Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CAPTAIN LAWRENCE'S "GOLDEN DELICIOUS"

Remember where you were the first time you had a CAPTAIN LAWRENCE BREWING beer? I do. I bought a St. Vincent's Dubbel at the Spuyten Duyvil Grocery in Brooklyn, having never before heard of the brewer, only because the friendly "grocer" in this tiny beer store told me that they were one of New York's great ones. Or maybe a friend had told me to look for it. Jeez, I don't remember. I loved it, though - and then I loved their Imperial IPA even more than that, as well as a handful of other beers that knocked my socks off my ass. I got to traveling to NYC so much for work that I was getting more familiar with Captain Lawrence and Southern Tier beers than I was my own local stuff. Then the traveling stopped, and until this beer, I hadn't had a Cap'n L in well over a year.

This one's called GOLDEN DELICIOUS. It's a tripel aged in apple brandy barrels, and it's one of their seasonals that I reckon doesn't get around all that much. It may not be at the holy level of some of their other great beers, but their consistency in pumping out well-crafted, unique and delicious beers is matched only by a number of brewers I can count on my hands. This one pours a nice opaque orange, and is very high in carbonation. It has a little head of foam that disappeared very quickly. I definitely am tasting that apple; or to be more precise, apple skin. I think it's less a classic, yeasty Belgian tripel and more of a Belgian golden ale - a style classification that lets it be whatever the hell it wants to be. What it is is good, and well worth a try. 7.5/10.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CHECK OUT THIS BLACK DIAMOND "WHEAT WACKER"

Hello there folks, sorry if it's been a week since I rapped at ya - not for lack of wanting to, believe you me. I kept myself busy during the 7-day interregnum drinking this "WHEAT WACKER" from BLACK DIAMOND BREWING from out Walnut Creek way, in the area we West Bay types like to call the "deep East Bay" up here in Northern California. At one point in our lives, Beer Samizdat actually worked out in Walnut Creek for a couple of years, and once visited the Black Diamond gang for some happy hour libations. I don't remember any tastebud fireworks going off, but it was also in that sort of post-microbrew, pre-craft beer "quiet period" that engulfed the beer world from about 1998 to 2005.

Anyway, I saw this bottle on the shelf and my drink-local sensibilities kicked in. A very respectable effort it is across the board. WHEAT WACKER is an "India-Style Wheat" - hello, you had me at India. There's no head on it at all, and it has a bit of an eerie glow. Then you drink the thing. It's dry-hopped and yeasty, with a little spice in the backbite. Nice! It's advertised as Belgiany, and you know what, damn if it isn't. A Belgian india-style wheat ale with spices. And it tastes pretty good. Let there be rejoicing in the streets of leafy-green suburban Walnut Creek. 7/10.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

BEER SAMIZDAT Q1 BEER CATCH-UP

You guys ever feel like you can't blog reviews of every single beer you've tasted fast enough? Oh, so it's not just me? Well I've got a cure for that on my end. Let's hit the "re-set" button and bring you up to date with a number of fine and perhaps less-than-fine ales I've tried out on your behalf the past month or so, stuff I haven't gotten around to capturing in solo reviews and yet which still deserve some pithy, if brief and poorly-captured, commentary. What do you say we take 'em high to low??

GOUDEN CAROLUS - "CUVEE VAN DE KAIZER BLAUW" -  This is a much-loved superstar Belgian strong dark ale I'd never had before a few weeks ago, despite reading tons of frothing love for it by many a beer dork. It's every bit as good as advertised, and a real dangerous head-pounder at 11% ABV if you're not splitting it with someone. Very sweet, with candied sugar leading the taste, as well as a clean maltiness/breadiness that soaks up some of that sugar and puts it to great use. Dates and plums, along with a toffee sweetness, round out the flavor. World class for sure. 9.5/10.

SIERRA NEVADA - "PERSIMMON FARMHOUSE ALE" - I'm going to have to craft a blog post soon about Sierra Nevada's currently amazing abilities in modern experimental beer-making, thirty-some-odd years after starting. Most of their new beers defy conventional explanations. They're fantastic. I had this last Friday night at the Pi Bar in San Francisco after being bummed-out by the Marin Brewing beers I was trying (it was "Marin night" there but the ones I tried were totally meh). Just a phenomenal fruit-forward, dry, aromatic, thirst-quenching farmhouse beer here. Great enough to be bottled and traded and hoarded. 9/10.

