Friday, August 22, 2014

Drinking order philosophy: Go Big

Al and I going big at Great Taste.  
On the path of beer geekdom, most of us have read the same advice for tasting samples: drink light to dark. In theory, sampling light to dark will allow a drinker to not blow out the taste buds by starting with the double IPA. For years, I slavishly followed the advice.

I changed my drinking order philosophy after a short night at Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn. With a small but legendary draft list, there we're several that I wanted to try. We settled in and I ordered a Chelsea Blizzard IPA, which was disappointing, and then moved up to La Merle, a saison from North Coast. While a good visit, I had been eyeing a barleywine on the board (that I can't remember the name on now). If you haven't been to Spuytin Duyvil, it's a pretty sketchy walk through Brooklyn. And, in our search for an affordable hotel in New York, we tried a hotel in Jersey, which required a late night train transfer. The combination sent us packing to the subway before I got to the beer I was most interested in drinking.

Not a catastrophe, but enough disappointment to make me re-think my approach, especially on vacation. Now, I go big early and drink whatever looks best on the menu regardless of style or size. This approach will often get me a quizzical look from fellow drinkers when I order the 10% plus barlewine or triple IPA for the first draft. Working through a rack of samples, I will still follow the light to dark guideline (leaving samples that are unimpressive half full or more—another change). But, when ordering drafts, I go big early and drink the best I can find.
First draft and biggest on the menu that
day at Hammerheart Rune Stone Stout

I'm happy with my new philosophy over the last six years since Spuyten Duyvil and our recent trip to Lagunitas is a good example of the approach. Drinking for clear reasons, I started with their IPA because it was 57% of sales (info from the tour) and I couldn't remember it's taste. Then, we jumped right into a sample tray of all the special beers, including some big barrel aged offerings. As a result, we found the fantastic Rye Barrel Aged Gnarley Wine that we were delighted to drink it in spite of the 100 degree day.

This philosophy does have a downside. It will inevitably reduce the overall number of beers you can drink before heading home, whether driving or not. To drive home, a single beer before water and dinner might be required. At the most recent Great Taste, Al and I started with a 16% barleywine and a couple of bars later I ordered New Holland's Pilgrim's Dole wheat wine that comes in a 11%. Even taking a bus home, the big beers slow down the night pretty fast. While this approach takes some discipline and may not be for everyone, it's gotten me to better beers faster and improved my beer stops by simply stepping off the trodden path.

Friday, August 15, 2014

La Trappe (Berkel-Enschot, Netherlands)

La Trappe beer garden with brewery
in background
7/1/14 and 3/8/03 visits

A few weeks before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the price of airline tickets to Europe plummeted and we flew nonstop from MSP to Amsterdam for a long weekend because it was cheaper than any domestic vacation we tried to book. One of the best trips we've ever taken, a highlight was a train to Tilburg to taste La Trappe at Koningshoeven.

Returning this summer to the Netherlands with our niece for her college graduation trip, we took the opportunity to stop again for the tour. La Trappe was both familiar and changed at the same time.
First round of Wit and Quadruple

In 2003, we walked into the tasting room and the tour guide, Berrie Verhagen, asked if I was Cal on the first beer I ordered. I asked "How did you know?" We were the only Americans there. We toured the brewery with Berrie giving English translations of the previous Dutch explanations from each stop. Today's tour is very similar minus the walk through the bottling room. Also, at the end now, there's a video covering all things La Trappe while samples are poured. English speakers drank first, which was a nice bonus for coming so far.
Salad with fenugreek goat brie, apple, nuts
and apple-syrup dressing (minus bacon
to be vegetarian)

If my memory is correct, the present gift shop was the old tasting room.  Back then, cheese made with the quadruple and brewery bread, while great, was the best on the menu. For this trip, we showed up early enough for the 2 pm tour to have lunch first. My salad was pretty incredible, but my wife hit the jackpot by ordering the raisin-nut bread with Brabant blue goat cheese, pear compote, and nuts (grantinated in the oven). Not even sure what to call it, but the bite I was allowed to savor was spectacular. After the tour, I had Brabant strawberries with "hang-op," a uniquely Dutch topping according to the waitress. Even without the trappist ales, this is a place worth visiting just for the food. Magnificent. If you make the trip to Tilburg, please leave enough time to eat. And, of course, there was beer: before, during and after the tour.

