Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stone Vertical Epic Tasting

VE 03.03.03
While the exact details of how and when I heard of the Stone Vertical Epic series is buried in the foggy past, I do remember being excited by the concept. Stone was impossible to get in Minnesota until recently, so I missed out on the 02. On a trip to California the next year, I found the .03 and was then on a quest to find the rest.

Unfortunately, drinking the range over the last couple of weeks, there's no holy grail. While a few were very good to drink yet, not one was better than the first go around. Based on the styles brewed, I suspected a problem all along.  The .02 was a witbier, destined to not aged well. The rest were Belgian ales of varying strengths. The .08, a Belgian IPA, held promise but four years of aging was too much as well.

More interesting than the tasting was remembering the travels necessary for the coast to coast effort to gather the collection. .03 and .04 from Irvine and Oakland, CA, respectively, and the .07 came from Exton, PA. Only three drafts of a VE ever: .07 and .08 at Brasserie V in Madison before Great Tastes and the .11 on site at the Stone World Bistro. Picked up the .05 in West Lafayette, IN during our annual trip to a Purdue football game. After two years of buying .08 and .09 online at Beer on the Wall,  I was able to buy the last years in Minnesota when Stone finally moved into the state.

I don't regret buying the series but definitely disappointed. Granted, my hopes were high in spite of the clear evidence. Still fun and educational, especially since I've learned a fair bit about how my own cellar ages beers over a longer time period. While the Vertical Epic series was a magnificent and inspiring idea, it simply did not deliver.

Here's the beer by beer notes for those interested:

VE 03.03.03: off white rocky head that falls slowly to a thin film over a copper colored Belgian ale with amber highlights along the edges; horse blanket, toffee, dark fruit, spice and cinnamon in the nose which is complex; semi-sweet on the tongue, low carbonation, over-ripe prune and a bitter finish; alcohol is strong and unbalanced. All of the recent BA reviews are all in the same vein—beer didn't live up to the ten years in the cellar.

VE 04.04.04: hard pour to build a barely-there white head over a dark straw gold ale; malt and yeasty spice in the nose plus a musty staleness; sweet maltiness floods the tongue plus a nice spice from hops and/or yeast; not bad but also past it's prime. Again, my original tasting was much more satisfying.

VE 05.05.05: high pour down the center to raise a light brown head over a dark maroon ale with ruby highlights; heavy malt and dark cherry with a light spice in the nose; fruitiness washes over the tongue with a lingering maltiness; sherry notes from a bit of oxidation but an improvement over the .03 and .04 but still downhill from the original tasting.

VE 06.06.06: one of my least favorites of the VE when fresh; hard pour down the center and the light brown head barely rises, alcohol wafts up at a distance; light malt and alcohol in the nose and little else; thin body with an acrid pinch on the tongue; dark fruit in the dry finish. My opinion has not changed about the 06; it's still the weakest, though it doesn't show the oxidation of the 03 or 04.

VE 07.07.07: only a thin white head over a marmalade colored ale; light spice, orange and sweet malt in nose; fruitiness, yeast spice and slight oxidation spreads over the tongue with a light acidic bite; good but it seems to have lost a step and some balance from my last tasting.

VE 08.08.08: stark white head lingers a while before falling to a film; amber ale with shimmering gold highlights is promising; hop has fallen out of this Belgian IPA from nose and taste; mostly funk left and little to balance; aged a year, I was much more impressed with a bottle of the 08 in spite of being less enamored with a draft.

VE 09.09.09: thick, creamy tan head that builds quickly and hangs on; dark cherry, chocolate, spice and a hint of oxidization that blends nicely for an intriguing nose; smooth and full bodied, it fills the mouth with chocolate and toffee tones, a slight burnt malt hidden underneath and maybe a hop presence trying to make itself known. The 2009 edition has held up well and the best so far.

VE 10.10.10: near white head dissipates immediately, leaving a orange and gold ale; pretty nose of spice, pepper, lemon, yeast and bready sweetness; sweet and spicy on the tongue, front to back; slight oxidation dulls it a bit but the overall impression is good.  It has held up for the three years but it can't go much longer.

