If At First You Don’t Enjoy…

Most beer lovers have a couple craft brewers that they love, and a couple more that they aren’t so fond of. Those living in good beer cities (like my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan), probably have the full complement in their very own backyard. I encourage you to continue trying those you haven’t been fond of in the past, because there’s a good chance you’l miss out on something you like.

A recent visit from Ann Arbor ex-pat Paul stemmed the standard night for the two of us last weekend: the impromptu microbrewery crawl. Starting with The Blue Tractor, we moved on to Arbor Brewing Company, then Grizzly Peak, and finally Jolly Pumpkin.

Impromptu Bar Crawl

The route for our impromptu bar crawl

Despite popular opinions on these fine establishments, I’ve never been a huge fan of Arbor or Jolly Pumpkin. Believe me, I’ve tried to find something that I enjoy at each of them, but have found nothing that tickles my fancy. The more knowledgeable folk have raved about them, the more out of the loop I’ve felt–until now.

Blue Tractor has never been one of my favorites either, though I’ve only had drinks there, never food. With my newfound desire to become a barbecue aficionado, that may change soon. Regardless, the offerings on Saturday night did nothing to change my opinion. The atmosphere is just OK, as is the beer. We both had a couple brews that were nothing memorable–aside from the soapy taste of the glassware (yuck!).

Moving on to Arbor, on the other hand, changed my paradigm. I’ve found their beers to be merely OK (sometimes trending towards bad), and when combined with a typically rude service staff, I’ve always been turned off from the place. We found a seat at the bar, however, and I ordered the Fat Abbot Belgian Tripel with Paul selecting the Milestone Cask Porter. To my pleasant surprise, both were not only acceptable, but excellent. The service was iffy as usual, but with a delicious brew in front of you, it’s not nearly as offensive.

We moved on to Grizzly Peak, typically one of our favorites – we’re both mug club members there. An annoying experience with a doorman who thought he was much more important than he truly was colored our experience, setting it up to be something less enjoyable than our standard. The seasonal taps didn’t suit our fancy, so we simply ordered menu beers–another strike. As we moved on to the next stop, we felt unsatisfied with a totally mediocre experience.

We wrapped up at Jolly Pumpkin’s taphouse just down the street. Jolly Pumpkin has an excellent reputation among the beer geeks I’ve encountered, and although I’m a pretty big fan of Belgian-style beers, I had never been able to find one of their offerings that I was a fan of in my several experiences at the taphouse. Paul and I each ordered beers that were excellent, and not wanting to end the night too intoxicated, split one of their higher-gravity beers before departing. All were enjoyable.

If you had told me going into the night that I would have a bad experience at Grizzly Peak, and have multiple excellent beers at Arbor Brewing and Jolly Pumpkin, I would have though you were crazy. Alas, that’s the way the night turned out, so I encourage you: If at first you don’t enjoy, try try again.

Am I Spoiled?

I’ve been living in Chicago for just about 3 months now, and I’ve more or less figured out where in my neighborhood I can go to belly up and have a pint or three.  I have a few awesome multi-taps around me like Sheffields or Local Option and neither Goose Island tap house is too far.

A Standard Selection of Taps

photo by flickr user JanetandPhil

Beyond these destination beer bars, I’ve noticed that almost every bar has tab options beyond the standard American macros. I’ve grown accustomed to many of the standard imports (Guinness, Smithwicks, Becks, Heineken) in my 3 years of going to the bar, but beyond these Chicago seems to have a class of pervasive micros. Almost every bar that I’ve been to has both Boston Lager as well as the Sam Adams seasonal offering. Most also have at least one of either Fat Tire or Magic Hat #9 or even both.

Recently, I’ve notice that I tend to turn my nose up at these at these ubiquitous beers.  To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of #9 or Boston Lager, but I think a good bit of my disregard for for the others is some sort of mix between overload and plain ‘ol snobbery. I remember trying Two Brothers’ Domiane DuPage at Firkin and Pheasant and really, really enjoying it. When I was thinking of beers to compare it to, the one blindingly obvious one was Fat Tire.

I honestly think Domaine DuPage does a better job balancing the sweetness and roast of the malt, but if I step back, I bet a lot of my preference comes down to liking the less well known beer better.

It’s like the paradox of the greatest indie band ever, as soon as it forms it’s less awesome than it was before since people (the members) know about it.

So am I right shoving aside the common, tested brews in favor of something less well known? Or am I simply punishing legitimately earned success?

YBD Hard Cider

Stove Substitute: Not So Useful

Stove Substitute: Not So Useful

My temporary lack of a stove has made brewing downright impossible, but the desire for fermentation acknowledges no such obstacles, so while I wait for a replacement, it’s time to make a hard cider. The recipe is quite simple indeed:

  • 5 Gallons unpasteurized apple cider.
  • 1 vial White Labs Irish Ale Yeast (WLP004).

The cider, bought from a local grocery store (and produced by a local orchard) cost short of 20 bucks, and the yeast was a leftover from a changed recipe of beer. Ah, an economically efficient stand-in for homebrew while the brewery is out of commission.

