Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Troegenator Double Bock

Two winters ago, I gave up beer for Lent. I will never do that again. As any good Catholic knows, beer is the one thing you're supposed to have during Lent! First brewed by the Paulaner monks of Munich in the late 1600s, the strong lager doppelbock was like "liquid bread" in that it provided nutrition and sustenance during long periods of fasting. The Paulaners even sent a cask of their doppelbock to the Pope in hopes that the Holy Father would officially condone their Lenten drinking. As luck would have it, the beer spoiled en route to Rome and tasted so awful that the Pope determined it had to be good for the soul and could thus be heavily consumed without guilt. Traditionally very malty and darker than a standard bock, the double bock has gained an increasingly higher concentration of alcohol over the centuries. The Paulaners dubbed an especially strong version of their double bock "The Salvator", thus creating a precedent for naming this beer style with the "ator" suffix. The Troegenator follows in this tradition. It's not only one of America's finest double bocks but also one of my five favorite beers, period. If you're lucky enough to live in one of the eight states that sells Troegs beer and you're not drinking The Troegenator, you are missing out!

Double bocks are great, but a lot of them are way too sweet. The Troegenator gets it just right. The sweet malts, with their notes of caramel and fruit, are the first thing you taste. And, boy, are they delicious! But with a tiny bit of hop bitterness and a wonderful toasted grain flavor, the Troegenator achieves the perfect balance that frequently eludes double bocks. It’s unbelievably smooth, yet at the same time it provides the feel-good, warming sensation of a classic winter lager (at 8.2 percent ABV, it’s deceptively potent!). As beer geeks we can sometimes get lost in pedantic statistics and fancy ingredient lists, but at the end of the day all that really matters is how a beer tastes. The Troegenator, simply put, is one of the three or four most delicious beers to have ever crossed my lips. To use a highly advanced term, it's yummy.

I plan to sample a great number of double bocks during Lent 2011 (What will I be giving up? Candy, cookies, ice cream, and various other assorted sweets). In fact, I may drink nothing but double bocks in honor of the monks who have piously imbibed this fine brew for hundreds of years. But the Troegenator is not just a winter or Lenten beverage. It's brewed year-round, and I drink it year-round. If not quite the best beer in America, it's at least the best beer in the state of Pennsylvania. A+!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve Ale

Santa’s Private Reserve is not your father’s Christmas ale. Usually when you think Christmas beers, you think traditional holiday spices. You think ginger, you think cinnamon. Santa’s Private Reserve is by all means a Christmas beer, but this is a winter warmer that’s hopped rather than spiced. And when I say that it’s hopped, I mean that it’s hopped! Basically it’s a variation of the St. Rogue red ale - with literally twice the hops! Chinook and Centennial hops are the stars of the show along with a secret hop simply known as “Rudolph”, giving the beer its piney, citrus character. Like any great winter warmer, it’s heavily malted – its savory caramel notes brought on by Harrington, Klages, and Munich malts. But even with all that sweet malt power, the hops easily prevail. This isn’t to say that the beer isn’t nicely balanced. It’s just that the hops are so big and bold that the malts really have to fight for your attention. And that’s probably a good thing. I’ve tried a lot of winter warmers that are just too sweet, and they kind of leave me wishing for a touch of hop bitterness. Santa’s Private Reserve provides that and then some. It's a big, tasty beer that ought to be served at every Christmas dinner table. With its bready, fruity complexity, it almost suggests a holiday fruitcake – but I’ve never had a fruitcake in my life that was this good!

At 6 percent ABV, Santa’s Private Reserve packs a lot less alcohol than the typical winter ale – a good thing considering it comes in a 22-ounce bottle! No sense in capping that bad boy - you can't help but drink it all in one sitting! Of course it ain't cheap, but you know you’re getting quality stuff with a Rogue beer. Your run-of-the-mill brew sure isn’t made with free range coastal water and John’s proprietary top-fermenting Pacman yeast. I can totally see why Santa would pick this as his preferred holiday beverage. The man delivers toys to millions of children, all in one night, capping an exhausting season of personal appearances, letter-reading, reindeer training, and careful observation of who’s been bad or good. After all of that, he deserves only the best.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

If I’m beer shopping in the presence of my wife, she’s certain to encourage me to buy something I’ve never thought of trying before. She knows me too well. Left to my own devices, I’m sure to purchase something I’ve had six million times before. Even if I buy a “new” beer, it’s probably going to be something predictable like a porter or a pale lager. Tami is not a beer drinker, so I can’t say for sure what her beer selection criteria might be. All I know is that her record is impressive. She’s never steered me wrong. She can walk through the colossal domestic craft brew section at The Andersons and magically pick out some of the finest beers on the shelf. The Dark Horse Reserve Special, Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury, and Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale were all picks of hers the last time we hit T-Town. She’s like the Nostradamus of beer. We were at Wegmans on Saturday night, and I got myself a six-pack of Troegenator double bock. Tami suggested I get something else as well. She almost went with Stone Levitation Ale but ultimately convinced me to try the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Holy crap! Did she ever hit that one out of the park!

