Belgian pales are a style that I don’t go out of my way to find, but when you get a good one, they’re very memorable. 

I stopped in to Town Hall recently for my usual growler of Masala Mama and was surprised to see their Enkel available on draught. After a quick quaff I decided to pick up a growler for home perusement.

Golden coloring on the pour, slightly hazy with yeast, and a moderately rocky head. Aroma is sublime, a well balanced, subtle blend of yeast, fruity esters of pear, and spice. Flavor is soft malt with biscuity notes in the background, a deceptively simple taste that surprises in its complexity. Great mouthfeel, very lively.  

I feel like I just described a saison. But overall, a wonderful beer and a great session choice at 5.2% ABV. Not sure I’ve ever had a beer from Town Hall that I haven’t enjoyed.

Rating: A-

Where I Bought It: Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery
Availability: Seasonal
Price: $13 per growler

 DSC02868

My time this afternoon tippling a few at Stub & Herb’s, just a stone’s throw from the gleaming new Gopher football stadium on the U of M campus, greatly reinforced my perception that the place is one of the best craft beer bars in the Twin Cities.

DSC02871The saloon was nearly empty when we arrived around noon, save for a few souls in a quiet booth in the back that, unlike most of the state’s populous, didn’t have the Fair on their minds.

Amazing that a college bar — stereotypically filled with macro swill, plastic cups and crates of Red Bull — has such a fantastic draught list, including nearly every Surly offering (Hell and 16 Grit just recently ran out before I got there!), a number of other locals like Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Summit and Schells, and a dozen other notables from across the country. And it’s not just the stuff on tap…the staff are actually friendly and, get this, knowledgeable about what they’re pouring, a seemingly tall order in most bars around the city. Our bartender Benji offered some nice recommendations, including our lunch fare which included a Surly Bender French Dip, a great sandwich made with beef roasted in the oatmeal brown ale.

I tried a number of beers while we were there, most really hitting the mark.

Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
Probably not a great idea to start my afternoon off with a 9% ABV double IPA, but what the heck, it’s Sunday. A very aromatic IPA, but more on the dank side of the hop spectrum than protoypical, bright West Coast-style DIPA’s like, say, Pliny the Elder. Very bitter taste even for the style, almost a little too much for me. But fairly smooth throughout considering how boozey it is.   

Rating: B+

Lift Bridge Minnesota Tan
I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve tried from Stillwater-based Lift Bridge, including their flagship Farm Girl Saison (I’m actually sipping a snifter as I write this), and their Minnesota Tan, a Belgian triple, was no different. Kind of nice to see a local brewery leading with a couple Belgian styles, but this one has certainly veered from the “traditional” path with an interesting pinkish coloring thanks to the lingonberries they brew with. A bit yeasty in the nose, a bit tart in the taste, leading to a nice sweet finish. Very enjoyable. And at 8.5% ABV, another one that’ll sneak up on you if you allow it.   

Rating A-

Flat Earth Sunburst Apricot Belgian Pale Ale
This is another pretty solid local offering. A light and refreshing aroma of apricot up front, fairly unique (although I think Town Hall has done an apricot wheat before). Taste is relatively similar to their regular Belgian Pale Ale, which is what I’m assuming is the base beer…more of the light tartness from the apricot coupled by some malty sweetness, leading to a dryness in the finish. 

Rating: B

Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin Sumpin
Wow…this is everything I’ve heard about this beer and then some. It’s classified as an American pale wheat ale, but it screams IPA to me. Actually, very reminiscent in the aroma to Surly Furious, likely some combination of Warrior, Amarillo and Simcoe hops. Also got a little bit of citrus in there, grapefruit or lemon. Taste was not really what I’d expect for a wheat beer…far too much of a sweet and malty backbone, which did help balance the bitterness. You also get some of the honey they apparently use while brewing. Our bartender informed us that when this ran out, they were tapping Lagunitas’ Lil’ Sumpin Extra, a double IPA, which I can only assume builds on the success of this beer. 

