Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beer O' the Moment: Mendocino Imperial IPA

The first time I had the Mendocino Imperial IPA, it wasn't the Mendocino Imperial IPA. It was the 2005-2006 Mendocino Winter Ale, and my first sip of it took place at the Olde Saratoga Brewing Company, the East Coast home of the Mendocino family of beers.

'Twas a cold winter's night in early 2006, and the weather gods were angry that night, my friends. And though I am loathe to be sentimental, this was a watershed pint of draft beer. For on this dark and foreboding evening, I entered this brewpub a burgeoning beer enthusiast, and exited ... a hop-head.

This beer holds a special place in the hearts of the Beerjanglin' family (should you enter "Mendocino" in the search of this site, you will find numerous mentions of it), and when I found a full case of it for only $24.99 plus NYS sales tax and deposit, I simply had to have it.

The beer itself? Well it's so good that Mendocino decided to make it a permanent part of their line-up, instead of just a one-off. (And to think we thought we were going to have to say good-bye.) The beer itself is a veritable orgy of hops, but it's not extreme. It uses several different hops that bring different flavors; it's citrus and grapefruit, combined with some pine and woods. It's bitter to be sure, but it's not over the top, because it has some nice bready malts to balance it.

Mendocino Imperial IPA is a "Winter Seasonal," which means that this beer and the NFL playoffs are basically the only two things to look forward to in the winter months. Since I have about 22 of them left, I'm hoping to ration it until the sun comes out again some time in late May.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Quick Takes: Harpoon's Firth Of Forth Ale

As many an American across the country did, I spent the better part of yesterday in the kitchen, cooking up a feast for the family. On the menu? A non-traditional, but still excellent, rotation of Cranberry-Thyme Cornish Game Hen, marble-rye and sausage stuffing, and mashed sweet potatoes. A menu like this would, for normal folks, be accompanied with wine. Fortunately, I'm not a normal person.

To accompany my Thanksgiving feast, I cracked open a bomber of Harpoon's Firth Of Forth Ale. Guest-brewed by Scotsman craft-brewer Steve Stewart, the Firth Of Forth Ale was released by Harpoon as a part of their 100 Barrel Series of session beers. The bottle described the brew thusly: "a combination of Scottish malts and American hops give this dark Scotch style a malty, roasted character with caramel notes and a hint of chocolate."

My take? Most assuredly more malty than hoppy - the hops are barely there, to be honest. The malt and caramel are front and center with this brew, which lent itself nicely to an end-of-the-meal beverage. Didn't catch the chocolate, to be honest. The thing that I loved the most about this brew? The carbonation was minimal, to say the least. This was the closest I've ever seen to a cask-conditioned ale in a bottle.

If you want hops, this is not the beer for you. But otherwise? This was phenomenal. So, if you want hops, grab yourself a Caskazilla. This is a malty brew, through and through, and satisfied the palate all the way to the bottom.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bud American Ale - A Weiser Choice?

If there's one word that just screams "Amer'can" (three-syllables), it's Budweiser. For decades, the name has defined not only beer, but a way of life. If you are a "Bud Man," chances are you are a patriotic, blue-collar guy, who likes to work hard and relax at the end of the day with a cold one. Chances are you drink it directly out of the can or bottle, and drink it partially because you want to support Amer'ca and Amer'can workers -- at least up until six months ago.

This is the stereotype, anyway. For most people, Bud is a shorthand for affordable, universally-accepted beer that you could bring to a party without risk. It is the Coca-Cola of American beer; it's a wonder they still even feel the need to advertise.

Because of this, the unveiling of Bud American Ale has been met with curiosity and skepticism. I'm not sure how long Bud had been planning on unveiling this product, but it has put its weight behind it. Skeptics would say that Bud is attempting to tap into the craft beer market by creating a beer with a reddish hue that will somehow crossover by luring in the frugal craft beer fan, as well as the loyal -- if curious -- Budweiser aficianado.

