Monday, February 28, 2011

Ayinger Celebrator doppelbock

It’s fitting that the world’s greatest doppelbock is made by the Germans, who invented said style of beer. First brewed in Munich by the Paulaner monks, double bock beer has long been a mainstay of Lenten fasting and cold weather beer-drinking in general. With Lent just a week out, quality time with the Celebrator is in order for reasons of both piety and pleasure.

Double bock beer, in its original form, was perceived as “liquid bread” because of the substantial calories and nutrients it provided the fasting soul. The Celebrator, being an exemplary double bock, possesses the yeasty characteristics you would expect. But the double bock has come a very long way since The Pope, centuries ago, sampled a foul batch sent by the Paulaners and consequently told the monks that it would be perfectly okay for them to go on drinking it like it was water. If The Celebrator really is liquid bread, then we’re talking about the best bread you ever had: nutty brown bread with molasses and caramel baked in, and topped with fig jam. Mmmmmm! That combination of rich sweet malts and dark fruits is like heaven on your tongue, and for balance there’s a touch of bitter chocolate roast and snappy floral hops. This bad boy is power-packed with taste yet crazy drinkable. With its chewy mouthfeel and decadently complex flavor, it sure ain’t your run-of-the-mill bock beer. It’s not just the best double bock beer out there – it’s one of the most delicious beers on Earth, period. Go ahead and have it for breakfast and lunch on Ash Wednesday. If anyone gives you grief, tell them to shut their traps and respect your religion.

Having successfully given up beer for Lent two years ago (never again!) but having failed at giving up sweets last year, I’m poised to redeem myself in 2011. I briefly contemplated going big and giving up red meat, but there’s no way I’ve got the will power to pull that off. St. Patrick’s Day without corned beef and cabbage? Are you kidding me?! My wife said that I would “die” without red meat, and surely she is correct. Speaking of Mrs. Fitzledge, she would probably like it if I gave up watching sports. But come on! Hockey playoffs and baseball season kick off smack dab in the middle of Lent. I can’t miss the Flyers! I can’t miss the debut of R2C2! So another stab at swearing off sugared treats seems the way to go. It would be far too easy to just give up one sugared vice. If I just gave up cookies, I could still stuff myself full of donuts and chocolate bars and not miss a thing. So I’m going full-on hardcore sweets deprivation: cookies, ice cream, donuts, pie, cake, pop, chocolate, sticky buns, apple crisp, you name it. If it’s a traditional dessert, I’m giving it up for 40 days. I’m not cutting corners. I’m not claiming the theological loophole and saying Sundays don’t count. Straight up, for 40 days, I will consume no Dairy Queen Blizzards, Girl Scout cookies, apple pie slices, cream-filled donuts, Reese’s Cups, or Ghirardelli chocolate squares. Pepsi and Root Beer are off the table. So are TastyKakes and fudge and peanut butter Snickers and vanilla pudding. Provided that they do not build any Grand Traverse Pie Company restaurants (officially the Greatest Place in the World!) within driving distance of my home in the next two months, I am 100 percent sure that I can avoid being led into temptation. Take it to the bank - I'm gonna do it! For dessert every night I will have to settle for beer. This may require drinking extra to balance out the calories I’ll be losing. I know it’s a great sacrifice, but somehow I will manage.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

River Horse Oatmeal Milk Stout

I do believe that River Horse Oatmeal Milk Stout is the first craft beer from the state of New Jersey I've ever tried. That would make Jersey one-for-one in my book, for this is great stuff! I love roasty stouts this time of the year, but sometimes I'm just not in the mood for the strong coffee bitterness that usually characterizes the style. Enter the milk stout, which adds sweetness and pushes the bitterness into the background. I love milk stouts! I also love oatmeal stouts, which tend to be creamier than your typical stouts due to the oats. Needless to say, I surely like the idea of combining the milk stout with the oatmeal stout to create one sweet, creamy beer. And River Horse's Oatmeal Milk Stout hits the mark. Created as an adult twist on the kiddie snack standard of oatmeal cookies and milk, this is as drinkable as any stout I've ever had. The roasty chocolate and coffee notes are strong enough to make an impression, but the milk and oats are the real stars of the show. Certain elements of this beverage may bring to mind big, bold beers like the Founders Breakfast Stout. But while the FBS is something I'd only recommend to hardcore craft beer enthusiasts, River Horse's Oatmeal Milk Stout is way more accessible to the average beer drinker. It's light and refreshing and smooth going down, but you get enough of the roasty malts to recognize that it is a stout. It's not a particularly complex or fancy beer, but it's one you'll want to drink again and again. Come on: who doesn't love oatmeal cookies and milk?!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Victory Old Horizontal Barleywine Ale

With spring training beginning today, it seems a splendidly ironic time to talk up an essential winter beer. Many a beer connoisseur will tell you to cellar The Old Horizontal for weeks if not months before drinking it - aging a barleywine tends to “mellow” it out a little and bring out it’s “character”. But I’m just not that patient - this is a beer that’s so immensely delicious that I can barely resist popping it open the minute I get it home. As for the arrival of baseball season, I’m equally chafing at the bit for Phillies world domination 2011. Perhaps, though, the Flyers, playing right now, are the surer thing.

