Wednesday, December 30, 2015

AN INTERVIEW WITH HEADLANDS BREWING's PHIL CUTTI

Nearly two years ago I took a flyer on a new local Double IPA called "Hill 88" from the hitherto-unknown HEADLANDS BREWING and was hitherto blown away. Every hophead needs his or her #1 go-to ale, the one they reach for on a quiet Tuesday night when flavor is called for but xtreme beer dorkery is not. Some people, it's Pliny The Elder. Others, West Coast IPA or Sculpin or Heady Topper. From that first day for me, it was "Hill 88", and my garage beer fridge has rarely been without a ready & waiting 4-pack of said beer ever since. HEADLANDS' other two core beers - the Belgian RyePA "Groupe G" and the "Point Bonita" pilsner - are also spot-on and delicious. 

They've been contract-brewing their way into the hearts of many Californians and are planning some big moves in 2016. Before the year ended, I was able to lob a few questions over to co-founder and president Phil Cutti, who owns & operates the joint with co-founder and CEO Patrick Horn. Both men have deep tentacles reaching back over the last decade or two of San Francisco Bay Area craft beer history, and are actively plowing new inroads in the never-ending quest to pound new innovation and flavor out of beer's core ingredients.

This interview w/ Mr. Cutti was conducted over email in December 2015.

BEER SAMIZDAT: To start with, what's the brewing philosophy behind Headlands? Is it to simply make beers you like, beers that reflect your locale, beers that might actually sell, hoppy and/or refreshing beers....? Or is that philosophy developing at its own pace?

Phil Cutti: Headlands is about building a community. We feel that beer is a cultural and social drink that fuels adventures, conversations and ideas. Our beers reflect the area in which we live and the lifestyle we enjoy - being outdoors and living in the moment.


BEER SAMIZDAT: I know you guys have both traveled a pretty active road from your homebrewer roots to your current gigs at Headlands, and you, Phil, even run a collective for homebrewers looking to make the jump to commercial brewing. When - and how - did you guys know your creations were ready to make the jump?

Phil Cutti: I was lucky enough to learn how to brew from the guys who started Speakeasy when they operated SF Brewcraft in 1995. I tinkered and brewed and tweaked and entered competitions and tweaked and tweaked for 18 years. There are probably 15-20 solid recipes that we could roll out. But to really answer your question, I didn’t know any of our beers would sell until they did and then there were reorders.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Your three core "tall boys" - Hill 88, Point Bonita and Groupe G Belgian RyePA - have been a pretty stable lineup now full well over a year, with no new introductions that I know of. Are you just happy keeping things as-is for now with those three, or are there active plans for more?

Phil Cutti: Yes, on the retail side we have focused on these three offerings. We feel that it is best to deliver consistent products rather than continually brewing new batches that rotate quickly. With that said, we do offer a few one-off/seasonals in draught-only formats. This year we did Hawk Hill Hefeweizen for summer and  Pt. Diablo Dunkelweiss for fall. Winter will bring Pan Toll Porter and Bay Trip to the tap. And we will of course release the next version of Lightship Sour Solera for SF Beer Week. Other than that we focus on the core beers. It’s possible that the seasonals transition to retail as well, but not likely for 2016.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Hill 88 in particular stands out so amazingly in a West Coast world crowded with phenomenal hopped-up Double IPAs. At the risk of immodesty, why do you think that is?

Phil Cutti: Thanks! We get a lot of great feedback on that beer.  My thoughts on why Hill 88 has a burgeoning cult following are based on a few factors. In no particular order: it is balanced; has an amazing West Coast hop aroma; even though it is higher octane, it’s approachable.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You did a one-off project with the Mill Valley Market that I was fortune enough to try, a barrel-aged version of Hill 88. How did that come about, why was it with that particular market - and do you see anything similar coming out in the near future?

Phil Cutti:
Mill Valley Market was our very first retail partner. There’s nothing like walking to your local market and seeing your beer prominently displayed. I’m proud of that and owe many thanks to MVM for their support. We have had a great relationship with them and Chuck Brinkley in particular. The market has a partnership with Four Roses Bourbon for private label bottles. Part of that relationship opens up an opportunity to get a barrel every once in awhile and we jumped at the chance to collaborate with MVM on a beer. Chuck and the MVM team wanted the Hill 88 aged in the barrel to offer to their beer club and then the public. Feedback was fantastic and we look forward to doing more projects like this in the future.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Where does Headlands brew these days, and are there plans for a permanent location?
 

Phil Cutti: Our contract brewing partners are top-notch. They know we aspire to have our own place and have helped us with our beers as if they were their own. We brew Pt. Bonita at Sudwerk in Davis and the Groupe G, Hill 88 and seasonals at Devil’s Canyon in San Carlos. With the rapid growth finally taking hold in the Bay Area we are looking to secure our own brewhouse and taproom in 2016. With a name like Headlands, it would bode well to be in Southern Marin. The Headlands are an incredible playground and dramatic backdrop that we hope will be in our backyard soon!

BEER SAMIZDAT: Your cans were in Whole Foods Markets in the SF Bay Area really quickly, particularly for a new, small brewer. What do you chalk that up to, outside of the obvious quality of the product? What's it like to distribute with them?


Phil Cutti: Yeah, our relationship with Whole Foods started early. To be honest, I think the relationship works because they identified us as aligning with their company’s ethos - local, quality and entrepreneurial. Their consistent support has definitely allowed us to appear bigger than we actually are. We are in every NorCal Whole Foods. That’s pretty cool! Our retailer relationships are what we owe our growth to. They really get behind our product and are advocates for small, local businesses. Distribution in general is all about managing logistics. If that is one thing we have learned, it’s managing logistics!

BEER SAMIZDAT: What's the current distribution scene like, by the way? Are the fights for shelf space much worse than they used to be or are there simply more shelves than ever before? What are some of the pros and cons for beer distribution in December 2015?

Phil Cutti: We could have a whole interview just on this topic. Headlands self-distributes. There are pros and cons to this. An obvious pro is that we get to connect with our customers and accounts on a daily basis and establish relationships that help build both the account and Headlands. Yes, the growth in the beer industry has increased the demand and competition for attention and beer space on the shelf. Self distributing has allowed us to be present at a key level as our industry grows. On the other hand, self-distributing has its limitations. We are a small company and can only service so many accounts in a day and in a certain geographical region. We have done the Santa Cruz to Livermore to San Rafael to SF delivery route and it’s challenging to say the least. Moving into 2016 we are evaluating signing on with a few distributors that can expand our footprint in the Bay Area as we increase production.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You're undoubtedly both beer aficionados and have tasted some pretty mighty ales & lagers of late. Who's making beer that blows you away right now, and in particular, which beers?