Originally, the cider went an uncomfortable amount of time without starting fermentation, which I thought may have been due to the yeast dying after a couple months in the fridge. However, it got going a few days later, and the delay was more likely due to cold temperatures in my fermentation cellar (a phrase which here means “closet”). It’s been bubbling for a little while now.

YBD Cider

YBD Hard Cider

This was a fairly simple recipe, but once fermentation is complete, the option remains to add spices or other flavors if it lacks a certain something we desire.

Review: Rouge Santa’s Private Reserve

Rogue Santa's Private Reserve

Rogues Santa's Private Reserve - 6.4% ABV 65IBU

I’m absolute sucker for holiday/winter specialty beers. I think part of it is that they have a feeling the ephemerality. Part of it is definitely that they often play to my love of puns. The biggest reason is that their flavor profiles are generally right up my alley. When I think of a winter warmer or holiday beer, I imagine malty, leaning toward sweet, maybe some interesting spice notes, and definitely a warmth from the alcohol. What about that doesn’t sound great?

Rogue, living up to its name, rarely plays by the rules. This beer is not exception. It doesn’t really fit my stereotype of winter seasonals. In describing it, Rogue says:

Rogue’s annual holiday offering, Santa’s Private Reserve, is a variation of the classic Saint Rogue Red, but with double the hops–including Chinook, and Centennial, and a mystery hop called Rudolph by head brewer John “more hops” Maier!

When I think of ways to make something more of a holiday beer, I rarely think, “Double the hops!” But, just because it’s not falling into my conceptions of what a holiday beer should be doesn’t mean it can’t be a great beer. I tried to approach this tasting as just a beer, not a holiday beer, but I fear my opinion may be colored by what I was hoping for.

Tasting Notes

Appearance: Amber with hints of ruby red when held up to the light. It’s topped with a 2-finger thick, off-white head  that deliberately came down to about half an inch.

Aroma: Caramel and aromatic malts combine for a solid sweetness with some green, earthy hop bitterness.

Taste: A nice, creamy sweetness is quickly backed up by an assertive, balancing hop bitterness. You’re left with a lingering, but not coating bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Light and bubbly without feeling watery.

Overall: I could go for a bit more malt character and maybe a more piney hop bitterness in a winter seasonal. It’s a good, but not remarkable beer.

TV Show Review: Brew Masters

Brew Masters on Discovery Channel

Brew Masters

Now that the Discovery Channel‘s “Brew Masters” has a few episodes under its belt, we have a pretty good picture of what it will be. Sam Calagione, founder and owner of Dogfish Head, talks about the inspiration for his beers, the methods behind creating them, and delves into the history of brewing traditions around the world.

There have been four episodes so far. Two of them seemed like pilot episodes—the actual pilot, about Bitches Brew, and the Punkin Chunkin episode—almost to the point of feeling like an incomplete product, but the others have been quite good. My speculation is that the Punkin Chunkin episode was supposed to be the pilot, but they chose to run it for Thanksgiving, and wanted a more interesting episode for the pilot.

The general premise of the show is following the creation of a special Dogfish Beer, including everything from the inspiration, to Sam’s travels to a foreign land to research authentic brewing methods, all the way to the actual workings of the factory. The two pilot-esque episodes have spent a little too much time focusing on the “OMG things are going wrong in our factory!” aspect, dumbing the show down to a standard workplace docu-drama, rather than focusing on the parts that are actually, you know, interesting.

However, the Chicha episode was a step in the right direction, and if the show wants to succeed, it needs to focus on what makes it different than everything else. The inspirations and history of each beer, and Sam’s travels to research them, should be by far the focus. If the producers want to focus on the “characters” who work at the brewery, that’s fine, but “Oh noes, our machine broke” and “crap I spilled glue” and “uh oh, quality control error” warrant barely more than a passing mention. Forced drama = bad, information = good. The workplace stuff just isn’t interesting, and if the show fails, that will be its downfall. Even in the most recent episod,e the drama was brewing-related and informative rather than drama for drama’s sake.

Also on the information end of things, the discussions of the brewing process are interesting, but they’re over-referenced (as I mentioned above, I think part of this might be due to airing two “pilot” episodes so far), and there either needs to be one small segment per episode where the whole process is discussed. We shouldn’t see the hokey CG graphics breaking down the process each time it’s discussed.

Alas, it doesn’t seem as though the show is drawing good ratings, as it’s already been shuffled around the Discovery Channel’s lineup, starting on Sunday nights, then appearing on Monday for one week, and currently moved to Thursday. I think the show is just starting to hit a stride, so canceling it anytime soon would be doing it an injustice.

Taphouse Opening: Wolverine State Brewing Co.

Welcome to Wolverine

Welcome to Wolverine

A new drinking establishment has landed in Ann Arbor. After a lengthy wait, Wolverine State Brewing Co. opened its taphouse for business November 5th. For those who have have Wolverine Beer, these are the same folks (though that product has been brewed under contract with Michigan Brewing Co. in Williamston), with an expanded repertoire and their very own building.

