Sunday, May 13, 2012

The College Station guide to American Craft Beer Week

Starting tomorrow is the 6th annual American Craft Beer Week, or #ACBW. It's a week long celebration of the American craft brewing spirit, a time to sit back and be thankful for the amazing growth in demand for quality brews.  Above all else though, it's a time for craft beer bars to dig deep into their cellars and bust out the most impressive release possible, fighting for the attention of drinkers like me, who want to try the most unique (and hopefully the most delicious) beers.  The anticipation has been killing me.

As far as I know, there are only two places in College Station gearing up for #ACBW.  The first I've talked about many times on this blog,  O'Bannon's Irish Pub.  The second location is much more of a recent discovery for me, Harvey Washbangers, a combination restaurant and laundromat.  I had never set foot in Washbangers until a few months ago when my buddy John told me there would be a Live Oak Brewing cask there.  A cask party in a laundromat?  I was equally excited and confused.  A few visits later and I can tell you, Harvey Washbangers is a surprisingly awesome location to drink some Texan craft beer.  Their bottle selection is a fine snapshot of local flavor, and they are really asserting themselves with their #ACBW plans.

As for O'Bannon's, they have scheduled special release events that rival any bar in Austin.  They are breaking up each day to highlight different regions of the country.

This post is a list and sort of a preview of what a College Station resident can expect for this week.  I might wear myself out, but I plan on hopping between O'Bannon's and Washbangers for 7 days in a row. Note: lists are not all inclusive and there may be other non-announced releases as well.  All of these events begin at 6pm central and will continue until all of the beer is happily consumed.

At O'Bannon's: East Coast Day
  • Dogfish Head Namaste - Delaware- a witbier (Belgian style wheat) brewed with dried orange, lemongrass, and coriander, 5% abv
  • Samuel Adams Tasman Red - Boston - a "red IPA" brewed with Tasmanian hops, 6.75% abv
  • Samuel Adams Griffin's Bow - Boston - a blonde barleywine, aged on toasted oak, 10% abv
At Washbangers:
  • Live Oak HefeWeizen - Austin - a special dry-hopped cask of the #2 rated hefe on BeerAdvocate, 5.2% abv

At O'Bannon's: Colorado Day
  • Avery Brewing Co. The Reverend - Boulder, CO - a robust Belgian style quadrupel, lots of dark fruit flavors, 10% abv
At Washbangers:
  • No Label Brewing Don Jalapeno - Katy, TX - pale ale variant brewed with 60 lbs. of raw and roasted jalapeno peppers, 6.7% abv

At O'Bannon's: Double Cask Party
  • Rahr & Sons Strawberry Hibiscus Summertime Wheat - Fort Worth - a cask version of their hefeweizen Summertime Wheat with added strawberries and hibiscus flowers
  • Saint Arnold Christmas Ale - Houston - cask version of their spicy and festive ale, aged for 6 months, 7% abv
At Washbangers:
  • Southern Star Creme Broulee Stout -Conroe, TX - a creative take on their already delicious Buried Hatchet Imperial Stout

At O'Bannon's: Texas Day
  • Saint Arnold Pumpkinator - Houston - an imperial stout brewed with pumpkin, molasses, brown sugar, and spices;  been aging for 6 months, 10% abv (previously released as Divine Reserve 9)
  • Rahr & Sons Bourbon Barrel Winter Warmer - Fort Worth - special release barrel-aged version of their thick and rich cold weather seasonal, 8.5%
At Washbangers:
  • Jester King Mad Meg - Austin - a golden farmhouse "provision ale," an old style table beer, historically made for extended cellaring, 9.6% abv

