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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

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I’ve now been to the mountaintop of the beer world, folks. Or, so the hype goes.

Rather extended video review of Westy 12, including a bit of back story up front from my friend Rob who procured the beers straight from the monks at St. Sixtus, and then a couple minutes of us enjoying the beer. Sorry about the watermarks in the beginning and end, I need to get some decent video editing software (read: not freeware or trial versions).

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.

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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.

dsc00791Judgment Day. The Apocalypse. Armageddon. If you believe in such things, you better hope you’ve lived a clean and pure existence when the shit goes down. As for me? I believe in Energy Bundles, as my buddy Mills would put it. That’s right…the natural flow of energy throughout this universe. In my book, it’s the only real certainty. In part, it even encompasses what some call the elusive and hypothetical dark matter (or dark energy) that apparently makes up most of our universe and still baffles physicists to this day. We’re all made up of the stuff. No matter if it’s the natural decomposition that takes place in carbon-based life forms, the leaves falling off a tree, a kid crossing the street, a volcanic eruption, a house burning down, or solar radiation hitting the earth’s surface, it all pretty much boils down to the same thing. Equilibrium. Ebb and flow. The transfer or shift of energy from one form to another.

In some ways, the concept is a bit like what we learned in high school about inertia. A body in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by another force. And how is that force embodied? It doesn’t really matter. Could be a car slamming into a stop sign. Or a baby crying. Or the effects of old age. Or maybe some guy having a heart attack and falling down on his daily walk. To dive even further into the weeds, by definition the transfer of energy between a “system” and adjacent regions is called work. Every time we do something as seemingly minor as blink our eyes, there’s work being performed…a perfect transfer of energy from one entity to another. Which means that, if you follow my line of existentialism, everything in this universe is in some way shape or form “working” to transfer its conserved energy to something else. Over the course of a lifetime, that’s a lot of work, but it all leads to the same place. If you take it another step and extrapolate even further, it also means that there is a finite amount of energy in this universe that can neither be created nor destroyed. One system is simply borrowing from another, and another, and another, ad nauseum.

So where did this energy come from? Maybe the Big Bang? Maybe a higher power? Some combination of the two? I don’t claim to know, and frankly think it’s rather presumptuous of humans to feel like they have the answers. Now, whether you want to assign terms like “soul” or “spirit” to that energy when it comes to humans, that’s your business. And if you want to call me an atheist, that’s also your business. I prefer Energist. Sorry if that’s too deep for a beer blog. But when sitting around drinking The Lost Abbey Judgment Day, one starts thinking about these kinds of things. God I love beer.

Judgment Day is a Belgian quadrupel, 10.5% ABV. I really looked forward to trying this one, since I’ve heard great things about Port Brewing. Poured with a pretty thin head, but also a very interesting color, almost purple in a way. I buried my nose in the glass and got prunes, chocolate and Belgian candi sugar. The beer is actually brewed with raisins, so I guess it makes sense.

Very unique taste going on here. This may sound weird, but a little like grape soda in an alcoholic, beer-like way. Also plenty of dark cherries. Judgment Day is also pretty boozy, which is what I’d expect from a Belgian quad. I really enjoyed this beer. And decided after I was finished with the bottle to turn to something that would promote fewer philisophical wanderings in my brain. As Humphrey Bogart said, “the problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.”

Rating: A-

St. Bernardus Abt 12, one of the finer abbey ales I’ve ever had. My first experience with it was last weekend at the Belgian Beer Fest hosted by The Muddy Pig in St. Paul, and I knew I had to try it again. So I hunted around at my usual craft beer haunts, with no luck. Then I found it hiding in the back shelf of a liquor store I hardly ever frequent, known primarily for its wine selection. But, turns out, they also have a ton of great beers. It’s a little out of the way for me, but I may add it to my list of libation locales. Needless to say, I purchased more than one bottle, and brought them over to a friend’s house for a birthday celebration.

This is where my Friday evening took an ugly turn. After enjoying several different beers, including the St. Bernardus bombers, I decided I needed a breath of fresh air. Now, my friend has this beautiful downtown condo, the kind of industrial style/exposed ductwork/polished concrete floor/granite countertop pad that you’d expect to find in the bustling Warehouse District of Minneapolis. I made my way over to the patio, a very nice outdoor lounging area providing a picturesque view of the surrounding downtown area.

