. So no one knew which brewer had entered which beer. Even representatives from the breweries in attendance didn’t know which numbers were theirs.

As I mentioned, I had a designated drinker with me. That’s because, as many of you know, I prefer the more malty side of the beer spectrum. Or, as my IPA swilling friend told someone after trip number five to the bar, “he perfers ports and stouters.” Uh, that would be stouts and porters.

IPA drinking pros Alex and Mike show the amateurs how to do it.
IPA drinking pros Alex and Mike show the amateurs how to do it.

More and more people showed up as the day went along. The lines got long, but seemed to move at a reasonable clip – at least from my vantage point at a table in the back where I sipped on an Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery, and later a Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout. And when the lines got really long, people didn’t complain too much because by then they’d already made 3-4 trips to the bar. There’s nothing like downing two dozen IPAs to make people hoppy.

Oh, and after tasting 24 IPAs, each chucker placed their vote for best Virginia IPA and then got a full pint of their favorite. Not a bad dessert.

Once the first keg was kicked, the tasting stopped and the bartenders (did I mention they were heroic), tallied up the votes. The winners were announced Monday and are:

I can’t contributed to the discussion on differences and qualities of the IPAs since I was enjoying my ports and stouters, but my designated drinker wrote down that Isley’s beer was “coffee,” that Three Brothers’ was “creamy” and the Three Notch’d was “yum.” So there’s the expert’s opinion.

Regardless of your beer style preference, the Virginia IPA Challenge was a blast. Shout out to D.J. at Cap Ale House for picking the excellent beers, and his fellow bartenders upstairs for working hard to make the lines move fast and keeping everyone hoppy. And a special shout out to Denise who worked the downstairs bar by herself early in the day as the IPA crowd was starting to swell, and for keeping everybody happy.

Of course, now I’m expecting a Winter and Christmas Virginia beer challenge in December. How’s that sound, D.J.?

— Eric Van Steenburg

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