Beer Review: Erie Brewing Company Derailed

That would be the purple beer on the rightAs a very general rule, I dislike fruit beers.  Of course, there are some exceptions - Dogfish Head's Festina Peche is a refreshingly unusual take on the Berliner Weisse style, and  Walking Man's Black Cherry Stout is one of the few fruit/stout combinations I've found effective (and I'm happy to report it's very effective indeed).   Despite those high points, I tend to avoid trying a beer that sounds like it's going to be overtly fruity - but after a long day of spent outside doing Things Soccer-y, Derailed sounded like an interesting option.  Essentially a black cherry version of Erie Brewing Company's gold-medal-winning Railbender Ale, it arrived quite purple indeed (it's pictured next to the Abbey of Christ in the Desert Monk's Ale, for your comparative pleasure).

The cherry aroma was certainly evident, and I wondered how well it would blend or compliment the solid malt flavor that Railbender is known for.  The answer is that the flavors work together surprisingly well - the cherry taste is refreshing and tart, so there is no overabundance of fruit and malt combining in a sort of sickly-sweet sugar bomb.  The malt is still very much the driving force behind this beer, which keeps it from verging into black cherry soda territory (something for which I have a terrible weakness - as both a beer and black cherry soda connoisseur, I can confirm there is little crossover here).  It was an ideal beer for the occasion - one that could slake thirst after a warm day, but with enough malt backbone to offset a cool evening.  It's a little too peculiar to become a go-to beer for most circumstances, but it's definitely worth a try; odd beers can be good beers.

After all, how can anyone dislike a beer that has its own origin myth?

Beer Places: Pinocchio’s, Media, PA

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kidMedia is a bit off the beaten track even for local Philly-area beer geeks - yes, there’s an Iron Hill brewpub that typically features some solid offerings, but on the whole, the town gives off a suburban, 1950s vibe that does not scream ‘beer destination.’  But Pinocchio’s is changing that, first, by adding an ever-more-interesting craft beer tap lineup in the restaurant, and more recently by opening Pinocchio's Beer Garden - which, despite the name, is actually a bottle shop with service and selection that rivals that of not only Capone’s in Norristown, but also some of my favorites in cities that have (largely) less bizarre beer laws - it compares very favorably with Bierkraft in Brooklyn or Seattle’s Bottleworks.  And it’s more than just a bottle shop - they do growler fills as well.  The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and they make some great recommendations.  And there’s not just great beer - hard-to-find craft ciders are also available in their own case.

Pinocchio’s has, perhaps, been unfairly overlooked at times; it doesn’t have the high-end finishes and occasionally hipsterish vibe that many newer craft beer places tend to have (not that there’s anything wrong with that) - to all appearances, it’s just the sort of local family restaurant one might find anywhere in suburban America (or, at least, the sort you might have found before it was knocked down and turned into an Applebee’s).  In that respect, it's not unlike Capone’s on a slightly less beer-geeky scale (at present) - it’s still serving plenty of long-time customers, and it's great for kids, who get to play with dough while they wait for their food (and no, I’m not sure why that's fascinating either, but it works well, so I won’t complain).  My one quibble is that the food could be a little better, although it’s certainly many notches above a typical chain restaurant, but the prices on both food and beer are amazingly reasonable.  And the comparisons with Capone’s could grow - this weekend’s tap list is outstanding, and growler fills are available on everything except the Sculpin and Nemesis:

  1. Russian River Blind Pig
  2. Ballast Point Sculpin
  3. Avery Maharajah
  4. Bear Republic Racer 5
  5. Bell's Two-Hearted
  6. Anchor Humming Ale
  7. Boulder Mojo Risin' DIPA
  8. Tommyknocker Hop Strike!
  9. Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pils
  10. Founders Nemesis 2010
  11. Flying Dog Barrel-Aged Gonzo Imperial Porter
  12. Harpoon Triticus
  13. Lost Abbey Avant Garde
  14. Victory/Dogfish Head/Stone Saison du Buff
  15. The Bruery Autumn Maple
  16. Ayinger Octoberfest
  17. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
  18. Bell's Oberon
  19. Yards Love Stout
  20. Saint Somewhere Saison Athene

