Beer Review: Brewster’s Brewery Mata Hari

Brewster's Brewery Mata HariBrewster’s Brewery is a small, independent brewery in the UK, founded by Sara Barton (who is also the head brewer – or, more correctly, brewster); they are one of a growing number of woman-powered microbreweries around the world.  From their base in Grantham, Linconshire, their reputation for high-quality beers has continued to spread – it’s not just for CAMRA anymore.  Shelton Brothers distributes Brewster’s beers in the US, although they can still be somewhat difficult to come by – but based on a taste of their Mata Hari – part of their ‘Wicked Women’ series – they are well worth seeking out.

Before getting on to the actual tasting notes, it is worth noting that Brewster’s regular beers tend to be considerably lower in alcohol than those of most American craft brewers; while there is much to appreciate in many a high-gravity  beer (there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pliny the Elder – thank you, Russian River!) it’s nice to be able to have more than one or two in one sitting, especially if (like me) you tend to the smaller side of the height/weight scale – or if your city lacks decent public transit and you need to drive home from your favorite watering hole.  Lew Bryson’s Session Beer Project is helping to encourage US brewers to make a few more lower-alcohol-but-still-great beers, and we’re lucky here in the Philadelphia area to have easy access to Yards Brawler (a Mild) and Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Kenzinger (a Kölsch).  Both are great go-to beers; beyond their lower alcohol, they are also useful recruitment tools – perfect for introducing a friend to craft beer.

But back to the Mata Hari (and apologies for the terrible photo – ChurchKey is many things, but well-lit is not one of them, although it’s quite pleasant in that regard); it pours a coppery color, with a thinly-foaming head – both perfectly good things for a bitter.  It has more of an earthy hop aroma than you tend to find in mass-produced bitters, and the taste is perfect – malty goodness without going overboard into some other style, and still a nice, subtle hop kick.  I should point anyway that the hops used are Fuggles (which are growing better in our garden than in previous years, oddly, despite the extreme heat this summer), Northdown and Progress, but really, who needs an excuse to work the word ‘Fuggles’ into a sentence?

It’s a great beer for just about any occasion – it was perfect with my meal on a hot day, but would be equally at home as a warm-up after a chilly day.  It’s a response in a bottle to those who might believe that a beer must be extremely hoppy and/or high in alcohol and/or brewed with coffee  (or another nonstandard ingredient) to be worthy of special pursuit – it can just be really, really good.  And supporting female brewers is also a very cool thing – it’s another reason you should go Like Brewster’s Brewery on Facebook now.

Beer Places: ChurchKey, Washington, DC

ChurchKeyAfter previous highly-successful visits to their sister restaurant, Rustico, in Alexandria, VA, we finally managed to fit in a visit to ChurchKey, which opened last year to great acclaim.   Unlike some revered beer destinations that don’t quite live up to perhaps unrealistic hype, ChurchKey exceeded all expectations.  The interior is laid-back in design, yet sleek, with tables by the window and cozy raised booths near the fifty-plus tap bar, which is clearly the focal point.

And it’s a thoroughly-impressive tap list, helpfully laid out in categories that are equally approachable by hardcore beer geeks as well as the uninitiated (one minor complaint – that list could be updated more frequently on their website).  Information for each beer includes the brewer, style, origin, ABV, ideal serving temperature and usual serving glass, although each item was also available as a 4oz taster (even the five cask ales) – something our party made much use of.   But the bottle list is not to be overlooked – it contains well-curated rarities from around the world as well as traditional favorites; you know it’s good when it comes in a binder, and you don’t have to go to your fourth pick to actually get something that’s in stock.   Given the weather in DC in summer, finding Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse on tap was certainly welcome; having a waiter who understood ‘and I’d like the woodruff on the side’ was even better; indeed, the service was outstanding throughout our visit (something that isn’t always true when you bring a small child with you, even at a quiet lunchtime).

The food is also very tasty and should not be overlooked, but you’re no doubt wondering which beers were top of the list on this visit.  Schlafly Pumpkin Ale offered a spicy fall preview, while Ommegang Cup O Kyndnes was an unusual combination of heather, malty and peaty goodness.  Although we tried a wide variety (thanks, again to the handy 4 oz tasters), one of my favorites was Brewster’s Brewery Mata Hari – something that will be receiving its own review in the near future.