Phil Cutti: Locally I enjoy the beers from New Bohemian down in Santa Cruz. The various lagers Dan is creating in that brewhouse is amazing. The smoked schwartz beer is amazing. The Smell from Social Kitchen is one of Kim’s best beers. It never disappoints. Smog City down in Torrance always has something to quench my thirst. I particularly like the Amarillo Gorilla and Sabre-Toothed Squirrel. Falling Sky in Eugene just keeps pumping out beers that you want to savor over a good meal. And further north in Tillamook, De Garde’s wild fermented ales are outstanding. Black Project/Former Future out of Denver is the a place to seek out and keep an eye on. James and his team are at the forefront of the beer scene in Denver. I could go on for days, so I better end there. Cheers!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

CALICRAFT's ULTRAMEGA "RUM BARREL OAKTOWN BROWN SOUR"

My regard for Walnut Creek, CA's CALICRAFT BREWING increases exponentially with each new beer of theirs I try. I looked at my reviews of each of their beers, and not one's been under an 8/10. Already a bold, badass 8.7% brown ale, they went and barreled their "OAKTOWN BROWN" in an effort to soup it up even more. The result is this super-limited bottle I found at Whole Foods (!) called "RUM BARREL OAKTOWN BROWN SOUR", which didn't even get its own new label, and instead merely was graced with stickers plopped over the main bottle to signal its differences from the main product.

The reminds me of another "good", albeit relatively normal beer that was made into something otherworldly via the aging process - Devil's Canyon's bourbon barrel-aged version of their "Full Boar" scotch ale. We reviewed that one here. For Calicraft's, the rum barrel wrings a great sweetness out of this brown ale, and makes it quite creamy, with dominant tastes of wheat, molasses, vanilla and a real earthy sourness. The roasted backbone is there, but no discernible bitterness. Approachably sour - not tart, not puckering, just phenomenal. 9/10.


Oh - and Beer Samizdat's on social media, in case you're interested in following our blatherings. Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

DRINK ALPINE NELSON (AND) GO TO BED

It wasn't that long ago that ALPINE BEER COMPANY IPAs were total fetish objects, and deservedly so. You'd beg your San Diego contacts to send you some (my poor sister, for example, or Nat the Beer Rover), or you'd get lucky every now & again if you didn't live down there and some would show up in your town thanks to some miracle of divine providence. The big ones? "Pure Hoppiness", "Exponential Hoppiness", "Duet" and "Nelson". All supreme examples of the hopped-up form. I had my first and only "Nelson" back in 2010 and totally loved it, of course.

They've subsequently been looped and circled by all sorts of magisterial IPAs, and, as I understand it, Alpine has needed to get in bed with Green Flash in order to keep their production humming. (There may be a zillion good reasons to have done this; I don't know and don't care; I find "the business of beer" to be first among the world's most boring subjects). Perhaps thanks to this, ALPINE BEER COMPANY ales have started showing up on San Francisco Bay Area shelves, like, in the last couple of months! Including the hallowed "Nelson"! So.....whaddya think it tastes like? I'll tell you.

This "golden rye IPA" is produced with Nelson Sauvin hops - hence the name - and is, as you can, see, a light-looking yellow that packs a much heartier punch than you'd reckon. Grapefruity, but more juicy and less sour/pungent than that might imply. It's quite biting in the hops department as well. I still don't taste any rye, but that's okay - I honestly have yet to find the sheer joy in rye ales, as opposed to, say, merely tolerating it as an ingredient. I drank my "Nelson" and went straight to bed, neglecting to literally follow the bottle's instructions to "Drink Alpine or Go To Bed". Why can't I do both?

It's clear that as great as it is, "Nelson" has been passed up many times in the last half-decade and is now one of the many great IPAs on the shelves, vs. something that you consider selling a testicle in order to try. That said, I'm glad it's so readily available where I reside - next I'll see where "Duet" and the others stand relative to the great pack of killer IPAs circling our throats in 2015/2016. 8/10.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

AN OVERDUE RETURN TO MIKKELLER

Don't count me as one of the MIKKELLER bad-mouthers. I don't care how ubiquitous the guy and his beers are; how he's a "gypsy" brewer and recipe-mailer; nor how certain FedEx ballers feel about the beer itself. 7 times out of 10, a Mikkeller beer is a very, very good beer, and 1 time out of 10 it's an out-and-out stunner. Here in San Francisco we have the good fortune to have the MIKKELLER BAR located in our town, and it just so happens to be a five-block walk from my current place of employ. I know there are plenty bars like this nationwide now, but this is truly a high-end beer dork's bar - with nothing but "rare" and "hot" beers on draft and in bottles, from today's up-n-comers from the SF Bay Area and around the world. Not merely Mikkeller beers, though that would be OK too.

I'm pretending like this was one single, long-overdue visit, but these short reviews actually encompass a couple trips, and I think I was there a few times last year as well. At least I sorta remember going. My pours this time/these times were all over the map, as you shall see presently:

MIKKELLER - "MASTODON MOTHER PUNCHER" - That's the somewhat fuzzy picture you're looking at here. It's a really, really tasty farmhouse IPA brewed with passion fruit. A little brett-y, with lots of yeast and something that really leans heavy on that passion fruit (which is not a taste you'd easily mistake for something else). A fruit-forward pale ale, and one that's not particularly hoppy. I'm into it. 8/10.

MIKKELLER - "BEER GEEK BREAKFAST BRUNCH BIG BLEND" - ....and I'm not into this. It's an oatmeal coffee stout at 8% ABV, and tastes even stronger and much more harsh than I'd like. Not good. Acidic and way too coffee-dependent. Creamy on the tongue, totally a chore in the mouth. 5/10.

MIKKELLER - "RED/WHITE CHRISTMAS" - Hats off to Mikkel. He's now brewed the single best thing from him I've ever had - and I don't think this is a new beer at all, in fact I'm sure I've seen it on the shelves. "Red/White Christmas" is a gorgeous orange/caramel/fruit ale, with lots of Belgian yeast and a big malt profile. An absolutely perfect mix of flavors and one I couldn't stop marveling at as I was drinking it. Will be looking for big bottles of this to store away for the next several Xmases. 10/10!

So you're looking at my beer list and thinking, "Jay, I thought you said there were other brands competing for share of wallet at Mikkeller Bar". Oh yass. I just happened to only try one of 'em this time, and it was

CELLARMAKER - "MO' NELSON" - I'm such a heel, it's been two years and I still haven't set foot inside San Francisco's Cellarmaker Brewing, despite enjoying everything of theirs I've tried on draft at various establishments (which, granted, is probably three beers total). This one's an IPA spotlight on the interplay between mosaic and nelson hops. It's a highly-carbonated, tingly ale - really juicy, but still more piney than citrus - and is so delicious. Total stud IPA. Getting my growler clean & ready as I type. 9/10.

So not bad - one dud and three stunners. Book your own trip there today.

Monday, December 21, 2015

SANTA CLARA VALLEY BREWING's "HEART'S DELIGHT"

Not sure ultimately of the wisdom of drinking a summer seasonal in the dead of winter, but you know how ya get really excited when you see something interesting on the shelves, buy it - and then it sits in the beer fridge for five months, consistently usurped by other comers and bangers. So it was with SANTA CLARA VALLEY BREWING CO.'s "HEART'S DELIGHT 2014", which I knew was a "summer seasonal" per se, but when they said it was "aged in wine barrels with cherries" - well, I reckoned it could sit a couple more months, right? I mean, I guess it'd already been sitting since it was concocted in 2014.

I've enjoyed the three varied bottles of SCVB wares I've had so far - an IPA, a Double IPA and an imperial red - so right now the plan of action w/ them is to buy any & all new bottles they put out, and count my change later. Distribution for their stuff seems to be pretty much an SF Bay Area thing, with beers popping up every now and again at various Whole Foods and a few specialty places - but I can't say it's ubiquitous stuff that you can pass up if you're interested in it (perhaps due to my erudite reviews). That "Valley Surprise" Double IPA, fr'instance - I saw it once, bought it, and never saw it again.