So I’m supposed to be Mr. Black Beer. I’m all over stouts and porters. How in the hell did I never have a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout before?!!!! I’ve had a lot of stouts – and this is easily in my top three or four. Triple-mashed and made from six varieties of black, chocolate, and roasted malts, the Black Chocolate Stout is complex enough for any beer geek yet smooth enough for the average Joe. For a Russian imperial stout, it’s unbelievably smooth. It is what its name says it is – black and chocolate-y, with a delicious roasted coffee flavor and just a touch of hop bitterness. Imperial stouts, first made in the 18th Century in Britain for export to Catherine the Great, are typically big, strong beers (they had to be to in order to keep from freezing en route to Russia!). And while the Black Chocolate Stout surely is big and strong (10 percent alcohol), it’s remarkably accessible for the style. I don’t really taste all that alcohol. What I do taste are the dark unsweetened chocolate and the dark roasted coffee. It’s a rich and roasty stout – not as sweet as you might think, but incredibly tasty and remarkably easy to drink. This beer is so freaking good that I get a little sad once my glass is emptied. But at 300 calories per bottle and 10 percent ABV, drinking more than one at a time could be highly hazardous to my health! No worries, though. All the finest things in life are best enjoyed in moderation. And although the Black Chocolate Stout is only available in the winter, there’s still plenty of winter remaining. I wonder if it’s too late to ask Santa for a couple of 4-packs of this stuff.

A lot of the time when we run to the beer store, Tami waits in the car while I go in and choose a few beers to buy. The way she's been picking 'em, I'm starting to think it should be the other way around!

Friday, December 10, 2010


Because it went so well for Oprah, I’m going to talk about my favorite things. My wife would probably agree that favorite thing #1 has to be going to bed on Friday night knowing that we can sleep for the next 13 hours if we wish. #2 favorite thing: NFL Red Zone (that one Tami will not agree with!). #3: a Philly cheesesteak with whiz. #4: the Alec Baldwin scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. And rounding out the top five are…Irish pubs! I love me some Irish pubs. Give me a big plate of bangers & mash and swords hanging on the wall, and I’m a happy camper.

So, what does one drink with bangers & mash or shepherd’s pie or corned beef & cabbage? Truly, I like Guinness as much as the next guy (actually more than the next guy, I’d wager). But six times out of ten, I’m going another route. Occasionally I’ll get all wild and crazy and order a black & tan or a Magners, but typically I’m boring and just ask for a Smithwick’s. It’s never a bad choice. Of all the big-name import beers, it may be the most underrated. If it’s not the best Irish red I’ve ever had (that would be Great Lakes Conway’s!), it’s at least a solid B+ ale. And surely this world would be a better place if there more B+ beers and less C- beers. We can marvel over the fact that Guinness has been going strong for 250 years plus, but how about three cheers for Smithwick’s and its three hundred years of brewing excellence?!

John Smithwick began brewing ales in 1710, on the site of an old Franciscan abbey in Kilkenny where monks had brewed beer since the 14th Century. The original plant still stands as Ireland’s oldest operating brewery, and Smithwick’s is still the definitive Irish red ale. Like so many tried-and-true classics on the beer market, it may seem a little tame compared to the daring concoctions dreamed up by the more recent generations of craft brewers. But sometimes you don’t need daring. Sometimes you just need a good beer. Smithwick’s is a splendidly balanced mix of sweet malts and bitter hops with requisite tea flavor and a touch of coffee notes from its roasted barley, pouring ruby red in color and seemingly made to be consumed next to any traditional Irish dish. If you’re just shooting the shit with your friends and drinking the night away, then by all means you can go with Guinness or Harp or god forbid something English like Bass (just kidding!). But with a meal, like a piping hot serving of shepherd’s pie in all its delicious glory, Smithwick’s cannot be beat. Don’t forget to ask for some soda bread!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Founders Dirty Bastard

Founders claims its Dirty Bastard Scotch ale is “so good it’s almost wrong.” Not since the release of Dick Cheney’s memoir War Makes Me Hard has there been such truth in advertising. If I’ve ever had a better beer in my life, it would have to have been another Founders standout, the Breakfast Stout. But even then, we’re talking a neck-and-neck race. The Dirty Bastard is ridiculously, outrageously, impossibly delicious. The moment I tasted one bottle, I knew I’d have to buy an entire case. I literally danced in my man cave when I found out there was a distributor in town that carried it.

