craft breweries

What’s a Few Billionth Among Friends?

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One thousand millionth.

Or 10−9 if you prefer.

You probably know it best as 0.000000001.

It’s obvious I’m talking about a nano. And it appears that in addition to the length your fingernail grows in one second (that’s actually a nanometer), it’s also a size of a brewery.

But just like everything else nano — nanometers, nanotechnology, nano nano — you must look extra carefully to find it.

Thai Me Up in a restaurant in downtown Jackson, WY. It also is the front to a nanobrewery called Melvin Brewing Co. that makes outstanding craft beer.

Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.
Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.

So what classifies it as a nanobrewery? I don’t know exactly, but it must do with the amount beer brewed (probably barrels) in a certain period of time (probably a year). According to the U.S. government’s Department of the Treasury, a nanobrewery is a “very small brewery operation” that produces beer for sale. Oh really?

That means you likely won’t find Melvin Brewing’s beers in any other place than this Thai restaurant in Wyoming. But it’s definitely worth searching for.

When we stopped by, Melvin had 18 different beers on tap. Being a nanobrewery, though, it doesn’t take much for one of the flavors to disappear. But with so many options available, even if they kick a keg or two, there’s still an excellent chance that something will be on tap that you will enjoy.

For my IPA slurping road buddy, three of those hopped-up delicacies were there for the taking, as was a couple of pale ales. With my penchant for porters and stouts, I found plenty of each on the list to satisfy my malt tooth.

How good are the IPAs? Well, the 2×4 is a Gold Medal Winner at a really impressive craft beer competition. I can’t remember now which one. But trust me, it was impressive. This double IPA is everything a DIPA should be. Which means a nice balance of malt to counteract the extensive amount of hops. Unfortunately for my hop head, that’s too much malt for her bitter-beer preferring palate. The Einstein Pale Ale was, well, a pale ale. That is to say it wasn’t hoppy enough for her.

That left the two “real” IPAs in the middle of her tasting row. As it turned out, one was excellent, while the other was “unfinishable” (her word). So if you have the opportunity to choose between the GCM or the Hubert, go with the latter. While the GCM had all the standard IPA requirements, it contained an additional flavor that she described as a combination of grapefruit and Listerine. The Hubert, on the other had, was the perfect IPA in every way. Smooth at the start, bitter at the finish, and checking in at just 6% ABV and 35 IBUs. This is the award-winner of the future.

On my side were the Bis Spaterator Dopplebock, the Charlie Murphy (Nitro) Porter, the EZE Imperial Porter, and a Coffee Ruckus Imperial Stout. I saved the Imperials for last and started with the Dopplebock, which our waitron said was her favorite beer of all Melvin’s efforts. I heartily agree with her assessment. The Bis Spaterator is packed with malty goodness with hints of caramel throughout the taste. A winner.

The Charlie Murphy did nothing for me. For a porter, it was rather thin. And it didn’t have much in the way of any sweet flavor that I expect in such a brew. On to the Imperials.

I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.
I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.

The EZE — a beer named after me — was the exact opposite of the Charlie Murphy. Full of semi-sweet chocolate and hazelnut flavors that don’t overpower as to detract from the beer, it packs a punch at 11.2% ABV. Same with the Coffee Ruckus. It checks in at 13%. But the difference is the Ruckus is all about amplifying the flavor. After dinner, the Ruckus might be a good choice for the non-coffee drinker who wants an alcoholic coffee. It also contains the chocolate flavor that its brother the EZE has, but again, the Ruckus makes it loud and proud. Not tonight.

So I ordered a glass of the EZE, and my IPA navigator settled in for a pint of the Hubert. Excellence abounded.

Next time you’re in and around Yellowstone National Park, take a side trip to Jackson Hole and search for the nanobrewery behind Thai Me Up known as Melvin Brewing Co. You will be rewarded for your effort.

And in the future it might be easier to find Melvin. I hear he might be getting a field promotion to microbrewery.