 So "HEART'S DELIGHT" is not quite in the exalted ballpark of its forebears, but it was overall very good. You see how there was no foam nor lacing at all in the pic I snapped here? Seriously - visually dead as a doornail, though thankfully not taste-wise. It's not only redolent of fruit (sour apricots to me - not cherries), but with the much-loved brettanomyces, with gives it a nice lactic sourness. It's a definite wild ale with some wine-like aftertaste, as should be expected - bordering on a kriek or something very Belgian. A summer ballgame beer it ain't, which is another reason I dig these guys so much. 7/10.

Friday, December 18, 2015

OH DEAR. WATERBOARDED BY BALLAST POINT's "HABANERO SCULPIN"

Everyone's looking for some new kind of kick. Something they ain't had. Some new kind of buzz. They wanna go hog mad. So yeah, I can certainly understand the temptation for a brewer to make new ales with everything and anything under the sun - rose thistle, pressed sea buckhorn, yard trimmings and yes, habanero peppers. I mean, I'm the knucklehead who bought this BALLAST POINT "HABANERO SCULPIN", after all. I am not looking for the umpteenth undifferentiated saison nor plain jane IPA or even another soul-sucking sour most of the time - I want to go hog mad, in a good way.

Sometimes, however, it's in a bad way. Such was the case when I, in a classic case of transference, extrapolated the good juju I got from "GRAPEFRUIT SCULPIN" onto this hot pepper IPA, and hoped for something similar. Not in the least. This is a total hot sauce jolt, a real slapper of spicy throat damage and not anything one might find "appealing" in a beer. It's a dare, a boast, a brag - not something you bust out with yr hard-partyin' bros (or in my case, with my wife & son on a Thursday night). Sort of like using "Dave's Insanity Sauce" on your tacos in 1995 was. Is this still an IPA? Who knows - I can't taste anything any longer. Imagine hot sauce scorch and IPA tongue deadening in one little 12-ounce bottle. Now doesn't that sound better than that other beer you were considering? An exceptionally unenjoyable ordeal. 3.5/10.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

THREE BEERS FROM MODERN TIMES, & ONE OF 'EMs REAL GOOD

All of a sudden you can't throw a can of silly string without hitting a second can of MODERN TIMES beer, who've infiltrated not only the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, from their home base of San Diego - but also Singapore -  a town in which I spent a little quality time a couple of months ago. Singapore doesn't have many American craft brands making the rounds, but of those that do, Modern Times was front and center at the establishments I checked out, like Tap Craft Beer Bar. I found myself seated next to three different ales of theirs lately, in three different locations - not counting "ONEIDA", which I yakked about here, and which is my favorite of theirs to date - and this is what I uncovered:

"AURORA" - This is the red rye IPA that you see pictured here. There is a lot going on here, and I like it very much. Grassy, with loads of rye. A little chalky, balanced nicely with loads of malt - which makes it this lovely red color. Quite light on the tongue, and it settles and warms nicely, making it even better after about 10-15 minutes post-fridge. Picture an IPA, imperial red and stand-alone rye pale ale meeting up in a tank somewhere, and that's Aurora. 8/10.

"FORTUNATE ISLANDS" - Says it's a "hoppy tropical wheat" right there on the can. Seriously, I don't need to say much more than that. It's what it is. Decent, but no big deal. 6.5/10.

"FORTUNATE ISLANDS GRAPEFRUIT ZEST" - This one I had on draft at the aforementioned bar in Singapore. Better than the normal Fortunate Islands, with grapefruit taste that's far less intense than, say, Grapefruit Sculpin. Like Aurora, it's a little chalky, and the "tropical" aspect to this is replaced by other flavors and some sweetness, but overall I enjoyed this one & would drink it again, especially if my work is kind enough to jet me out to Singapore a second time. 7/10.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING's "RECOLTE DU BOIS - APRICOT SAISON"

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING didn't begin life the way brewers did back in the olden days of 2008. You know, brew a pale ale, a porter, an IPA and maybe a honey wheat; see if the kids dug it; and then and only then start kicking into the harder stuff. I can't actually say for sure the exact order of how they did things, because I wasn't there, but first time I became aware of them was not even a year ago, and they were already barrelin' and smokin' things like crazy. It appears that barreling, in fact, is what they do. Barrel things. Ferment them in oak, and some such. It's about time we tried another one of their creations.

"RECOLTE DU BOIS - APRICOT SAISON" is, that's right, an oak-fermented "apricot saison". Boy howdy, it sure is. In fact, there's a whole "Recolte Du Bois" series, and this is just one of the beers placed within it. Lots of brett infected into the mix, and yet at the same time it's not so overpowering to make this unapproachable by mortals. In fact, even the apricot itself is subtle - present, but subtle. The beer has a real chewy mouthfeel, which I can't say I was expecting, and is highly carbonated, which I kind of liked in this one. Not your typical "still" barrel-aged saison; there's a good deal going on but it's not like a riotous party in your mouth or anything. Best thing they've done since Viejo Rojo. 7.5/10.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I TOTALLY DUG THIS SANTE ADAIRIUS / TRIPLE ROCK COLLABORATION

The (very) old standby meets the young Capitola upstart, and hey, the results are pretty not half bad and then some! TRIPLE ROCK is a place I used to regularly go to Berkeley, CA before the first 1990s craft beer (or "microbrew") revolution. When I first drank Red Hook, Sierra Nevada, Boont Amber etc., there weren't many places to go experience great beer on draft, but there was always Triple Rock, Cal-Berkeley frat boys be damned. I'd get on BART, go record shopping on Telegraph Avenue with my ne'er-do-well pals, then walk over to the 'Rock to cap off many a successful day of vinyl-scouring. 

Sometimes I forget they're still around, but I remember having something very sour and very delicious of theirs at "Sour Sunday" a few years ago, or maybe it was somewhere else, so we know that there are some wild experiments going on over there even now in 2015.

The real hero of our story, of course, is SANTE ADAIRIUS RUSTIC ALES. It is they who sold me this bottle of the SARA/Triple Rock collaboration saison "CELLARMAN" at their location in Capitola, CA, as well as the glass that I drank it in. They are, in my opinion, the best Northern California beermaker to come along since Russian River Brewing Company back in the late Bill Clinton era. But you already knew that. 

Together they've made this tart saison, this "Cellarman", which is fermented in oak. I wasn't planning to drink it just yet, but when I opened my beer fridge I inadvertently knocked it over and it started gently fizzing out of the top. "Oh well, guess I have to drink this giant beer by myself", right? It's a super-cloudy orange/yellow, with tons of lacing sticking to the glass. Big, big grapefruit taste - not like an IPA, but I mean like a grapefruit, or even unripe grapes. Not much going on here in the way of oakiness, but that's okay with me. It's a 6.5%-ABV beer that also bring a peppery tinge to the tartness. Reminds me of the last Hill Farmstead saison I was fortunate to have, with a bit more complexity and believe me, it's well in that league. 8/10.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

LAYING IT DOWN & BRINGING IT OUT FOR CHANUKAH

DRAFT magazine has this photo feature every month called "Lay This Down/Bring This Out", which purports with near-scientific accuracy to tell readers when to cellar a beer, and for how long, and then when to actually bring other beers out of hibernation, so they're at the perfect, optimal drinking time. Since I've never deliberately "aged" a beer outside of once keeping a bottle of THE ABYSS in storage for one year to the day, just to see if I noticed anything special about it once it had "laid down" (nope), I've sort of scoffed at this notion. (I love the pictures, though). 