VE 11.11.11: thick, tightly-bubbled off white head piles up over a copper ale, and the beauty ends there; nose is dank with dark chocolate and cherry underneath; taste is stale malt with some fruit underneath; so far, the recent beers have improved but the 11 is the exception of the steady improvement from .03 to .10.

VE 12.12.12: hard pour barely lifted the light brown head over a pitch black ale; complex herb and spice nose with dark fruit, fig and cherry; full body fills the mouth with herbs and spices flowing over the tongue; sweet to cloyingly off the back; very good but not the excellent I remember from my 12.12.12 birthday.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Downtown Joe's Brewery & Restaurant (Napa, CA)

Downtown Joe's in the heart of Napa

Planned in advance, we had dinner at Downtown Joe's in Napa after a day of sampling wines in the valley. While we enjoyed the drive and the sampling the valley's wine, especially the port offerings at Prager Winery and Port Works (the only wine we bought), finishing our day at brewpub in the iconic bastion of wine country was irresistible.

Since most of the wineries close early (by 4:30 pm or earlier), we made happy hour and got discounted appetizers for dinner. Garlic Beer Fries were very good and hit the spot, versions of which we've had through out the trip in northern California. The homemade guacamole was fine but below par for what I expected for being out west and the chips didn't support well enough.

Overdue Porter and Tantric IPA
Skipped getting samples and went right for the hops of the Tantric IPA: thin white head and a orange marmalade color like Masala Mama; strong grapefruit and apricot in the nose with a floral and spicy hoppiness; blended hop bite and a balanced sweetness; a very strong IPA hidden in the legendary land of vineyards. Gloria's Overdue Porter was solid for the style and warmed nicely as we ate.

On the recom of our solicitous bartender, I finished with the double IPA, Double Secret Probation: delicate stark white lacing over an amber ale with gold highlighted; clean singular hop nose with sweet breadiness and honey underneath; taste is sharp and chewy; slightly hot and a little out of balance. Bartender said the beer's name is an allusion to Animal House. Evidently the movie was filmed at the University of Oregon (Ducks), the alma mater of the actual Downtown Joe. The bartender preferred this over the Tantric because it had more punch (alcohol) but the bar actually sells more Tantric

Garlic Beer Fries

Another 100 plus degree July day in the inland, we survived only with cranking the air in the car between stops plus the industrial strength misting systems of Sterling Vineyards. As a result, we really appreciated the almost chilly AC in the pub in spite of it being in a historic building (100 year old Oberon building, a Napa landmark according to the sign). Settling into the comfortable restaurant for dinner with seemingly all locals, we enjoyed the food, beer and welcoming feel. Downtown Joe's is a great place to get a post-winery hop fix.

Brewery at Downtown Joe's

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ukiah Brewing (Ukiah, CA)

Ukiah Brewing


On the way to our night on the coast at Timber Cove Inn, we had limited time for a lunch stop in Ukiah. Beer travel is always about decisions. We almost drove out of the way to Lagunitas that we had done a few days earlier, but the 108 degree inland temperature dissuaded us of this option. In Ukiah, the choice is between Mendocino Brewing's Ale House and Ukiah Brewing. Medocino is more easily available, so we decided to hit the local-only beer stop that had the veggie friendly menu.

Walking in the steepled downtown building on the corner, we sat at a high top table just inside the door, relieved that the AC was working well. Garlic bites (versions of which, especially Gilroy garlic, we've been eating all week) and a full rack of all of the samples to start. Overall, the samples were fairly well brewed but only a few would inspire me to another pint. Easily the best beer of the stop was the Emancipator, a rich and flavorful doppelbock that's was a bit hot and lacks cohesion for the style; however, it was fun to drink. The most unique beer from this organic brewery was the Narrow Yarrow: yarrow flowers substituted for hops; some malt in the nose but no flowery support; floral note shows on the tongue with a sweetness; interesting but not excellent. The natural cut fries were satisfying but the tempeh burger read better on the menu than a reality, or it may have lacked in comparison to the amazing tempeh burger that we had at Stone World Bistro last year.

