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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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Saturday morning couldn’t come fast enough.

I’d spent the night on my buddy’s couch, which really wasn’t all that uncomfortable, but still didn’t do any favors for my ailing back. The weather forecast for the day didn’t look real good…very windy with a high probability for rain mid afternoon. Luckily we’d brought some rain gear just in case considering we were most certainly going to be outside most of the day. But part of me almost wanted it to downpour to keep some of the non-diehards away from the event (unlikely), leaving more potential beer for the rest of us. So after a quick breakfast of donuts and juice for that all-important base, we packed up the car and hit the road to Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana.

As we got off the highway and approached the brewery, I luckily got a call from Stu at Friday Night Beer informing me that the parking situation near the brewery was a  nightmare, and we should try to find a spot at a nearby city park. When we pulled into the lot, I saw a childrens’ soccer game taking place at a nearby field, with happy little families of soccer moms and kids running about enjoying the day. I prayed that this wasn’t some kind of all-day tournament, considering that several blocks away was one of the largest beer release events in the country, and within hours there would be streams of beligerent drunkards staggering their way back to the park with bottles of Dark Lord in hand. I envisioned frightened parents swooping up their children and scrambling to their cars or hiding behind bushes as the zombie horde of Dark Lord fanatics passed by, vomiting on everything in their path.

We walked the several blocks to the brewery, Surly beer in tow, and saw the extraordinarily long line in the distance. Wow. There had to be at least a few thousand people there, much larger than I remembered from Surly Darkness day. We started walking to the back of the line, and I heard someone calling my name…it was Stu and his friend John, who offered to let us cut in with them. As I stood there for a moment, I wondered “why in the hell are we standing in line if we have the so-called Golden Tickets?” It didn’t make any sense to me…I was under the impression that possessing the Golden Tickets gave the bearer the luxury of simply walking up to the brewery at any point between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. and buying your bottles, sans massive line. I decided to check out the situation. I journeyed up to the brewery to the head of the line, and after talking to a few folks quickly realized that everyone in line actually had a Golden Ticket. So this wasn’t just the Golden Ticket line…it was the ONLY line.

I trudged back to where I’d left my friends, but they were nowhere to be found. I glanced ahead in the line, and was delighted to see that in the five minutes I’d been assessing the situation they had moved about 100 feet or so. My spirits lifted, as things seemed to be progressing along pretty darn fast. Within an hour, we’d moved at least another block or so, and had also made friends with the folks in line around us. Beer was flowing freely…we shared my Surly stuff with folks from all over the country, some of which had never heard of the brewery, and got to try some other stuff we weren’t familiar with as well. It was a really cool vibe…everyone was just happy to be there, knowing full well that they were guaranteed to get their Dark Lord, and in the meantime they were happy to share their wares, talk beer with fellow craft beer lovers, and enjoy the day, regardless of how windy or rainy it was.

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When we finally got to the front of the line, we were in the middle of what could only be described as a beer circus. There were mobs of people walking every which way, making it nearly impossible to determine what was a line and what was just a string of people standing around. When we finally did get up to the front of the line where security guards checked our ID’s and Golden Tickets for authenticity, we were ushered into a warehouse area where dozens of workers waited to hand out bottles of Dark Lord. I plunked down my cash and got my four bottles, giving my other ticket to my brother-in-law who did the same. It was a big feeling of joy, relief and satisfaction…we’d driven many hours to get to this place, and we had our beer in hand. I felt very grateful to be able to not only sample, but actually own multiple bottles of the stuff.

Once we got out of line, my brother-in-law cracked a bottle of Dark Lord for the group to sample, and it was heavenly. Seriously the most viscous, gloppy beer I’d ever experienced. The smell was incredible with huge chocolate, prune, cherry, port and molasses notes coming at you. A pretty intense hoppy quality as well in the aroma, which was far different than what I recalled from the only other beer I can justifiably compare it to, Surly Darkness. Not as overwhelmingly sweet as I expected, very nicely balanced. The malt also did a nice job of balancing the alcohol heat, which only slightly came through in the finish. To quote the reviewer from my earlier post, I did indeed feel a sense of shock like someone had just shoved a sandwich in my mouth*.

As we tippled our Dark Lord, I noticed a long line of people on the south side of the brewery waiting their turn to get inside the Three Floyds brewpub where they were pouring special stuff like Vanilla Bean Dark Lord. Based on the amount of time it was taking people to get in there (I’m assuming one in, one out) I opted not to waste my time with it. We spent the rest of the day hanging out on the nearby grassy knoll with all the other Dark Lord fans, sharing beer, making some trades, and generally having a good time with like-minded craft beer lovers.

My buddy Stu eventually decided it was time to head back to Madison where he was staying, so we parted ways. Unfortunately for Stu, he left too early, as we ended up sticking around until 6 p.m. when the brewery opened the doors up to anyone who had cash in hand and wanted to buy more Dark Lord. So the three of us sprinted to the ATM and pulled out as much money as we could. We each walked away with a dozen bottles, my brother in law had 16. My entire trunk was filled to the gills with Dark Lord, Pop Skull, and other phenomenal craft beers I’d traded for like Kentucky Breakfast Stout. The entire day was really more than I could have hoped for.

But we weren’t done yet.  

dsc02056On our way back into Chicago, we decided to stop off at the original Goose Island Clybourn brewpub for dinner and to sample some of their rare stuff on draught. I ordered their Willow Street White Ale which was far too yeasty for my liking…looked like an extra-pulp glass of orange juice, and tasted rather weak (4.2% ABV). During dinner, I moved on to a bottle of their Sofie, part of their Reserve collection and a very nice Belgian-style farmhouse ale full of spice, carbonation and citrus notes. Really very enjoyable, so I picked up an extra bottle to take home with me. Unfortunately, they were fresh out of their other Reserve offerings including Juliet, but by this point in the evening I wasn’t in need of any more beer.

We left the brewpub and headed home, pleasantly sated with a day filled with outstanding beer and great fun at what is sure to become an annual tradition for me. My hats off to Three Floyds for putting on what was a very well-organized and enjoyable event. 

* I’ll do a more thorough review of Dark Lord in the weeks to come.

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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.