But what about having a beer around in your beer fridge for a few years that you just simply never got to? I guess I kinda laid down this 2011 bottle of SHMALTZ "JEWBELATION 15" for four years. It's always been there waiting, sitting back there, and I've always said that this week, this is the week that I'll bring out this 15% alcohol, 15 malt, 15 hop monster. Well, turns out that this was the week. It's Hanukkah, folks! For the second night of the holiday - i.e. last night - I busted open the "Jewbelation 15" and got down to business. 

You know, SHMALTZ may only get partial and begrudging props from the discerning modern craft beer enthusiast, probably because of their marketing gimmicks, the fact that they've been around so long (and are therefore "old") and because their best-known beers are the Coney Island lagers. But people sure loved this one. I'm pretty fond of it myself. I certainly don't have a 2011 tasting to compare it to, but after four years I can see how perhaps the high-ABV edges of this thing could have been rounded off a bit. It's black as night, still a little boozy (more in the smell, and honestly, not that much), and big and sweet with loads of malt. Chocolate-covered cherries come to mind, and that's a good thing. Dark and fruity, and really not a whole lot of hoppiness. That too may have been a casualty of the last four years. I guess we'll never know, will we? 7.5/10.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

HEY, CARTON BREWING

Last time I drank a beer from New Jersey was....was.....wait, I've never had a beer manufactured in the state of New Jersey? I searched my two historical beer blogs for evidence of Jersey beers and came up with nada. I know I've seen ads for something called "Flying Fish" in a few places, but until this DIPA love bomb from the previously-unheard-of-by-me CARTON BREWING, I probably couldn't name another brewer from the Garden State if you'd waterboarded me several times over. 

Now I've got one I'm a big fan of, and all it took was a pint-sized can of "077XX", their "east coast double IPA". It's great! It's everything I've been wanting in my next DIPA, and proves again that the genre is still capable of surprises. The surprise here is that it's a creamy, ultra-smooth beer, almost like something out of a cask instead of a can. "Great malt profile", as they say, and it's a real cloudy, hazy ale with that creamy taste and a butterscotch/hops mix of flavors. 7.8% ABV, and didn't set me back much at all in the sobriety department - so clearly, if I'd had another around the house, it'd have been gone in sixty seconds. Carton Brewing. The pride of Atlantic Highlands, NJ. Get some in your house at once. 9/10.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

SPENDING TIME WITH TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8

One of the casualties of last month's quiet period was that I missed the chance to "live blog" my one and possible only encounter with TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8. I had it on a Tuesday for no good reason, "just 'cuz". Time was I'd have gathered the family around, said a blessing, taken 100 photos and then tweeted like an imbecile for an hour, but honestly, this isn't quite the head-slappin' rarity I thought it was. I spent a weekend in Brussels two months ago, and as I scoured the city in search of beer to bring home in my suitcase, I stumbled across multiple shops with all three Westvleteren beers for sale - even a couple of tacky tourist shops that didn't solely specialize in beer. Weren't Westys supposed to be impossible to find unless you bribed a monk, or went to the monastery and pretended to pray or something?

Sure, the Westys I found were a little more pricey than other ales, but that's what happens when you're in hot pursuit of "the best beer(s) in the world". I drank a Trappist Westvleteren 12 with glee while I was in Brussels, and chose to buy a Westvleteren 8 and take it home. This picture you see here - I didn't take it - and no, I've still not had that blonde, though I could have easily grabbed a couple of those as well, and maybe now I'm a little bummed that I didn't. Now Brussels is under lockdown thanks to the murderous goons from ISIS, and the Molenbeek neighborhood where I went to see the RWS Bruxelles soccer team play is now shorthand for seething, teeming hotbed of international jihad.

TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8 is what you'd likely call their "abbey dubbel", and it has all the hallmarks of one of the greats: the rich brown maltiness, the flaky yeast sediment, the dark fruit and toffee tastes, spicyness - the whole nine yards. It's just better. These guys yield sweetness like a weapon - as with the 12, you get the feeling you're drinking something first-class and nearly dessert-like, and you know that a case of these would be a real pound-packer. There are those that even prefer this to the 12, just as I think that Trappist Rochefort 8 is superior to its higher-ABV brother Rochefort 10. I'm not going to take sides on that one, and even so, I doubt I'll get enough experience with either to really become a connoisseur. Yet if you get the chance, whether you grab this at the monastery or at a Brussels flea market, I highly encourage you to do so. 9/10.

Monday, November 30, 2015

BETTER RED THAN DEAD: 21ST AMENDMENT'S "TOASTER PASTRY"

I don't know if you've been sitting around mourning it the way I have, but it seems to me that the "imperial red" style has sorta gone the way of the dodo this past year. Everyone wants to make a saison or "wild up" their beers in 2015, and that's totally all right by me - but whither the malt/hop taste explosion of the now-disappearing imperial red ale? I have been flyin' the flag for these every since my first Lagunitas Imperial Red or Green Flash Hop Head Red some years back, and it seemed like around 2010 just about everyone was futzing around with some high-ABV, hopped-up red ale. Maybe that's the problem - too much futzing, not enough selling. I've certainly yet to come across another "beer writer" willing to gobble these up without care for the brewer the way I am.

So then I trip over my shoelaces at the beer store and find myself face to face w/ this lovely "TOASTER PASTRY" tall boy can, made by our pals down the proverbial street, 21ST AMENDMENT BREWERY. It's been two and a half years since I last checked in with them, as this February 2013 post attests. They've been plotting this 7.6% imperial red in the intervening years, and here it is, a stovepipe can pint of toasted, biscuity malt ale that's bready where it should be and pleasantly hopped to boot. It's a warm brownish red that says autumn full fucking stop. Maybe a little sweeter than it is malty, which takes at least a full point off, and I'd hesitate to call it "imperial" given how quote-unquote sessionable it tastes. But I liked it just fine. I'd welcome a hearty return in 2016 to more experimentation with red ales, as it seems I'll never make it to Denver again to break bread with these fellas. Who wants to let me know in the comments if there are any other imperial red winners out there right now? 7.5/10.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

LOST NATION'S "LAMOILLE BRETTA"

This is a big big bottle of big boy brettanomyces beer from Vermont. The folks who make is - why, they're called LOST NATION BREWING, and they hail from Morrisville, VT. They've staked their claim on "honest, small batch beer", and by all rights I think they can legitimately stick with that claim. I get the picture that bottles aren't really their stock in trade, and that you really need to head up to Morrisville to get the cut of their jib, which is why it was extra-nice this one, this "LAMOILLE BRETTA" showed up my mailbox courtesy of you-know-who

It's their normal saison, which they call Saison Lamoille, refermented with Brett. It debuted in my house with a massive head of foam that never actually settled down, possibly because it had been shipped across the country to make its way to my mouth. Nice light funk, very yellow in color and crisp on the swallow and really clean-tasting. It's herbal, a little spicy and with citrus/grapefruit lingering in the background. Wait, this is a "sour saison"? Sure enough, but one that doesn't cling to the tongue in the manner in which you're likely familiar. This is a football-game sour saison, a big fast-n-light quaff that even your knuckle-dragging yahoo pals might be able to handle. Accessible, not "barnyard". My Cantillon tour guide a couple months ago might've thrown up, this is so incredibly drinkable. I'll be wanting some more of these in the mail, please. 8/10.

