Why Can't More American Pale Ales Taste This Good?

May 22, 2015 0 comments
While most of my beer-buying is done at the local supermarket (our locals have a fairly excellent selection) I came across Newcastle's new variety pack at a nearby BP station, where the proprietor goes out of his way to offer a modest selection of craft and import beers:

"Just let me know what you like, I'll try and get it for you, boss."

The “Best of Britain” Variety 12-Pack contains equal amounts of three ales, including two definitive new styles from the brand--Newcastle British Pale Ale and Newcastle British Session IPA--along with Newcastle Brown Ale, which has always been one of my “predictable, go-to beers.”  The three distinctly Newcastle offerings are intended to “showcase the quality and depth of the Newcastle-Caledonian partnership and capitalize on the growing demand for variety among consumers.”

So much for marketing strategy. My main concern would be how the two new offerings would taste, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s probably important to preface this review with the fact that I am NOT a big IPA drinker; in fact, I almost never buy American IPA’s because (for the most part) I find them over-hopped and overly bitter for my palate. I’m also not a big fan of some varieties of American hops, which seem to get shoveled into those IPA’s relentlessly. I know a generation of young drinkers have been told that these IPA’s are delicious. Good for them. Open a Bottle and Carry On.

Back to the Newcastle Variety Pack.  The newcomers include a Newcastle British Pale Ale (5.8% ABV, 39 IBUs) and a Newcastle British Session IPA (5.1% ABV, 45 IBUs).

I tried the Session IPA first—realizing that even at just 5.1% ABV, it’s not technically a Session Ale at all (needs to be 4% or under. If you doubt me, ask @D_I_N_G on Twitter). It had a lovely copper hue, manageable bitterness, and an aromatic nose; a nice balance overall--and as I was outside opening the pool on the first weekend in May--notably refreshing.

The British Pale Ale was actually a little better. A little more of the same, with a rich gold color, a little more body and a citrusy-finish that I found particularly appealing. The higher alcohol level was not really that apparent, but what was apparent to me was that I could drink quite a bit of either one of these ales.

I was happy to have come across them, but was also wondering how long these Caledonian offerings would be available. I was also wondering to myself “why can’t more American pale ales taste this good?”

I’m sure there are some that do. If you’ve tried either of these Newcastle-Caledonian offerings and want to suggest a similar offering from one of our American craft breweries, please send me an email or a tweet with your suggestions.
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November 12, 2014 0 comments
I feel I'd be pretty confident in saying that my seasonal beer drinking habits are probably in line with most serious beer drinkers. After a summer-full of lighter pilsners, lemon-and lime infused beers, wheat bears and other hot-weather styles, the shorter days and falling leaves lead me to darker, heavier, more full-flavored beers and ales.

Not having to worry about sitting for hours in the hot sun, brown ales, smokey porters and rich stouts get added to the shopping list--along with pumpkin ales, spicy holiday brews and even some hoppier ales, depending on the activity and the menu choices. This is also the time of year I make more trips to the grocery myself, where I can usually put together a "build your own" 6-pack of individual beers I'd like to try (keeps me from making $10 "mistakes") and also grab an occasional 22oz bottle of something special.

Most fall and winter weeknights, I'll enjoy a bottle or two while reading or watching TV; often checking the Twitter stream and surfing for beer-related news and commentary. I generally don't do in-depth beer reviews (there are enough of these already) but I will usually tweet a brief comment on what I'm tasting, some initial impressions and also--whether I might drink it again. 

So far, I've come across few beers I would describe as "bad." If I express any negative comments about a beer, it would be more likely that it's not particularly true to stye, or that I don't find it quite as "remarkable" as some other people do. In other cases, I mind not find  a beer's taste so pleasing, but I am also willing to chalk that up to personal preference--especially where high IBUs are concerned.

Weekends are a little different. I'm a big NFL and NCAA football fan, so that naturally pairs with beer-drinking. If I'm at the neighborhood sports bar--to which I can thankfully walk--I might settle in with a Yuengling (buck a bottle on Thursdays) and if I am home, a sessionable brown ale or dark lager. Regardless of how good the game might be, I wouldn't try to pound a lot of heavy, high ABV craft beers, and I don't think you would, either.

It's early in this "dark season." My favorite so far has clearly been Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout, which was incredibly rich and dessert-like. In fact, I know I will be serving a small glass of this this along with dessert at some holiday dinner party. I found Breckenridge Brewery's Vanilla Porter to be quite good as well; very smooth and subtle.

