Liquid: Jan. 19, 2017

Liquid: Jan. 19, 2017

Soaking up the suds with James Crane

Oh, Weyerbacher, I love you. I love you so much. I know I drink other beers from time to time … or a lot. They’re delicious, and I’ve said as much, but it always has been you that I come back to.
Sure, you’ve always been a bit heavy-handed, but I happen to like heavy-handed. I like how you’re not afraid to be in charge and do what you want with my taste buds. I have no complaints.
Weyerbacher is well known for its big beers. They’re heavy and alcoholic but generally balanced in their own right. The alcohol usually makes no attempt to hide itself, but the Easton-based brewery plays off that alcoholic burn, adding complementary flavors that are just as strong. This is very true of Weyerbacher’s Merry Monks and Blithering Idiot, two beers I’ve been drinking for years now. Their allure has diminished in my eyes.
Weyerbacher actually has made beers longer than I’ve been allowed to drink legally. In fact, the brand recently turned 21 and celebrated by making its 21st Anniversary ale.
It might be the brewery’s birthday, but I’m the one who seems to be getting the presents. This beer promises to be everything I love. First, it is a stout with cocoa and vanilla, which alone would be enough to garner my attention. Then it added some very special words: bourbon barrel-aged.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a barrel-aged beer I didn’t like, especially bourbon barrel-aged. I feel like I could just find a good barrel and chew on it and I’d be happy. That smoky, charred, alcoholic flavor is like nothing else. It makes me reevaluate the benefits of having splinters in my tongue.
This one poured darker than coffee with a finger’s worth of mocha-colored head. Leaving some light lacing all the way down the glass, it was beautiful and thick, promising a great mouth feel. The brew smelled of roasted malt, vanilla and alcohol. Once it warmed up a bit, notes of caramel and bourbon became apparent, which played well with the alcoholic burn.
The taste was everything Weyerbacher said it would be and nothing more. 21st Anniversary delivers exactly what it promises, with roasted malt stout up front. After the swallow, the flavors linger on the tongue and evolve. The bourbon and caramel slide up and give it a nice, alcoholic, sweet taste. The vanilla is a huge part of that. Then it’s all smoke and bitter roast, with roasted notes that linger a long while and slowly dissipate into the taste of a smokey cigar.
This beer is big, boozy and satisfying. If I needed an example to remind me of why I’m in love with Weyerbacher, this would do it. As I finished the bottle, the hazy warmth of it all set in, making me feel vaguely happy, satisfied and comforted. If a beer cuddle was a thing, this would be it. It slides down the throat like liquid happiness, with the stout’s smoothness and creaminess
taking away any alcoholic burn. This makes it easier to drink than it should be, but the
richness keeps it from going down too quick. With a beer like this, it’s not really necessary to drink too many.
Weyerbacher, I’m all yours. I might still drink other brews, but you’re the one for me. Call me sometime.

Wine: Jan. 19, 2017

Wine: Jan. 19, 2017

With David Falchek

Turn to Piedmont region’s fizzy brachetto for a Tasty, low-alcohol treat

Brachetto, a red grape from Italy’s Piedmont region, makes a middling red wine but really shines when it puts on some bubbles.
As a red wine with no bubbles (or a still wine), brachetto d’aqui isn’t bad. If you find one, it smells of roses and red fruit and has a nice flavor and texture. But it is simple, showing little in the way of tannins, structure or acids.
Italy — and the Piedmont — have plenty of great red wines at a variety of prices. Why bother to make a mediocre one?
It was someone’s genius, a generation ago, to make a low-alcohol brachetto and zap it with some carbonation. It sounds like a cheap route to get some attention, but the bubbles seemed to lift even more fruit and floral notes from the grape. Add a touch of sweetness and you can’t go wrong.
In Italy, the term “frizzante” means a drink has some bubbles but at a low-enough pressure to take just a standard cork or screw cap and bottle. A spumante has more pressure and bubbles and therefore comes with a cage cap and heavy glass, like a conventional sparkling wine, that pops when you open it. You see brachetto in both styles.
For a decadent pairing, go for a Gertrude Hawk black raspberry Smidgen and a sparkling brachetto. Fruit tarts or berry pastries make for good pairings as well. Sweet wines can take the place of dessert.
Banfi’s Rosa Regale brought a lot of attention to this style even though it fails to mention brachetto on the front label of its fluted bottle. Banfi probably doesn’t want fans to know they could go out and find similar styles of wine at a lower price. Still, Rosa Regale is a benchmark for sparkling brachetto. It jumps out of the glass with smells of roses and strawberries, and the flavor brings in some ripe berry and white pepper character. While it goes in with a strong suggestion of sweetness, Rosa Regale finishes clean and balanced, inviting the next sip and making it appealing to many dry-wine drinkers. $22. **** 1/2
For those who might enjoy an even sweeter version, Bersano Brachetto d’Aqui is ripe and sweet from beginning to end. With an almost imperceptible level of alcohol, it pours into the glass like bubbly grape juice. Even the foam is purple. The flavor is raspberry and strawberry with ripe, sweet flourishes all the way through. $14. *** 1/2
Fizz 56 Brachetto has ripe blackberry and cranberry with an edge of caramel. It’s a special-order wine in Pennsylvania, so you may see it in restaurants or in supermarkets. $14. ***1/2
Sparkling brachetto offers a tasty, low-alcohol treat, ideal for brunches or as a fun dessert in itself.