Garlic bites with fresh dill sauce
From the size of the speakers nearby, the place seems to be a nightly music venue, so maybe that is their role in the community. Taking a look at the About Us section of their website, UBC, as it's known locally, was the first certified organic brewery in the United States in 2000 (2nd organic restaurant). I was perfectly happy with the stop, having few delusions from reading the reviews. While not an amazing brewery that I will go out of my way for again, clearly UBC very much believes in its mission and works to fulfill it in this small California community.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Local Beer Bar (Eureka, CA)

Cool and unique tap board

After Lost Coast Brewery, we walked over to The Local Beer Bar. Eureka rolls up the streets at 10 pm (confirmed by the bartender), so we moved quickly after dinner to have pint.

What a tap list. For me, this is the new model for a beer bar: a small, informed and well served list. We struggled to pick a beer, but three strikes (samples) are allowed before having to choose.

I started with Iron Fist's Nelson the Imp-Paler: pale ale with Nelson Saugvin hops; super clear lager yellow but not thin at all with a clean hop fruitiness; bites clean and the hops linger. The Mad River John Barleycorn was adequate but didn't live up to expectation but draft of Bacchus from Brouwerij von Honsebrouck renewed hope: nice sour but a bit thin and middle of the road to be impressive but very acceptable. I ended with 101 North's Herione IPA: sweet and malty IPA with a clean, brash hop charge. Good choice.

Our bartender, who I neglected to write down her name, was extremely patient and very knowledgeable. Point of fact, my bias, a level of service I didn't expect to find in Eureka. While each beer wasn't served in a brewery glass, they were served in a glass close to style. Small food offering, including veggie empanadas, but we were full from Lost Coast, so didn't check it out.

At the bar, we met two young men having a beer before heading to a local organic farm the next morning to work a two month stint for room, board and a bit of spending money. In chatting with one, he had done two years of college but it didn't fit.  He felt his family was disappointed with him compared to his educated and "successful" siblings. He could have been any one of my students, trying to find his way and needing support.  We told both of them we admired their quest and wished them luck.

Just a quite night with a jazzy background, a bartender and four people at a bar in Eureka, California, in the shadow of the redwoods. The rush of a successful beer quest plus pleasant conversion while bellied up to the bar made for a great stop. Hope more locals hit The Local Beer Bar because this it is a beauty.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lost Coast Brewery (Eureka, CA)

Lost Coast Brewery

After driving through the Avenue of Giants and up to Redwood National Forest, we headed down to Eureka to spend the night. We stayed at the historic Eureka Inn, a disappointment except that it was an easy walk home from the downtown breweries.

First stop of the evening was for dinner at Lost Coast Brewery. Order of lemon pepper parmesan fries were very tasty to tide us while trying a sampler tray of brews. The fruit beers like Raspberry Brown and Tangerine Wheat were all adequate but not very inspiring. The standard line up of beers were a level better, especially the hoppy ales. 8 Ball Stout and AlleyCat Amber were a step up from the fruit ales, but better were the Lost Coast Pale Ale with a soft hop nose over a sweet caramel back bone and the Indica IPA with a bold hop bite and a grassy, dry finish.

Fish taco

Lost Coast Tacos for dinner. Mine had a crisp, crunchy battered outside with a delicate white fish inside surrounded with a flour tortilla, shredded cabbage, lime sour cream and fresh pico de gallo. Ordered a draft of Great White Beer with my taco: spice on the tongue is complex and stimulating to drink; secret blend of Humboldt County herbs, according to the menu; light and refreshing with a lot of flavor. One of only two LC beers I've had before, it's light and refreshing with a light of flavor. Understated spiciness of the beer blends well with the bready and slightly fishy tacos. Gloria had the tofu version of the taco and liked it as well. A nice range of veggie options on the menu for being so far north, and we appreciated the choice.

Lost Coast is a family friendly restaurant, even on a Saturday night visit. Feels like a bar in my small hometown in Iowa but with a lot better beer. The slightly slow but friendly service with quick, honest recommendations. The rustic atmosphere that was loud but still pleasant to talk in. Overall, it's a place in which the beer is about what I expected and has a warm, welcoming feel that many locals seem to call home.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

North Coast Brewing Taproom (Fort Bragg, CA)


North Coast tap room and restaurant. 
"That's not a kitty!" Walking home from North Coast's tap house, we saw down the block something walking away from a trash can.  The B&B next door (that we didn't get a room for) had a house cat according to the website, so we made an assumption that the kitty was in the street being naughty. When "it" turned, the profile was clearly NOT a kitty, but we couldn't identify what it was in the dark. We now have a new experession for anything unexpected, "That's not a kitty."