However, instead of quietly slipping outside to take in the night air, I turned to the doorway, and proceeded to walk completely through the sliding screen door. And I’m not talking about gently bumping into the screen door and innocently pushing it off its hinges. I’m talking something like a running back grabbing the rock on the 2 yard line and plowing his way through a seam in the line to score, shoulder down with a full head of steam. The door violently ejected from its track, flying halfway across the patio. The noise was other-worldly. I stood there with my entire beer spilled all over my head and shirt. The now destroyed screen door lay precariously teetering on the edge of my friend’s patio table, my left foot now through the three foot rip I had made in the mesh screen. The entire party of 30+ people stopped in horror, staring at the trainwreck that had just then become my evening. My eyes bulged out at the damage I had created, a feeling of dread and shame quickly coming over me like a wave.

But everyone began to racously laugh their asses off. It was a classic moment, one for the books.  

I tried defending my case to anyone who would listen, saying that the backdrop of inky black night against the black mesh camouflaged the screen door, making it appear that the patio portal was wide open. But nobody bought it. And they knew why. St. Bernardus Abt 12. An intoxicatingly delicious beer. Everything a complex quad should be. The kind of beer that’ll have you intelligently engaging in sophisticated political conversations one minute, and destroying your friend’s property value the next. Thanks St. Bernardus Abt 12. You have given my friends one more reason to poke good-natured fun at me for my clumsy mishaps. I will now forever be known by my newly earned nickname — “Kool-Aid”. Ohhhh yeah.  

Rating: A

There’s some things that drive me crazy.

People ending sentences with prepositions. My dog taking a shit on my nice white basement carpet. And loads of people ordering rum and Cokes or Mojitos at a bar that’s in the midst of a Belgian Beer Festival.

Such was the case at the Muddy Pig in St. Paul. Do these people not understand they’re in the presence of Beer Perfection? Or do they really think that their Jack and Coke with a lime can somehow compete with the likes of Furthermore Fatty Boombalatty? Or Popperings Hommel Bier? I don’t think so.

Aside from the local morons who clearly weren’t at the Muddy Pig to honor some of Belgium’s finest ales, it was a good night. And you know it was a good night when someone else drives you home, which was the case in my situation. I was even able to convince my driver to make a Run For the Border so I could get my fix of beef and potato burritos and hard shell tacos to sop up the Belgian goodness. Thanks hon.

So on to the beer…I can’t even begin to tell you what I had. It was like a fugue state of being…I nearly forgot who I was as my brain was catapulted into sensory overload of fantastic Belgian yeasts, hops and malt. It was an absolute epitome of what I wish my every weekend evening entailed. I can safely say I had nearly eveything on the Muddy Pig’s list of more than 40 Belgians on draught. The list included Saisons, Dubbels, Tripels, Quads, Abbeys, and Wits. And I can remember almost none of it, other than the vague sense that the comprehensive list of ales I imbibed made me feel very happy to be alive and in St. Paul at that very moment. It was one fantastic beer after another. My hats off to the individual who organized this celebration of high quality craft beers. And even greater thanks to the bartender who walked away from me as I attempted to offer him money for my round of beers. It just made my night that much sweeter.

The only downside to the evening was that every beer was served in 4 ounce sampler glasses. So instead of truly enjoying the nose of a nice Two Brothers Oh Brother! Triple, St. Bernardus Abt 12, or Ommegang Rare Vos, I was forced to take it from the equivalent of a baby’s sippy cup. What was this crap? I want to experience my beers for what they are truly worth, not tipple with training wheels. Maybe they were afraid folks like me would drink their imperial pints or chalices of 9% ABV beer too quickly. And well they should. Because instead of whining about the vessel these Belgians were presented in, my friends and I set forth to knock back as many as we possibly could in as little time as possible.

Even after enjoying a nice meal of mushroom gnocci with pine nuts to create that all-important base for alcohol consumption, I was feeling it after only a few. But I pressed on…for how could a collective 16 ounces of beer give me a buzz like that? It was the equivalent of ordering a sack of sliders from White Castle…they’re too small to fill me up, keep ’em coming!

As the evening came to an end, and friends slowly made their way out of the bar, I sat and pondered what a great night we’d all had. Because man this was good stuff. And what made it better was enjoying it with people that truly appreciated it for what it was…a fantastic menagerie of beers most of us wouldn’t see again the rest of our lives living here in the Twin Cities.