BIRRA DEL BORGO - "GENZIANA" - (Pictured above). Man, if these Italian craft beers weren't through the roof price-wise I'd absolutely buy more of them, particularly those from Birra Del Borgo. First NORA and now this! Genziana is fruity, light and savory; effervescent and carbonated to the max. Totally bubbly, complex and dare I say very European. A must-try, just save your shekels. 8.5/10

MIKKELLER - "I BEAT YOU" - An aromatic, ultra-hopped IPA from Norway yet brewed at Brewdog in Scotland. A real hard hop attack here, with citrus and not pine dominating. Really, smooth, with great lingering hops that just never seem to leave your mouth. Totally cries for a 22-ounce bottle instead of a 12. 8/10.

TELEGRAPH BREWING - "WINTER ALE" - Blinked and you totally missed this one (pictured). I nearly did. Even better than in years past, Telegraph's Mexican chocolate-infused Xmas ale has a thin body yet a malty, with almost a barleywine taste. They promise ancho chilies in the mix, and yep, you can taste 'em. They lend a firey kick to what's otherwise a cocoa/cinnamon winter ale. Unique and great like everything else Telegraph conjures up. 8/10.

DRAKE'S BREWING - "RED EYE" - Very drinkable and delicious hoppy red ale that I had at The Dark Horse Inn. I wasn't taking many notes, too busy shuckin' and jivin', but I did score it a 7.5/10.

GREEN FLASH BREWING - "WINTER'S FOLLY" - Not sure what the heck this was when I drank it during the just-passed SF Beer Week, but I know I liked it a lot. Turns out they're calling it an "American strong ale" over on Beer Advocate. Carbonated, crisp and complex, I kind of settled it being an imperial amber ale once I'd finished it, albeit a mysterious concoction straight from the magicians at Green Flash. Like Le Freak, it's pretty much its own thing. 7.5/10.

THE ALCHEMIST / STONE BREWING / NINKASI - "MORE BROWN THAN BLACK IPA" - Who would have thought after all the Stone collaboration beers I've been trying that the Japanese Green Tea IPA would end up being my favorite by a mile? This one's fine - a bitter, hoppy, brownish-black IPA with dark caramel taste as well as a fairly astringent aftertaste. It's smoky, almost, with no hint of citrus. Totally grew on me after a bumpy start. 7/10.

ITHACA BREWING  - "ALPHALPHA" - A weird one. Bitter, like an IPA should be I reckon, but not in a good way. It not only lacks abrasiveness - which is fine - but pleasing balance and tastes that really register. There's supposed to be honey in here. Not finding it. Pass. 6/10.

DRAKE'S BREWING - "1500" - A pale ale I've had before and liked about as much as this one. Good for conversation and time-passing, but you'll forget everything about it five minutes later. 6/10.

MARIN BREWING - "ABBEY DUBBEL" - Can't fathom how this passed QA. A weak, lifeless and off-putting Belgian dubbel that falls so far below Marin's normal quality standard that I'm wondering if this is some intern's homebrew instead. 5/10.

MIDNIGHT SUN - "KOLSCH" - Is it me, Midnight Sun? I'm at the point where I'm pretty sure it's you. I just don't like this Anchorage brewery's beers, I just don't, across the board. Their kolsch is chalky, dry, and with an initial fruit bouquet that promises good things and then delivers absolutely no follow-through. Not quenching at all, and actually a chore to get through. 4/10.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

THE ALCHEMIST "HEADY-TOPPER"

Did something the other day I'd once said I wouldn't do. I bought beer on eBay. Yep, eBay. After all the shouting last year about how unethical it was that four or five people were selling rare bottles for markup prices on this site, instead of this trade slinking away into its hole, it absolutely exploded. Go ahead, search on eBay for a beer you can't find and want to try. Is it there? Is bidding through the roof, or are things still within the realm of the sane? I bet on the latter, now that the market is settling into something approaching normalcy. I decided to emulate Dave over at Drunken Polack and try to bring some things into my home that I'd never taste otherwise. Top of my list was one of the most-hyped imperial IPAs I've ever seen, "HEADY-TOPPER" from small Vermont brewer THE ALCHEMIST.