For out stop in Fort Bragg, the saying is appropriate. While the beers of North Coast are famous, and worthy of it, the stop was very different than I imagined. At Anderson Valley, our new friends Dave and Meredith had shown up too early for the restaurant (opens at 4 pm), ending up at a nearby bar and chatted with a disgruntled local about the negative relationship the brewery has with the small seaside community.  We didn't sense any of that dynamic on our stop but the restaurant does feel out of place.
Drafts worth travelling to drink

To buy time to order some food, we jumped into drafts of Brother Thelonious and Old Rasputin, both excellent. No notes as we focused on ordering bruschetta with fresh basil and a quattro formaggio spent grain pizza. In spite of the very comfortable and welcomed 60 degree coastal temp compared to the inland heat, the restaurant was stuffy. A dark wood interior and black painted ceiling gives the place a somber feeling. Blended with 1950s muzak, I sense in the restaurant an attempt to be upscale in a small town like the steak house in my backwater hometown in Iowa.

Brother Thelonious and 25th Anniversary Barley Wine to end
Which might explain the high end beers brewed by North Coast. While a couple of beers like ACME and Scrimshaw are lighter, the rest are big beers in big bottles. Two and two adds up to four now, but I never really did the math before. North Coast are high end beers because they seem to see themselves as a high end location. 

Next was the mainstay of my cellar, Old Stock Ale. This draft of the 2013 edition is fresh and young: dark notes and oxidized sherry from bottle aging are missing; tall, fluffy white head falls to a thin film over a mahogany ale; slightly hot nose, hidden cherry and dark malt; a little thin and alcoholic on the tongue with more dark fruit and malt and a dry finish. Too cold when served but the beer opens nicely as it warms to hint at the aged version. A barleywine on a summer trip is always a treat, so ordering a 25th Anniversary Barley Wine on draft was a no-brainer: medium lace from a fluffy off white head; amber ale with shimmering gold in the light; aromatic and floral nose from a fairly intense hop with sweet malt and a hint of molasses; smooth and whiskey-like on the tongue and the hop lingers off the back. Pretty good beer but not an all-time barleywine for me.
Four cheese spent grain pizza

Overall, our walk on the beach at sunset to check out sea glass (recommended by our friendly hotel owner upon check in) and the downtown region was beautiful, as was the drive to Fort Bragg through the Jackson State Forest, forecasting our next day in redwoods. Pleasant stop with some excellent beers, but I didn't feel connected to the restaurant. Nothing wrong—just wasn't inspired by the disconnect between the rough and tumble seaside town and the attitude in the restaurant, especially when the food only partially delivered. Still, hard to go wrong drinking the drafts of North Coast across the street from the brewery and an easy (if somewhat surprising) walk home.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Great Taste 2013 (Madison, WI)

Battle plan, which never works.
For each of my nine times at the Great Taste of the Midwest, I've shown up early to get in line to prepare the battle plan from the program for the fest. My optimism in finding every new brewery to add to my list versus the reality of always failing to conquer the goal is at the heart of why this is a great fest. With brewers often pouring their wares themselves and fighting for attention by bringing their best, failure to taste everything new and sampling amazing beer are both guaranteed. Simply, Great Taste may be the best beer festival, period.  