Friday, November 27, 2015

THIS BREAKSIDE "INDIA GOLDEN ALE", AND A BUNCH OF OTHERS I DON'T REMEMBER

Beer Samizdat's been seriously missing in action this past month. Sorry it's been so long since I rapped at ya. At times I'll vacillate between the all-documenting beer obsessive who ticks and catalogs every beer-related jot and titter, and the guy who pops open whatever's in his garage craft beer fridge without really thinking about it much. This last month tilted toward the latter. That certainly doesn't make for interesting blogging - nor reading.

I have a backlog of reviews where I did pay attention that I'll get to in due time. I'll start with this BREAKSIDE BREWERY "India Golden Ale" that my pal Chris picked up for me on a recent Oregon trip. Now that was a delicious malt-forward double IPA. Yes, it is indeed a true 2xIPA, but with a much yeastier golden ale profile, with some serious Belgian action sneaking in - much like the Houblon Chouffe I remember (which, granted, I don't think I've had in over five years). Breakside's is fruity, floral and like I said, malty. If there's a fruit to be plucked from the flavor profile it's probably mango, so we're talking almost a tropical/golden/yeasty DIPA here. Good on ya, Breakside. 8/10.

As for the rest of Beer Samizdat's lost November? I can remember the most recent beer to also dazzle me - the one I drank two nights ago - and funny enough, it was from MODERN TIMES, who've always been just good-enough in my book and nothing particularly noteworthy. Well, that was until "ONEIDA", their "hoppy, sessionable pale ale". First one from them that's really nailed it - a dry and hops-laden easy sipper that would make a nice go-to every Tuesday night. Looks like it may be a seasonal and that that season's already passed. Next year!

I know I had a CALICRAFT "The City" in there somewhere. That's a great friggin' beer. I wrote about it before here. You know what was really special, folks? The SANTE ADAIRIUS RUSTIC ALES "Jose Pimiento" one-off that I grabbed a couple of bottle of last month when I was down there. I shipped one off to Mark at Kaedrin Beer Blog, so let's let his "A" review do the talking for both of us, OK?

I'll start to pay better attention, starting right now, and will be back in this space before you know it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SANTE ADAIRIUS' "FARMHOUSE NOIR"

No introduction needed to the brewer, if you've followed along in the past. They're located just far enough away from my house (90 minutes) to make it hard to act immediately when they announce, say, that bottles of "West Ashley" or something are available in the pub for the next several hours. That said, I was fortunate enough to have been bequeathed a bottle of "FARMHOUSE NOIR", one of SANTE ADAIRIUS' many small-batch/big-bottle creations. You grab it when you see it, and you ask questions later.

This is a jarring, acidic, sour dark farmhouse ale. The folks behind this one definitely steeped themselves in the lactobacillis-drenched Cantillon school of thought as they were putting it together, then went and fermented the beer in oak to really gum things up. 

It's not a crisp beer, and it's certainly not reminiscent of a saison, and that's just fine. Really more of a salty, oaky, acidic beer that takes some getting used to, with a little bit of roasted flavor on the finish, as well as a lot of dryness. Perhaps a foray into the unknown that only partially came together, but in hindsight (I mean now that the thing's just been consumed) I think I can lay down a 7/10 on it.

ANDERSON VALLEY’S “FALL HORNIN’” PUMPKIN GOOF

Hey folks, sorry it’s been so long since I rapped at ya. I’ve been a little busy and all, quitting some of my projects and starting some others. Oh, don’t worry, beer is still being consumed. Why, this week in fact I’m finding myself in Singapore of all places. Good thing Beer Advocate did an article about craft beer in this town recently, which, knowing that I’d be taking the 15+ hour flight over there from San Francisco, I tore from its pages and kept in safe keeping until it was time to embark. They told me that a place I need to check out was called TAP CRAFT BEER BAR, and so I did just that this evening, whereupon I found a draft pint of ANDERSON VALLEY BREWING CO.'s "FALL HORNIN'" pumpkin seasonal.

Seems like I missed out on the great "pumpkin beer debates" of the last few years, because every article that mentions said style talks about how some beer drinkers don't like 'em, and how the style is controversial or something. Me? I like 'em - at least when they're good. It's not like I deliberately seek out vast quantities of them during October or anything. It's another gimmicky seasonal that sometimes pays off and mostly doesn't. Turns out Anderson Valley's thing is just fine. Sweet and malty without being cloying in any way. You've got pumpkin/nutmeg extract or something providing the flavor while the base, which is probably some medium-bodied version of their brown ale or stout, does the heavy lifting. Very pleasant combo of maltiness and sweetness. If you had company over and a 6-pack of this thing, you'd satisfy both the beer hounds and the unschooled in one sitting. If it's good enough for the people of Singapore to suck down instead of a Tiger Beer, then it's probably good enough for you and me. 7/10.

Friday, October 9, 2015

TIRED HANDS' "BACK INTO THE EMPTINESS"

Was talking to a young gentleman working at San Francisco's City Beer Store recently, and he threaded into our conversation the deeply-held opinion that Ardmore, Pennsylvania's TIRED HANDS BREWING was "the best brewer on the planet". I appreciated the enthusiasm, and found no evidence with which to argue, having loved the only beer I'd ever had of theirs back in 2013. In California, where I live, we don't get Tired Hands to drink unless someone FedEx-es a bottle our way; which, happily, Mark Ciocco of Kaedrin Beer Blog recently did for me.

It's called "BACK INTO THE EMPTINESS", and it's one of dozens upon dozens of small-batch bottles these guys make. A wine-barrel-aged sour saison, stuffed to bursting with local grapes grown in nearby Lancaster, PA. I totally dug it. It tastes of the the aging process, of sediment and time. Some serious fermentation action going on here - really musty, with flavor that cling for dear life to the tongue. Grapes, sure - apricot too - and an oaked, mellow tartness that made it pretty easy to drink, and to consider whilst drinking. And look at what happened to the head mere seconds after I took the photo. Truly "farmhouse" in a manner that many others are not, and another no-doubt ringer from Tired Hands. 8/10.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

STONE's "ENJOY BY..." IPAs & THE FRESHNESS FETISH

To be honest, I keep wondering if this modern obsession with brewed on/bottled on dates for IPAs is a little, uh, over the top. I mean, before we started majorly spazzing out about "expiring" IPAs and getting all ridiculous about guzzling anything brewed with lots of hops within weeks, days or minutes of production, me & you & everyone else we know were enjoying India Pale Ales just as we did all our other beers. No, even a dolt like me knew that you didn't "age" an IPA, but the notion that the beer was somehow spoiled or even tarnished once more than a fortnight had passed wasn't even a thing. Someone had to make it up.