At O'Bannon's: From the West to the South Day
  • Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life & Limb - a collaboration strong ale brewed with maple syrup from Sam Calagione's family farm and birch syrup from Alaska, 10.2%
  • Widmer Brothers Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout - Oregon - imperial stout with raspberries added during the fermentation process, 9.3% abv
  • Deschutes XXIII - Oregon - a specially crafted porter with cocoa nibs and coffee, then finalized in whiskey barrels 10.8% abv
At Washbangers
  • New Republic Bellows - College Station, TX - a surprise from our hometown heroes, a very unique dry-hopped variant of their amber ale
At O'Bannon's: Vote Night
  • O'Bannon's will be asking the customers to vote for their favorite style of brew, and then for the rest of the night, that style will be on special (I still can't decide what to vote for)
At Washbangers: Austin Beerworks Night
  • Fire Eagle - IPA that's "hoppy, bold, and American," 6.4% abv
  • Black Thunder - German schwarzbier, crisp and roasted, 5.3% abv
  • Peacemaker - an extra pale ale, only 15 IBUs, it's light and sessionable, 5% abv

At O'Bannon's: Staff pick night
  • Some of the O'Bannon's staff are going to pick their favorite 5 craft beers, and those will be on special for that night (I can almost guarantee one of those 5 will be from Rahr & Sons) 
At Washbangers
  • Saint Arnold Endeavour - an intensely flavorful double IPA, strong citrus notes, 8.9% abv (previously released as Divine Reserve 11)

If anyone in the Bryan College Station area plans on attending any of these events, which you really should, let me know via twitter (@BrixBrewlogBlog) and we can meetup. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Journey to New Mexico with Rio Grande & Sierra Blanca Brewing Co.

In the second week of January, I took a trip to New Mexico.  A few years ago, my grandma bought a house in Ruidoso, up in the Sierra Blanca Mountains.  It’s a nice place, very quiet, but also very close to the Ruidoso mid-town with shops and restaurants.  The rest of my family has been up there several times, but I’ve only been once during the summer, due to school obligations.  This winter holiday, I was lucky enough to get to go with Mindy and my mom.  It was a fun-filled four days: we went snow-tubing, rode a mountain gondola, won some cash at blackjack, and ate like royalty.
After a 10 hour car ride, this pizza joint is always our first stop.
Since I rarely get the opportunity to go out of state, I jumped on the chance to find some New Mexico resident beers that don't have very wide distribution.  Ruidoso just recently saw the opening of a new Irish pub called Grace O’Malley’s; we decided to have a late lunch there one afternoon.  The bar did all they could to make the experience authentic like importing wood from pubs in Ireland, carrying all sorts of Irish whiskey, and serving their fish and chips with vinegar.  One thing I knew I could count on them for though, was serving several kinds of New Mexico beers.

The first beer New Mexico beer I tried there was Sierra Blanca Nut Brown.  It had a nice nutty roasted flavor, just a hint of floral hops for balance, but my big complaint with the beer was the weak body.  It seemed a little watered down, and I was a tad disappointed.  It did pair well with my very spicy Guinness BBQ chicken sandwich, because the sweetness cut the burn and it wasn’t too filling.  After the meal, I couldn’t bring myself to order another beer because I was happily stuffed with food.

Two days later, my mom decided she wanted to go back to the pub to get out of the house and have a quick evening drink.  She and Mindy had their minds set on “adult hot chocolates” while I set looked forward to some more NM brews.  We saddled up to the bar this time, about two stools down from a group of cheerful middle-aged men discussing Irish stouts.  This time I ordered a Rio Grande Desert Pilsner.  I didn’t have any real complaints with the beer; it was a very common pilsner, soft hop bitterness that was soon washed out by a corn-flake like grain flavor.

About half-way through the beer, one of the gents at the end of the bar leaned over and shouted to put the beer on his tab.  Confused, I told him that he didn’t need to, and asked why we wanted to buy.  He said he was just glad to see I ordered it, because he was the sales rep. that sold that beer to the bar.  Suddenly, it made sense.  I let him know that I planned on trying their other beer there, and he decided to cover that bottle too.