First, unlike the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which has more beer, time and the heart of Denver to drink, Great Taste brewers are often pouring their own beers. At GABF, volunteers pour the samples and, as worthy and wonderful as they are, it's not the same as being able to chat with the brewer or staff when getting a sample. Second, it is an incredibly well run festival by the local Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild. All festival organizers need to take notes on getting a line in the door, the fastest anywhere. Over the years, the club doesn't rest on its laurels and even the festival layout changes and improves each year. The entrance has moved to the other side of the fest and the flush toilets are inside the grounds rather than being your last chance in line before being relegated to porta-potties for the rest of the day. Third, Olin-Turville Park's location on the lake across from downtown is unparalleled at any festival I've attended, especially because the ticket cap means a 2 oz sample is rarely far away. And, finally, the selection of beer from the midwest, draft and cask, is simply fantastic. As alluded to above, the unique nature of Great Taste all of the brewers bring their A game for everyone to taste, including fest only beers. In short, Great Taste is the granddaddy that shows everyone how to do it right.
And they are off...not stumbling now. 

For me, the value of Great Taste is finding beers that inspire a visit to a brewery later on. From past festivals, for example, I discovered and traveled to the following breweries: Bluegrass, Flossmoor Station, Lafayette, New Glarus, Three Floyd's, Piece Pizzeria, Dragonmead, Dark Horse among others. In today's booming beer age, tasting to find breweries worth visiting later is even more valuable. Because a single sample can be misleading, I tend to taste several at each brewery to make sure that the range makes the overall impression rather than just one beer. 

2013 was an especially good festival. All of the best of the fest fortuitously arrived in a single year: amazing weather with no rain and low heat; fabulous Great Taste Eve; more (good) vegetarian food than ever; too many new breweries to tackle; random encounters with beery friends before and during the fest; and my wife decided to come along. We've experienced the converse conditions at Great Taste before, including rain, high heat, bad food, pot smokers in the woods and drinkers too immature or unable to handle the demands of an all-you-can-drink festival. In the end, the good outweighs the bad by far. This year had several beer highlights. My wife's favorite was the New Glarus 2012 Cherry Stout: dark maroon with red highlights in the summer sun; awesome dark cherry and caramel nose; Door County cherry floods the tongue like Belgian Red (dancingly light but not thin) but with more depth from the stout character. We each got a couple of samples after the 4:30 tapping, easily the best of the special releases we set up in the morning line up. 
Wedge potatoes from
Smokin' Cantina

Fitger's in Duluth had my highest rated beer of the day, but it was a new release of an old favorite, 1100 Wheatwine: alcohol and wheat spice in the nose with heavy legs on the side of the glass; caramel colored with gold highlights, the big original gravity blends the spice and wheat on the tongue to near perfection; an under-brewed style, this beer is simply amazing and I can't believe I have only ever had samples at festivals. 

The next new brewery to visit from sampling will probably be Toppling Goliath. All three hoppy beers I tried—Golden Nugget IPA, Pseudo Sue and Zeelander—were all very good and worth a future draft. Plus, beer friends recommended Toppling Goliath from their visit, so the combination will get me there at some point. 

A heavily hyped beer from New Holland (cheezy track theme) that didn't quite live up to expectations was New Holland's Smaug's Breath: Dragon's Milk spiced with Chili de Arbois and aged for six months; chili pepper is hot and lingers on the front of the tongue and blends nicely with the barrel aged smoke of Dragon's Milk. While the beer clearly wins the completion of a metaphor award, it isn't as drinkable as, say, Stone's Smoked Porter with chili peppers.
Early dinner of Mango Rundown Tofu w/
Red Beans and Rice to get through fest

Since I haven't been to Great Taste in four years, several recent improvements make it even more fun. First and foremost, the organizers finally switched the brewery order of the program to alphabetical rather than by state. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you. This year was the first time that I used my program effectively to take notes. After a few samples, nothing beyond one level of organization can be negotiated and the old state format was impossible. Second, there is now a dedicated website to the festival with detailed information, including an early release of the program a couple days ahead of time. Invaluable planning information for the true geek in the comfort of your home; in addition, the Eve special gatherings are conveniently listed there as well. And third, there's an app track down beers and take notes, which is very cool; however, a glitch (by Apple, not the fest is my understanding) delayed the download to the point where we gave up and stayed with paper for the day. While very good before, it's vastly improved and the fest has been brought into the modern era for a techno generation of beer geeks. 

Leinie's road warrior trailer--a sign of veterans

I'm not sure how but Great Taste 2001 was the very first festival that my wife and I ever attended. The specifics of the day, which is before I started recording my taste database rankings, is hidden in the fog of memory. However, it inspired beer travel, wide ranging reading and 50+ additional festivals over the years, including seven more Great Tastes within the first decade of my beer journey. This festival nothing short of shaped my understanding of beer.  