It would not be surprising to see people standing in line outside for rare beer events in the future - and there's even not-too-inconvenient public transit nearby.   I highly recommend the HopStrike! - you may well find me there this weekend post-Union game

Beer Review: Left Hand/Terrapin Oxymoron

Left Hand/Terrapin OxymoronColorado's Left Hand Brewing and Terrapin Beer of Athens, GA may not be terribly close to one another geographically, but they share a creative impulse to go beyond 'official' beer styles.  In this, their third collaboration as part of their Midnight Project series, they've done something unusual indeed - Oxymoron is an IPA, but it's been brewed with primarily German ingredients.  The result is quite intriguing - it's got a lot of hoppy bitterness, but with something of a softer, more rounded flavor profile.  There's a notable absence of the piney aroma so associated with typical American IPAs, and the malt backbone has a pleasing 'graininess' about it.  It's almost a little too drinkable for a 7.2% ABV beer (although, really, nothing compares to Heavy Seas Hang Ten in that regard - you'd never guess its ABV is in the double digits until you start pondering the fact that it's a weizen dopplebock - and it's probably too late at that point, you've gone and had a second one.  Of course, that’s assuming that wasn’t just me).

All told, it's very tasty indeed - a worthy addition to this experimental series (and kudos to Pinocchio’s for putting Oxymoron on tap almost as soon as it was released in kegs — it may look like the least likely place to get great craft beer, but the selection just keeps getting better and better).

Bring on more!

Beer Review: Dogfish Head Bitches Brew

Dogfish Head Bitches BrewYesterday was the release of Dogfish Head's latest one-off creation, Bitches Brew. The beer was previewed at SAVOR in Washington, DC, earlier this summer, and its official debut this week even garnered an NPR feature. Brewed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the seminal Miles Davis album, it's as unique as Dogfish Head's other specialty brews. As a blend of three parts imperial stout to one part African mead, I was anticipating something very sweet indeed - and I was pleasantly surprised to find something much more complex and interesting. Of course, that's not to say that a sweeter beer cannot be fantastically interesting - the wondrous Theobroma, also from Dogfish Head’s stables, certainly ticks both boxes - but it wasn't quite what I was expecting, which is always good fun.

Perhaps some of the surprise is that the beer hides its 'imperial' nature quite well - at first sniff or taste, you might be unsure as to whether or not these are the droids you're looking for. There is not an obvious alcohol scent or burn as is common in beers of this strength (around 9% ABV); it's remarkably easy-drinking, so it's a fine thing that Tria was serving it (with some appropriate background music) in smaller glasses. I was also anticipating a bit more viscosity from the mead, but was again happy to find my presumption was incorrect - there was definitely a mellowing effect on the flavor coming from the honey, but it did not 'weigh down' the mouthfeel in any unpleasant way (you may have figured out that I don't usually like meads).

All told, it's a very smooth, silky drink, with plenty of great roasted flavor, but not too bitter or wine-y - perfect for after dinner (although we did things backwards and had it as a sort of starter - the vagaries of SEPTA's scheduling force one to do odd things at times).   I'd be quite curious to try it again when it's considerably cooler outside - if it's on at the brewpub later this month, I may use it to help carbo-load before the Dogfish Dash 10K this year. You never know what might prove to be performance-enhancing

Beer Review: Great Lakes Oktoberfest

Great Lakes Brewing CompanyBack in the day, I thought I didn't like lagers. It probably happens to a lot of American beer geeks early on - after all, the macro lagers that dominate the brewing industry in this country are what gave North American brewing its poor reputation - one that is still clearly held by many people who should know better, if the comments on this recent Gizmodo post on canned (craft) beer are anything to judge by. Even after a few years of solid beer geekdom, I was still in the 'ales are vastly superior to lagers' camp, largely due to my own ignorance of the range of lagers out there - I was finally introduced to a number of great lagers and discovered that I found many of them quite tasty indeed.