Who's NOT excited about baseball season? My wife. But for a person who hates watching baseball, she has an uncanny perception of the sport. Some of her observations (Chase Utley is too much of a pretty boy, Pedro Feliz's beard looks like pubes) are merely hilarious. But sometimes she flat-out nails it. Scoffing at a local sportscast’s terming of this year’s Phils starting pitching rotation as potentially “one of the greatest of all-time”, she asked me who the Phightins would have in the bullpen this season. I had to admit that the relief corps would be comprised largely of whatever journeymen, has-beens, and unproven prospects they could scrounge up. So my beautiful wife, who would lead you to believe that she can’t stand televised baseball, proceeds to identify all the returning components of the Phillies’ bullpen - some by name (Brad Lidge), others by nicknames she has invented to keep everyone straight (setup stud Ryan Madson is “giraffe”; contending lefty specialist Mike Zagurski is “kielbasa” ). She then tells me that there’s no point in having great starters if your finishers can’t get it done. I surely could not argue with such a keenly spot-on analysis of today’s pro game. Gone are the days when a Major League bullpen was built from the scrap hear of the starting rotation. You simply can’t win today without quality dudes in the ‘pen. Six of eight playoff teams last year had bullpen ERAs in the top 10. Only one team in the bottom half in bullpen ERA - my Phillies- even qualified for the post-season. The eventual champion Giants ranked 2nd. And it’s not like the Phillies, with the upstart, relief-rich Braves hot on their heels, did anything to bolster their ‘pen this winter. With probable 20-game winners Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee heading the starting rotation, it’s hard to fathom this team not winning 90 games at least. But 105 or even 100? I don’t know! If we’re coming clean, this team still strikes out too much, lacks an elite leadoff man, is counting on two star power hitters coming off career-worst years, must replace Jayson Werth’s formidable five-hole production, and seems likely to blow more than a few late-inning leads. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of world championship inevitability, eh?

Two predictions, then. The Braves, not the Phillies, will take the NL East. But Philly still gets a parade, because the Flyers are steamrolling their way to their first Cup in 36 years. The spring sport, baseball, may offer unprecedented thrills in the summer to come. But the winter sport, hockey, is what it’s all about right now. Not far from the city of Philadelphia, Victory Brewing Company makes a winter beer worthy of a championship cup of its own. At 11 percent alcohol by volume, Old Horizontal warms body and soul quickly and delightfully. But where is all that alcohol in the taste? Barely noticeable beneath all those rich piny hops, dark candied fruits, and delicious caramel malts! Mmmmm! Victory is well-known for cooking up beers that are big on both hops and malts (HopDevil, Yakima Glory), and Old Horizontal is absolutely of the same caliber. Crazy smooth, warm on the throat, and perfect for sipping by the fire on a blustery and frigid night, this barleywine is a wintertime must. Would it taste even better if I aged it for nine months? I might have to try and find out. I’ll pick up a six-pack, drink two bottles, and cellar the rest. Or maybe I’ll drink three and cellar three. Far from just a gimmicky “It’ll get you drunk in a hurry” novelty beer, the super-tasty Old Horizontal easily stands up to the hype. Now if only the Phillies can do the same.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Victory Storm King Imperial Stout