So is this a cynical attempt to tap into the burgeoning craft beer market? Or is it an earnest olive branch to the evolving American palate? I took a flier a 22-oz bottle to find out.

First, let's observe the appearance: yellow water it is not. Although it is see-through (I was able to watch a few scenes of "30 Rock" completely through the glass), it is a nice reddish-orange color. The head is relatively sturdy -- another surprise. At face value, the look is not bad at all.

The aroma is relatively inoffensive as well. The caramel malts to which they refer in the commercials are noticeable, in their slightly toasted smell. It is sweeter in the nose than I had expected it to be, mostly because I had expected an English pub ale by its appearance. There is a little bit of a tinny, metallic presence here, which is typical of a macro beer. Some mild grassy hops are a minor accent, and some extra sweetness comes through in some brown sugary notes.

Finally, time to take a sip. The first thing I notice is how sweet it is, with more of that brown sugar coming through, but more of a sweet toffee flavor. It's actually too sweet for me, only because there is not enough of a hop balance.

I know that America is not ready for a steady diet of hops in a macro beer, lager or ale. But it appears to me that if Bud is truly committed to making a craft beer -- as opposed to simply cracking into the craft beer market -- they need to start adding some hops for balance. Sure, it may hinder sales among the fratboy crowd, but it might actually convince craft beer drinkers to give it a chance when they are looking for a cheap, widely-available ale. As-is, it's like Bass with a more cloyingly sweet, unbalanced flavor.

It does feel creamier than any Bud product I've ever had, but that's not saying much. It's drinkable, but it's weak. Far too cloying in both its sugary sweetness and its overbearing alcohol, which should have been hidden by more richness.

It seems that Bud may have suffered from trying to straddle the line between wanting to make something that would entice ale-drinkers, but not offend their hardcore contingent (i.e. 50% of the American beer-drinking population). Unfortunately, I think they may have failed at both.

My hope is that the American Ale will find a way to infiltrate the masses, thereby allowing the populace's palate to change from bland macro lagers to something more rich and flavorful. (For all its flaws, American Ale is far more flavorful than any of it's Bud brethren.) This, in my utopia, would lead to more ale-drinkers, who would then branch out into other beers and breweries.

Of course, I'm sure the folks at Bud don't share this hope.

Budweiser American Ale is a below-average but inoffensive ale. It reminds me of a sports bar more than a pub. And whether Bud should be lauded for branching out or scolded for being opportunistic and exploitative, I'll leave that up to you.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Head to Head: Ithaca Cascazilla vs. Magic Hat Roxy Rolles

We tried a little experiment some three months ago pitting two similar beers against each other and determining which had the superior brew. We know, of course, that beer is not a competitive enterprise, and should be seen as an artisinal endeavor. But then again, films have the Academy Awards and beer has the Great American Brew Fest, so we might as well just go ahead and have some fun with it.


Today, we explore two very hoppy amber ales: Cascazilla from the Ithaca Brewing Company in Upstate New York, and Roxy Rolles from the Magic Hat brewery in Burlington, Vermont. We had always considered these two beers somewhat equitable, since they were two of a a kind; both are amber ales with an inordinate amount of hops, eschewing the idea that an amber/red beer should be malty, with a bitter, German-style edge to it.

When we tried them side-by-side, however, we found them to be a lot more different than we had anticipated.

  • The Look:

    There is a striking discrepancy between these two beers in their appearance. The Cascazilla has the color of cherry juice, and is clear and glassy; Roxy is a deep mahogany reddish brown, and is as cloudy as a dirty martini. The head on the Cascazilla is pure white, while the head on the Roxy is a rose-tinged off-white. The head on the Roxy sticks around longer and is thicker, and Roxy also has more lace.