In spite of all of this high praise, I'm considering not attending a Great Taste again—or at least not very often. Why? As with Autumn Brew Review and Winterfest at home, the popularity of the event means that others who are just discovering the fest can do and learn as I did. Plus, while the $50 price is more than reasonable for this experience, the five hours to drink means failure to taste all that is new is guaranteed. This may be a critique of American festivals in general (as opposed to the Great British Beer Festival that servers drafts all day). Also, the cost of hotels is Madison is high, so funding a weekend of lodging, food, drink, fest and transportation is considerable. In fact, the weekend was more than a trip to Chicago in June that was roughly twice as long. While an exception beer fest, it does mean a considerable dedication of time and resources to drink. Compounding that fact is that very little surprised me when sampling and I feel that I could be using limited beer resources to learn more elsewhere.
New Holland "raceway" for beer

But, Great Taste is a unique experience that should be done at least once by every beer geek. In spite of having tasted nearly 1000 breweries and visited almost 300 on site since 2000, the 2013 edition of Great Taste has over 50 breweries that I have not had a single drop. Amazing. Plus, with no planning, I ran into so many familiar beer people on the weekend, I felt like Norm walking in Cheers. This is enhanced by our annual stop at Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at least once every fest to say hi to Hoops, Pete or one of the crew and taste what special something we haven't had at the put yet. Great Taste is simply spectacular and worth being the object of beery worship that draw so many every year.  

Recommendations for an epic Great Taste:
  • Make it a weekend. The Eve of Great Taste is become as legendary as the festival, and easily my favorite part of the weekend now. I've even considered skipping the tickets and just heading down for the Friday night. Going down for the fest is fun but the full experience requires a night of bar hopping in beautiful downtown Madison.
  • In line early. Because of the excellent organization, people in the back of the line no longer wait 45 minutes past the start to get a beer. However, the early bird still gets first choice. Be aware that the organizers move everyone up at about 12:30 pm to stage the fast entrance. An important part of showing up early is proper restraint the night before with all of the great beers available. A significant number of attendees start behind the eight ball with a hangover, some obvious.
  • Build a base. Either get a hotel with a buffet breakfast, find a local restaurant for a big brunch or pick up food to eat in line. Food in the fest has improved, but it takes time from finding samples. Eating at a pub with a bus can be a good route, but arrive early to eat, pay and get on the first bus to the fest to get in line.
    Best view of any festival
  • To Sit or Not to Sit. As alluded in Build a base, time is of the essence. In early years, especially when it was easier to arrange tickets for larger group of friends, we took chairs along. I gave up on creature comforts and focus on getting to samples. 
  • Hydrate. Backpacks are allowed, so I wear at Camelback to have a 3 liter start on the day plus I rinse my glass with most drinks. Add the easily available potable water in the rinse tanks, keeping hydrated, even on a hot day, isn't that hard.
  • Dump those not worthy. I feel dumping a brewer's blood, sweat and tears but the grassy surface allows less then stellar beers to be discarded discreetly without being messy or rude. Drinking the mediocre samples will come at a price later.
  • Beer strap. I find using a beer strap to hold my glass invaluable. With one notable exception, I have come home with every glass from over 50 festivals because of the beer strap. Not sold at Great Taste that I noticed this year, I'm unsure where to get them now. I am holding on tight to my collection, many of which were purchased at early Great Tastes.  
  • Research pays. Succumb to the unavoidable failure of not tasting as much as you want early and prioritize from the pre-released program or the app. By having reasonable expectations and a plan, I've found the fest to be much more enjoyable.
  • Post festival plan. Don't drunkenly argue to stay and fight for one more sample—don't be that guy that endangers the festival. I've noticed that festival time moves at different speeds, generally going fast near the end. Plan ahead and repeat a favorite just before close, savoring it while walking slowly towards the exits (to avoid being hastened by staff). Get on a bus to a pub or take the $1 plus tip cabs to a planned location with food, water and air conditioning.