I bid on a batch of four highly-regarded IPAs that we can't get on the west coast, with the others being from Bell's, Surly and New England Brewing. You'll be reading about them here in due time. I'm totally delighted to tell you, in case you didn't know it already, that Heady Topper is the real deal. What a great IPA. Not boozy at all - just a creamy, hoppy, yellowish-orange study in balance and flavor. It's fruity and smooth like you wouldn't believe. Even comes in a can. Currently #7 on the Beer Advocate Top 100 list. (I'm ready to sell a kidney for #8, the Kern River Citra DIPA). A total credit to a sometimes paint-by-numbers style; you'll know upon smelling this and tasting it that it's something special. Time to start stockpiling that Paypal account. 9/10.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

REPORTING FROM THE FRONT @ SF BEER WEEK ‘12

Last year I surprised even myself and made the scene at San Francisco’s annual beer-related hullabaloo, and found out later that I was one of the lucky ones to have a great experience at the Opening Night event (“the gala”), since I greedily paid a few extra coins to get an early admission ticket. The rest of the people – the rabble, the hoi polloi – had to wait in ungodly lines to even enter the door, and some missed half the event and many of the best beers before they even got in. This year the folks planning this thing out knew better. They held it at a giant hall called the Concourse Exhibition Center, where I’ve been to mobile industry trade shows and Belle & Sebastian concerts in the past. They kept ticket prices high to, you know, keep out the riff-raff. (Kidding folks – I paid dearly for the privilege of this thing & now I’m on ramen and tater tots the rest of the week).

Just about every beer-drinking yahoo and his brother in attendance will tell you the thing was a smashing success. No fistfights, public defecation, vomiting, copulation on top of garbage cans, nor broken glass of any kind. I didn’t have to keep my elbows tucked into my sides, and I tasted all manner of amazing beers from across the greater SF Bay Area, from Humboldt County to Santa Cruz. The organizers deserve huge kudos for doing this right. They divided up sections of the exhibition center into North Bay/South Bay/East Bay/San Francisco so you could taste by region, if you were so inclined. As it so happened, I was so inclined. I also had a banh mi sandwich as good as any I’ve ever had, including from back in my days as a parachute gunner fighting "Charlie" back in Danang. ‘Nam, man. Let’s not talk about ‘Nam.

Most reports I’ve seen on last Friday’s event have centered on the civility, the camaraderie and the fun they had drinking untold quantities of great beer. I’ll raise them one, and even let you know what beers to look out for and maybe even avoid. Yep, Beer Samizdat took some notes. We always do. That’s why we have no friends. My goal was the hit as many of the new brewers whose wares I hadn’t tried yet as I could. My other goal was to not get drunk, and I mostly succeeded. As the night unfolded and began to take on epic proportions, I strayed from both plans and began trying new beers from old favorites, as well as certain beers I’d had before but am likely to never try again.

Here’s what I tasted, broken into helpful categories for ya:

THE OUTSTANDING

Sierra Nevada – “Brown Saison” (wood-aged, red wine-dosed brown ale that was to die for)
Bear Republic – “Ryevalry”
Devils Canyon Brewing – “Biere Brut” (effervescent blonde champagne-like ale – wow)

THE VERY GOOD

Speakeasy Brewing – “Massacre”
Dying Vines – “Hop Candi”
Devils Canyon Brewing – “Sour Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale”
San Francisco Brewer’s Guild “2012 St. Strong Ale” (collaboration beer between SF brewers, made just for the occasion)
Sonoma Springs – “Uncle Jack’s Kolsch”
Firehouse Brewing/Highwater Brewing – “St Belgique” (collaboration)
Moonlight Brewing – “Pale Ale” (another simple winner from a brewery who never lets me or anyone else down)
Almanac Brewing – “Summer 2010 Blackberry” (last kegs!!)
Southern Pacific Brewing – “Extra IPA”  (Brand new SF brewer)
PacBrew Labs – “Nautilus Saison”  (another brand-new SF brewer; formerly known as Hibiscus Saison; lead brewer Bryan Hermanson is pictured above pouring this concoction)  

THE MIDDLING

Lagunitas – “Fusion”  (made just for Beer Week as well; surprisingly off-balance and only moderately drinkable)

THE POOR

San Francisco Brewer’s Guild – “California Common 2011” (one of my favorite beers last year; after aging a year it’s one of my least in 2012. See folks – aging doesn’t always bring dividends. Drink it now!)
Magnolia – “Kalifornia Kolsch”

Friday, February 10, 2012

WELCOME & GOOD ON YA, HERETIC BREWING

With San Francisco Beer Week kicking off today, and my hopes for discovering all the hot new pico-, nano- and microbrewers in the Bay Area in full, rabid swing, let me hip you to a new one that I was able to get busy with before the blessed events. They’re called HERETIC BREWING, and they’re located over in Pittsburg, CA – in what we San Franciscans call the “deep east Bay”. Somehow I missed word that they were ramping up, so it was only when I saw bottles of EVIL TWIN, EVIL COUSIN and SHALLOW GRAVE on the shelves, and city-checked the address, that my “drink local” sympathies kicked in and I bought bottles of the first two. Is it gold? Is it garbage? I have an answer – please read on!