I have just started checking out Christmas ales as they are now coming out. Locally, Akron's own Thirsty Dog puts out an excellent 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale, though I found Great Lakes Brewing Company's Christmas Ale to be just slightly smoother in terms of the spice combination. What that really boils down to is that I might drink two of one and three of the other at Christmas dinner.

Happily, Hoppin' Frog Brewery is about a mile from my house, and it wouldn't be winter without a few of their Imperial Stouts, Porters and Scotch Ales. They've always been major belly-warmers; the perfect thing for a cold winter night in front of the fireplace, nodding off during an episode of Brew Dogs.

Though I am not a particular fan of most IPAs, I am intrigued by some of the darker, so-called "black" IPA's I've seen, and am determined to give them a try some time soon. In fact, if you have any good suggestions, let me know.

This time of year, the beers are lovely, dark and deep.  But there are so damn many to drink. 
Let's get to work.
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November 1, 2014 0 comments
I came across a ridiculous rant the other day on Deadspin, where Will Gordon (does he pronounce that "Gor-DON" - like in the Sprint commercials?) rails against Stella Artois being a disgrace to Belgian beer. Apparently he was disappointed in getting an older sample, which may have been a little skunky. It happens, although getting a truly bad bottle is a little less common than it was in the past.

I've had a decent Stella or two over the years - mostly on tap - and anyone who knows beer clearly knows that Belgium produces a wonderful array of beers that are far superior, by anyone's standard. Of course, that's pretty much the case in any country, including the USA; there are plenty of smaller breweries delivering a better product than the larger, more popular brands. So much for stating the obvious.

What I really found irritating in the article is that he seems to be basing his opinion primarily on the simple fact that since the brand is owned by a large beer holding company like InBev, it must be horrible. Most of the post is spent trashing big beer in general - about three paragraphs. Eventually, he gets around to actually, "reviewing" the beer, which he usefully describes as "skunked and awful."   Nuff said; I'm all for tight editing.

He ends the article with this out-of-breath zinger:

Belgium's continued production of Stella Artois is an affront to human decency. All the waffles and Westvleteren in the world can not make up for this crime against beer.

Well, then...
"A crime against beer?"  Really? All in all, Godon's take is really sophomoric, and typical of so many rants I hear from hipsters about how terrible any product must be if it's from a "large" brewery. Or more accurately, ANY brewery - small or large - that happens to be owned by a big, international holding company.

This seems to be the prevailing attitude: Is your brewery producing beer by the same methods it was before you were purchased by that big international conglomerate? Doesn't matter - the minute you signed on the dotted line, your beer became swill. At the very least, it's not "worthy" of our consumption, and the hard-working people who have been making your beer are traitors to the craft beer movement.

Now, I am sure there are examples where the perceived quality, or the formulation, may have been compromised for "the product formerly known as craft." It can happen. One supportive commenter on the article I am mentioning pointed out that Red Hook is now a shadow of its former self since being taken over by Craft Brew Alliance. I have to wonder if that's view is based on his "beer politics" or a blind tasting.

It's similar to a guy I know who, upon occasion,  used to drive over to PA to bring back a couple cases of Yuengling, because "it's really good beer" and you couldn't get it in Ohio at the time. Today, success allows those folks to also claim the title of "largest American-owned brewery" in addition to being the oldest.  The result? Yuengling's popularity has now earned the disdain of some craft beer sophisticates. That seems a little unfair.

Before I go any further, let's get this straight: I support and love Craft Beer. The movement here in the US and in other countries is providing beer lovers with access to an incredible array of great beers and ales, better overall beer knowledge and lots of good jobs. I've been drinking beer for forty years, and I remember when -- if you wanted something better than a Bud, your only other choices were a Molson, a Heineken, a Bass Pale Ale, or a St. Pauli Girl.

Hell yes, things are way better now.

We're getting more variety, improved quality, new flavors and more freshness. The interest in beer, the non-stop calendar of beer-related events, the increased appreciation of beer as a food product, and even the realization of beer as a cultural phenomenon makes this an exciting time.

But let's not get lost in the reality of what's in the glass. I'm not buying into this need to automatically "rip" some beer because it's not made by a handful of bearded guys in an old warehouse, or cooked up in a farmhouse and sold in 22oz. bottles. Even the so-called "craft wannabees" are way better than the swill we had available 35 years ago.