GRADE: Exceptional *****, Above average ****, Good ***, Below average **, Poor *.
—david falchek
David is the executive director of the American Wine Society and reviews wines each week.

WINE

WINE

Wine

with DAVID FALCHEK

 

Bordeaux often linked with reds, but inexpensive whites worth a try

When people hear “Bordeaux,” their minds wander to grandiose châteaux, stratospheric wine auctions and Chinese millionaires buying it all up.
That seems like great brand-image building. But, in fact, it probably hurts most of Bordeaux. The region is vast, and the majority of what it produces is very affordable.
Bordeaux’s ranking system, appellations and even its distribution and sales systems are Byzantine. The region has more than three dozen sub-appellations, including some, such as Moulis and Loupiac, that have little recognition even among avid wine drinkers. While the so-called First Growth producers, identified way back in 1855, get the headlines with futures sales and auction prices, those are a small fraction of total Bordeaux production. Less growths, or classification, fill in luxury levels, but the rest are quite affordable.
People only see red when they talk or drink Bordeaux, but white Bordeaux wines are reliable and often exceptional go-to, all-purpose selections. Most Bordeaux labels look the same, too, with old-style fonts and the obligatory sketch of a château. Sadly, all of this creates a barrier between Bordeaux and the casual wine drinker.
That’s not to say all Bordeaux wines are great. Bordeaux makes its share of bulk wines of varying distinction.
If you spend more than $25, however, you can get an exceptional red Bordeaux. A class of Bordeaux known as Bordeaux Superieur offers some guarantee of better wine. Government and industry guidelines require Superieur producers to limit vine spacing, which makes for riper, better fruit — and lower yields. Also, Superieur has some oak aging rather than being rushed into the bottle. Many of these come from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion areas, Bordeaux’s Right Bank, so they tend to have plush, drinkable, merlot-dominated wines. (Left Bank regions are cabernet sauvignon-heavy.)
La Chateau Peyfaures Dame de Coeur 2010 Bordeaux Superior is a big, buxom wine. Instead of the label showing a masonry building or family crest, it has feminine curves: a woman in a red shawl in the shape of heart. Complex and well-built, the wine comes from a hot year that resulted in big wines. Dame de Coeur is 95 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc, showing merlot’s blueberry and cocoa notes intermingled with a spicy edge. The wine is complex with fine tannins in the finish — a perfect match for chili or other meat dishes. $28. HHHH 1/2
If you see a color option in the Pottery Barn catalogue called “Bordeaux,” it is probably some type of red-brown. Until the 1970s, most of the wine produced in Bordeaux was white. When I took a swing through Bordeaux about a decade ago, the most eye-opening tasting I had was a line-up of affordable white wines from Entre-Deux-Mer — “Between the waters” — a reference to the location between two great rivers.
Even stateside, much of the Entre-Deux-Mer available is inexpensive and tasty. White Bordeaux blend crisp sauvignon blanc with a plump sémillon, and the two fit together like yin and yang. Some white Bordeaux, such as Entre-Deux-Mer, include a touch of the floral muscadelle for an even more brilliant blend.
Chateau Bonnet 2013 Bordeaux is an excellent example of reasonably priced white Bordeaux. Some vintages are better than others, but 2013 was a better one. It still tastes fresh with honeydew and white pepper smells followed by flavors of kiwi and grapefruit with a hint of tropical and coconut before a mouth-watering finish. $15. HHHH 1/2
The 2010 vintage was famously hot and resulted in unconventional wines that were riper, fruitier and, some noticed, less ageable. Chateau Le Noble 2010 Bordeaux, a so-called “chairman’s selection” in Pennsylvania, showed how uncharacteristic a vintage it was. The wine starts off well enough, with birch and dried-leaf smells preceding black raspberry flavors, but it ghosts out after that, lacking structure and not showing any tannins to keep interest. $14.*** 1/2
Any inexpensive white Bordeaux is worth a try. When you read about great vintages in Bordeaux, that means great wines from all of the region, offering a buying opportunity.

GRADE: Exceptional *****, Above average****, Good ***, Below average **, Poor *.
— david falchek

David is the executive director of the American Wine Society and reviews wines each week.