Then someone - it may have been Russian River Brewing who started it - got it in their head that unless you were practically sucking on the hops as they were plucked from the vine, you weren't "really" tasting the full potential of the beer - and god forbid you should drink a 6-month-old HOPSICKLE, BLIND PIG or NELSON. That's practically spoiled! Never mind that I'd likely had those beers and others close to a year after they'd been brewed. Call me a rube, or shoot me a glaring look of condescension because I'm not a home brewer, but I can't remember tasting the world's great IPAs and thinking "this sure is good, but wow, how amazing would this bottle have been if I'd had it two months ago?". 

Not that I'm not immune to some good marketing, and STONE BREWING's "Enjoy By...." series is excellent marketing, whether you believe in the freshness fetish or not. It's going to "expire" in 4 weeks, and I'll never see this bottle again because of that, and therefore I should buy this to experience true hop nirvana. With that in mind, I bought "ENJOY BY 10-31-15" this past Friday and consumed it with extreme prejudice mere moments later, without wasting nary a minute, all the better to be that much closer to the freshness of the hops. Mine was bottled on 9/26/15; I drank it on 10/2/15. By my math that's a six-day gap. Did I lose anything in the intervening near-week? Perhaps.

Was it the loss of those six days, or my proximity to the date of bottling that made this purported double IPA taste like a harsh, sorta scorching, riot-on-the-tongue numbing agent? I'm not complaining, honestly - it claims to be "frighteningly fresh", and I suppose that might account for some of the action going on here. "Dull" it is not. Citrus brightness, grassy & malty as well with some fairly medium carbonation. No real straying from the Double IPA formula that's worked so well for Stone and their San Diego-area compadres, and "Enjoy By" is perfectly enjoyable. I suppose I was hoping for a revelation and something a bit better, but - with my cynic's hat in hand and an admission that "fresh" > "not fresh" - I think this whole modern freshness fetish is a load of crap, something we'll be poking fun at a few hype cycles from now. 7/10.

Monday, October 5, 2015

CHECK OUT THIS 'LIL BELGIAN WE'VE NEVER HEARD OF

I didn't merely escape from Brussels two weeks ago with a belly full of liquid experience, no sir. I also left with a suitcase full of beer wedged between socks and jeans and gym clothes, transported it to Germany for work, then again to San Francisco to my beer cellar aka my beer fridge. I was extremely haphazard in what beers were going to make the cut for the overseas journey; two jumbo Cantillon bottles, yes; Trappist Westvleteren 8, of course; and then three smaller bottles that were chosen merely because I'd never seen them anywhere before, because I liked the styles, and/or because I liked the labels. True Belgian "microbrews" from local brewers - made by Belgians for Belgians. Like me.

Well, the first of these is "FELIX SPECIAAL OUDENAARDS", which comes in this 'lil mini pepperpot of a bottle. What is that, 8 ounces? It only fills up half of one of my smaller "snifters". I did a little research on it. This oud bruin was once brewed by someone named CLARYSSE, but they closed up shop and are now letting VERHAEGHE have a crack at making this one. I'd say Verhaeghe's doing a pretty swell job. They matured it for one year at the brewery before turning it loose, and this brown ale is a cherry cola-like, licorice-tinged, moderately sour ale that probably tips a little more in the sweet direction that your typical oud bruin. The head went away right after the photo was snapped - and to be honest, so did the beer, given its size. I didn't find it particularly sharp; it certainly wasn't sour; and the sweetness was dampened a bit by some woodiness that contributed nicely. Not an off-the-charts "speciaal" beer but a nice mini-treat for a Thursday evening in any case. 7/10.

Friday, October 2, 2015

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING's "PROVISIONS"

About time we started talking about some 'Merican bottles on this site again, right folks? All this Belgium & Germany chatter had my traffic numbers sliding back to the single digits again. 

This brewer's been off to such a roaring start with their "BARREL-AGED SMOKED MAIBOCK" and "VIEJO ROJO" bottles that I'm now just throwing cash at whatever bottle I see of theirs sitting on the shelf. Such was the case with this "rustic multigrain saison" called "PROVISIONS" that I found recently, and which one our compatriots also just reviewed here. I've been feeling like the saison/farmhouse style allows for such wide variation that it's really a bit of a crapshoot to see who can pull it off, and whose experimentation is going to lead to liquid nirvana & whose isn't.

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING start their saison very strong and grainy right out of the gate. It is none too subtle - whoa there, gang. Yeasty, lemony, and even a bit soapy. The aftertaste is like having a big chaw of wheat stuck way up in your gums where you can't reach it. I get the rustic, I certainly get the multigrain, but I'm not sure this one quite delivered the way their other beers have to date. Certainly a step down from "Viejo Rojo", but that's like another world is terms of style and flavor profile anyway. For now we'll tick this one off at a middlin' 6.5/10.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A ZWANZE-LESS ZWANZE DAY IN BRUSSELS

Have to admit that any Cantillon "Zwanze Day" hype had completely passed me by in the years prior to this one; I'd never heard of the beer until everyone started flipping out over the summer about this 1-day-only Cantillon special that was going to be on draft in a few select bars & locations around the world on September 19th. Drop everything! Given that this was the day that I had scheduled myself to be in Brussels, Belgium between German work assignments, I reckoned it was a serendipitous turn of events, and I made a hasty plan to spend a little time at MOEDER LAMBIC FONTAINAS in Brussels that day - as it was one of the few places on the planet that would be getting some of this precious nectar (a "sour stout") on draft.

Now, I was going to go to this bar anyway. My research indicated that it was/is the place to go in Brussels for godlike Belgian ales on draft. 40-some-odd taps, and wouldn't you know it, when I was there the brewer getting featured that week was CANTILLON. Not a "tap takeover", but something close to it. So I figured I'd do this - go there in the afternoon, before the Zwanze celebration started at 9pm and try a few specialties, then go to a soccer game in the evening (which I did - RWS Bruxelles game with 200 other hardy souls), then head back to the bar around 9-something and get a taste of that ZWANZE, and maybe down a few other things as well.

Everything worked according to plan, except for that Zwanze. Guess you had to buy tickets in advance or something, and wait in a line, and it was all gone by 9:15pm anyway. Who cares! Let the tickers and the obsessives dither their lives away. I had some real beer to drink.

CANTILLON - "LOU PEPE GUEUZE 2009" - On draft, pictured above. I know it was pretty special to get this beer delivered this way, and yeah, I know there was probably only one place in the world serving it at that given time. I missed Zwanze, but I got this - and it was outstanding. A sour and chewy lambic blend, with a wonderful funkified smell and sour cherry explosion all the live-long day. Wet, oaky wood, but soft and creamy nonetheless. It left a big ring of tart funk on my upper teeth, and it really and truly tastes natural & raw. Complex, as they say, and the first real truth-bringer I've had from Cantillon. Now I'm finally a friggin' believer, too. 10/10.

JANDRAIN-JANDRENOUILLE - "IV SAISON" - This saison may not be especially rustic nor
farmhouse-like, but served moderately cold in a pint glass as it was here, it was more than all right. Faint earth/wood tastes, and maybe some faintly sour green grapes, but refreshment is really more the modus operandi here. Despite an acidic swallow, it was super tasty & something I can imagine tracking down in a bottle should it ever make its way to the US of A. 7.5/10.