My wife predictably startedand stayedwith the Quadruple. Easily distracted by something new, I got the once brewed 25th Anniversary Ale called Jubilaris and followed with Puur, La Trappe's organic pale ale.  Ended with a bottle of the Oak Aged Quadruple, batch 16. According to the waitress, each batch of the oak aged quad is tweaked a bit differently. In beer press, La Trappe sometimes doesn't get the respect of other trappist breweries, but I love their line up, especially the quad.

Tilburg is a bit off the beaten tourist path, but public transportation to Koningshoeven is easy. Bus 141 drops off right in front of the abbey and it's an easy walk to the tasting room. The bus runs hourly, so timing is important. To return, the bus pick up is across the road and down a little bit.  In 2003, I read the time wrong because we didn't realize that the return bus was on the other side of the road, which resulted in a us walking back to the train station in a light rain. Our first trip, we took an easy train ride to Tilburg from Amsterdam for the day and returned that night. This trip we had rented a car for a few days, so simply got a room at the Bastion Hotel (cheap, basic but perfectly adequate) because it's the closest one to the abbey. We just missed the bus from the hotel to the brewery, so we walked the 20 minutes rather than wait for the next bus. In the end, we've ridden the bus each directionjust a decade apart.

Two years ago, my wife and I visited Westvleteren in Belgium, which was also a great day, but much more difficult to get to with public transportation. While I've only been to two trappist breweries, La Trappe is an easy visit and well worth the effort, especially with the serious upgrades to the food and tour structure. I encourage you to settle in for an afternoon and leisurely enjoy the full range of La Trappe beers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Growlers and Minnesota

Growler storage in my trunk
My first knowledge of recent changes in Minnesota beer laws was Harriet Brewing's policy for growler refills. Bring in your Harriet growlers before September 1st and get $5 back. Brought mine in today and filled up Fulton and Fitger's growlers with Harriet brew.

I decided to take advantage of Harriet's policy to make some room in my trunk. A couple years ago, I walked into the Container Store in Edina with a growler and proceeded to test it in each type of storage system. I finally found a archival box that fit 12 growlers perfectly. To date, I haven't had a growler break in the back. This was my solution to Minnesota's requirement to turn in an empty growler in exchange for a pre-filled one, and a lack of storage space in my house.

Now I'm torn. While it's nice to have three fewer growlers in my collection, I like the pre-filled growlers. They store exceptionally well in the beer fridge until opened and, in my opinion, have a significantly better carbonation retention than those filled from the tap. My problem is that I only like it in Minnesota.  When travelling, I, for obvious reasons, prefer to get beer in my own growlers.  I will rarely purchase a growler from out of state to bring home because of the waste.

My double standard extends to the present system.  I'm hoping that my favorite places like Town Hall Brewery continue to pre-fill growlers while others I visit less frequently can change with my blessing. It's just a bit more work to wash and sanitize before visiting a brewery. Less spontaneous but it'll work. Asking bartenders to not rinse the growler with water and pour on the foam will take more effort. Besides, I have my trunk system in place alreadyeven the guys of the food truck tonight were impressed by my system. We'll see how long I will need it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Day Block Brewing (Minneapolis, MN)

After a long winter, we took advantage of a sunny Saturday afternoon to go to Town Hall pint club for the first time in a while and then walked down the street to Day Block Brewing.

Day Block is next to Grumpy's Downtown on Washington.  So much beer side by side may look like a bad idea. However, Day Block is much more of an upscale, industrial chic compared to Grumpy's gritty character. My guess is that the clientele for the corner may not overlap much. Plus, with a brewpub and a beer bar, their offerings will likely compliment as much as they compete. Hopefully, the flow of traffic from the nearby apartments, Guthrie Theater, Open Book and the future Viking's stadium will provide more than enough customers for both bars.