Order Here

Order Here

I was on hand for the Taphouse’s first day, so what did I think of the place? There were a few kinks, which is to be expected on the first day, and some of them were worked out by the time I returned the following week. The “Order Here” sign moving from the counter to suspended above it, for example, was a welcome change. As time goes on, I expect many more minor improvements like this to improve the experience for patrons (and employees, too).

Seating Area

Seating Area

Opening Day Menu

Opening Day Menu

The interior is quite spacious, with the bar running along the left side and the entire back wall. Behind the bar on the left side, you can usually peer through an open door into the brewery itself. The space is quite large, so hopefully there’s room for future expansion. There are a couple TVs, though they’re definitely not a focus of the bar. I’d be interested to check the place out during a Michigan sporting event, because it could be a decent sports bar. The decor is mostly dark, but there’s a local focus as well, as the tables throughout the taphouse have nautical maps of the Great Lakes, and there’s a large map of the state on the far right wall, near the dartboards (pictured above).

Big House Brown

Big House Brown

There’s definitely potential for a new taphouse in Ann Arbor, especially one that’s filling the previously-barren niche of focusing on lagers. Situated on the far West side, this is going to be a townie bar, with very rare appearances from students. Aside from that, Wolverine State Brewing Co. still seems to be looking for its identity, but that’s something that can only come with time and establishing a customer base, and can’t be artificially forced. Once the taphouse hits its stride, I have no doubts it will be very successful.

A Glimpse into the Brewery

A Glimpse into the Brewery

Hopcat Turkey Tears

Hopcat Turkey Tears

Seriously. Turkey.

Just in time for the holiday, Hopcat made it possible to drink your Thanksgiving dinner – turkey, cranberry sauce, and all. Turkey Tears is based upon the Sage Against the Machine Pale Ale, but as the flyer says, is brewed with real turkey, cranberries, and honey. Though including meat as an ingredient in beer seems… odd, to say the least, I couldn’t resist trying something new.

The beer was a light amber color (slightly lighter than it seems from the included picture), with very little head. The aroma was mostly sage with a bit of malt and, yes, a hint of turkey. The flavor itself was mostly sage. There was a slight hint of turkey flavor, but the main thing I got out of the turkey was a really salty taste. The cranberries didn’t seem to add much, and I could barely even detect them in the background. The honey flavor was what you’d expect.

So, despite my initial hesitance to try a beer with turkey in the brewing process (alas, my server didn’t know when in the process it was introduced, though I would guess the boil), it turned out to be not bad. I wasn’t a huge fan of the saltiness, but as a gimmick beer, it certainly wasn’t repulsive.

Schmaltz He’Brew Jewbelation Fourteen

Schmaltz He'brew Jewbelation 14

Schmaltz He'brew Jewbelation 14

I’m not a member of The Tribe, but I do enjoy puns, and this beer packed a double whammy in He’brew Jewbelation 14 (the chosen beer). Beyond the name, it’s a pretty cool concept beer. Starting with Jewbelation 8, which had 8 different types of malt and hops, each year they add one more type of malt and one more variety of hops. This is the last year of the series, and they took the seven numbered Jewbelations (8-14), mixed them in a barrel and came out with Jewbelation Vertical. Now, they’re having a special where they’re releasing the 8 beers during the 8 days of Chanukah to 88 different bars. Silly puns, mixed with interesting brewing ideas and a high-minded, yet tongue in check concept? Sign me up for that beer!

Schmaltz lists the 28 different malts and hops that are in this beer on their website. It’s worth checking out and flipping through the evolution of the Jewbelation series. You can also check out if any local bar is Chosen. Anyway, as today is the beginning of Chanukah, I figured it was as good a time as ever to crack it open write a review.

Appearance: Dark, opaque copper with ruby notes when held up to the light. A nice, two finger, tan head that only reluctantly dissipates. This is a very good looking beer.

Aroma: Caramel malt with some floral, spicy hops and a fairly noticeable alcohol burn just in the nose. There’s something I can’t quite place, maybe a holiday spice, but it’s certainly intriguing.

Taste: The taste starts out with a rich, full caramel malt flavor. It’s not cloying, but it’s almost overpowering, not quite. After the rich malt, there’s a wave of balanced bitterness. It ends with a nice acrid note almost as an after taste. The acridity really helps the flavor from being too rich.  There is a very pleasant, delayed alcohol warmth that hits me in the belly and throat.

Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy. It leaves my lips sticky. The head is incredibly creamy, and really adds something to the sip.

Overall: This is a really ambitious beer. I think it hits a lot of the notes you want with a big, winter warmer/strong ale style beer. It has an amazing malt profile with enough hops to balance out and keep it from becoming cloying. The alcohol also works well with this ale, cutting through the richness and serving to warm your whole body. I kind of wish I had some of the previous vintages to compare.

Happy Chanukah everyone!