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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.

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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.   

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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

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Brooklyn Local 1

DSC02310I guess it’s tough for most breweries to bat 1.000. Even if you only make three beers.

I was a little surprised with my experience with Westmalle Dubbel, considering their tripel is generally regarded as the benchmark of the style. In fact, it ranks very high on my Top 20 list. But the dubbel left just a little to be desired, especially when compared to its peer group in the Trappist/Abbey category.

Poured with a rich mahogony coloring and a decent head that hung around for a bit. Aroma was earthy, a pretty balanced mix between caramel and some fruity esters. I get some plum. Solid yeast backbone. Also seemed hoppier, maybe even spicier, than other Trappist dubbels like Chimay Premiere, for example.

While the introduction was pleasant overall, Westmalle Dubbel fell flat on the back end for me. A very dry, very bitter characteristic with not much of the malty sweetness that I look for in a dubbel. Not very complex or interesting. It almost bordered on sour, the furthest thing from rich and creamy. I was a bit surprised by all of this. Also a fairly weak mouthfeel, thin and a bit watery. Again, not what I expected. Didn’t pick up any alcohol in the finish, which was good. But that might be the only redeeming quality to the taste experience.  

I feel like I need to give this one another shot at some point given Westmalle’s reputation. When I look back at my review of their tripel, I wonder if Westmalle just trends to the drier, spicier side of the equation, even in a beer that isn’t generally supposed to take on those qualities. To be fair, it’s better than some dubbels I’ve had, but not nearly what I’d expect from a Trappist brewery of its ilk. Bit of a disappointment.

Rating: B-/C+

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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.

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dsc01600Cracking open one of your homebrew creations is a pretty cool experience. Ideally, it tastes great and impresses your friends and family. But sometimes it doesn’t, and you take a close look at what could have gone wrong somewhere throughout the process. Either way, you learn something, which is pretty cool.

Tonight I had the pleasure of enjoying my Belgian Dubbel, or the “Dubbel Deuce” as I nicknamed it while it quietly fermented. I actually brewed this late December, so it really didn’t take too long to ferment and carbonate in the bottle, all things considered. I was sort of hoping this would come out somewhere in the vicinity of Chimay Red (don’t we all wish that), a beautiful dark fruit and yeasty aroma paired with a rich and complex maltiness. What I got was a little different, more in line with say New Belgium Abbey. But very nice, nonetheless.

My Dubbel Deuce pours with a very frenetic head that slowly dissipates into a calm and placid white sliver of carbonation. Would be nice if the head stuck around longer, but it doesn’t detract too much. Right away you get a nice aroma of fruits, maybe dark cherry, as well as spicy clove. The slightest hint of banana ester hangs out in the background, rounding out the nose. No hops to speak of. Color is a nice dark amber with a decent amount of clarity. Some yeast are present.

The flavor is very similar to the aroma. Very malty sweet, more of the cherries or possibly raisin, but not sweet like crystal malt. You also get a subtle tinge of alcohol (about 7.5% ABV) in the relatively dry, yet smooth, finish. Mouthfeel is a little on the light side, but the carbonation does help to fill it out.

Overall, a nicely complex and very drinkable example of a dubbel. I have about two cases of the stuff that I’ll age for some time to come, so I look forward to giving this another shot over the coming months to see how the character changes. I am very happy with this one.  

Rating: A-

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dsc01586Dear readers, I sit before you a very grateful man.

Since I’ve gotten interested in craft beer and familiarized myself with the more hard-to-find offerings out there, one name has consistently popped up amongst the beer geek circles as the most desirable and treasured of them all. I’m talking Westvleteren.

Well, through a stroke of luck and good timing, I am now the proud owner of Westvleteren 12 (quadrupel) and 8 (dubbel). Two of the most rare and sought after beers in the world, thanks in large part to its extraordinarily limited distribution…as in you can’t get it unless you literally call the monks at St. Sixtus ahead of time to make an appointment, drive to their monastery in rural West Flanders, Belgium, and after the proper credentials have been verified humbly take your ration of two cases allotted to each person only once per month.

As you may have guessed, “Westy” has earned a mystique and lore arguably unmatched by any other beer on the face of the Earth. It’s been the #1 ranked beer in the world according to Beer Advocate for countless years running. The Wall Street Journal did a piece on the monastery in 2007, noting that the monks of St. Sixtus still use the same recipe they’ve kept quietly to themselves since the 1830’s. St. Sixtus is the smallest of the seven Trappist beer-producing monasteries, and unlike the others, all of the brewing is solely managed by the monks themselves. They do have a handful of secular employees, but only for bottling and other manual labor. And they don’t look to turn a profit, either. From our friend Wikipedia:

“Whilst the brewery is a business by definition (its purpose is to make money), it does not exist for pure profit motives, and they do no advertising except for a small sign outside the abbey which indicates the daily availability of each beer. The monks have repeatedly stated that they only brew enough beer to run the monastery, and will make no more than they need to sell, regardless of demand. During World War II, the brewery stopped supplying wholesalers and since then they only sell to individual buyers in person at the brewery or the visitor’s centre opposite. These methods all go against modern business methods, however as stated by the Father Abbott on the opening of the new brewery, ‘We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.'”