Featuring seven varieties of imported malts, the Dirty Bastard seems a candidate to come off disgustingly sweet. Forget it! All those glorious malts are balanced by notes of smoke and peat and a healthy dose of hops. End result: flavor perfection. This is what a “high-end” beer should taste like – not too sweet, not too hoppy, not too roasty, but rather a great combination of all three elements. Scotch ales, due to their lengthy boiling process, tend to be distinct from other ales. They are traditionally sweet, high in alcohol, and roasty caramel-ish in flavor. The Dirty Bastard is all of those things and more. While I sometimes get just a little bored with mega-malty wintertime ales, the Dirty Bastard has got way more going on – and all of it good! Sure, the malt sweetness and boozy flavor are up front in full force. When the caramel and dark fruit notes hit, they hit hard. But the malts are as roasty as they are sugary, and 50 IBUs of piny hops provide a much-needed bitter finish. And at that risk of sounding like a wine geek, I’ve gotta say this stuff smells great! The chocolate and caramel notes are such heaven to sniff that even my cat had her nose in my glass last night!

One thing I always notice about drinking a Dirty Bastard is how fast it goes down. I like to sit down with a beer every night while I’m watching a ball game or a TV show and really enjoy it. I like to take my time and truly savor a good beer. But I just can’t do that with a Dirty Bastard. I take my first sip; and before I know it, my glass is empty. At 9 percent alcohol, this sure ain’t a session beer. But it’s so freaking delicious that it ought to be.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I have nothing against cheap beer. Truthfully, I enjoy cheap beer. But a good cheap beer has to meet certain conditions. First of all, it actually has to be cheap. If you’re paying $40 for a case of Corona when you could get 24 bottles of Coors for half of that, you’re getting robbed. Second, it can’t taste completely disgusting. I know we’re talking about macro lager here, so it’s not like any of them are going to win prize ribbons for taste. But some varieties of the species are just god-awful. You can buy a 6-pack of Natty Boh cans for less than five bucks, but your own urine would be less offensive to your taste buds. This leads me into point three: it has to be available in bottles. Beer out of a can just tastes nasty. The “scientific” reason for this is that skunky beer is a result of exposure to temperature change, and aluminum is an inferior insulator to glass. And if you actually drink it out of the can? Ewwwww! Finally, a good cheap beer has to be fresh. There’s nothing wrong with picking up a case of Miller Genuine Draft off the store shelf – just make sure it hasn’t been sitting there since last year.

My go-to macro is Iron City Beer, but that's a hard brand to find in these parts. So I tend to rotate my cheap beers in hopes of finding one that always does the job. Nothing tastes better with a Tony Packo’s hot dog than a Labatt Blue draught, but the import pricing keeps LB out of the running for highest honors. Same goes for the Schlitz ‘60s formula – which is supremely delicious but priced more like a micro brew. A lot of the throwback brands – Rolling Rock, Old Milwaukee, Stroh’s – are now corporate-owned, contract-brewed, and frankly not what they used to be. I want to like Miller High Life because its TV ads crack me up, but it’s got that gross corn adjunct aftertaste that too often plagues cheap lager. Ditto for Yuengling Premium. It loathes me to admit this, but the much-maligned Budweiser might be the highest quality American adjunct lager on the market. Sure, sure: there’s not much to it. You barely taste any hops. The flavor is, at best, subtle. But the key to a great cheap beer is to hold the bitter aftertaste to a minimum and keep the product fresh. Bud comes through on both counts (the “born on” label is one of the best things to ever happen to American beer). It's a quality, consistent product. When it comes to this style of beer, you have to ask two questions: A) Does it taste good on a hot day when you’ve just come in from mowing the lawn and you’re dying of thirst? and B) Does it go well with pizza? If we’re talking Bud, the answers are “yes” and “yes”. I even had a bottle of Bud at my wedding (only after downing a couple glasses of Guinness, but still…). If Bud was good enough for the greatest day of my life, I sure as hell can’t knock it.