Rating: A

Sierra Nevada Tripel
Never had this one before, and was frankly a bit surprised to learn Sierra Nevada has delved into the Belgian brewing tradition (to my knowledge, they’ve done a saison before, but that’s about it). Certainly reminiscent of a nice tripel like Chimay Cinq Cents, but kind of a Chimay “light” quality to it. Some American hops in the nose as well as yeast and clove, but overall a much lighter, more airy characteristic to the aroma (sort of how New Belgium is to Belgian beers). Taste is sweet and alcoholic, a bit dry in the finish. I guess I understand why they haven’t done more Belgians in the past.      

Rating: C+

Dark Horse Too Cream Stout
Ah, Dark Horse…one of my favorite breweries out of the Midwest. This is the last of their holiday stout series that I’ve tried, which also includes One Oatmeal Stout, Tres Blueberry Stout, Fore Smoked Stout and Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout. Loads of deep roasted malt notes in the aroma, along with milk chocolate. Tons of distinctive dark bitterness in the taste, presumably from the black patent malt I’m assuming they use in the grain bill, but expertly balanced by lactose to give it a silky smooth mouthfeel and wonderful overall impression. Probably the best beer I tried all day.

Rating: A

DSC02872

Dark Horse Too Cream Stout

DSC02864

Surly mural on the Stub's patio

DSC02875

Soon-to-be-filled TCF Bank Stadium

DSC02526

Some days are better than others.

Most days, I wake up, head to work, and if I’m lucky, I may cap off my drudgery with a nice beer or two. Usually a homebrew, but maybe even something highly rated on the Beer Advocate “Best Of” list. While spending a long weekend in New York City, I may have completely outdone myself, reaching heights not likely to be attained again any time soon. Some may not immediately think of NYC as a beer town, at least compared to other locales out West. But after hitting up Brooklyn Brewery, a few of the best craft beer bars in America, and a stop at one of the tastiest BBQ joints I’ve come across north of the Mason-Dixon, I think NYC should be near the top of every beer geek’s list of places to go.

DSC02514

Westy 12 & Rochefort 10

Along for the ride and serving as our very gracious tour guide of the city was my good friend Aaron over at The Vice Blog, New York’s favorite beer blogger, who joined my brother-in-law and me at our hotel to kick off the weekend with your average, run-of-the-mill tasting that included a few beers you may have heard of…Westy 12, 8 and Blonde; Dark Lord 2009; Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy Barrel-Aged 2008 and Bourbon Barrel-Aged 2009; and Rochefort 10. Just standing in the presence of these assembled beers, I almost didn’t want to ruin the moment by cracking the first bottle open. But that of course would be ridiculously stupid. 

We started off with a blind tasting of Westy 12 and Rochefort 10 (which some deem to be nearly identical), and surprisingly showed that not only was Westy 12 the significantly more desirable beer (much maltier and sweeter, in our collective opinion) than Rochefort 10, it made Rochefort 10 seem more akin to a poorly concocted homebrew than a finely crafted Trappist quadrupel. Really…I’m not trying to be insulting or funny, the beer smelled faintly like vomit or rancid cheese, which completely surprised me. The taste was OK, though.

DSC02511The Angel’s Share bottles were excellent in their own right, certainly both A-level beers. The Brandy Barrel-Aged version, from my understanding, is the one that gets knocked for its lack of carbonation, but it didn’t bother me in the least. Both versions poured with a huge, full-frontal assault of booze and dark malts, very reminiscent in that regard to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout or Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. Burnt malt and coffee notes with both, and a medium mouthfeel. I really enjoyed both of these beers, tough to say which is better.   

DSC02535After a phenomenal afternoon session, I felt a little like Han Solo emerging from his cell of carbonite as we stumbled out into the blindingly sun-drenched streets of Manhattan. We pushed on to Rattle n’ Hum, a fairly new beer bar a block from the Empire State Building that immediately makes any beer lover feel like they’ve hit the big leagues. Nicely appointed, warm wood throughout, and arguably one of the most impressive tap and bottle lists I’ve ever seen this side of Belgium. A true beer oasis.

DSC02530After sampling a handful of great beers including Stone Russian Imperial Stout, Sixpoint Northern Lights, Dogfish 90 Minute and Weihenstephaner Hefeweiss on draught, we asked the bartender if she per chance happened to have an extra bottle of Alesmith Yulesmith floating around somewhere behind the bar. Not seeing it on the menu, but hearing rumors that it had recently been on the premises, we figured it was worth a shot. Lo and behold, she emerged from the depths of the beer cooler with a nicely chilled bottle and plunked it down in front of our bulging eyes.