— Eric Van Steenburg

How to Survive a Six-Hour Drive

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When U.S. goalie Jim Craig beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, he simplified the game by breaking it into five-minute increments. Once the United States had the lead, he simply shut out the Russians for five minutes. Then he did it again for another five minutes. And then another, and another.

The result was a 4-3 miracle win over the Red Menace, and an eventual gold medal for the United States.

Driving more than 2,000 miles across the country in a 10-day period, I also attack it in increments. Five minutes probably is a little short, though. So I count the time between breweries.

And that, my friends, is the saving grace in the drive across Wyoming from Laramie to Jackson.

The sign next to the tanks at Bitter Creek Brewing make it very clear that important work is being done.
The sign next to the tanks at Bitter Creek Brewing make it very clear that important work is being done.

Total time in the car is about six hours — the max I can take in one day. But three hours in, after passing monotonous miles of scrub brush and dry dirt, the town of Rock Springs delivers a gem.

Bitter Creek Brewing Co. appears as an oasis in this land of desolation. Or, as our bartender said, “another day in paradise.”

OK, to be honest, Rock Springs is a dump. But if you ever find yourself there, instead of turning north on US-191 toward the beautiful mountains of Jackson, go just two miles south of I-80 and find Bitter Creek. You won’t be disappointed.

Their stout, which they call A Beer Named Bob, is one of the best-tasting beers I’ve had all trip. And remember, that’s been eight days and 2,000 miles so far. I’ve tried my share of beer.

The Bob, as they have nicknamed it, is an incredibly smooth, velvety tasting stout with some smokiness and creaminess combined. No one flavor overpowered this complex beer, but multiple flavors danced around my mouth with every sip. This easy-drinking stout is Bitter Creek’s signature brew, and it only takes a few sips to understand why.

The Bob is definitely in the running for “Best in Beer” award from the coveted Beer-and-Burgers blog.

With half of the drive completed, and two Bob’s under my belt, the next step to surviving a long day in the car is to cut the remaining time in half with a stop at another brewery. Fortunately, Wind River Brewing Co. complied with our wishes.

The award-winning Oatmeal Stout at Wind River Brewing Co. is almost as alluring as the cowboy version of the leg lamp.
The award-winning Oatmeal Stout at Wind River Brewing Co. is almost as alluring as the cowboy version of the leg lamp.

Located in sprawling Pinedale, WY, Wind River Brewing sports nine different award-winning beers. The most decorated of these is the Oatmeal Stout, a gold medal winner (just like Jim Craig) in 2006 at the World Beer Cup, and more recently a gold medal winner (like Jim Craig) in the 2012 North American Beer Awards. It must be good.

In fact, it was. This full-bodied beer had hints of dry-roasted coffee thickness that makes it a classic stout. No wonder it won so many awards.

With so many homemade beers, I was forced (yes, forced) to try the award-winning English Porter. Not much head on this beer, but flavors of toffee and nuts made it a nice craft beer.

Wind River also has a well-regarded IPA that my hop-crazed traveling buddy was ready to try. But alas, the last keg had been kicked. So she settled for the equally interesting Wyoming Pale Ale — yes, they call it a WPA — to appease her hoppy palate.

She found it nicely bitter with enough malt to add just enough balance to make the beer quite drinkable. But not with the hop-bite of the IPAs she prefers to guzzle. Good to know that in a pinch, however, a WPA may be able to substitute for an IPA.

Between the two stouts I tried on the day, the better one is definitely the Bob from Bitter Creek. But kudos to Wind River for helping me survive yet another six-hour day in the car. I just wish Nebraska could take a hint from Wyoming on how to break up a long-day’s drive.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A New Contender for “Best in Burger”

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Few burgers have challenged the supremacy of The Idiot Burger in Lexington, KY, since the start of this cross-country odyssey began more than a week ago. But now, we have a new contender for the coveted Beer-and-Burgers.com “Best in Burger” award.

Say hello to the Nacho-Cheese Burger at the Library Sports Grille & Brewery in Laramie, Wyoming.

The Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) is a family friendly sports bar in the downtown area, just a mile from the University of Wyoming campus. But hey, it’s Laramie. Everything is within a mile of campus.

Honest, mom, I'm at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.
Honest, mom, I’m at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.

The Nacho-Cheese Burger is just like the Cowboy Burger, of course, which means it’s the traditional burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Except that the Library Gille (don’t forget the “e”) throws jalapenos, bacon, and cheddar cheese on top. Delicioso.

Most importantly, the chefs at Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) know how to cook a burger. When you ask for it medium rare, you get it medium rare.

It has been amazingly difficult on this trip to get a burger cooked with enough pink in the middle that there’s still some moisture and flavor left in the meat. One restaurant we tried had an extensive list of tantalizing burger options. But when I ordered the Samba Burger and asked for it medium rare, the barkeep informed me that “all our burgers are cooked well done.” Oh good. I like my burgers burnt and tasteless. Yum. Looks like a turkey sandwich for me.

But the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) made it right. And the chefs were also generous with the amount of jalapenos. Nothing worse than asking for the “jalapeno burger” and getting something with only one or two slices of that pesky pepper.

If the burger wasn’t enough, the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) is also a brewery, and had several of their locally made options on tap. I enjoyed the Steamboat Oats and Cream Stout, which was full of body and creaminess, as its name implies. It also had a touch of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts in the taste. Nicely done.

Finally, the cool thing for the students who attend the University of Wyoming is that when they go to the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) they can tell their folks they spent the evening at the library, and they won’t be lying.

I’m not lying when I say the Nacho-Cheese Burger is giving The Idiot Burger a challenge for Best in Burger. And with just a few more days until we reach Bozeman, Montana, it may boil down to a two-burger race.

In sum, if you find yourself in Laramie, Wyoming, I recommend a burger and beer at the Library Grill. Oh crap, I forgot the “e”

— Eric Van Steenburg

A Brewery on Every Corner

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In Beervana, there’s a brewery on every corner of every street in every town. I think Fort Collins is trying to make Beervana a reality.

As we made our way north from Denver on Sunday afternoon, we still weren’t sure whether to visit New Belgium Brewery or Odell Brewing Co. But once we got closer to Fort Collins, the choice was obvious — first one, then the other.

Since we’d tried, and enjoyed, numerous New Belgium beers in the past, our plan was to visit Odell Brewing first and see what was available to taste. If we found some beers we really liked and knew we couldn’t get elsewhere, we would stay. Otherwise, we’d head over to NBB to taste what they had on tap.

No one told us that we’d have to pass two more breweries just to get to Odell. And that we’d pass those two again on our way to New Belgium.

The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.
The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.

The first brewery we saw as we neared our destination was Fort Collins Brewery. We couldn’t stop, though, because we had a preliminary visual on the Odell taproom, and we were on a mission. The taproom at Odell’s was hoppin’ with lots of people getting flights. They had three options from which to choose that seemed rather randomly compiled. For example, a flight with the only malty beverage on tap also featured two IPAs. So I went with a single pour of the Cutthroat Porter (they had a pilot nitro version of the porter, but I stayed traditional), while my IPA slurping traveling companion chose the Classic Tray, which included the Loose Leaf American Pale Ale, Easy Street Wheat, Levity Amber Ale, 5 Barrel Pale Ale, and the 90 Shilling Ale.

The Cutthroat hints of chocolate and cocoa, sits up nicely in the glass, and is smooth going down. In hindsight (which mine is 20/15) I should have tried the nitro version also. Meanwhile, the IPAer preferred the 5 Barrel Pale Ale among the choices she was given. No surprise there, since Odell puts one batch of hops in the fermenter, and add four more batches of hops in the boil.

Even though the patio at Odell Brewing was spectacular — tables with umbrellas, trellises covered with vines and flower pots, stone walls for seating, and lots of dogs — none of the beers really knocked our socks off, so we headed toward New Belgium. To do so, we had to drive back past Fort Collins Brewery and turn the corner … where we immediately saw Snowbank Brewing. No time to stop, though, because not only did we have New Belgium in our sights, but we still had to make it to make it all the way to Wyoming by sundown.

Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.
Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.

New Belgium Brewery was on the third corner in this block as Fort Collins attempts Beervana. The taproom and patio area were much smaller than Odell’s, but it seemed all about the beer here.

Because it’s summer, there’s usually not many options for brews in my sweet spot — porters and stouts. New Belgium had just one, the Cocoa Mole, which I was first introduced to several months ago by D.J. at Cap Ale. Thanks, D.J. This tasty beverage is a porter with spice, as in spicy, not holiday. When you drink it, you get a spicy kick at the end of the taste. As interesting as it is delicious.

For the hop chugger, three different IPAs were on tap, so she sampled them all. Collusion Cacao IPA, the Hop Tart, and the Liquid Center Surprise. The Hop Tart was too sour for either of our tastes, but was surprisingly better when it followed a sip of the Cocoa Mole. The other two IPAs were delicious, she reports. That is all.

Getting a tour of New Belgium is next to impossible (check out their tour schedule calendar if you don’t believe me). So we took the self-guided tour, which included the bicycle gear crank for a pen holder, and bicycle rims for bathroom mirrors. Great branding.

And now, off to Laramie for our first venture ever into Wyoming.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Beer Doth Floweth Like a Stream from the Mountains

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Two days in Denver, and haven’t even scratched the surface of trying all the craft beer available within walking distance of our hotel. So here’s a day-by-day rundown of our efforts to sample them all.

Friday:

  • Arrive in town late in the day and in desperate need of something to erase the endless hours of travel across Nebraska. So we headed to Wynkoop Brewery for a beer (or two) and a burger.Wynkoop is one of the first breweries to open in Denver, so they’ve had lots of practice making quality craft beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.

    In fact, the Barrel-o-Meter sign on the wall says they’ve made almost 1,700 barrels of beer, and a bartender named Al said that sign what in desperate need of updating. I started with the Cowtown Milk Stout, a nitro-infused traditional stout with a thick head and a semi-sweet taste. My IPA swilling road pal sipped on a Belgorado Belgian-IPA, a combination of Colorado-grown malt and lots of Belgian yeast. But at only 48 IBUs, it didn’t quit hit her bitter spot. Mine, on the other hand, was quite easy to drink, and I was therefore encouraged to try another local malty brew — the Real Big Stout. This Imperial effort, made in conjunction with Ska Brewing Co., was chocolaty with lots of caramel flavor. And at 10% ABV, they weren’t foolin’ around. It was quite tasty. So was the burger I had, though I wish it was more pink in the middle. Seems to be a challenge to get a real medium-rare burger in these parts.

Saturday:

  • Met some relatives for lunch and headed to the Mellow Mushroom, a touristy pizza joint but with good beer options, as most restaurants in Denver seem to have. There our beer-loving waitron, Kate, had fun letting us try numerous options from the bar. Ultimately, I enjoyed the New Belgium Portage Porter, which I’ve tasted from the bottle before, but not from the tap. It was, as are most New Belgium products, nicely done. This porter has a malty feel but isn’t overly sweetened. I convinced one of the fam to try the Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co., which has an outpost just a few blocks away. He liked it, and who wouldn’t. This multi-award winning brew is coffee meets toffee. As he was sipping his 9.5% ABV beverage, I ordered the Boulder Shake. Again, I’ve had this previously. But this was a nitro version, and it went down smooth as … well … something that goes down smooth. Meanwhile, my hop-loving friend was at the other end of the table sampling numerousIPAs, thanks to Kate. No clue what she ended up drinking.