Like anyone who’s ever gotten into craft beer, I went through my phase of writing off the likes of Bud as horrendous corporate swill. But let’s face it: who’s got the money to buy micro brews all the time? I spent $16 at the beer store last week and only came home with four bottles! Even the most discriminating beer drinker needs a good, solid cheap beer in his fridge for hot days and greasy burger meals and unexpected visits from friends. Budweiser just might be that good, solid cheap beer. Contrary to what the hipsters might tell you, it’s better than P.B.R.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Victory Yakima Glory Ale

Nobody makes better beer than Downingtown, Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing Company. Victory's flagship beers - the surprisingly balanced HopDevil, the big Russian imperial Storm King, the crisp and boldly-hopped Prima Pils, the hugely popular tripel Golden Monkey, the appropriately-named Hop Wallop, and the underrated helles-style Victory Lager - are hard to beat. But dare I say some of the Victory seasonals are even better? Yakima Glory, a late fall/early winter specialty, is darn near the best IPA I’ve ever tasted.

Yakima Glory, formerly known as Yakima Twilight, is more flavorful than the HopDevil and better-balanced than the Hop Wallop. It’s by definition a black IPA but actually pours a brownish red color. As you would expect from an ale that showcases the world-famous hops of Yakima Valley, Washington, it’s very hop-forward in taste. It hits straight off with a huge and delicious floral hop blast, tickles the taste buds with some sweet roasted malts, and closes with an enormous grapefruity finish. The IPA is not my favorite beer style, but it has been rising up the charts the last year or two. And if more IPAs were like this one, I'd be all-in! Somehow the Yakima Glory manages to taste both dominantly hoppy and beautifully balanced - perhaps coming on a little strong upon first sip but ultimately going down silky smooth and leaving me thirsty for more. The grapefruit finish is pronounced and lingering - but this is one aftertaste that I'm not dying to obliterate. And although it's the dark malt presence that makes this ale different from Victory's year-round IPAs, the best part of drinking a Yakima Glory is that first hoppy sip. Mmmmm! One doesn't always think of an IPA as a session beer, but I could drink two or three of these easily!

The Yakima Valley, uniquely situated on the 47th parallel, has those long summer days farmers need to grow good hops. The valley produces 30 percent of the world’s beer hops and three-quarters of America’s. I'm not going to say that one taste of the Yakima Glory will compel you to fly out to Washington state and kiss the ground its hops were grown in. Then again, I'm not going to say it won't.

The World's Finest Beverage

Let it be known that the title of this blog is not my intellectual property. Should there ever be a book deal or a Hollywood movie or a bobblehead doll collection spawned from this humble corner of cyberspace, one Dave Getzoff – esteemed college radio disc jockey and longtime contributor to my defunct Now Wave Magazine - will be duly credited and compensated for patenting the phrase “world’s finest beverage”. Will he be paid in beer? Probably.

All the good ideas I had for blog names (e.g. "Top of the Hops") were already taken, but then it dawned on me that "World’s Finest Beverage" had to be it. For most of the year 2007, Dave and I knocked back pints in various drinking establishments all over the city of Philadelphia and points north whilst watching bands such as Jukebox Zeros, Mean Streets, and Beach Patrol play to crowds of dozens. Yuengling and P.B.R. were our go-to draughts, but we downed everything from Brooklyn Lager in Brooklyn to Heineken bottles at the South Philly dive J.R.’s. More often that not, we didn’t refer to what we were drinking as “beer”, but rather as “the world’s finest beverage”. Dave, back in the mid-‘90s, had an under-21 friend who had lamented being legally unable to buy beer, saying, “I don't see what the big deal is - why on earth would anyone have to be 21 just to enjoy the world's finest beverage?” And just like that, a phrase was coined.