Day Block back bar and brewhouse in background

We ordered a rack of all six samples. All of the beers were solid interpretations of the styles. Of the group, I order a draft of the Frank's Red Ale that had lots of body and a pleasant hop balance. Fruhlinhgsfest was my next favorite, in spite of it not being a favored style, followed closely by the Honey Amber IPA. The Spring Lager and Kolsch were both strong for their styles, just not styles I drink. Lot 56 was adequate but I had been expecting more from the description and Al's reviews of other hoppy Day Block beers.

Dinner was a cheese pizza, thin and slightly reminiscent of Pizza Paradiso in DC but didn't live up to that memory.  Thin crust, a bit greasy, full of cheesy goodness and a slight char on the crust, it was a good size for sharing.

I like Day Block. While not  in the same league as Town Hall (yet), it's likely a place we'll visit again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cerveceria de MateVeza (San Francisco, CA)

7/13/13 visit

When our friends Danielle, Kelli and family met up with us in San Francisco, they took us for a drink at a local lesbian bar, reputedly (and amazingly) the only one left in San Francisco. Along the route from our Castro apartment, I spied Cerveceria de MateVeza and we decided to return on our last night in town.

The bartender Brendan was clearly used to answering questions while pouring these unique beers, so we took advantage and moved into a couple open seats at the very small bar to drink and chat. As of last summer, the 20 gallon brewery had been around almost a year and a half.  They have a couple flagship beers—Yerbe Mate IPA and Morpho Herbal Ale—that are brewed off site with drafts beers brewed on site (I think, or some similar combination). The only food is El Porteno empanadas, some vegetarian, which were excellent and made us wonder why this wasn't our late night stop every night. Oh well.

MateVeza is worth a visit because of the mind blowing freshness of their brewing ideas. Avoiding traditional beer ingredients, their beers are balanced with spices like the IPA replaces hops with Yerbe Mate. Very unusual and amazing flavors out of these beers, and I haven't felt so adventuresome in my drinking for a very long time. The names and ingredients are not a standard part of my world, so each beer was a leap of faith, an effort that were mostly rewarded.

Server Brendan w IPA (full) and Vintage Morpho.
Beer and empanadas board (right). Brewery
can be in the corner. 
Here's a few notes on what  we sampled:

Fernet and Coke: supposed to be a beery replicate of an Italian liquor called Fernet mixed with Coke. Very herbal and fun. Brewer/bartender said it was blended to reduce the first versions herbal character. Not being familiar with the drink, I can only suppose it's accuracy.

Prodigal Saison: spicy nose with a fruity center to a dry finish. Awesome white lace. We both liked this one a lot.

Yerba Mate IPA: rust orange beer with a white head that lingers a bit. Floral nose with a pretty spice fruitiness. Dry finish that follows a light but not thin bodied beer with a slight caramel in the center. Brewed at Mendocino.

Vintage Morpho: aged version of their regular herbal ale that was fun to drink. Brendan let us sample of sour mash version of Morpho with a change of herbs that was still fermenting but showed promise. The heart of the Morpho could be clearly tasted in the new version, but it was a clear and interesting departure.

As a veteran beer hunter, I can often guess a lot about what's in my glass from website construction, atmosphere and descriptions.  Unfortunately, drinking a new place can sometimes be less than surprising or inspirational.  MateVeza is a place to stop when in San Francisco simply because it's so far off the beer map that it will return a wizened old drinker to a time when every beer was an adventure.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Healthy Spirits (San Francisco, CA)

Last summer, we had the great pleasure of living for a week in the Castro while being tourists in San Francisco. Most of the brewpubs and bars we visited were closer to downtown and, locally, the bars nearest the house didn't offer a wide selection of drafts. However, Healthy Spirits was a very welcomed source of great beer that was a few blocks walk (or a short bus ride) up the hill.

I found it shortly after we arrived; unfortunately, it was after trying several other places. Minnesota friends happened to be in The City at the same time, and we had an impromptu barbecue at our apartment. The very friendly and knowledgeable help at Healthy Spirits allowed me to bring some very fine bottles to our group of beery friends. In short, it's the only beer store I've found that rivals, or surpasses, the Four Firkins. If spending any time in or near the Castro, this is the place to stock up.