So while there is not a terribly convenient Metro stop by ChurchKey, you should still seek it out if you happen to be in the District; there’s something for every palate or mood, and the friendly, well-trained staff make a visit even more pleasant – it’s all rather tremendous.

ChurchKey
1337 14th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20005-3610

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Beer Review: 21st Amendment Back in Black

21st Amendement Back in BlackLet me start off by saying I’m a big fan of the 21st Amendment (both the brewpub and the amendment, of course); we go way back.  They’re one of my two favorite brewpubs in San Francisco (the other being Magnolia) – heck, there’s even video evidence of my past hanging out there at a F*ckedCompany.com party during the dot-com crash (skip to minute 1.03 if you have a burning desire to see the much-younger me speak).  I love that they’ve been pioneers in canning craft beer, and they are never afraid to experiment.  With that in mind, I had high hopes for Back in Black – I love the style, especially Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, Victory Yakima Twilight and Deschutes Hop in the Dark – and whether you wish to call it a Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale or something entirely different is a point I’ll leave up to you.

With that somewhat rambling prologue out of the way, I’ll get right to the review – I’m disappointed to say it was only OK.  It looked great when poured – deep brown, tan head, nice (if somewhat unexpectedly subtle) hop aroma, but when it came to the actual taste, that’s where things weren’t exactly right.  I’ve sampled some homebrewed beers in this style that don’t quite get the hops and roastiness working together as they should, imparting a somewhat ashy taste, and I’m sorry to say I noticed a very similar taste with Back in Black.  While that flavor was at the forefront, it also lacked a certain depth beyond that; one of the great things about this style is that there are usually a number of different complementary (granted, some would say competing) tastes, while this was very one-note.

Was it terrible? No – it just wasn’t up to the usual very high standard set by the brewery.  Sublimely Self-Righteous is still the standard in this category – but it’s great to see more brewers jumping on board.  A willingness to experiment, even when it’s not always 100% successful, is a fine thing – and something that sets the craft beer industry apart.

Beer Review: Tommyknocker Hop Strike!

Tommyknocker Hop StrikeWhile Ninkasi’s Spring Reign and Black Raven’s Tamerlame were both fabulous, this entry from Colorado’s Tommyknocker Brewery is now also a serious contender for my favorite new (or at least ‘new to me’) beer this year.  I won’t go through the entire BJCP checklist (aroma, appearance, etc.), I will say that it’s got a particularly pleasing grassy hop aroma – yes, the official description says ‘citrusy’ and there’s a bit of that there, but it’s not a full-on west-coast-style hoppiness.  Perhaps the most surprising element of the beer is the deep chocolate flavor contrasted with the hops; it lends an oatmeal-stout-like silkiness, yet the mouthfeel (yes, I just said ‘mouthfeel’) is completely different – it’s still clearly an IPA.

While not sweet (beyond the general maltiness), it lacks the roasty bitterness one might expect when first examining the beer – there’s a pleasing hop bitterness, to be sure, but it’s balanced well with the malt to offer a unique character.  The history of this one-time beer is worth noting: it was brewed to honor Free the Hops, an Alabama organization that successfully lobbied their state legislature to lift the 6% ABV limit imposed on locally-available beers.

So, is this beer worth a little extra effort to seek out?  Most assuredly.

Welcome to WeirdBeerGirl.com (yes, another domain)

Weird Beer GirlWhy, you may ask, have you added yet another domain?  Why not just update your Philadelphia Beer Bars Examiner blog more often, as you used to?  The answer is twofold: first, I want to write about beer from beyond Philadelphia (even if I’ve most likely consumed it in a great Philly-area bar or restaurant), and, perhaps more importantly, while I have time to dash off a quick review, keeping abreast of everything that’s happening locally takes more free time than I have at present.

So, what will you find here? Beer reviews, plugs for bars and restaurants I like and general craft beer evangelism; if I can add to the ranks of Ladies of Craft Beer, I’m doing my job!