So then I left, saw the Belgian Division 2 soccer, came back, missed the Zwanze (a British fella told me it was really unbalanced and no big deal, so that settles it), then tried these three Belgian bangers:

KERKOM - "ADELARDUS BRUNE" - A dark brown abbey ale that was nearly all right. Sticky toffee and brown sugar, maybe even a little Vietnamese coffee action. I shot wildly and got this, but probably could have aimed a little straighter. 7/10.

BRASSERIE DE LA SENNE - "ZINNEBIR" - Uh oh, notes are starting to get incomplete and foggy here. I only wrote down "Belgian golden ale" and "5.5%". Was it good? Sure! People on RateBeer say so. I wish I could agree, but I honestly don't remember, so caught up in the act of drinking I sort of forgot who I was drinking for - you guys, or myself.

MOEDER LAMBIC & BRASSERIE DE LA SENNE - "BAND OF BROTHERS" - The house draft ale, a collaboration between the bar and the other, non-Cantillon local brewer De La Senne. It was a simple blonde ale, yeasty and "Belgiany" and full of hoppy/spicy character despite an absurdly low 3.5% ABV. Great way to end the night, and possibly the last beer I will ever drink in Belgium. 7.5/10.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A TRIP TO AU BON VIEUX TEMPS, BRUSSELS

Suffice to say that if you head to Brussels, Belgium with beer drinking in mind, as I did two weekends ago, yr gonna have to really carefully craft your itinerary in advance. I wanted to visit some of the heavy-hitting bars that I'd read about for years, and this I did - but I also wanted to go somewhere quiet and simple and nurse a few bottles or drafts without too big of a show. Some place that, you know, the locals go to. Right before I left I saw an online interview with Joe Stange, who blogs as The Thirsty Pilgrim, has written numerous books about Belgian beer, and who was interviewed on his Brussels favorites somewhere (sorry, I can't find the link now), and he sorta offhandedly said his favorite bar in town was AU BON VIEUX TEMPS. He said it was an old, quiet, wooden bar that he liked to while away his time in. So I went there.

Joe didn't mention that it was located right in the heart of the action off of Brussels' Grand Place, the food-and-drink-and-tourism center of town, but no matter, because he was spot-on in terms of how quaint & sedate Au Bon Vieux Temps actually was. It's not the spot to go if you're looking for things you can't get anywhere else, no way. Practically everything here can be found at BevMo in the United States, and there wasn't anything on draft - bottles only. As advertised, the place is wooden, old and sort of cramped, and maybe not quite as "charming" as I'd been led to believe, but a superb place to gab & drink regardless. There was tons of room to breathe and consider one's place in life. I bellied up to the bar and tried to establish communication with the lovely French-language-only barmaiden, and hey, we did all right. Here's what she served me:

TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 12 - "The best beer in the world" (!) - it even said so on the
menu. When I was a younger lad I even believed it, and fantasized about going to Belgium and actually hunting down this quote-unquote legendary beer. It's still hanging tight at #8 on Beer Advocate's Top 250. Now that it was right in front of me, it's clear that you don't actually have to bribe a monk to get it - in fact, I went to 3 different beer stores the next day, and they all had it for sale. The mark-up was higher than all other beers in the bar - this one was 15 euros, about $17 - but I really couldn't leave town without having one. I got the six-pack a couple of years ago, and had one bottle a few years before that, and yeah, it's a really delicious, sweet, rum/raisin/breadtastic quad, as I'm sure you know if you've had it. 9/10, as always, as ever.


VIEUX TEMPS - Here's where things get interesting. I knew I'd heard of this beer before, but it was one of the more obscure items on the menu, far as I could tell. Well, first I'll tell ya what I thought of it before I tell you what I learned on the interwebs five minutes ago. I loved it. For only four euros I got a fantastic Belgian amber/pale, yeasty and hot and sweet, relatively simple but flat-out delicious. So what's the deal, right? Well, turns out this is now an InBev beer, and is an old brand now being bottled & marketed under the Stella Artois brand (!). Gross, right? Wrong. Still tasted great, even now that I've learned this. Check out what one fella has to say on RateBeer:

"One of the classic ’spéciales belges’, once a renowned brand in its own right, now one of the many InBev victims. Only purely commercial considerations will determine whether this is kept in existence or not, but in any case it has been an InBev-infected shadow of itself for many a year now. In this form, a clear amber coloured beer with decent off-white head and light (not to say thin) mouthfeel with hints of caramel, pasteurization obviously present, very light nutty touch, medium carbo and a weak touch of vaguely bitterish grassy hops hidden in the background. My father loved this in its original form, fortunately he will not be faced with this InBev ’imitation’ / abomination anymore."


Well hey, I liked it. Must've been a real whopper back in the days of yore. 8.5/10. That's my report from the Au Bon Vieux Temps bar in Brussels, and baby, I'm sticking to it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

THUMBS UP FOR RATSHERRN BEER

The whole reason I've been writing about beercationing in Germany and Belgium of late is because I've got this new-ish job where the central HQ is located in Hamburg, Germany. I've had to go out there a few times lately. Unlike days of yore where I'd spend my post-work downtime looking for bands to see or record stores in which to shop, I'm quite content with making sure I'm up on whatever locale I'm staying in's beer culture and local beer-centric leading lights (breweries, bottles & bars).

In Hamburg, that's RATSHERRN. This is now my third trip to town, and my third trip to their brewery restaurant ALTES MÄDCHEN BRAUGASTHAUS, and I'm pretty impressed by the place & by the beers themselves. (You can read my original report here). It's clear they've taken to Ratsherrn in Hamburg; all over town there are restaurants & beers who've hung out a Ratsherrn shingle saying, "Just Craft. Real Taste.". They've got a stranglehold on "craft beer" in this town of over 1.7 million people, and by gum, Ratsherrn pulls it off. 

By and large they make German "purity law" beers with a few curveballs and extra hopping here and there, with some nods to the US West Coast. This isn't the place for bourbon barrel wild ales, I'm afraid, but they're an outstanding purveyor of the sort of imperial pints that you'll wanna order over and over again. When it's great - like their ZWICKEL, which is amazing, and which I had again last week - it reminds one that no matter how many FedEx boxes and bottleshares you've got lined up for the coming months, sometimes a hardy trio of excellent beer over dinner can be the far more enjoyable experience, style points & street cred be damned.

Last week I was most impressed by, that's right, their PALE ALE, which I had poured from a bottle at a nearby Italian restaurant. Biting, crispy and really malty, Ratsherrn Pale Ale was about as fruit-forward/citrusy a pale ale I've had in some time. It really helped cement for me just how revelatory this purveyor of killer craft beers must be in Northern German cities, places that have enjoyed good beer for millennia, yet never anything quite like this. You go to Altes Madchen, and the place is totally packed to the gills. Hamburg folks are voting with their wallets, and they're voting Ratsherrn. 

(Thanks to Neubierig.de for the photo, since I wasn't snapping any last week)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

THAT ONE GLASS OF MORT SUBITE I HAD IN BRUSSELS

Maybe I was already deeply under the sway of the anti-sugar lectures of my cranky Cantillon tour guide, but my experience at A LA MORT SUBITE, the famous Brussels beer bar/brasserie, later that day was pretty jarring. This is the place Michael Jackson wrote so worshipfully about; it wasn't even on my agenda until I saw its neon sign beckoning me after dinner, so I said, What the hell. When in Brussels, am I right?