Kind of seems appropriate, though. Beer really is the world’s finest beverage. It’s been enjoyed by human beings since the 6th millennium BC. Of all beverages, only water is older – and that hardly counts! And if you’re like me, it’s not at all about the alcohol. It’s about the taste. Great minds from Plato (“He was a wise man who invented beer”) to Benjamin Franklin (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”) to Homer Simpson (“I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer”) have articulated the sensory delights of tasting good beer. A wise man named Todd Trickknee once said, “I never met a beer I didn’t like”, and that always stuck with me. Whether it’s a pricey IPA, a good old pint of Guinness, or a cheap bottle of rotgut swill, beer is beer. It is delicious. It is thirst-quenching. It brings people together. I’m neither a home brewer nor a beer expert. I do not possess a "refined palate". I’m just a person who enjoys beer writing for other people who like beer. As such, I want to cover everything from Bud to barleywine to Russian imperial stout to malt liquor. And the best part about writing about a beer? I have to drink it first.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Yuengling Lager

Alright, I’m not gonna try and tell you that Yuengling Lager is the greatest beer in the world. But for what it is, it's pretty damn good! As a Pennsylvania boy born-and-raised, I consider Yuengling an integral part of my cultural heritage. Lord knows I’ve drunk hundreds of pints of the stuff over the years, so it can’t be that bad. Hell, it’s the President’s favorite beer!

Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, is one of the last standing of the pre-Prohibition old guard. Most of the others either went under or got bought out by one of the corporate beer powers. During the prohibition years, Yuengling survived by opening a dairy and also producing “near beer”. In the later part of the 20th Century, when Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors were conspiring (successfully, for the most part) to wipe out all the smaller, regional breweries, Yuengling somehow pulled through – largely on the strength of the Lager. Reintroduced in 1987, this amber lager was brought back as sort of a working class version of the upstart Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Its combination of blue collar simplicity and rich flavor made it a hit from the start – probably saving Yuengling from extinction. It has become a barroom fixture not just in the state of Pennsylvania but across the entire mid-Atlantic. Demand became so great that Yuengling had to buy an old Stroh’s plant in Tampa in 1999 and build a third brewery in Port Carbon, PA in 2000. Today Yuengling is the second-largest American-owned brewery in existence - trailing only Boston Beer Company. Its influence can be measured not just in sales but also in its effect on regional beer lingo. If you walk into any bar in eastern PA and ask for a “lager”, they’ll pour you a Yuengling.

Although apparently I loved to drink from my dad’s mug when I was 4, I was never really a beer drinker until my early 30s. I had given up Coca-Cola as a protest against Jim Rice’s exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I turned to beer, and it was love at first sip. And when I got into beer, Yuengling Lager was what I drank. It was what most people in these parts drank. It was my birthright as a citizen of this commonwealth. Perhaps if I’d started out with Bud or Miller or (God forbid!) Coor’s Light, things would have turned out very, very differently. Maybe I would have ended up a wine aficionado or a Dr. Pepper freak. But the lager hit the spot, and it was beer for me from thereon out. I would eventually move on to other beers, but even nowadays I won’t object to a pint of Yuengling. It really is a perfectly decent beer – at the very least a few steps up from a standard macro. While the ubiquitous corn adjunct funkiness of all cheap American lagers is there for sure, it quickly gives way to a sweet malt presence, nice yeasty notes, and just a touch of hops. It is what it is – a “beer drinker’s beer” with more taste than most. And while I find it a little baffling that Barack Obama wouldn’t prefer a Goose Island IPA, it could be worse. At least he’s not touting Michelob Ultra.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Samuel Adams Winter Lager

If craft beer is like indie rock and the Coor’s Lights of the world are like Top 40 garbage, then where does that leave Samuel Adams? Samuel Adams sells like corporate swill, but from a quality and taste standpoint, it puts a lot of “micro” brews to shame. How often does it happen in either music or brewing that something truly great is also something popular? Almost never. Samuel Adams is like the brewing equivalent of The Hives’ Veni Vidi Vicious – one of the four or five greatest rock n’ roll albums of its decade, originally released on an independent label, that improbably became a massive mainstream hit. I sometimes forget what an incredible album it is, but the moment I hear “Hate to Say I Told You So” or “Die, All Right!”, I regret not listening to The Hives more often. Samuel Adams beer can easily be taken for granted in the same manner – especially if you’re a beer geek who’s constantly in search of bigger, bolder concoctions. But there are two important points to remember about Samuel Adams. #1, it’s very often the only decent beer in restaurants that serve nothing else but light beers and fake craft beers like Blue Moon. #2, all of those hot-shot micro breweries out there would never have existed if Jim Koch hadn’t paved the way a quarter of a century ago. You see all the TV commercials and assume that Samuel Adams is some corporate powerhouse operation with a 50-story headquarters, armed guards, and a factory manned by powerful robots from the future. But really, it all started with one dude going from bar-to-bar trying to sell his unknown Boston Lager. The likes of Dogfish Head and Rogue and Founders clearly have surpassed the old master, but it’s not like Koch watered down his beer to maximize profit! The Boston Lager, developed from a Koch family recipe that dates back to 1860, is still one of the most distinctive and tasty beers out there. When you drink a Boston Lager, you know you’re drinking a Boston Lager.