Liquid: Jan. 5, 2017

Liquid: Jan. 5, 2017

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Happy New Year, everyone!
I’m sure you’re knee-deep in resolutions to make a better you. I’m all for it. Run that marathon. Eat better. Learn krav maga. Kick all the ass and take all the names. Go ahead and be that best possible version of yourself. Hip-hip-hooray and all that. I wish you luck, since the deck is stacked against you.
What do I mean? It’s almost criminal that the new year starts in January. You’re expected to make all these wondrous self transformations in the midst of the coldest and darkest part of the year. December isn’t much better, but at least it has all those festive holidays. What does January have? Well, after New Year’s Day, just the ever-present possibility of snow, long nights and short days. Sure, have fun with that.
Of course, I’ve restarted my efforts on the requisite number of pushups and all that. The endorphins are great. But I’ll sip some strong brews to pass time this month as well. This is the perfect time of year for something big and warming at the end of the day, and preferably something thick and chewy. It’s like the comfort food of alcohol.
For me, normally this means a stout, barley wine or something else of that type with dark, thick character. This week, however, I stick with my old fallback: an IPA. The heavy hops are like an alcoholic lullaby for my soul that I have trouble ignoring. This particular brew, Gus by Full Pint brewing, promises an 8 percent ABV, exactly what I want.
The pour was beautiful with a lovely, hazy, golden orange and copious bubbles that continued to surge upward, providing bountiful carbonation. The head was the real prize winner, however. It must have been a full two fingers’ worth of foam, and it never really dissipated. Thick lacing lined the glass all the way down. It was quite impressive.
Pine tree makes up the biggest part of the scent. Whatever hops are in there smell like a distant cousin of pine needles and sap. Then there are the chlorophyll-filled scents of fresh-cut grass and other floral-type notes. Orange-like citrus brightens it up, while some biscuity malt keeps it grounded.
The taste certainly is IPA through and through, though it’s more pine and sap than bitter. The bitterness shows up at the end to round it out, however, accompanied by some black pepper and held together by the caramel-malt backbone. Even the bitter is citrusy, though, like a grapefruit. A slight bit of alcoholic burn turns up at the end, just enough to remind you that you are drinking a boozy beer.
Gus isn’t super unique, but it is quite good. A smooth drink, it goes down quite well, which is great for a beer of this caliber. It lays nicely on the tongue and is delightfully warming, with the hops providing that nice, sedating effect of an IPA.
This is a great brew to sip before bed, almost like the alcoholic equivalent of a cup of chamomile tea. Gus does everything I want it to and does so tastily. I think I’ll go to sleep now. I can get back to those resolutions tomorrow.

Liquid

Liquid

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

OK, enough of the gourd. Thanks for sticking with me through my pumpkin beer season. It was fun while it lasted, but now it’s on to bigger and better things.
The nights are getting darker, and so it’s time for my beers to do the same. It’s time for my brews to be hazy and boozy, something that comes on like a warm blanket against the winter chill.
It’s also time for me to start my holiday shopping. There are a few people on my list bound to get a bottle. I’d like to say they made the “nice” portion of the list, but I also don’t want to be accused of lying. In any case, this is a yearly tradition of mine. As I pour over the shelves and shelves of beer, my holiday beer shopping needs tend to focus on a certain area: wood-aged beers.
There is something about wood and beer that makes a brew special. Maybe it’s the extra time it takes for the beer to pick up that smoky, wood flavor. Maybe they are just generally complex and delicious. Whatever the case, I love getting them as gifts. Their level of distinction says, “Hey, you’re worth something special and unique.” That’s a great thing for a gift to say.
While out shopping this week, I had to grab myself a gift as well. By way of a local store, B.O.M Brewing in Belgium provided me with Triporteur Full Moon 12, a Belgian strong dark ale that promises a beer brewed on the full moon and aged with oak. If anything about this sounds unappealing, I don’t know what it is. All those words describe exactly what I want in a beer right now.
The pour was quite dark, though not so much as a stout or porter. It was a dark amber, allowing one to almost see their own hand on the other side of the glass. There wasn’t much there in way of head. The slightest bit of foam topped the liquid, but only for a short moment. The syrupy pour of this one explains that. This wasn’t about to be a nice, light, effervescent brew. No, this was going to be more like liquid bread, the type of beer you want to chew your way through.
The scent was great, with dark fruits and cherries as well as sticky malt and wood. There also was something wine-like to the scent, like fermented grapes. The alcohol also was quite noticeable in the nose. This 10.2-percent ABV wasn’t interested in hiding from the world. It was proud of what it was.
The flavor followed suit. The dark fruit was in the forefront, like a sticky, sweet, drying plum. There also were tastes of wine tannins, tons of oak, a slight sweetness, smoke and booze. It all was quite bold but well-balanced. It had qualities of a woody barleywine, making it incredibly satisfying to quaff.
Thick and syrupy with just a little carbonation, Full Moon 12 was boozy, satisfying and toothsome. While I’m sure I have some friends who would have liked it, this one was for me. And I’ve been good enough that I might just have to get myself another.