Honestly, this place seems to me to be place to hustle tourists in & out of, and/or for large groups of business people to come to after work to make merry. Ambiance was a little, uh, lacking. But I reckoned a nice glass of MORT SUBITE "PECHE" would get things right, as it was on draft, and per the Belgian style, served in appropriate glassware (which is a nice dorkified touch that I've always secretly enjoyed). Yet this super-sweet peach lambic was a syrupy, sugary, foamy juice box of a beer, really closer to a peach kombucha or something I'd pack in my kid's lunch than something I'd actually want to, you know, drink. Regardless of what Mr. Anti-Sugar at Cantillon thinks, this "Peche" truly is halfway around the globe from his own beers despite actually being nearly down the street. While it really feels like I'm rating something from the Minute Maid corporation, I'm going with a 5/10.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A TRIP TO THE CANTILLON BREWERY

For me – and for many American beer drinkers of un certain regard – a trip to Belgium is a holy grail event, something talked about for years and often never acted upon. I said I’d haul the whole family there for my 50th birthday, but that’s still a ways off and, well, I just finished up my first stint there. In Brussels, baby. Belgium has been ticked. I had to go to Cologne and Hamburg in Germany for work and found myself with a free weekend in between, and well – Brussels is less than two hours away from Cologne by train. I found accommodations, procured a train ticket, and it was on.

First thing I did upon arrival, after dropping my suitcases off at the front desk of the hotel? A trip to CANTILLON. Clearly this too is a right of passage for all right-thinking, beer-loving visitors to Brussels, and now that I’d done it, I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough. Let’s get something out of the way first, though. If you’ve read this blog closely, you’ll have found that I tend to vacillate pretty hard on my stance with regard to sour ales. Check this out, then compare it to this. It’s not an accident. When I feel like I’m falling prey to some sorta hype cycle and then try beers that falls square in the middle of said hype cycle, I lash out. CROOKED STAVE, I’m talking to you. But Cantillon themselves have fared only marginally on the blog as well - “IRIS” was a winner; “ROSE DE GAMBRINUS” was definitely not. I almost certainly overreacted in “The Great Sour Beer Epiphany of 2014”, but sometimes I’ll do that.

Back to Cantillon. It’s about as unassuming and as real a brewery as it gets. There’s no BS with these guys. The equipment is circa 1900, no kidding – a system of wheels and pulleys and hand cranks, plus vats left open next to windows for wild fermentation. All you Brettanomyces lovers, that picture you have in your mind’s eye of how it’s done is right here at Cantillon in Brussels. It’s crazy, man. Time stopped 100 years ago and no one told these guys, and while they’re defiantly proud of their throwback stance toward brewing in as “natural” a manner as possible, they’re obviously also practicing a phenomenal bit of niche branding as well. Their sour beers – and they’re all sour beers, built from their base gueze or lambic – are made according to a template by which they believe all others will fall short, even if the other beers taste better. No one does it as raw and as “real” as Cantillon, and it’s very likely no one ever will.

I paid 7 euros for the guided tour. It was worth every centavo. Our guide was right out of central casting – a wizened, graying, pissed-off, opinionated Belgian with beer-begotten fat folds under his XXL t-shirt, ready to school a group of Brits and Americans in why everything they believed about beer production was dead wrong. In just under an hour the guy managed to insult the Trappist Monks (“only after money – it’s all business”); brewing production after 1930 (“It’s all shit”); the people of Belgium who don’t drink Cantillon; Guinness Beer; the beer writer Michael Jackson; the entire sugar-industrial complex (this was a good third of the entire tour, quite entertaining and in many ways edifying); women who tend to not enjoy sour beer because evolutionary biology says that females reject sour tastes in order to protect their breast milk; Napoleon (naturally); IPAs and beers that use hop oils in general; sweetened lambics; beer made with an eye to alcohol content; beer served cold; the notion of beer as a “drink" rather than as a “food"; the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair; capitalism; and the United States of America, my home country. Pretty awesome stuff.

Any brewery tour worth ponying up for had better include some tastings, and this one certainly did. Two pours – the gueze and then an optional choice from three different beers (no, not Lou Pepe nor Fou’Foune). I chose the Kriek, and it was outstanding – a deliciously complex and dry sour cherry beer, “artisan” in every sense. The Gueze was OK. They even have a store with prices to make a man weep with joy. A 750ml “Fou’Foune” for 9 euros? A 750ml “Cuvee Saint-Gilloise” for just over 6 euros? Are you kidding me? I don’t yet know if those beers are truly any good but I know the dorks love ‘em, and yeah, I bought those, and yes, I’ll be writing about them here at some point. Suffice to say this was a landmark sort of tour, and absolutely one I’d council you to find a way to embark upon at some point in your beer-drinking life. 


 

Friday, September 18, 2015

HERE’S MY KÖLSCH/KÖLN SCENE REPORT

Following 13 years after I drank altbier in its cradle, Dusseldorf, Germany, this week I squared the circle and got some firsthand experience drinking kölsch in Cologne (Köln), which is a mere hour away. Apparently these two cities are rivals in just about every shape and form, and the debates about who has the better beer style have been raging for centuries. I certainly have my opinion, and am happy to share it with you presently.

What brought me to Köln? The usual – a work-related trip. Yeah, I certainly know that Belgium lurks close by. I’m writing this on my laptop whilst on a train from Köln to Brussels, and we’ll be discussing Belgian beer from the source in future Beer Samizdat posts. Anyway, I’ll admit a little antipathy to the kölsch style. Not that I loathe it or anything – it’s beer, and a relatively distinct style at that – but it sits right at the heart of the clean, dull, “purity law” German beers that do very little for my personal palette. I initially tried the mass-produced versions that are everywhere in this town: Gaffel Kölsch and Reissdorf Kölsch. Neither has much to recommend it, but if you’re an aficionado of the style, you already knew that.

I found myself, after a little RateBeer and BeerAdvocate research, at a cool beer hall called BRAUEREI PAFFGEN. Like most brewers here, they make one beer – a kölsch. It is indisputably better than the larger brands, and the place itself is a bit of a hoot. The waiters carry these circular trays that hold multiple thin kölsch glasses, and they waltz up to the barrel and fill these glasses in unison by turning the tray clockwise until all the glasses are full. Then they head out on their rounds, return with a bunch of empties, and the cycle repeats itself. I found myself concerned for future carpal-tunnel injuries for these fellas.

Kölsch is a beer made to drink repeatedly. Low in alcohol and served in a tiny glass, you get 5-6 refreshing gulps in and then it’s time for another one. BRAUEREI PAFFGEN makes a really good one, and even having had three, I felt like I'd had the alcohol equivalent of maybe a low-ABV bottle of IPA in “the states”. Paffgen’s is spicy and peppery and not at all hard to enjoy. It paired well with the enormous three-quarter-meter bratwust I had, which was an absurd amount of meat to order, and which I couldn’t finish. The place itself was boisterous and fun, w/ the classic German beer hall vibe. An experience.

So yeah, my verdict, without question, is that altbier and Dusseldorf win this pseudo-battle hands-down. Alt is full of malty flavor, it’s distinct enough from other styles to be markedly different, and hey, I liked that arty, olde-world city better than I did Köln, which was fine enough for a medium-sized city; sort of a Boston or an Atlanta-ish vibe if we’re going to go apples-to-apples. My train just crossed into Liege in Belgium. Now the real beercation begins.