The second beer I was so graciously given to try was the Rio Grande Pancho Verde Chile Cerveza, a green chile beer.  I was excited for this one, because not many chile pepper beers exist, and there’s hardly anything more New Mexico than the green chili. The beer was very similar to the Desert Pils in color, just a slightly paler shade of gold straw, about a finger of clean white head.  The nose on this beer was a strong pepper aroma.  It smelled some like green chile, but surprisingly it smelled more like ripe jalapenos.  When I tasted the beer I got more of what the aroma promised.  It tasted like Diablo-corn, which is a recipe where you take corn and diced jalapeno and mix it will some melted cream cheese.  Most of the pepper heat is cooked out, and you’re left with a savory flavor, only a little warmth on the back-end. The beer was very smooth, and sessionable, if you’re a big fan of peppers.  It was exactly what I was expecting.

On my crude little rating system, I give Rio Grande Pancho Verde Chile Cerveza 3.5 out of 5.  I can understand the novelty appeal of a chili pepper beer, and I would definitely say it’s worth a try, but I would rarely have an occasion to drink this.  If I had a big, gooey, loaded up plate of beef & cheese nachos I could see myself having this beer again.  Or, if I was going for Southwestern flavors, that could work too, however I’m a Texan, and I’m a tex-mex kind of guy...
...and I like my pintos beans fried in lard.

End note:  Just to prevent any confusion, Rio Grande & Sierra Blanca are a joint brewing company, so each brewery link took you to the same site.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A craft beer icon: Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

 This past December, O’Bannon’s scored a pony keg of the much sought after Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.  When it was first brewed, this was the strongest IPA on the market (the crazy bastards at BrewDog have changed that). A hop heads dream, this beer clocks in at an astonishing 120 IBUs.  I could only imagine that a beer with such a high concentration of alpha acids would be completely unpalatable.  Add to the fact that the beer usually contains 18% alcohol by volume but still retains the qualities of a beer.  DFH only bottles the 120min. several times a year, so when they hit shelves in select locations, they disappear pretty fast.

The O’bannon’s keg release party was set for 8’o’clock, but around 7:45 there was already a packed house.  I saddled up to a table to wait for my buddy John, but since a line was already forming at the bar, I walked up to wait.  I had no idea there were so many beer lovers in College Station; I was glad to see it. I learned the bar was selling half pints for $8.50. Then I was really amazed; not only were there a lot of beer lovers in College Station, there were a lot of people willing to pay so much for so little.  There were so many people trying the 12omin.  they ran out of their half pint glasses before I got one, so I waited a little while extra for mine.

Comparable to the actual line... ok, maybe not

When I sat back down I couldn't help myself, and instead of waiting for John, I went ahead and tried it.  The color was a reddish orange with about a finger of white head.  The beer only left a few blotty spots of lacing.  The aroma was full of grapefruity, citrusy hops, but I didn’t waste much time smelling the beer because I was too excited to taste it.  While I expected it to be intolerably bitter, it wasn’t.  It was deliciously sweet at first, with juicy grapefruit, and then finished with spicy peppery hops; somewhere in the middle, I tasted green grapes. I expected a little alcohol warmth or harshness on the swallow but there wasn’t any at all.  I also anticipated the beer to be astringent and drying but it was slightly wet.  It left a tingle on my tongue; I think my taste buds were very happy with my purchase.

I wish this were in my hand right now
I couldn’t force myself to rate Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA less than a 5 out of 5.  It was amazing, a necessary experience for any craft beer lover.  The only knock on this beer would be the price and low availability, but who cares really?  It’s not supposed to be a beer you drink every day, it’s a beer to be enjoyed on a special occasion.  It’s not a beer you chug down, it’s a beer you savor and fully appreciate.  There’s a video of a guy downing an entire bottle as a joke.  It almost makes me cringe, such a terrible waste.

