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!