    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
  • In the afternoon, it was off to another ballpark. This time, Coors Field. Fortunately, Coors is not the only beer available in the stadium. I was able to enjoy a 90 Shilling Ale from Odell Brewing Co., another Colorado-based craft brewery. There were several other options for the crafty beer drinker, but none that really hit my malty sweet spot. So the 90 Shilling, with its combination of Scotch ale malt and Amber ale ruddiness, was perfect for a warm summer day at the ballpark.
  • Breckenridge beckoned, so we complied and went to Breckenridge Colorado Craft, a taproom one block from the stadium featuring, as one would expect, mostly Breckenridge Brewing Co. beers, and a few others as well. But why wander off the trail? So I enjoyed their Oatmeal Stout while the hop-head had the Fresh Hop Pale Ale followed by the Breck IPA. And, of course, I had to have the NVP — Nitro Vanilla Porter. The non-nitro bottle version of this beer has been a staple in my fridge for years. Having it on tap, in Denver, infused with nitro, made for a perfect ending to a beer-filled day.

Sunday:

  • Next stop, Fort Collins. The only question is whether to stop at the New Belgium brewery, or the Odell brewery. Or both?

Stay tuned.

— Eric Van Steenburg

No Longer a One-Horse Town

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I knew I’d awakened in St. Louis when the top two stories in the local newspaper were about baseball and beer. As I was saying to my IPA swilling traveling companion, St. Louis is baseball crazy. Has been since at least the 1920s.

And we all know the arch-ladened metropolis is a beer town. Has been since August Busch decided to pummel American palates with a mediocre swill called Budwe … sorry, can’t even write its name.

But St. Louis is no longer a one-beer town as it had been for more than a hundred years. In fact, 10 years ago, when we were last among the arched throng, we found ourselves in the Schlafly taproom. This was, of course, immediately after touring the brewery of that other beer. Obviously we were in need of something good.

Behold the malty goodness of the Schlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Behold.
Behold the malty goodness of the Schlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Behold.

So the plan was to revisit the taproom this time around. But upon entering the city … we got lost. It was a learning experience, though, as we got to witness first-hand the urban plight. Are you seeing the plight kids? Roll ’em up!

The best news is that as we made our way back on course, we passed the Morgan Street Brewery, just a few blocks from the hotel. Yeah plight!

Naturally that was our first stop after unloading the Mini, which believe it or not takes longer than one would think. Who knew so much crap could fit into a Mini Cooper? Who knew we owned so much crap?

Morgan Street Brewery had half a dozen of their beers on tap, but only one each that interested us. For me, it was their seasonal Maibock. For her, the Virgin Territory IPA. After spending 20 minutes deciding where to sit, we ordered. The IPA came out immediately, but the Maibock was nowhere to be found. The doorman had told us they only had one keg left, but the waitron said they were changing to a new keg. Huh?

Turns out the door guy knew better. They were out. Since there was nothing else on the beer menu for me, we were going to leave. But suddenly the waitron showed up with a glass 82 percent full of Maibock. She’d fought another server just to bring me was left of the keg.

It was worth it. The award-winning Maibock was deliciously malty in both flavor and nose. A nice foamy head accompanied the dark golden color. No wonder it took silver in the World Beer Championships a few years ago.

The IPA wasn’t quite as noteworthy, but was still good. Checking in a 58 IBUs, there wasn’t as much hoppyness as my IPA friend prefers. But it was quite drinkable. And not bad for MSB’s first IPA ever.

Since they were out of Maibock and there was nothing else on the menu for me, we asked the waitron for a suggestion of where to try more local beers. She directed us to Hair of the Dog, just 5-6 blocks from our hotel. Once we found the dive bar, we were pleased to see almost 50 beers on tap, most of which were IPAs and Belgian Ales. No stouts or porters, though.

Fortunately, they did have a Schlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout available, so that’s what I had while my partner enjoyed a Perennial Artisan Ale IPA. The stout was delicious. Lots of malt. Not too much bourbon. Just the way I like it. Dark color with a light head. But at 10.5% ABV, I didn’t need more than a pint. Too bad it came in the large format. Darn the luck.

The Perennial IPA was nicely balanced. Again, not very hopped up, so not her favorite. But a tasty beer, nonetheless.

That was enough for the night because the next evening was so important, we needed our beauty sleep.

See you in Omaha.

— Eric Van Steenburg

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