Liquid

Liquid

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

I know I’ve been on a bit of a spree here with the pumpkin, and I promise this is the last one this year. It’s just, well, Thanksgiving is almost here and, while this likely will garner a not-so-positive response, I might just love the pumpkin pie more than the turkey. Most of the time, I don’t even bother with any sort of whipped topping. I don’t want anything to mask that pumpkiny goodness. My only regret is that it comes at the end of the meal, after I’ve already stuffed myself with so many other things.
Sadly, however, Thanksgiving also seems to mark the end of pumpkin season. It just doesn’t feature so prominently in the following holidays. Once that leftover pie disappears, you’re pretty much done for the year. Sure, I could bake a pumpkin pie any time. Nothing is stopping me from having some for Christmas, or even on the Fourth of July, for that matter. But I most likely will just pine for one instead.
This means I’m going to get as much pumpkin in me as possible until pumpkin season ends this week. Thankfully, I haven’t even scratched the tip of the iceberg that is pumpkin beers. I regret I can only try so many. This week, I picked up a six-pack of Lancaster Brewing’s Baked Pumpkin Ale. It’s going to be my pie appetizer this week.
The color was a shade of amber not uncommon for pumpkin beers. A half-finger’s worth of white foam topped it. The head wasn’t big, but it lingered on top of the glass for the duration of the drink. A decent amount of bubbles ran through the liquid, promising decent carbonation. It certainly was a looker.
Caramel malt was very up-front in the nose. All the spices came right after that. Then all the usual suspects showed up. Cinnamon and nutmeg are very present with some clove backing them up. The malt transitioned into a graham cracker scent that really was quite pleasing. There also was a bit of vanilla.
To be honest, the one thing I didn’t really catch a lot of was pumpkin. It was more like a supermarket pumpkin pie, with the scent of spice and filler taking over. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, but it does put it in a certain category.
The taste certainly wasn’t any big surprise. It followed the scent pretty well. The crust was right up front with tons of malt and graham. Next up are all those aforementioned spices and vanilla. Some pumpkin held it together, but it was by far not the more prevalent flavor. There also was caramel and a finish not unlike honey. That’s not to say that the beer is overly sweet. It was well-balanced in that aspect.
There isn’t anything that really stands out about this one. It was a good beer and pretty much what I wanted. It did have an ABV of 7.5 percent, which was nice, but there still are stronger ones out there. It’s solid, but it’s not rewriting any history. Then again, I don’t want my pumpkin pie to taste like anything other than pumpkin pie. So I’d call that a win.

Liquid

Liquid

Soaking up the suds with James Crane

Go ahead, step outside. Put up your ear to the wind, and you’ll hear it. Your skin very well might tingle in anticipation, as if something you’ve waited for is creeping ever nearer. It like an old friend, or perhaps a lover from a past life coming to call you home. It’s comfortable like a warm blanket or an old pair of shoes.
All the same, it’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us. It’s ancient and looming, promising to be here long after we’re gone. You know it deep in your bones. Its presence is undeniable; its force is irresistible. When it comes calling, you will succumb, perhaps with trepidation, but ultimately, it’ll carry you away into its cosmic bliss.
We’re approaching pumpkin event horizon.
OK, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Really, I’m just still excited for my pumpkin beers. While drinking enough of them might give you glimpses of the vast cosmic bliss I just spoke of, having one or two still makes me pretty happy. I know the naysayers will find 1,000 reasons we aren’t supposed to be fans of pumpkin beers, but come on. They never did anything to you. There is no reason to hate on them so much.
If you read my last column, you’ll realize I’m on a little bit of a pumpkin beer streak. Stoudts Pumpkinfest kicked off the party in my mouth. This week, it continues with Alewerks Pumpkin Ale. It was fun to drink with the last beer still so fresh in my mind. While they were both pumpkin beers, there was a good deal of difference between them. For starters, Stoudts was a lager, while Alewerks is an ale. It didn’t end with the yeast, however.
The brew poured a lovely, murky shade somewhere between amber and orange. It wasn’t just the color that was reminiscent of pumpkin flesh, either. The scent definitely carried a good deal of malt and spice. Pumpkin also was quite prevalent as well. And I don’t just mean the seasonings usually associated with the gourd. It smelled just like fresh roasted pumpkin, or the unadulterated puree right out of the can. Alewerks must have used a good amount of it to get that scent.
The taste confirmed that suspicion. Pumpkin was in no way an afterthought. It led from the front, proudly displaying its vegetable nature. This expertly paired with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and sugar. These ingredients were used in proper proportion, the spices serving to enhance the pumpkin as opposed to covering it up. There also were slightly sour notes as well as vanilla and caramel, though the caramel was not a prevalent as it was in the Pumpkinfest.
The taste did a great job at covering up its 7.4 percent ABV. This brew certainly was a little bit stronger than it let on. Another great side effect of using real pumpkin was its body. The puree gave it a great velvety feel that made it quite pleasing to drink. Alewerks Pumpkin might have been the most pumpkiny pumpkin beer I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink. While it didn’t bring about cosmic-level happiness, it did lead to soft contentment tinged with glee. If that sounds like the type of thing you’re into, grab yourself this beer. It’s the best advice I have to give.