HERETIC BREWING – “EVIL TWIN”: This imperial red ale, pictured to your left, really proves that we’re past the days when “amber ale” or “red ale” meant a lifeless, weak, malty/caramel beer. Granted, Anderson Valley’s Boont Amber in its prime was anything but weak and lifeless, and for many years was my “favorite beer” and the standard-bearer for the style. Now that winning brewers like Heretic have figured out how to successfully add hops and new flavors to the mix without sacrificing those qualities that made “amber beers” interesting – well – things have become far more interesting. If that sounds like an endorsement of this one, let me say hell yeah. Hoppy, full of creamy malt flavor, with slight spice and cinnamon, and only just over 6% alcohol. Really impressive debut! 8.5/10.

HERETIC BREWING – “EVIL COUSIN”: Now this imperial IPA will truly put some hair on the proverbial chest. Very bitter and a little dry; initially I thought it was wanting for balance, but as it warmed I started getting distant pine and lots of grapefruit, and the thing really grew on me. I think it could use a few tweaks perhaps, but we’re in early days with these guys. Totally respectable. 7/10.

Haven’t tried the Shallow Grave stout yet – and take a look at their website here; it promises all sorts of riches now and in the future. Welcome and good for you, Heretic Brewing. We’re glad to have ya.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

DESCHUTES’ “THE STOIC” – I’M JUST NOT FEELIN’ IT

Careful and regular readers know that we’re pretty hot to trot on the specialty beers DESCHUTES BREWING in Bend, OR pump out every year. From THE ABYSS to MIRROR MIRROR to BLACK BUTTE XXwhatever to THE DISSIDENT (which, though we never had it, we just know we woulda loved), these guys are masters at making masterpiece high-alcohol beers that are rich, full-bodied and full of flavor. Their regular lineup isn’t too shabby either. I went to their pub in Bend a while back and was pretty doggone excited about my sampler. So it’s with a heavy heart that I must report that THE STOIC, their quadrupel that came out near the tail end of last year, just isn’t quite measuring up to past glories.

For starters, THE STOIC is a much thinner-bodied quad than most. It’s actually very yeasty, which breaks all sorts of stylistic “boundaries” but does little when matched with the butterscotch, syrupy taste. They talk a lot about depth and complexity on the bottle, but I’m just not feeling it. It’s not the quad knockout I was hoping for. It’s good enough to drink all the way through – oh yes, I did do that – but when matched against the Deschutes reputation, it’s not stacking up. Maybe that’s why there are still so many of these on the shelves. Or maybe I need to have another one. 6/10.

PS – Are you getting tired of seeing the stair bannister in my kitchen and the same glassware every blog post? I imagine you are. I’ll try and take pictures somewhere else, and maybe even drink a few beers out of the house for a change. SF Beer Week’s coming up, starting Friday. More to come.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

JOLLY PUMPKIN “FUEGO DEL OTONO”

Last time we talked about JOLLY PUMPKIN BREWING in this space we were mea culpa-ing all over the place about how we’d maybe misjudged their beers in the past, and how special and unique and consistent they all were. Such praise holds true for the most part with the big bottle of “FUEGO DEL OTONO” we consumed the other day. This means “Autumn Fire”, for what it’s worth. You’re thinking a dry, zesty, chili pepper pumpkin ale, right? I think not.

Fuego Del Otono is a “spiced ale brewed with chestnuts”. It has Jolly Pumpkin’s typical dry taste, is super opaque, and actually looks like a light cherry ale sitting there in the glass. Man, am I glad it’s not. The beer is highly carbonated, and has a ton of zest and malt in the aftertaste. Yeasts are heavy as well, in the quote-unquote Belgian tradition, and I’m even getting a mild “funk” over here. It could even be considered a sour ale, particularly as it warms. Alcohol clocks in at 6.1%. I really can’t quite come out and call it amazing, but would “well constructed” and a 7/10 score give you the gumption to maybe try it out?

Monday, February 6, 2012

WHAT I FOUND IN THE HE’BREW GIFT BOX

This past Hanukkah the folks at SHMALTZ BREWING put together a pretty inspired gift pack, as I now understand they do every year. 8 bottles of different types of HE’BREW, including some of their real heavy hitters, like this year’s 15% ABV JEWBELATION 15. It also has one of the older bottles of Jewbelation – a “mystery”, as in you don’t know if you’re going to get the 14, the 13, the 8 or so on (I got Jewbelation 9). Then there are some ales that you never see around in the stores by themselves, or that are “out of print”, as it were. You also get a glass, the one you see here, with a happy smilin’ rabbi on it. Finally, you can supposedly make all eight empty bottles into a Menorah, and they even throw in some candles if you’re so inclined. I’m still drinking my gift box, but, uh – maybe next year. Here’s what I’ve plowed through so far.