Here's a sampling of the week:

Triple Voodoo Grand Cru. Healthy Spirits exclusive barrel aged version of the TV Grand Cru. Dave told me that he bottles from full barrels of bourbon to sell in the shop and then sends the barrels to local breweries. Honey, blue agave nectar, coriander and orange peel are added to this version. Burnished copper color with dark gold highlights and an off white head that falls quickly. Elegant nose with the above plus fig and some alcohol underneath. Smells a bit like a quad but lighter. Flavors meld well and flow over the tongue. Very good ale and a great first beer from this brewery.

Stone RuinTen.  Unable to find this at home before leaving, I was so happy to buy a couple. Just awesome.

Knee Deep Brewing Hoptologist DIPA. Brash and harsh bite on the tongue. Good if you like a sharp hop bite. Almost white head over a shining amber gold ale. Enormous citrus nose and a light biscuit base. Sweet on the tongue followed by strong hop bite that has a burn that feeds the beast. Fun hop forward brew that I would enjoy more when more hydrated. Almost sweet finish and a lingering hop.

Knee Deep Simtra. Marmalade ale with a white head. Clean, singular hop nose. Slightly oily taste and some hop bite but the sweetness and the bitterness don't meld completely. Not as good as the Boneyard we had at Toronado this afternoon. Hop lingers nicely on he tongue.

Pretty Things Ale Project Fluffy White Rabbits. These guys can be hit or miss,and this one is a miss for me. Muddled nose with some clear spice from hop and yeast, but the balance just doesn't make it. Side of the bottle says floral, and it is that. But this hazy orange beer with a white head has a lot of promise and is clearly well crafted, it falls short for me.

Triple Voodoo barrel aged Inception. Bottle 244 of 432 made for Healthy Spirits by aging in a barrel provided by HS. hazy gold ale with circling white film from a head that barely forms. Spice, yeast and light pepper nose that seems muted compared to the straight Inception but nice. Fruitiness on the tongue that finishes dry nice but unusually like the straight better. Straight version of TV Inception rated a bit higher for me, though I love that HS does it's own specialty aging.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pitchfork Brewing (Hudson, WI)

Intending to try a new brewpub last weekend, an invite by a good friend to drink at the very first Spring Festival at Pitchfork Brewing in Hudson was welcomed. I've heard rumblings from several beery friends that Pitchfork was worth the trip.

Ten dollars bought the glass, which is a pretty cheap festival ticket these days, and then five dollars a pint afterwards. Plus, drinking with a good beer friend means twice as much tasting.  I started with the Maple Maibock, a solid and drinkable but slightly out of style maibock, which is good for me. The cask of Jen's Cherry Pale Ale was fine for a round but lacked balance. Robin liked the Quite Right UK IPA, very much the English IPA that I didn't love. However, the cask of English Pale Ale w/ Kent Goldings drank like a trip to London, authentic, tasty and well served. 
Oatmeal Stout

My favorite was the growler of Oatmeal Stout that I saved for last. Billowing brown, fluffy head over an opaque black stout. Light roast and chocolate in the nose over sweetness, soft water and more than a hint of hoppy spice. Slightly acrid bite feels dry to balance the sweet, full bodied malt and the characteristic smoothness of oatmeal.

I remember seeing pics of the Pitchfork bar being built, and the loving craftsmanship is clearly evident in the bar. The servers are friendly and proudly serve their fare. Added to this is locals who are comfortable in their new spacefelt a little like bar in my small Iowa hometown, except the beer was good.

My only disappointment was that I had missed lunch getting ready to go out and all of the food for the festival had meat in it. Pitchfork has a small menu of appetizers from Paddy Ryan Pub next door, so I headed there for something to eat. Two veggie options and but they were out of the brewpub pretzels, so lunch was Battered Cheese Nuggets; very good and it served reasonably well as a base for the beers. Leave your beer behind at Pitchfork and pay at the Paddy Ryan bar, and they will deliver the apps to you back at Pitchfork.

Overall, it was a great Saturday beer hunt and a relaxing chat with a friend. A strong beer list kept us going for several hours before we needed to leave, our bar stools filling quickly as the party started to roll. I went home with two growlers on the strength of the Pitchfork Pale Ale, the sampled West Wing Porter and the likelihood of a Sunday fill during speech season.