‘Tis the season not for the Boston Lager, but rather the Winter Lager. When my wife and I are eating out, I frequently find myself ordering a Samuel Adams seasonal. I enjoy all the seasonals, but the Winter Lager is my fave of the lot. By definition it’s a dark wheat bock, and like all winter beers it ups the malt quotient for flavor and warmth. For a beer you can order at most “casual” chain restaurants, it’s remarkably complex. Of course it’s got those Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops a la the Boston Lager. But the malted wheat, Indonesian and Vietnamese cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel add elements of sweetness and citrus-y tang to the leafy hop kick. All in all it’s a damn tasty beer and far more balanced than a lot of winter warmers that are all malt. I know, I know: you’re gonna tell me that the Winter Lager tastes like nothing compared to Hitachino Nest Celebration Ale or Deschutes’ Jubelale. You’re probably right. But you won’t find those beers at Chili’s! Good luck scoring a pint of Old Jubilation at Smokey Bones! Unless you’re at a brewpub or a really hip bar with a killer beer selection, the Winter Lager is the best thing you’ll find on draught anywhere these days.

Ever notice how all the “big” beers have to use humor in their advertising? It’s because they know their products are swill. For lord’s sake, the best thing Coor’s Light can say about its beer is that it’s cold! But any Samuel Adams ad you’ll see or hear is all about what the beer tastes like and what sort of ingredients go into it. Doesn’t seem to be hurting sales, eh? How about that: an immensely successful world-wide product that markets itself not to the lowest common denominator, but the highest? It makes me hopeful that some other micro breweries will eventually grow into macro breweries and give the masses some better alternatives. Victory Prima Pils ads playing during NFL games? Rogue Dead Guy Ale on tap at the Whopper Bar? A man can dream! Cue The Hives.

Bell's Porter

I’m all about porter, and the best I’ve ever tasted is the Founders Porter. But the Founders Porter is so incredibly good that I feel I must reserve it for special occasions. Drinking it is like eating caviar and truffles – I would feel guilty about sucking down a bottle and not savoring every scrumptious drop. And even if I wanted to drink it all the time, I couldn’t afford to! Luckily, I don’t need Founders to be my every day porter. I’ve already got an every day porter: Bell’s! Mmmmmmmmm!

With its burnt, roasty flavor, Bell’s Porter is delicious in all the ways a porter should be. Yet it’s not as intense as some of the porters out there. It strikes a perfect balance between quality and everyman accessibility – if I had to recommend an American porter to a Joe Sixpack type beer drinker, this would be the one. I’ve had tons of porters, and a lot of them are a little too, uh, “challenging” for every day use – some too hoppy, and some too intensely flavored with chocolate or coffee notes. The Bell’s Porter gets it just right – it’s creamy and goes down smooth, with an extraordinarily balanced blend of sweet malts, roasty coffee and cocoa, and moderately bitter hops. It goes perfectly with a meal, but I can also drink it sans food, enjoying the taste as I relax in my recliner and ponder deep thoughts like, “You know, the Sixers would actually be good if they could only shoot, rebound, and play defense” and “Glee would be unwatchable without Sue Sylvester” and “Could the Hoveround be used as a weapon?” And while no one beer can accommodate my varying moods and seasonal needs, Bell’s Porter may be the closest thing I’ve got to a definitive go-to brew. Even when it’s not porter season, Bell’s hits the spot. And when it is, it’s the porter you’ll most likely find me drinking. Five stars!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tröegs Mad Elf Ale

Tröegs Mad Elf Ale is not at all your typical Christmas beer – but for me it’s the ultimate Christmas beer. It’s the one beer I have to have before I’m ready to declare Christmas season started. If I'm not drinking Mad Elf and listening to The Yobs' Christmas album by Black Friday, I'm inexcusably behind. But the way the Mad Elf flies off the shelves in these parts, I probably ought to start drinking it sooner.