Frankly, I can’t think of a higher calling than that.

So how did I come by said beers? Well, a very generous local Twin Cities beer afficionado agreed to a nice little trade for a handful of hard-to-find offerings that I had in my cellar. While my stock was noticeably depleted from the transaction, I think we both walked away feeling like we got a pretty fair deal. He even threw in a bottle of Troeg’s Nugget Nectar and their Scratch Beer 16. Incredibly nice. 

Not sure when I’ll review these. I may just stare at them in awe for the next couple years while they mature.

Huge thanks to Mr. Biniek.

Big day on the homebrewing front.

First, I bottled my Dubbel Deuce and managed to squeak out close to 2 cases, 46 bottles to dsc01553be exact. I’m dealing with a pretty nasty head cold at the moment, so I couldn’t smell a hell of a lot. But the small sample that I could smell and taste from the bottling bucket seemed pretty nice. Classically Belgian with a hint of dark fruits and candi sugar. I pasted on labels for this one as well, which are admittedly amateurish and ridiculous (much like my similarly juvenile barleywine labels). I’ll need to invest in some decent label making software. Microsoft Clip Art isn’t cutting it.

After the dubbel was complete, I sanitized my keg and a case of bottles for the long awaited raspberry imperial stout. Smelled absolutely dsc015551fantastic coming out of the secondary. Roasted coffee, dark chocolate, toffee, and of course balanced by the sweet aroma of raspberries. Color was also great, dark milk chocolate. I’m really looking forward to this one. I made up 24 bottles for longer term storage, and kegged the remaining 3 gallons for immediate enjoyment. I’m hoping to give it a shot later tonight once it has a few hours to force carbonate.

That brings my current total of available homebrew to just over six cases between the dubbel, raspberry stout, barleywine and Summit Winter Ale clone. Combined with my commercial stuff, I have entirely too much beer on hand for one man to handle alone. Good thing Super Bowl Sunday is just around the corner.    

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I absolutely should have known better.

Having braved standing in line for eight hours in unseasonably cold weather while contending with an extended illness to secure six bottles of Darkness back in October, I neglected to draw upon my previous experience and completely underestimated the popularity and clamor for Surly’s latest one-time offering, 16 Grit Double IPA. Thanks to a new state law going into effect in 2009, Surly won’t be able to sell growlers since their production capacity has exceeded 3,500 barrels. So to commemorate the passing of an era, Omar decided to brew up this masterpiece, which has of course received nothing but A+ ratings on Beer Advocate over the weekend.

So why aren’t I offering up my own review of this one? Well, because you see, The Captain is a moron. I foolishly assumed that when 16 Grit went up for sale on Saturday that there would certainly be plenty of growlers left when they opened the doors again on Monday. I mean, they brewed 30 barrels worth…plenty to go around, right? Wrong. I rolled up to the brewery this morning shortly after 11 a.m. to discover 16 Grit was all gone. In fact, one guy laughed and mocked me as the woman at the till broke the terrible news to me. I stood there with a horrified and dejected look on my face. She may as well have told me my dog just got ran over by a bus…twice. How could this be?  How could I have let what is likely one of their best beers ever quietly slip out of my grasp? I was dazed and stunned by my own stupidity. I just simply didn’t count on the rabid cult following that is Surly Nation beating me to the punch*.

Sigh.

So, to get my mind off my bonehead maneuver, I left Surly and drove down to my local homebrew shop to pick up ingredients for a nice Belgian dubbel. If I can’t buy good beer, well then I’m going to set my mind to making some. I’m planning to brew tomorrow, assuming the temp stays in the mid to high 20’s. Here’s what I’m planning to use:

6 lbs. Munich
6 lbs. Pale Ale
1/2 lb. Aromatic
1/2 lb. Caramunich I
1/2 lb. Special B
1 lb. amber liquid Belgian candi sugar
2 oz. Styrian Goldings
1 oz. U.S. Fuggles
White Labs WLP530 Abbey Ale strain

Shooting for something reminiscent of Chimay Red. I actually have some of it in my beer fridge at the moment, so if I get real ambitious tonight I may put the brewing on hold for a few days and try to culture some of the yeast from the bottom of the bottle to make it as trappist-ey as possible.

* If there are any kind souls out there willing to share their 16 Grit, I’m ready and able to make some trades.