There are exactly two things I like about winter: football and winter beer. And now football is over. With five more weeks of winter still remaining, it’s really time to step up the winter beer. Although technically a year-round offering, Victory’s Storm King is my favorite cold weather brew. Nothing is better on a winter night than relaxing in front of the TV while sipping a pint of Storm King. The name pretty much says it all. Something called Storm King sure as hell isn’t going to be a light beer with lime flavoring. At 9.1 percent alcohol by volume and packed with both American whole flower hops and imported 2-row malts, this imperial stout belongs in every beer drinker’s winter survival kit! Pouring pitch black with an abundant mocha head, it’s a thing of beauty to behold in a pint glass. Its scent is strong and delightful, and the taste follows the nose. Like any great stout, it does not lack for espresso, dark chocolate, licorice, and roasted malt flavors. But what sets the Storm King apart is its hefty hop quotient, which adds assertive piny and citrus notes to the mix, achieving a majestic balance with all those fierce dark malts. This bad boy is hoppy even by imperial stout standards, but by no means is it “too” hoppy. It’s just right, and even on the star-studded Victory beer roster, it’s a standout. Although surprisingly smooth considering its ABV, this is a big beer and not one to be chugged. It’s a sipper, with a flavor to be savored as the alcohol gradually warms you. Its chewy mouthfeel and incredible flavor complexity are best contemplated slowly, as you kick back following another day of dreary skies, frigid temperatures, and icy roads. It will soon be time for the spring seasonals - Samuel Adams is already advertising the Noble Pils. But we are not quite out of the woods yet. Old Man Winter has more misery in store for us. It will not be an easy month. But we shall prevail. Smiling and warm, we will ride the shoulders of the Storm King to the safety and promise of spring.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bass Pale Ale

A lot of beers for me are flavor-of-the-month type deals. I'll buy a six-pack or two of a certain beer, swear it's just about the best thing I ever tasted, and then inexplicably never buy it again. And then there are beers I used to drink all the time that - for no particular reason – I've completely abandoned. I can't tell you the last time I had a Beck's – and at one time that was my beer. But some beers will always be with me, and Bass is the prime example. Bass was, is, and always shall be in my beer top ten. I can't recall ever not liking it. It seems I emerged from the womb drinking Bass. And even if I didn't, my ancestors probably downed so many pints of the stuff that an affinity for it was embedded in my DNA.

Of all the world's classic beers, Bass is far and away the one I drink the most. In any given year, I'll drink twice as much Bass as Guinness. I like Bass a little more than Smithwick's and considerably more than Heineken or Stella. Bass isn't just an English pale ale – it's THE English pale ale. A few EPAs have come along to surpass it over the centuries, but Bass still defines the style. Based around the notoriously hard water found in the English town Burton upon Trent, English Pale Ale traditionally achieves a distinctive type of hop bitterness to go with its malty, easy-drinking profile. Such is the case with Bass. Drink a Bass, and you know you're drinking a Bass. Like most EPAs, it boasts a flavor that is equal parts grainy, fruity, buttery, and hoppy. While far from an extraordinary brew, it never fails to satisfy. The hop bitterness, so crucial to this style of ale, is mild enough to attract the average Joe but strong enough to give beer geeks the full flavor they're craving. It's a smooth, balanced beer that quenches the thirst and goes great with all those English and Irish dishes I so dearly love. I do tend to drink my Bass on draught as opposed to buying it in bottles (with imports, you can never be too sure about freshness). But come next month I'll surely pick up a six-pack so I can make black-and-tans at home. Seriously: if you're making black-and-tans without Bass, it's not really a black-and-tan!

You can get a Bass draught at any decent Irish pub, and sometimes even establishments with horrible beer selections surprise me by offering Bass. I had three pints the other night at the Firehouse Tavern in Parkville, Maryland. A perfectly normal meal transformed into a night of hilarity upon the arrival of a classic rock cover band - whose entourage may or may not have included a large dog, a possible tranny, and a number of hairstyles I had not seen since 1986. Fun was had by all. But it would not have been quite the same had I been drinking Bud.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Founders Porter

If you watch House Hunters on HGTV, you’ve surely noticed that almost every couple on that program is big on “entertaining”. They want a big back yard so they can entertain. They want a large dining room so they can entertain. They want living space on the roof so they can entertain. Invariably, at the end of the show, you see footage of the happy couple in their new home. And what are they doing? Entertaining! You just freaking moved to Colorado from Silver Spring, Maryland. How did you make all those friends so quickly?! Do you walk around the neighborhood randomly inviting strangers into your home?

My wife and I are in complete agreement that entertaining is a bad idea. We don’t entertain. We don’t want to entertain. We have not had a meaningful conversation with any of our neighbors in two-and-a-half years of home ownership. I would, if given the opportunity to appear on House Hunters, desire home features that would discourage visitors. Tar pit driveway? Check. Mechanical pit bull in the window? Check. Bad ‘70s carpeting? Check. Instead of being the super social aspiring entertainer type house hunter, I’d be that vaguely creepy middle-aged guy who just wants a bar in the basement. Not for entertaining, exactly, although guests would be occasionally accepted should they provide lengthy advance notice and obtain the mutual approval of Mr. and Mrs. Fitzledge. For the most part, I’d enjoy my drink as I do now: in the company of my beautiful wife, after dinner, while munching on some dark chocolate or perhaps a slice of Dubliner cheese, as we partake in wonderfully bad TV. Except I’d be sitting on a bar stool instead of a recliner. If I had to pick one beer I’d have on tap year-round, it would probably be the Founders Porter.