DSC02542This being my first ever Alesmith tasting, I didn’t have much to compare it to when it came to the brewery itself, but Yulesmith really knocked my socks off. It’s a double IPA billed as a holiday beer, which like Sierra Nevada’s annual Celebration Ale series always makes me scratch my head a bit. I guess out in California, hops equal holiday cheer.

Poured with a nice billowing head bursting with citric hops and spiciness. Beautiful malt backbone, a great balance between the sweet and bitter. Slick and oily from the hop resins, leading to a lingering bitter finish. Really a nice example of a very well put together West Coast IPA. I’d give it at least an A.   

DSC02552

DSC02556

DSC02553

 

 

 

Nicely pickled, we continued the beer parade by catching a cab for Brooklyn Brewery to check out their happy hour and sample some of their finest. After a long and winding drive through several very hip Brooklyn neighborhoods, we arrived and walked in to an amazing scene. Tons of craft beer lovers (and a few folks who clearly didn’t realize how good they had it) packed into a very cool warehouse space amidst an ambience-inducing bottling line and handful of bright tanks. Right up front, they also had a great display of antique beer bottles, most of which were from former breweries in the city. A great touch from what I assume is the consummate historian and renaissance man himself, Garrett Oliver.

DSC02555We sampled a handful of their stuff on draught including Blanche de Brooklyn (a yeasty witbier), Sorachi Ace (a very peppery saison, part of their Brewmaster’s Series) and Intensified Coffee Stout (one of the best coffee beers I’ve ever had, in league with Surly Coffee Bender and Great Divide’s Yeti). The single line to get a beer at the pouring station was a mile long, but somehow we were able to bypass all of this by making friends with the bartenders. After a few beers, we decided to share a bottle of Local 1, a Belgian pale, having recently favorably reviewed their Local 2. Very nice, a delicate use of malt and hops, but nothing too mind blowing. Probably a strong B-level beer.  

After getting our fill at Brooklyn Brewery, we somehow found a cab, which was a bit of serendipity given our location in a somewhat desolate part of Brooklyn, and made our way to The Ginger Man, another highly regarded New York craft beer bar. I’d provide some pictures from the experience, which like Rattle n’ Hum was jaw-dropping in the number of hard-to-find and vintage stuff on hand, but I was frankly too mesmerized with a snifter of Goose Island Night Stalker to pay much mind to the camera. Deep chocolate nose, booze in the back end from the hefty 12% ABV, and a very full, solid mouthfeel throughout. Certainly an A-level kind of beer, if only for the fact that it lasted approximately 2 minutes before I’d guzzled it all down.

Later this week: Dinosaurs BBQ and The Blind Tiger

DSC02564

Brooklyn Local 1

DSC02185I got bugs
I got bugs in my room
Bugs in my bed
Bugs in my ears
Their eggs in my head
          — Pearl Jam

Since enjoying Victory’s Wild Devil at last week’s hops festival hosted by the Blue Nile, I haven’t been able to think of much else but bugs in my beer. 

As is often the case when I find a craft beer that I really enjoy, I try to reverse engineer it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? So how best to go about creating my own homebrewed version of an IPA incorporating everyone’s favorite wild yeast strain, Brettanomyces? The interplay of pungent barnyard aromas from the funkified culture punctuated by the citrusy hop bitterness make Wild Devil a fantastic beer, and I intend to celebrate it to the best of my amateur zymurgistic abilities. I haven’t quite worked out all the particulars, such as whether to use Brett as my main workhorse yeast in the primary (something done to marvelous effect by breweries like Lost Abbey and Russian River), or add it to secondary as many brewers tend to do. But regardless, I’ll be brewing soon, after a particularly long hiatus. Looking forward to getting back in the laboratory.

To quench my preoccupation in the meantime, I decided to sit down with another musty, Brett-induced ale, this one from highly regarded Trappist brewery Orval.