Liquid

Liquid

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Haters gonna hate, am I right?
At some point over the last few years, it’s become cool to talk smack on pumpkin spice. Granted, its proliferation might be a little bit ridiculous (pumpkin spice hand soap, anyone?), but it’s for good reason. Pumpkin spice is delicious. It always has been since the dawn of time and will continue to be so long after all its opponents are in the ground and no one remains to remember their existence. Pumpkin spice perseveres. You do not.
I’m sure there are some of you right now silently mouthing your resistance. At least one is whining about how so many pumpkin products don’t even contain an iota of the orange gourd. To you I say the following: I don’t care. If the pumpkin beer I am drinking contains nothing but malt and old, chewed bubblegum, I don’t care. It’s delicious. I’m going to keep drinking it.
Don’t you take this away from me.
If you haven’t caught on yet, this week I am drinking a pumpkin brew, Stoudts Pumpkinfest Lager. While many pumpkin beers rely solely on the spice mixture to give them that pumpkin pie feel, this one promises real roasted pumpkin in the mix. For anyone who ever made a pumpkin pie from real pumpkin, you know what a time-consuming and labor-intensive project this is. Stoudts must really care about us.
The pour had a beautiful amber color with a copious two fingers’ worth of head sitting on top. It managed to leave lacing down the entirety of the glass. The scent was as pleasant as the sight. There was ample malt in the nose, making this brew reminiscent of the Marzen I drank for my last column. It also had the familiar scent of lager yeast. This paired delightfully with the smell of roasted pumpkin and spices such as clove and cinnamon. Everything was as it should be.
The taste brought forth everything in the scent and then some. It tasted as malty as an Oktoberfest brew, exhibiting the qualities of my favorite type of lager. It was heavy with cereal, and the caramel malt provided the experience of pie crust. This mixed with a good amount of spice, heavier on astringent cloves than sugar. This was a great direction to take, as it gave it pumpkin pie flavor without too much sweetness. The roasted pumpkin also came through, giving the brew its dose of authenticity. A bit of hops in the back end finished it off.
One of the great things about this brew is how drinkable it is. At 4.5 percent ABV, this one could qualify as a session beer. It isn’t going to hit you too terribly hard. Some other pumpkin brews out there tend to be really big in character and very dessert-like. They are great on their own accord, but you don’t want to drink too much of them in one sitting. This one is light enough in body and alcohol content to go down easy for a while.
Look, pumpkin pie is right around the corner. You know you’re waiting for it. If you can suspend your all-so-trendy pumpkin hate, grab a pumpkin brew to hold you over. Stoudts Pumpkinfest, a great mash-up of pumpkin and a Marzen-style lager, is a good choice.

Liquid – Oct. 13, 2016

Liquid – Oct. 13, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Oktoberfest brew an invention of necessity

Fun fact of the day: Oktoberfest starts in September. It also only happens in Germany. I’m sure you’ve all seen local celebrations that shared the title, but in truth, they are just celebrations of the real celebration that happens in Munich. Oh, and the original celebration had a lot more to do with horses than beer. And, no, the horses weren’t drinking.
Oktoberfest traces back to 1810, when King Ludwig I married Princess Therese of Saxehildburghausen, and they held some horse races to celebrate. It was fun enough that they decided to repeat it the next year and most every year since, barring time off for war and disease. They also started sampling beer and added swings, tree climbing, bowling alleys and other attractions until it was just one hell of a party. Toward the end of the 19th century, they started serving bratwurst and beer in glass mugs. It started to look like the Oktoberfest we know and love.
The beer we refer to as Oktoberfest is actually called Marzen. Marzen — whose name comes from the German for “March,” when brewers traditionally made it — was, like many things, an invention of necessity. Unlike most lagers, Marzen was made to last a bit, as brewing used to be forbidden in the summer.
Brewing in hot weather was risky business. Higher temperatures provide a great environment for nasty organisms to colonize, nothing anyone wants. To avoid that, brewers made Marzen in March and drank it until the cooler temperatures came back. Beer made in September was ready to drink in October, so September was a great time to drink up that stash you hoarded in your cellar.
Marzen and Oktoberfest became tightly linked since the celebration serves Marzen. The beer generally ages in cellars until late summer, with the last of the bottles served during the festival. That aside, I enjoy Marzen just because they are delicious, like drinking a liquid bread. As far as lagers go, they are one of the best. I always grab a few every September to sample before pumpkin beer kicks it all off the shelves.
This week, I had a bottle of Dominion’s Octoberfest to celebrate. The golden orange color had a slight head. It was the perfect shade and smelled of malt more than anything else. There was a bit of caramel and a little bit of floral hops. The lager yeast also comes through in the nose. Nothing was out of the ordinary on this front.
The brew tasted just like it should. It was like drinking a pretzel. The malt was in the forefront, making each swallow delicious and savory. It has a slightly sweet finish with a hint of caramel. It was enough to cut the savory but not enough to be a turn off. While none of this was necessarily surprising, it was quite welcomed.
This beer wasn’t really a variant on the theme, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a solid Marzen that does exactly what it should. The body is light enough to be super drinkable. It is delicious and goes down easy. It’s a great beer to drink before the heavier beers of the holidays come around. Dominion does it just like it should.