After all, while they share some origins and brewing techniques, there's a world of difference between a Bud Light and a good Munich Helles, like Stoudt’s Gold Lager, or Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, which I believe outranks DAB Export as the prime example of the Dortmunder Export style. By the same token, the notion that a Doppelbock like Tröegs Troegenator and Coors shared anything beyond a vague sense of Things German would have confused me - after all, one is like drinking pond water (although, one hopes, without the giardia), and the other is practically a (good) meal - yet they are both lagers.

Perhaps my favorite sub-category within Lagerland is the Oktoberfest/märzen - the style should have plenty of malty goodness, but without being terribly sweet or overly heavy. But it's always fun to break the rules a bit (and, despite the links above, I'm no stickler for BJCP guidelines except when judging something that's clearly miscategorized; creativity is almost always more fun) - and Great Lakes does that with theirs, while still maintaining the spirit of the style. While not universally the case, American Oktoberfests tend to be a little stronger than their German cousins, so its 6.5% ABV is pretty normal in that regard. The Cleveland-based brewery always does a bang-up job with German styles (note their abovementioned Dortmunder Gold), as you might expect given its German-American heritage - no doubt you are aware that the goal of many Prohibitionists was to curtail the growing political power of German-Americans, who were at that time the designated group of 'scary' immigrants - and, in large part, it worked. But I digress - back to the beer.

While Oktoberfests often have a spicy hop aroma, this is one of the few I've tried that also had a lot of floral hop flavor. It may have just been that it was a very fresh pint indeed (poured from a sixtel straight from the brewery), but I liked this surprise element a lot, even if it's not officially 'sanctioned' in the style. It still had the usual bready, biscuity aroma and taste, and it certainly made me wish it were fall. I hope to enjoy another glass of this beer with crisper weather on tap.

Final fun fact about Great Lakes – they also make lip balm!

Beer Review: Coronado Black Perle

Black PerleSan Diego's Coronado Brewing Company makes some tasty West Coast-style IPAs, but their Black Perle was something a little different - a schwarzbier from the other coast.   It's evident from many online reviews of this beer that even many beer geeks don't come across schwarzbiers terribly often, so perhaps a brief introduction to the style is in order.  Yes, it's a dark  beer, but (as with many darker beers), it's not heavy by any means - it's a lager, and it should have a clean lager finish, without the heavier mouthfeel of something like a Baltic Porter (which, despite the name, is also a lager, and is much heavier/more alcoholic than a schwarzbier) .  In relatively normal English, a schwarzbier should have dark, toasty malts, but it features a light body and is usually under 5% ABV.  It's a versatile style - eminently sessionable, but also quite satisfying.  Germany's Köstritzer tends to be the most easily-found example (and that typically involves locating your friendly neighborhood German beer hall), so it's nice to see American craft brewers taking it on.

While it's something of a wild overgeneralization, the truism that the East Coast makes the best lagers and the West Coast returns the favor with IPAs does have some validity; Coronado does, indeed, make some fabulous IPAs (notably Idiot) - but I'm happy to report they can doing things German-style equally well.  The beer is, as the name of the style suggests, black as a Spinal Tap album cover (note that TJ's pleasing exposed brick wall isn't visible through the beer in the photo); there's a thin tan head and a pleasant bready/toasty aroma.  The toastiness (and even a bit of smoke) carries on in the flavor, along with a good amount of hoppy bitterness.  One presumes that the beer's oddly-spelled name comes from the hop variety employed - Perle hops are a German-bred variety that is now widely grown in the Pacific Northwest - and they are used to good effect here.

On the whole, Black Perle is a very solid beer, quite worth sampling.

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.

1337 14th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20005-3610


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* 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.