The catch up review to end all catch up reviews: Abita Brewing Co. Vanilla Doubledog

A few months back I was out running errands and decided to make a quick drop into Spec’s.  After a quick breeze through I stopped in front of a new little display I hadn’t seen yet.  There must have been about 30 of the same bottles, just sitting on a small wooden shelf, as if they had popped up out of nowhere.  The bottles were the 25th Anniversary Celebration Vanilla Doubledog by Abita Brewing Co. in Louisiana.  At the time I’d never tried any of their brews, except for their delicious root beer, so I decided to give this one a chance.  As I was leaving, I instinctively paid for the beer in cash, and forgot to use my gift card… didn’t make that mistake twice.
It was a Picard facepalm moment
Abita sometimes gets a bad rep.  I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about their beers, “they’re bland,” or “they’re ok, not that great.” Whenever I heard many people make the same claims, I start to assume they’re true.  When I picked up that bottle though, I thought, “even if their other beers really are bland, surely a limited release anniversary beer won’t be!”

I had this beer maybe 2 months ago, but I still have my review notes so I’ll post this review anyway.  I’m sure someone will appreciate it.  My bottle of Vanilla Doubledog poured a dark chocolate brown color with a faded tan head.  Aroma contained a light hop zest first, a bit of vanilla, and then a strong nose of roasted malt.  The taste was just a bit more complex. The roasted grain made a strong first flavor then made a little room for some spent coffee bean and almond tastes.  In the middle a little of that vanilla bean flavor came through, and on the back end just a tiny hint of hops balanced the malt.  The brew had average carbonation, and equally mid-level body, finished smooth.

From what I remember, and I’ve always been told I have a great memory, I rated Vanilla Doubledog 4 out of 5.  I was pleasantly surprised with this brew, especially with Abita’s mediocre reputation.  This is probably one of those ‘to each his own’ situations, everyone’s tastes are different, popularity comes and goes.  Recently on BeerAdvocate there was a discussion on over-rated brews, to everyone’s surprise Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head chimed in and shut everyone up completely.  Give it a read; it’s a great insight on beer snobs, and should remind you not to be one.
Hmm... quite.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Treat: the Pumpkin Ale

A few months ago, my dad and I were talking about the Reinheitsgebot.  If you don’t speak German, then you wouldn’t know the translation means ‘purity order’.  Out of context, ‘purity order’ can mean many things, but in this case the Bavarians were talking about beer.  In 1516, the Bavarian people drafted a law to say that only 3 ingredients could be used when brewing beer: water, barley, and hops.  It was created to protect against brewers cutting their beers with poor quality adjuncts or harmful flavor additives.  It’s a law that shaped the way the Germans have brewed for centuries; ensuring quality at the expense of some creativity.

I don’t remember what exactly we were talking about, but I do remember he was in defense of the Reinheitsgebot, and I was taking against the opposite stance.  He didn’t feel that you needed anything other than water, barley, and hops to make good beer (other than yeast of course).  While you obviously don’t need anything but those ingredients, I feel that you can make great beer with other ingredients too.  A great chef could make fantastic food out of just 3 ingredients, but why would they ever limit themselves to it?
I'm not impressed
Since today is Halloween, and the pumpkin culinary season is in full swing, I figured it would be a perfect day to comment on one of the most Reinheitsgebot defying beers: the pumpkin ale. Some people claim the pumpkin ale to be a gimmick, and it might be to some extent, but one thing it definitely is not is a modern day invention.  Brewing beer with pumpkin has been done since American colonial times.  While I can’t comment about the colonial beers, today’s selection is outstanding.  

In the last few weeks, I’ve done my best to try as many pumpkin beers as possible.  Some have been great, some have been not so great.  These aren’t going to be the most informative reviews I’ve done, just quick summaries; I’m also not going to grade them.  The beers are listed in the order I tried them:

Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale (7% abv) – Reminiscent of a light brown ale.  Pumpkin bread and sweet malt smells. Caramel malt, butter, molasses, and a hint of spice flavors. Very drinkable.  Coming from Dogfish Head, I expected to be really impressed with this brew, was a little underwhelmed.