HE’BREW “HOP MANNA” – Let’s not forget that for all the gimmickry, this has been a top-flight brewer for twenty some-odd years now. I’ve been drinking their beer ever since they brewed back at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in the early 90s. This is the first basic IPA I’ve seen from them, and it’s really, really good. Simple stuff. A piney IPA that leaves lingering hops and bitterness on the tongue. It’s fairly still and not a foamy one at all, Just under 7% ABV – smooth but still quite punchy and delicious. 8/10.

SCHMALTZ & TERRAPIN “REUNION ALE 2011” – A benefit ale brewed in collaboration with Georgia heavyweights Terrapin Brewing. I’d call this an imperial brown ale, similar in taste to what the kids like a call a “Belgian strong dark”. It’s spicy (!). Vanilla and cocoa with some chili pepper on the finish. Approachable, interesting and decent enough to try again if I ever see it. 7/10.

HE’BREW “BITTERSWEET LENNY’S R.I.P.A.” – Yeah, I’ve had this one before, and it’s a real corker. An intense, high-alcohol IPA with a heavy dose of rye malts that you can most assuredly taste. It’s creamy, with a little bit of alcohol in the back of the throat as it’s going down (10% ABV). Some rye beers will bury this malt in with everything else, but this one brings it AND the hops front and center, and it’s one of those eye-watering beers that’s truly for the beer dorks and the beer dorks only. 7.5/10.

We’ve got five more to go, including both Jewbelations, and I shall be returning to this space to bring you a full report once we’ve completed our research on this box.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

ALMANAC BEER CO’s STELLAR “WINTER WIT”

Any doubts about social media’s role in furthering my craft beer consumption & mania were put to rest yesterday afternoon when Twitter was a-tweetin’ about the ALMANAC BEER CO. deliveries of their new “WINTER WIT” happening all over San Francisco that day. I’d plum forgotten that this beer, their third, was imminent – so I left work early and hightailed it to a retail establishment that got them in yesterday afternoon. Then I bought two. Almanac now have this schedule of two seasonal beers per year, one which will be a barrel-aged beer with ingredients from local Northern California farms, and one that can come to market a little more quickly, in which the barrel plays no role. WINTER WIT is the first of these beers. And I have to say, as much as I loved the others (reviews here and here), this one’s the best thing these fellas have created to date, & one of 2012’s early favorites for beer of the year.

I was taken in by this one even before the first glug. It smells of oranges and yeast – even of the ginger they advertise on the bottle. It’s a classic Belgian witbier with a heavy dose of California sunshine. It’s not just the label that calls forth the memory of a California covered from top to bottom with orange groves; it’s right there in the taste, which is earthy, smooth and yeah - full of orange. I love the fact that they’re using a combination of different types of oranges in here, including the reddish and slightly bitter blood oranges, and that they manage to still make this a yeast-driven beer and not a simple fruit “sipper”. Fields of Belgium all the way. It’s the best wit I’ve ever had – and I know this is true, because I checked the Beer Samizdat 100. An enthusiastic 9.5/10!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

VICTORY BREWING INVADES NoCAL, RELEASES KILLER BEER

Hey, all of a sudden beers from Pennsylvania’s VICTORY BREWING are all over the shelves here in Northern California, and I couldn’t be happier. No, we’re not getting their full lineup, not even close, but some of us were able to scout out bottles of V-TWELVE, their quadrupel that came out early last year. I can’t quite figure it out – is this an anniversary beer? Or named as such because it’s 12% alcohol? Both? What can you tell me, folks?
 

While this is typically the sort of head-rattling beer you split with a pal or two, I polished it off in an evening on my own. Slowly. My VICTORY V-TWELVE was bottled on 12-20-2010, so unwittingly, I aged it for a year. Hmm, did I lay it down long enough? Who cares! It has some really unique characteristics for a quad. It comes on sweet like candy, which is no surprise. Yet the grains are really strong, and I can taste deep, rich wheat malts – far more than you might in a Belgian equivalent. Dominant flavor is probably butterscotch. A grainy, sweet quad – how about that. And I still felt like a million bucks the next morning. Impressive stuff across the board. 7.5/10.