Liquid: Sept. 29, 2016

Liquid: Sept. 29, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Well, it happened. It is officially autumn.
The sun is going to go down a little earlier, the leaves are going to change, and your sleeves are going to start getting longer. Obviously, your beer is going to start changing too. As we creep toward the dark days of winter, they are going to follow suit, becoming bigger, bolder, thicker and also darker. Beer will take on all the qualities of a comfort food.
It used to be that I would wait all year for autumn beers. Summer beers were just a placeholder, something to drink while I waited for Oktoberfest and the onslaught of pumpkin brews. This year really seemed to change that for me, however. I found an appreciation for certain styles, many of which came from Germany or Belgium. Wheat beers and saisons paired perfectly with the hot days of summer without being bland and boring.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that while I’m excited for seasonal autumn brews, I’m not quite ready to bid my summer beers goodbye. If only there was some sort of transitional brew. Maybe something festive and malty, but with an herbal profile one might find in the heartier fare of the upcoming months. If only some brewery did something crazy, like took a saison and threw a bay leaf in it or something.
Wait, what is that? Dogfish Head did just that? Well, golly, Dogfish Head. You sure are swell.
Of course, it is more than just beer with a bay leaf floating in it. The brewery called it Biere De Provence Saison, a farmhouse beer brewed with lavender, marjoram and bay leaves. Obviously inspired by the classical spice blend of southeast France, this beer promised “a floral nose and a unique, dry spice.” This sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster concocted by an overly enthusiastic brewer. Dogfish Head’s name is attached to this one, however. It generally doesn’t go off half-cocked.
The beer poured a beautiful shade of gold with a slight head to it. The herb presence was certainly noticeable in the scent. This went along with the standard saison spicy yeast notes. It was that sort of clove and black pepper sensation. The lavender was particularly noticeable and oddly accentuated the smell of the malt.
I’m not even exactly sure how to describe the taste. It was so well-balanced that picking out individual flavors proved a bit difficult. Sure, there were the herbs, but each herbal sensation faded into the next one to where it was hard to tell where one began and another ended. There was malt up front and yeasty, dry saison spice at the end, but the middle was such a great mix. There was certainly marjoram, lavender and bay leaf, but they presented in such a non-obtrusive way that they were no more the focus than the traditional flavors of the beer.
This beer was neat. It was tasty, interesting and smooth. Best of all, it was charmingly subtle in its uniqueness. I’ve never had a saison like this before. The herbs and its 8.3 percent ABV make it a quite fitting for early autumn, while its classic saison qualities were a great throwback to the recently passed summer months. This is a great brew to dive into.

 

Liquid: Sept. 8, 2016

Liquid: Sept. 8, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Beer history is a fascinating thing. Our favorite frothy drink didn’t just spring into existence with dozens of styles. It evolved over time and crossed geographic boundaries only to get a whole new regional spin. This same story is true with just about anything, from language and music to martial arts and pizza. Beer is the only one of them that will get you drunk, however.

Take the witbier, for example. This is a hazy brew that originated in Belgium made with wheat. This gives it a lot of suspended particulate which, in combination with the yeast, is responsible for the haze and its nickname of “white beer.” Witbiers carry on the tradition of medieval beer flavorings, in that hops were nowhere near as prevalent, leaving beers to be flavored with a variety of herbs. Witbiers, in particular, tended toward coriander and orange, both of which are quite prevalent in the popular representative of this style, Hoegaarden.

The witbier didn’t stop there, however. Fast forward in time a little bit, and we have a variation on the witbier popping up in Germany. Called the Berliner weisse, its origins are shrouded in theory. It could have stemmed from a single Hamburg beer. It also could have been some migrating French Protestants. In any case, the Berliner weisse style became quite popular in Germany, with Napoleon’s troops referring to it as “the champagne of the north.”

The Berliner weisse certainly isn’t as prevalent now as it was in its heyday. There are only a small handful of breweries left in Berlin that make it. Thankfully, it has crossed yet more borders and has found a home in our very own Pennsylvania thanks to Victory Brewing Co. Recently, it has offered up its Berliner Weisse with elderflower as part of its Black Board Series.

The pour was a light yellow shade full of haze. True to its style, this brew looked to be full of grit, a by-product of all the wheat and yeast. Traditionally, Berliner weisses weren’t filtered. This one was certainly true to form. It was topped with just a slight, unassuming white head. It did sport a good deal of visible carbonation with copious bubbles rising through the glass. This was a promising appearance for a summertime brew.

The nose was full of sour, like someone dropped a WarHeads sour candy in yogurt and called it a day. It was hard to make anything else out at first. After a few more sniffs, I noticed something floral and almost fruity. Amazingly, the elderflowers were coming through in the scent.

The taste followed the scent in terms of sour. It was delightfully puckering with a bit of grapefruit bitter at the end. Floating around in this was also the wheat, yeast funk and a very noticeable floral quality. All of this just served to compare and contrast with the sour, however. This one was a lot of fun.

Somehow, for all its strong flavor, Victory’s Berliner Weisse was really quite drinkable. I certainly wouldn’t want a six pack, but I could have gone for another bottle. If this brew is any indication, I’ll have to be on the lookout for other beers in its Black Board Series. This was certainly worth checking out.