And if you’re a first-time visitor (welcome!) who wants to know whether the ‘weird’ modifies the beer or the girl, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume it’s a bit of both – I’m a BJCP-certified beer geek (and beer runner) who enjoys seeking out new and hard-to-find beers, but without the slavish devotion to Westy 12 – I like it, sure, but I like many other things much more.

In addition to the Examiner link above, there are a few year-end beer roundups to get you started; and so, without further ado, the first quick review under the new system – read on!

For quick comments on beer (and geekery), follow me on Twitter.

New Things, Old Things

Superfectablog screenshotAfter much CSS/PHP/JavaScript wrangling, DVAG Wire is finally up and running. I have no doubt, dear reader, that you have been desperate to know what has been going on behind the scenes at a number of Philadelphia archives: now you can keep track automatically.

Sticking with redesign mode, I’ve finally migrated Superfectablog from Blogger and over to WordPress and redesigned it, from logo to layout – as the site was approaching its fifth birthday (with only one-and-a-half major redesigns), the move and facelift were long overdue. While the new design is not a huge departure from the old one in terms of layout, the greater control and flexibility afforded by WordPress is very pleasant indeed – it makes up for the temporary traffic drop I anticipate from the move.

While planning the redesigns, I did a little digging for inspiration (or, perhaps more accurately, to review lessons learned) and found some old work in the Wayback Machine: a little feature I did on The Phantom Menace (before discovering its full horror), an old music review and a website for a radio show I built long ago.  While not universally the case, the fact that many of the ads were preserved is oddly pleasing to me.

General Superlatives: 2009

Arctic Club, Seattle
Arctic Club, Seattle

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Rather shamefully, I have no books on this list; while I read many, not a one was published in 2009 – my excuse is that I’m waiting for the new Nick Hornby novel to come out in paperback.  So, in fractured order, here are this year’s Things I Liked A Lot:

Best Thing I Wrote This Year: On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Memory
Best Race (live): The Haskell (just edging out the Preakness)
Best Race (televised): Breeders’ Cup Classic
Best (human) Race: Dogfish Dash 10K
Best Soccer: US beats Spain, Confederations Cup
Best Trip: Seattle, Arctic Club/MLS Cup/REI pilgrimage/new light rail
Best Airline: Alaska Airlines
Best Live Show (overall): Leonard Cohen, Tower Theater
Best Free@Noon Show at World Cafe Live: John Wesley Harding/M. Ward
Best Beer (draft): Stone/BrewDog Bashah
Best Beer (bottled): Pretty Things Saint Botolph’s Town
Best New Bar: Varga Bar
Best Album: John Wesley Harding: Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead
Best Concept Album: The Duckworth-Lewis Method: The Age of Revolution
Best Random Song: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: Home
Best TV: How I Met Your Mother
Best Event TV: Doctor Who
Best Movie: (500) Days of Summer
Best Movie Franchise Reboot: Star Trek

I Am Everywhere, Like the Latest Meme

Luckily THATCamp Austin is done now (although I continue to manage the THATCamp Austin twitter account, to help promote the other regional THATCamps that are springing up), for I have added yet another new writing outlet to my ever-expanding stable.  I’ll be blogging for the NTRA leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, with a focus on the Breeders’ Cup Marathon.  That means you can find me writing about horse racing on my own blog, on the NTRA site and on TVG’s Community; if it’s archives you’re after, go for A Movable Archives – for beer, I’m at the Examiner.  If you’re looking for the most recent updates, you can always come here and have a look on the right-hand side – new articles are added automatically.  I can be hard to avoid at times.

Because You Can Never Have Enough…

I have yet another new blog, this one in my capacities as a BJCP judge, Beerdrinker of the Year semi-finalist and Lady Beer Geek About Town. Granted, it’s not as pretty as one I would have designed myself, but I decided to go ahead and give the Examiner model a try. So far, I have yet to receive preferential treatment of the sort real food and drink critics get, but I’d be more than happy to accept it if any barkeeps wish to offer those services. In any case, please do check it out.

I’m also the webmaster, designer, sys admin and Jane of All Trades for THATCamp Austin – if you’re going to be in town for SAA and want to talk digital humanities, please do check it out!