Living as I do in the gray area between south central and south eastern Pennsylvania, I’ve got lots of fine regional craft breweries to enjoy. Harrisburg’s Tröegs is up there with the very best of them. And the Mad Elf is my favorite of theirs. Its taste evokes not Christmas cookies, but something closer to cherry pie. If you like cherries, man, this is your beer! Like any great winter beer, it’ll warm you with more than enough alcohol (ABV 11 %). But it’s light-bodied and silky smooth – how easy it would be to knock back two or three of these while you’re watching college bowl games or the 574th rerun of Elf on the USA Network! Like anything off of the Tröegs line, it’s loaded with premium malts (Pilsner, Munich, and chocolate) and hops (Saaz and Hallertau). But what you’ll really taste are the sweet and sour cherries and Pennsylvania honey, which give this fine ale its oh-so-sweet taste. The cherries define Mad Elf but don’t flat-out dominate. With its spiced yeasty notes and full-on assault of sweetness, this is an ale that might get me through a holiday season in which I’m trying to give up cookies, pies, and cakes!

This is that special time of the year - when TV ads teach me that I'm a complete failure if I can't buy my wife a Lexus for Christmas. It's also time to go buy some more Mad Elf - if there are any left!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale

I am no fan of winter. I’m a boy of summer all the way. You’ll see me in a winter coat the minute the temperature drops below 62. It’s a very sad moment for me in the fall when I have to remove all of my summer shirts from my closet and relocate them to the guest bedroom until May. But there is a silver lining to the arrival of colder temperatures. It’s actually two things: football on the TV and winter beers on the store shelves. I don’t know which I like more!

Although I love the summer, I’m not crazy about summertime beers. All those wheat beers and fruity concoctions just don’t do it for me. But winter beers are another story. Winter beers, with their warming effects and malty deliciousness, are the best. And no winter beer is more warming or malty than Samuel Smith’s venerable Winter Welcome Ale.

No beer style speaks to the timelessness of the world’s finest beverage quite like a winter beer. Winter beers remind us of tradition – of family gatherings and seasonal feasts and holidays and warm nights by the fire. Samuel Smith beer is made at The Old Brewery at Tadcaster, which dates back to 1758 (that’s pre Revolutionary War, for those of you who are historically challenged). The Old Brewery still ferments its beer in stone Yorkshire squares. It still makes local deliveries using its own grey Shire horses. A lot has changed in our world over the past 252 years, but the beer coming out of the Old Brewery has not. The festive-looking Winter Welcome bottle, with its painting of an old-timey looking family of three sledding and its photo of the Shire horses walking in the snow, encapsulates the simple joys of the cold season. The beer’s label instructs you to contemplate its flavor complexities in front of a fireplace. I don’t have a fireplace. I live in a town home community. When it snows, it’s not beautiful. It’s just a pain in the ass. My wife and I don’t have roast goose and Yorkshire pudding at our family meals. But no matter – the Winter Welcome Ale tastes no less delicious. It’s crisp and smooth - full of toasty malts and just enough hop bitterness. And at a modest 6 % ABV, you can drink more than one without thinking twice.

Given how rapidly American craft brewers have advanced the last 10-15 years, this particular winter warmer may seem tame or dull in comparison to what else is out there. But there’s no denying that the Winter Welcome Ale is a true classic. It was the original inspiration for a lot of today’s best-rated winter warmers. I will take the opportunity, over the next few months, to sample a great many winter warmers. But the first one I had this year was the Winter Welcome Ale. If this beer’s not in my fridge, it’s not really winter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale

I have to admit that I’m not really a huge fan of hops. This may be beer drinker heresy, but some of the monster IPAs out there are just too much for me. But I don’t hate hops either. I like balance. Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale is one of the most perfectly balanced craft beers you’ll find. Dry-hopped in the same fashion as Dogfish Head’s celebrated IPAs, the Indian Brown Ale has got plenty of spice. But the significant hop quotient is balanced by a massive malt presence. All the malts make the hops more delicious, just as all the hops make the malts more delicious. Basically this is a brown ale crossed with an IPA crossed with a Scotch ale (and its always welcome caramel notes). If you’re transitioning to the world of craft brew and are seeking something tasty but not so, uh, bitter, you really can’t go wrong with this one. Dogfish Head is, if not the best, at least one of the best craft breweries in America, and all of its beers are great. Nobody does a better IPA. But if you’re like me and perhaps are not always in the mood for an IPA, or if you think hoppy beers are kinda gross, you’ll get the same level of beer greatness from the Indian Brown Ale – without having to make the “Oh yuck!” face every time you take a sip. In addition to caramel, notes of molasses, coffee, ginger, raisinettes, and chocolate balance the 50 IBUs of hop power. This one’s neck-and-neck with the Chicory Stout for the title of my fave Dogfish Head beer.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Iron City Beer