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Liquid: Aug. 25, 2016

Liquid: Aug. 25, 2016

Soaking up the suds with James Crane

Firestone Walker — what the hell are you doing? Have I not been paying enough attention? I realize you have a good many brews that I haven’t tried. Sure, I drank some of your barrel-aged beers, and they were delicious, but what have I been missing out on? You have a big, full catalog, and my experience with you only tackles a small percentage of it.
This week, I’m drinking their Luponic Distortion. The can was rather unassuming, labeled as “Revolution 002.” There wasn’t anything to explain that and I didn’t think to give it much heed. Upon doing a little reading on their website, however, it became clear. What they have planned is really quite interesting.
Luponic Distortion is not really a beer. Well, I mean, it is a beer, but Luponic Distortion refers more so to a line of beers. The individual beers in the line are referred to by number, meaning the one I’m currently drinking is Luponic Distortion Revolution 002. In truth, they are all generally the same beer with one notable exception. Each one will use a different mix of hops.
Exploring hops isn’t anything new. That’s a rather popular trope in modern beer. We’ve shoved them in dried, fresh, in pellets, in the mash, during secondary fermentation and even right into the bottle. I’m not familiar with any brewery doing it in quite this fashion, however. With everything else being equal, this would be a great way to really experience the difference between different hops. It’d really give one a feel for what a certain combination tastes like as one could easily contrast them with another brew of different hops. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a list of which hops are present in any of the different versions.
The pour wasn’t anything too special. The brew was a pale yellow with an appropriate amount of white head on top. It left some lacing down the side of the glass, but I won’t be writing any poems about it any time soon. The scent, however, was really quite inviting. It was all about the hops. It didn’t smell bitter or skunky, as hops sometimes can, but it did seem to showcase every other aspect of the bud. There is citrus and pungent chlorophyll. The hops smelled fresh and juicy. There was a lot of fruit undertones happening there.
The taste was a little bit of a letdown after the scent, however. It wasn’t that it was bad, it just didn’t match the interest the nose generated. One thing worth noting was that the hops actually hit the tongue up front. It was the biscuity malt that was there on the finish, providing a nice, savory end. The hops themselves were almost kind of sweet, like fruit sugar. There was just this slight bit of bubble gum, just to emphasize that juicy part that much more. It wasn’t super abrasive or strong in flavor, as many brews that emphasize their hops can be. It was a bit more gentle and subtle than that, but still quite hoppy in its own right.
I believe the strength of this brew will be in trying its successors. It is a bit of a letdown that I missed the first one, but I’ll certainly be on the lookout for future iterations. With so many hops in the world, it’ll be neat to see what they do next. It may be a novelty, but it is a novelty I can get behind.

Liquid: Aug. 18, 2016

Liquid: Aug. 18, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Wil Wheaton — your face is everywhere lately. You’ve become perhaps the best known ambassador of board games. I have to admit, you’ve turned me on to some really good ones. Fiasco? That is a great storytelling game. I first saw it played watching an episode of Table Top. You entertained me enough to make me want to go buy it. You use your nerd cred pretty well.

Little did I know until recently that you are also a beer lover. Are you just trying to get into everything that is good in life? If so, you’re doing a great job. Beer and board games really are some of my favorite things. I feel like we can be friends. Can we be friends?

For the rest of you that aren’t Wheaton, or are perhaps having trouble placing who he is, I have two words for you: Wesley Crusher. While likely best known for his portrayal of that Star Trek character, he boasts a lot of roles on his resume, including a lot of voice acting work. He’s done voices in everything from cartoons to video games to podcasts. His web presence is out of control as well with his best-known work there being the web show Table Top, where he plays board games with other celebrities.

While I can see how one could receive the impression that this column is just one big love letter to Wheaton, it does tie into a specific beer. He has taken his love of beer to the next level and conspired with one of my favorite breweries to create something unique. It first happened in 2013 and here I am three years later, trying it for the first time. Collaborating with author and internet personality Drew Curtis, founder of fark.com and the infamous Stone brewing, they created Farkin Wheaton WootStout, a barrel-aged dark brew made with wheat and pecans. Everything about the beer called to me. How could I say no?

The pour was super dark and super thick. No light made its way through the opaque liquid. A tiny bit of gray foam topped this liquid molasses. It looked sticky, like it would more likely drip than pour. It was very appealing, promising great mouth feel from its appearance.

The first thing in the scent was roasted malt and booze. This brew makes no effort to hide its 13 percent ABV. It almost burns in the nose. There is also a good deal of sweetness, almost like cherries. Anything more subtle than that is lost amongst these strong scents.

The taste is great. It is big, dark and boozy. All of those elements mentioned in its description come through, though that big, barrel-raged stout taste is on top. There is certainly a good amount of smoke and wood among the roasted malt. There are also notes of cherries, wheat, molasses and a delightful finish of pecans. The nuttyness adds to the savory sweet mix this brew has. All in all, it’s very satisfying.

Farkin Wheaton Wootstout is quite thick. I almost wanted to chew on it. As is Stone tradition, it’s a big, big brew. I’m glad I had someone to share the 22 ounces with as half of this one was good enough. Wil Wheaton, you have done well once again. Thanks for the beer.