Harpoon UFO Pumpkin (5.9% abv) – Hazy golden brown with an orange tinted head. Pumpkin, clove, and yeast smells.  Pumpkin, nutmeg, more yeast and possibly banana flavors.  A good looking brew drinks well on the warmer of the October days.  I think I’ve come to love unfiltered beers.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale (5.7% abv) – Light brown, thin looking, light carbonation. Soft wheat and nearly undetectable pumpkin rind smells.  Not much flavor besides the malt, hints of allspice and clove flavors.  Watered down.  Possibly a good gateway beer into other pumpkin beers but seemed so taste censored.  Served ice cold it’s extremely bland, if you want to enjoy it you need to let it warm, but I don’t see many American bars serving anything above 40 degrees.

Saint Arnold Pumpkinator Imperial Pumpkin Stout (10% abv) – Thick bodied, such a dark brown it looked black. Pumpkin, nutmeg, and chocolate malt smells.  Strong pumpkin pie taste: mashed pumpkin pie filling, nutmeg, and cinnamon.  Luscious roasted malt, also a bit of a creamy eggnog taste. Heavy carbonation.  As it warms alcohol and spice note become even stronger.  A delicious beer, wouldn’t recommend to a casual beer drinker though, it may dominate their palate.

Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale (5% abv) – Light brown, or dark amber. Slight pumpkin, clove, and coriander smells.  Not much pumpkin in the taste.  Caramel malt, coriander, and bittering hops flavors.  In comparison to the other beers, it seemed the most common. It makes for a very good choice to bring to a Halloween party: not too expensive, not too wacky, and easily sessionable.

These are the pumpkin ales I’ve had to date.  Sorry the list isn’t longer, but specialty beers can be hard to find in College Station, and my budget prevents me from buying too many at one time.  In the spirit of trick or treating, I think I'll award my self with a treat: the last of the pumpkin ales in my fridge. Honestly, I really just need to make room in my fridge because Christmas is coming soon...
And with it comes Christmas ales!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Setting the standard: Live Oak Brewing Co.'s Hefeweizen

When you’re first discovering the wide world of craft beer, you find a lot of new favorites.  That’s not surprising though, considering there are over 1,700 breweries in the United States alone.  It took some time, and a lot of effort from dedicated beer advocates, but the U.S. finally reached the number of breweries seen before prohibition, which is outstanding.  With this many breweries, especially considering most breweries strive to make the best beer possible, the chances of finding good beer is very high.  Every now and then though, a brewery creates something that is stand-out amazing.  If you go to beer rating websites like Rate Beer or Beer Advocate, these are the top picks.  These are the beers people will wait 5 hours in line for, or pay a seller on eBay $100+ for one bottle.  These are consistently hyped to be the best beers in the world.

A bomber of this has a 'Buy It Now' price of $89.99
One neat tool on Beer Advocate is the region filter on the Top 100 list.  Not long ago I went to the list for the Southwest region (the area containing Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas).  Being that Austin is the odd, liberal, creative town that it is, a lot of the beers on the list came from Austin area craft breweries.  This was great news for me; College Station is only 2 hours away.  Still though, I don’t have the time or money to just drive over whenever I feel like it; it would be better for the beers to come to me! These small breweries can’t afford to produce mass volume, or then distribute too far from home.

A few weeks ago, O’bannon’s announced they would be getting a few kegs from Live Oak Brewing Co.  If you’ve seen the list I referenced earlier then you might realize, Live Oak Hefeweizen is rated the #1 beer in the Southwest region.  If you filter the Top 100 list by style then you see Live Oak Hefeweizen is rated #2, in the world.  Needless to say, I was ecstatic to hear this announcement.

This is my excited face 
The official release was scheduled for 8’o’clock; I was there just shortly after.  My buddy behind the bar, Hoffman, asked what I’d be having.  Without missing a beat I said, “I’m here for the Live Oak man.” I felt a little goofy saying it like that, but I was just so excited that I wasn’t really thinking.  He brought it over and told me that it was the best hefe he’d ever had.  Before walking over to my table, I took a quick sip, and from that point I couldn’t stop smiling.