I consider myself an old-fashioned beer drinker, and thus I sometimes cringe when beer geeks talk about “food pairings” for beer. Come on, man! It’s beer, not wine! But I do make one exception: if you’re eating pizza or burgers, you need an old-fashioned pale lager to complete the experience. I think the classic cheap lager gets unjustly dumped on by “serious” beer drinkers. Sure, the style is neither flavorful nor sophisticated. But sometimes it’s not about flavor or sophistication. Sometimes it’s a hot day and you just want a cold, refreshing, thirst-quenching beer. Sometimes you’re chowing down on Chicago hot dogs and want to wash them down with something simple and clean. There’s a time and a place for all beer styles – even for what one might call a “piss beer”. I’m constantly in search of a go-to piss beer. I have cases of Straub and Stroh’s in my basement at the moment. I’ll even drink a Budweiser at a restaurant if I have to. But if there’s one beer of this style that always does the trick for me, it’s the much-maligned Iron City. I know what you’re thinking, beer snob. Fuck you – Iron City rocks!

If I’m passing through southwestern Pennsylvania, lunch or dinner at Primanti Brothers is mandatory. There’s nothing like a Pitts-burgher cheese steak #2 best seller, but it’s not the same without a bottle of Iron City. Iron City is equally good at home – “paired” with nachos, stromboli, fried chicken, brats, Philly cheesteaks, and other fine health foods. IC is what all pale/macro/cheap/piss lagers should be: clean, crisp, thirst-quenching, and smooth – without the nasty corn adjunct aftertaste that sometimes plagues brews of this style. You have to respect a beer that has existed for 150 years and continues to go strong. Unlike Rolling Rock, which got bought out by Bud and now comes from the swamps of Jersey, Iron City is still brewed and bottled in Western PA (Do not underestimate the importance of water in the beer equation!). It’s one of our last remaining classic American "beer-drinker beers", and it should be treasured. For the very same reasons it gets slammed by beer reviewers all over the Internet, I love Iron City Beer.

Founders Breakfast Stout

Asked recently which beer I would choose if I could drink only one beer for the rest of my life, I quickly selected the Founders Breakfast Stout. Of course there’s no right answer to this hypothetical question. I couldn’t drink just one beer for the rest of my life. I’d miss clean, cheap domestic lagers on hot summer days. I’d miss Oktoberfest brews in the fall. I’d miss Guinness pints with my bangers and mash. I’d miss Christmas beers. I’d miss malty doppelbocks. I’d miss my go-to style, the porter. While it was very easy for me to commit to one woman for the rest of my life, I would never choose to be married to one single beer. But if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d take the Founders Breakfast Stout. You’re paying, right? I’d like it on tap, in my basement, from here to eternity.

While not a coffee drinker at all, I love, love, love, love, love, LOVE beers with coffee notes. The Breakfast Stout, bountifully infused with Sumatra and Kona coffee, packs a massive but not overdone Java punch. Throw in some flaked oats and a variety of delicious imported chocolates, and you’ve got yourself a veritable meal in a glass. While technically an imperial style stout, it’s considerably more “drinkable” than you might expect. Is it a big beer? Yes. Complex? Absolutely. But forget the usual beer snob jargon – what makes this an incredible beer is that it’s just absolutely delicious. When I think imperial stout, I imagine myself on my recliner, in the dead of winter, tucked under my Snuggie, sipping some hugely-hopped, double-digit ABV monster of a drink for an hour. The Founders Breakfast Stout, on the other hand, goes down so easy that sometimes I’ve emptied my glass before I’ve even had time to savor the flavor! And what a flavor is has: roasty as all get-out, with perfect complements of sweetness and bitterness (60 IBUs). Sure, it’s a double stout with the requisite alcohol kick (8.3 ABV). But you don’t really taste the alcohol – unless your idea of alcohol is a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie!

I don’t get out to the Michigan area often. But when I do, I never fail to pick a 4-pack or two of this gold standard black beer. And then I get back home and drink every bottle within the week, wishing I’d bought more! It’s not cheap, but even at three bucks a bottle or thereabouts, it’s worth every penny and then some! Hell, I’d gladly pay $20 for a four-pack if I had to!

It’s hard to go wrong with any black beer, but Founders Breakfast Stout may be the ultimate black beer. If there’s any other that comes close, it’s probably another Founders beer – the porter!