    Advantage: Roxy Rolles

  • The Aroma:

    Again, these brews that we had heretofore considered fraternal twins show that they have deep differences. Roxy smolders in the nose, with the smells of oak and mahogany. Its hops are those of pine and cut grass. More of an "East Coast" hop aroma here. The hops on Cascazilla, on the other hand, are closer to a traditional West Coast variety, with sweeter citrus notes. Cascazilla's malt is more roasted, but also has some nice sharp crystal malt characteristics. Roxy's malts are more lightly toasted, in that bready English way. They are both very strong, bold aromas, but due to the balance between the bitter and the sweet, we have to say...

    Advantage: Cascazilla (by a nose-hair)

  • The Flavor:

    Here is where the proverbial rubber meets the hypothetical road, and where the character of each of these two brews comes out. We cheated a bit and looked up the types of hops that each of these beers use: Cascazilla uses Cascade, Chinook and Crystal (aka "The Three C's"); and Roxy uses Simcoe. The hop character is what really sets these two apart. Having had them in different settings, we had always considered them step-brothers of sorts due to their hop strength in the amber/red style. But upon further examination, the hop character really differs between them.

    Cascazilla is much more citrusy in the hop, but is also balanced by a wonderful roasted caramel malt quality. As it exhibited in the smell, Roxy continues its arboreal streak with a rich oak flavor over lightly toasted malts. Those grassy Simcoe hops pop right out at you. If this makes any sense, Cascazilla has more of a "bouncy" flavor, and Roxy has more of a "flat" flavor. Cascazilla is very American; Roxy is very English. And though the Roxy tempers and improves with warmth, the balancing act that Ithaca pulls off means...

    Advantage: Cascazilla (but just barley)

  • The Feel/Drinkability:

    These beers are really different on the palate, further proving that they are hardly relatives, but rather two sides of the same coin. The Roxy is dry, ashy, chewy and coarse. You almost have to have another drink to wash it down. Cascazilla is buttery and smooth, milky and fizzy. They are both very drinkable, but because of its substantial texture...

    Advantage: Roxy Rolles


    These are both two excellent brews. Cascazilla is bittersweet and balanced, smooth and highly quaffable. Roxy Rolles is deep, rich and woody, rough around the edges and a very rich session brew (only 5.1% compared to Cascazilla's surpising 7%).

    But we have to have a winner and so, we declare, by a split decision and one of the closest taste-tests we've ever had the pleasure of doing, the winner is....

    CASCAZILLA! Congratulations!

Now, this is to take absolutely nothing away from Roxy Rolles, which is also an excellent beer, and one that, maybe on another day, we might have given the slight advantage to. It's a choice between smooth and balanced, versus rich and coarse. There are no "losers" in this competition, except those of you still drinking Coors (all due respect).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dogfish Head in the New Yorker

Hat tip to my brother-in-law Scott to the New Yorker article about extreme beer in general, and Dogfish Head in particular. It explores the idea of so-called "extreme beer," it's definition, and at what point "extreme beer" blurs the line and becomes ... well, not beer at all.

Please click above to read the full article, but a couple points I found interesting that I didn't know previously:

  • Belgian brewing acts as a rebellion against the Reinheitsgebot (Germany's ancient beer purity law).
  • Brooklyn Brewery's -- and Beerjanglin' patron saint -- Garrett Oliver doesn't like DFH 120 Minute IPA and calls it "unbalanced and shrieking." (Great minds think alike.)
  • Palo Santo isn't just an outstanding Shearwater album, but also one of the hardest woods in the world. (It means, literally, "blessed wood.") The barrel made of this wood in which DFH's Palo Santo Marron is made cost $140,000 and was made in Buffalo.
  • Dogfish Head is the 38th largest brewery in the United States, and makes more beers with 10% alcohol or more than any other brewery in the country.
  • DFH founder Sam Calagione helped make wine as a kid and didn't graduate high school.
  • A craft brewery produces less than two million barrels a year, a microbrewery produces less than fifteen thousand, and a brewpub serves at least a quarter of its beer in house.
  • A lot of Calagione's inspiration was derived from Michael Jackson's "World Guide to Beer."
  • Dogfish Head was the first legal brewpub in the state of Delaware, and only became legal after Calagione petitioned for it.
  • The inimitable 60 Minute IPA was inspired by a tv chef making soup, and originally made using a vibrating "electric football" game.
  • "Mother nature makes wine; Brewers make beer."
  • Trappist monks like Budweiser ... sort of.
  • Wine finds its roots in aristocracy, due to the relative rarity in it's regional and seasonal limitations; beer trickled down to the working class once the technology needed to produce it was created.
  • Marketing to craft beer enthusiasts, and all the while chastising darker beers for their impurities is "beer racism"!