My pint of Live Oak Hefeweizen was a very hazy straw color with just a thin half finger of head.  Lots of bubble columns, definitely a lively beer.  It smelled wonderful, lots of banana peel smell mingling with lemon and a bit of that classic wheat bubblegum.  The taste mirrored the smell, with different emphasis.  The lemon zest was much stronger, the banana taste came second.  A very subtle white pepper flavor developed on the back end and joined a soft yeast aftertaste.  What really tied this beer together was the active carbonation.  It was very fizzy and it let the flavors tingle your mouth like pop rocks candy.  This beer finished crisp and was super drinkable.

There is no doubt about it, Live Oak Brewing Co.’s Hefeweizen deserves 5 out of 5.  I have never had a better hefe, and quite possibly a better beer in general.  If you ever get the chance to come to Texas and try this brew, don’t pass on it.  My buddy Todd was (unfortunately for him) unable to come to the release party and my praise of the beer made him a little jealous.  I told him “now that I’ve had it once, I’ll want it again, and I’d love to visit the brewery.”  Suddenly, a 2 hour drive doesn’t seem that long…


Saturday, October 15, 2011

An organic review: Jester King Brewing Co.'s Wytchmaker Rye IPA

You may recall an earlier post of mine describing a recent trip to Austin.  On this trip I purchased a bottle of JesterKing Brewing Co.’s Wytchmaker Rye IPA.  As excited as I was to try something from these guys, it took me a long time to get around to reviewing it.  In fact, there were a couple of times where I just picked up my bottle and stared at it, but didn’t feel ready to open it up.  My timing was off or something.  My first time going over the bottle, I noticed something interesting.

Wytchmaker is made with 80% organic ingredients and is brewed with harvested rainwater.  They do this as a commitment to sustainability and the slow food movement.  Personally, I’m skeptical about organic foods.  A lot of companies are piggybacking off the recent wave of organic success, and labeling ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ has become a very profitable marketing tool.  As seen in Anat Baron’s movie, Beer Wars, giants like InBev are creating new products labeled as organic to capture a new niche.  I hardly believe these companies are worried about sustainability, they’re just exploiting a new modern idea.

Big fat phonies
Jester King, however, is different.  They are making a personal choice to brew with organic ingredients.  As a small brewery input costs must be staggering, because you can’t afford volume discounts that other macrobreweries enjoy, but Jester King is still making the conscious decision to pay higher prices for what they feel will let them make a higher quality brew.  Like I said earlier, I’m not really jumping on the organic bandwagon, but I still respect Jester King and others like them, for not cutting corners and brewing however they want to brew.
Even the brewery looks organic

My bottle of Wytchmaker poured a powerful 4 finger white head, which I wasn’t expecting at all.  The beer was mildly hazy, with a rusty copper color.  This beer had an extremely interesting bouquet.  The predominant smell of piney hops was also met with thyme, clove, a floral perfume-like smell, and a tiny bit of yeast smell to finish.  This beer had some similar flavors, but it was a tad more balanced than the aroma.  The strongest flavors are that of dry rye bread paired with a strong hop presence.  The hops added a lot of piney qualities, as well as some juniper flavor similar to gin, and a small amount of citrus fruit.  The fungal yeast taste strengthened as I neared the bottom of the bottle because I was getting more yeast sediment per pour.  If you don’t want yeast in your beer, be very gentle when serving this brew.  

I’d rate Jester King Brewing Co.’s Wytchmaker Rye IPA 4.5 out of 5.  This beer was very complex, very tasty.  I’d say this is one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had, one of the more balanced also.  One aspect of the brew I could have done away with was the juniper flavor, that’s one flavor I have never enjoyed.  That’s also why I never choose to drink gin.  Maybe it’s just because I hate looking at Ashe Juniper trees.  Those resinous junk scrubs have littered the Texas plains and they’re too dangerous for us to let burn down.  I say they’re nasty and we could stand to lose a few.

Can't play football in this backyard...