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Liquid: July 28, 2016

Liquid: July 28, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

It’s been a few weeks now. I’m sure you miss it. The blood, the sex, the intrigue … it was a staple of your Sunday night. Most likely, you read this and thought of Game of Thrones. Otherwise, your life is quite a bit more interesting than mine. In which case, good for you. Let me know when your book is coming out.

For the rest of us, however, there is a gap in our souls. Sure, you could try and find some other series to fill it, but who are we kidding? When it comes to filling the empty void inside of us, what works better than beer? At the very least, it is something to do while we wait a very long time for the next season.
If you’ve been reading this column or if you’ve hung out in any half-decent bottle shops, it is likely that you know of the Game of Thrones-themed beers from Brewery Ommegang in New York. They’ve done blonde ales, red ales and stouts. Their “Three-Eyed Raven” dark saison was particularly tasty and unique. As with everything from Ommegang, these beers are well balanced and delicious, always exemplary examples of their particular styles.

This week, I’m trying their latest in this line of brews, Seven Kingdoms Hoppy Wheat Ale. A good wheat ale is one of my favorite summertime drinks, providing that needed thirst-quenching crispness with a good amount of character. Some extra hops never really hurt anything either. Belgian wheat and spice with some American hops sounds like a great union.

First, let’s talk about the pour. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a beer pour as beautifully as this one. Even with a careful tilt and a slow stream of liquid, this brew made copious amounts of beautiful fluffy white head. There was about a good two fingers-worth of that lovely foam. It never really went away, each sip of it having to make its way through that fluffy top. It left thick lacing all the way down the glass. It really was one of the most beautiful pours I’ve seen.

The scent was certainly one of a Belgian wheat beer. There was yeast, biscuity malt, bananas, spice and a bit of lemony citrus. Added to this were some hops.
While it didn’t seem like there was an absurd amount of the flower in the brew, it did seem like there would be enough to make their presence known.

The taste was pretty much perfectly described on the bottle. There was wheat, and there were hops. It was so incredibly clean; each of those ingredients were so distinguishable from the other. I feel like I could have just chewed on a mouthful of wheat and then a mouthful of hops and it would have tasted pretty close to this beer. Words like fresh, crisp and pure come to mind. Sure, there was some lemon and spice too, but this toasty grain-hop combo really takes center stage. The lack of abrasion in the flavor made this hazy brew really quite drinkable. Nothing really stops it from easily going down your throat and into your waiting belly.

This beer is exceptional. It is incredibly well crafted and balanced. If you’re going to fill that iron throne-shaped hole in your soul with booze, this is a great one to pick.

The Seven Kingdoms have never looked better.

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Liquid: July 14, 2016

Liquid: July 14, 2016

Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane

Nine months out of the year, I have no interest in fruit beer. There really isn’t anything appealing about juicy, sweet beers. The one obvious exception to this is pumpkin, but come on. That doesn’t really count. I’m talking about real fruit, like berries and peaches. During the three months of summer, they suddenly become more than palatable. What would be a turn off any other time suddenly becomes an object of desire during the middle of a hot day. Nothing could possibly be more quenching.

A few days ago, I watched a friend’s cat for the day. When she came to pick up the kitty, she brought me a six pack of Abita’s Purple Haze. The first Purple Haze of the year is always a very special thing. To this day, it’s one of the most drinkable beers I’ve ever had the pleasure of passing over my lips. It seems it is always gone before I know what happened to it. While not terribly strong, it makes up for it in how much I tend to drink in a sitting. It is a great session beer.

It touched off the desire in me, however. I wanted more. I wanted something new. There were a few options I found, but one in particular caught my eye. With the name of Liliko’i Kepolo, this brew doesn’t focus on the fruits I’m used to. In a bit of a bold leap, it goes tropical. In Hawaiian, Liliko’i means passion fruit, and that is what this beer is made with.

Kepolo apparently means devil, however. Drinking a passion fruit devil? Yeah, that sounds like a good time. Not all fruit beer is great, however. I’ve had a few that reminded me of Kool-Aid mixed with malt liquor. For every balanced, thirst-quenching brew I’ve had, there has been one that has been overly sweet or strangely acidic. I was hoping this would be a gamble that paid off.

The pour was a light, golden yellow color. There wasn’t much head, but for something with such light body, this isn’t surprising. The scent was certainly passion fruit. It smelled of sweetness with that ever-so-slight funk passion fruit has. There was a little bit of citrus and spice, but this was very much eclipsed by the passion fruit.

The taste was rather similar in that passion fruit was the most noticeable quality. Being a witbier, there was also sweet malt and wheat. This all gave way to a bit of yeast funk, spice and black pepper. Thankfully, the tart and sour end kept it from getting too sweet. While not as sour as a lot of Belgian brews, it was a welcomed quality.

It drank rather easily, just as it should have. I don’t know that I’d want a second one, however. It was a good beer, but perhaps just a little too sweet for me to drink all night. That said, it would be a good one to grill with or to have ice cold after a hot day. There is a lot of summer crammed into that can. After downing it, I almost expected my fingers to be sticky with juices.
Liliko’i Kepolo is certainly a welcome addition to the summertime fruit beer arsenal.