Of course, I left a lot of good stuff out, so make sure you read the article.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Update: Van Dyck's Brewing Equipment Sold

Remember how, a little over a month ago, in mentioning that the Van Dyck Restaurant had been sold, we were simultaneously lamenting how the brewpub's brewing equipment was to be sold separately at auction? And how that didn't look good for the future of Schenectady's only brewpub?

Well, today, the brewing equipment was sold, and guess what?

The family that bought the Van Dyck also successfully bid $70,000 for the brewing equipment.

What does this mean for the Van Dyck as a brewpub? We dunno. But this certainly seems like a good thing, dear readers, does it not?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beer O' Three Months Ago the Moment: Stone Vertical Epic 08.08.08

Some might say that a beer that was ceremoniously released over three months ago is hardly "of the moment." However, when that beer isn't actually intended on being drunk until after the next presidential election (if that benchmark puts it into any perspective).

For those not familiar with Stone's Vertical Epic series, it's a series of a dozen beers released over a dozen years, with the intention that they be cellared and drunk at the same time tasting. To taste them "vertically" means to sample multiple vintages (to use wine parlance) from the same brewery, so as to compare different styles and recipes, rather than comparing breweries. (Sampling the same style from different breweries is considered "horizontal" tasting.)

Stone's version isn't quite a true vertical tasting, only because the beers they have been creating are not identical in style: 02.02.02 was a Witbier; 03.03.03 thru 06.06.06 were Belgian Strong ales (the lone exception being 04.04.04's Tripel); and the last two offerings have been Belgian Pale ales. However, if you have to trudge through a myriad of beers from the same brewery, you could do a lot worse than Stone. In fact, one might say you could only do worse.

Personally, I wasn't crazy about the 07.07.07 version, which was a decent, drinkable beer, but harsh and sour. It was a fine, decent beverage to be sure, but not quite up to what I had hoped.

Enter a new year and a brand new beer: the 08.08.08 version is the truth, and son, you better recognize.

Poured into a Belgian tulip glass, it is roughly the color of a lit candle: brightly yellow and glowing. The puffy white head takes a while to subside. Small bubbles float to the top, creating a seductive, tantalizing appearance.

The aroma is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, magnificent. Rarely does a beer have a smell that could be called perfect, but this is one of them. Spices abound, both in the sweet, citrusy hops, and its fraternal twin, the Belgian malt. It wafts a symphony of woody, flowery hops, as well as a dry, spicy, champagne-like malt. It's a strong perfume, and absolutely superior.

The first sip is strong citrus on the front of the tongue. At the swallow, the spicy Belgian flavors come out on the back of the palate. The two flavors, while both sharp and strong, mesh beautifully. For me, the intense Belgian ale flavors can often be a bit off-putting due to their intense flavors, but they are actually made more palatable by adding those wonderfully citrusy hops. The fizzy champagne texture scrubs the tongue and exfoliates the taste buds.

Oh-Eight-Oh-Eight-Oh-Eight an outstanding assault on the spicy part of the tongue. It's both strong and refreshing, and at 8.4% alcohol, it'll make you feel good for a little while. And in these tough times, who could argue with that?