Founders Porter is so “high end” that it seems like I ought to reserve it for enlightening programming like Shakespearean film adaptations or documentaries about political prisoners. Nah! It’s one of my go-to beers. Of the 56 beers I downed in the month of January, the Founders Porter was my most frequent choice at eight bottles. As such it gets consumed while we watch the likes of American Idol, My Strange Addiction, Storage Wars, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Teen Mom 2, Pawn Stars, and Cheaters. No matter: it’s such a phenomenal beer that one can drink it any time, any place, while watching any old thing on the TV. It’s the gold standard of American porters, and my only complaint is that Founders has concocted a porter so good that it makes all others pale in comparison. Once I run out (which will be quite soon at the rate I’m going), the harsh reality is that it’s going to be a few months before I again get near the state of Michigan. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it – this stuff is way too good to just sit there unopened in the cellar! Like any good porter it combines a burnt nutty flavor with coffee, dark chocolate, and caramel malts. But compared to just about any other porter I’ve had, the Founders version is more richly-flavored and improbably silkier. All those malts aren’t just there for the hell of it – you can taste them in a big way. If coffee and dark chocolate go great together generally, imagine how deliciously they meld in a velvet smooth adult beverage! Mmmmmm! Powerful notes of licorice, a tinge of caramel sweetness, and a healthy dose of hops round out the flavor in sublime, miraculous ways. This beer is truly a multidimensional treat for the senses. It pours a beautiful black with a mountainous tan head, and it smells like Starbucks in a glass. At $10 to $11 a six-pack, it’s pricey but not outrageously expensive for a first-rate American micro. Hell, if you live by the “you get what you pay for” mantra, Founders Porter is a veritable bargain at $1.83 a bottle. You pay twice that much for a crappy Blue Moon at a chain restaurant! Of course if you like entertaining and are buying for a large contingent of guests, you’ll have to buy something cheaper. Sucks to be you.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Appalachian Brewing Company Mountain Lager

February is a fine time to drink traditional winter beers: barleywines, double bocks, Russian imperial stouts. But it’s also a fine time to watch sports on TV. We’ve got a Super Bowl coming up. NBA and NHL action is getting hot and heavy as teams begin to push for the playoffs. If you like college hoops, there’s a good game on every night. And TV on the tube usually means classic sports-watching food: pizza, wings, nachos, subs. This sort of cuisine calls for a specific kind of adult beverage. Barleywines, double bocks, and Russian imperial stouts just won’t do. A man needs a light, clean beer to wash down his pizza and wings. If you’re a Steelers fan, it’s likely you’ll be spending some quality time with Iron City Beer this Sunday. Packers fans might go with the Miller High Life. Fine choices, indeed. But if none of the above works for you, it’s hard to beat Appalachian’s Mountain Lager.

Overshadowed perhaps by big name area craft breweries like Troegs and Victory, Harrisburg’s Appalachian Brewing Company has quietly become one of the best breweries in Pennsylvania. ABC makes outstanding beer – and lots of it! I can personally vouch for, among others, the Susquehanna Stout, Pennypacker Porter, Water Gap Wheat, Dom Blonde Kolsch, Kipona Fest Marzen, Jolly Scot Scottish Ale, Celtic Knot Irish Red, and Zoigl Star Lager. But the Mountain Lager will always be my ABC go-to beer. When I first got into craft beer, I was kind of bummed that a lot of micro breweries didn’t bother making a pale lager. So Appalachian won me over fast with the Mountain Lager, and it’s remained a favorite of mine ever since. A blonde lager in the Dortmunder export style, the Mountain Lager isn’t nearly as “gourmet” as say, a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold. But it’s still a terrific beer, and it’s one of the first craft beers I’d give to someone who didn’t ordinarily go for micro brew. It’s kind of like what mainstream beers used to taste like (or so I'm told!) before they watered down their product in the ‘70s. It’s crisp and refreshing without any of the skunky aftertaste of a macro lager, and it’s got just enough hops to make it tasty. Its hop profile achieves a nice blend of grassy notes and citrus flavors, and like all Dortmunder lagers, it adds complexity with biscuit-like malts. All in all, it’s just a really simple beer that goes down clean while packing a lot of flavor. I’m all for “big” beers and adventurous concoctions that challenge the palate, but where a lot of micro breweries fail is in not offering something along the lines of the Mountain Lager. Not every person that walks into a brew pub is going to appreciate an IPA or a Belgian tripel. Sometimes a pale lager has got to be the first step. Try the Mountain Lager, and you might never want to go back to Coors or Bud again.