First time I tried Orval I was shocked. Maybe it was the elegantly shaped brown bottle that suggested some kind of dark Belgian candi treat, or possibly the fact that I’d been enjoying a handful of other fine Trappist ales like Chimay Premiere and Rochefort 10. But Orval is a beautifully delicate Belgian pale ale, a big departure from what you might otherwise normally expect from many Trappist monasteries producing earthy dubbels laden with dark fruits, or boozey quads. Orval is a nicely hopped beer, marked by a massive dosing of Brett in the aroma. From what I gather, they bottle condition using Brett Bruxellensis, what White Labs describes as a “medium” intensity wild yeast that doesn’t knock you off your socks with overly aggressive sweaty horse blanket characteristics, but rather evokes a “cleaner” interpretation of the strain.

Pours a flowing, creamy head and copper coloring. Whatever mild lemon and pear-like fruitiness there is in the aroma is quickly dispersed by the Brett…highly intriguing. At first sip, a light malt character that quickly turns to a mildly biting, puckering dry finish that’s both sour and bitter. Some phenols mixed in too. Mouthfeel is very full for such a light ale, cleverly disguising the 6.9% ABV.

If anyone wonders what Brett is all about, or fine Trappist ales for that matter, just crack an Orval. A timeless, classic beer.

Rating: A

My good friend in Germany sent me a nice little care package straight from the monks at St. Sixtus. Great way to kick off my Memorial Day weekend with some Westy 12, 8 and blonde. He even sent a commemorative Westy glass, coaster and some kind of map to the monastery which I of course can’t understand. Very cool.

DSC02108

DSC02120

DSC02122

dsc011701“If you took a bunch of dirty socks, put them in a tub of warm water, let it soak for a week, and then drank the water from that tub, this is what Frame Straightener tastes like to me.”
       — The Fiance

I regrettably concur.

It kills me to pan a beer from a local brewer (and when I say local I mean rural southwestern Minnesota). I’m all about supporting what is a growing craft beer industry in the region. But this beer makes it real hard for me to get behind what seems to be a continuing trend for Brau Brothers. I’ve had a couple other offerings from them, and have been more than underwhelmed by all of them. This one, however, takes the cake.

Supposed to be a Belgian pale ale, but honestly is one of the most undrinkable beers I’ve had, made worse from the fact that it’s produced by what I’d like to think would be a scrappy, innovative microbrewery. This is part of their Single Batch limited release series (I think they shipped 1400 cases of it), and in some ways I’m thankful. Frame Straightener is more reminiscent to your standard macro than anything that resembles a Belgian. In fact, there’s something a little rancid about it. Terribly disappointing.

Pours nice with a decent ruby reddish coloring, very promising. Then it all falls apart. Offensively sour aroma. Like bad breath. You can just barely tell that it’s trying to be some kind of Belgian, as some yeast gets through, but it’s just incredibly weak. Taste is just as bad. More of the terribly sour characteristic, almost overpowering in how it hits the back of your tongue. When you take a couple sips and realize it’s going to be a chore to get through the entire 12 ounces, you know you’ve got yourself a pretty poor beer. I checked out Beer Advocate to determine if my experience was way off the mark, because maybe I’d gotten a tainted batch. I wanted to give Brau Brothers the benefit of the doubt. But unfortunately, most other reviews seemed to back up the less than desirable nature of this one (average rating C).

When I buy commercial beer at $11 a six pack that’s noticeably below the quality of what I can produce in my own amateur brewing operation, that’s not a good thing.

Rating: D-

Actual conversations I’ve had recently with bar servers:

Scene 1
“Hi there, what can I get for you?”
“Hmmm, what do you have on tap?”
“Oh, you know, pretty much everything you’d ever want…”
“Great, I’ll have a Sierra Nevada.”
“Oh, we don’t have fancy beers. Just Bud, Bud Light and Miller Lite.”
“I’ll have a water.”

Scene 2
“Hi there, what can I get you for happy hour?”
“What’s on special?”
“All of our domestic taps.”
“Great, how about a Fat Tire.”
“That’s not domestic.”
“It’s made in Colorado.”
“We have Bud, Bud Light, Mich Golden Lite and Labatt.”
Sigh…I’ll have the domestic import from Canada.”