In the end, the question for me is not so much - "is it really a craft beer?" - as is it is" "Is it really a good beer?"  One seems to be a question of production method, philosophy and marketing. The latter is a simple result, and not exclusively dependent on the former.

I don't drink beer as a political statement. I drink it because I enjoy it, and it [usually] tastes good. Just because a beer brand may be owned by a big company, doesn't automatically disqualify it from my appreciation. For the same reason - any so-called "Craft Beer" doesn't get a free pass just because it was produced in a small quantity, by seemingly dedicated beer-lovers. They can make nasty beer, too - and I've had a few.

Having made beer myself, I can appreciate the time and effort that goes into it, and the skill required to brew up a drinkable product - several dozen or several thousand barrels at a time. It's all I can do to knock out five tasty gallons.

Producing a great beer can be a serious matter. But it is beer, after all. No need to take it's enjoyment quite so seriously.

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October 27, 2014 0 comments
Not sure why, but Fall has always been my favorite time of year to brew beer. The air gets cooler; stronger, more flavorful beers call out to my palate; and the upcoming feasts of the holiday season demand memorable home-made beers to match the great food. Invariably, I will start things out with a batch of Brown English-style ale and progress to more complex, holiday ales as December approaches.

This year seems no different, I started out with a brown ale kit I picked up a month or so ago at my local homebrewing store, The Grape & Granary. Up till now, I had mostly brewed all-extract brews of this type and have always been happy with the results. This kit included some specialty grains for steeping--which added another extra step to the process, but one which I hope will make a notable improvement.

I had anticipated a long time getting the kettle up to boil; it was easy enough to get the water up to 150 degrees or so for steeping the grain. But even on my commercial-grade range, it seemed to take forever when it came time to get the wort up to a rolling boil after adding the extract and bittering hops. I rigged up a colander and some coffee filter paper in an attempt to strain out most of the solids from the wart--but the results were mixed, due to the added grain.  As I wait out the primary fermentation, I'll have to consider a more reliable method to remove the remaining "silt."

For now, the wort is working in the basement...the yeast is really cranking and you can see the rolling action as fermentation builds inside the 5 gallon acrylic fermenter. It's always fun to watch, but I'm already planning my next batch; something more of a "Christmas Style" ale.

To that end, I'm looking at adding a couple of smaller fermenters; the 2-gallon BrewDemon Conical models have caught my eye, and they might just be the ticket. A recent issue of Brew Your Own magazine had an interesting article about the advantages of brewing smaller batches--there's the matter of convenience, time savings, and less investment lost if a batch doesn't turn out "as expected." It's a little easier to experiment with new ideas and flavors, too.

I bottle-condition most of my beers and make labels for them, which is almost as much fun as drinking the beer. While I often have a name and type in mind, I usually wait until tasting a sample to make my final decision on this, since the final taste and flavor characteristics will often influence the choice of name and label graphics.

Thus, if you ever see a bottle of Bedpan Brown Ale in my refrigerator, you'll know the final results were probably less than expected.

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September 15, 2014 0 comments
Seems almost every-other tweet I see over the past day or so has to do with Heineken's rejection of an SABMiller takover bid. Now, beer industry watchers everywhere are breathlessly predicting a new round of mergers between the world's mega-brewers.

For most craft beer drinkers, the issue is moot. They don't drink that stuff anyway. Most watch with a degree of satisfaction as the market share of the large industrial brewers continues to slip while the number of microbrewers and craft breweries continue to expand almost daily. It's like watching the slow end of the Age of Dinosaurs--remembering, of course, that it took a long, long time for them to finally become extinct.

Some observers are already predicting a possible purchase of SABMiller by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which--for nostalgia's sake alone--would be slightly disappointing. For someone older like me, it's just hard to accept that the Gog and Magog of the brewing universe would ever be joined together. The huge international brewing conglomerates have long been blamed for everything that was wrong in the beer world. But they were not always so huge.

I can remember when brands like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Strohs, Pabst, Schlitz, Carling, Hamms and others were all separate entities. Yes, they all brewed a similar product, which was generally undistinguished in overall character--but an experienced palate could still tell the difference between them.

When there wasn't a huge variety of beer available, the concept of a "Champagne of Bottled Beers" seemed to have some merit. I may not have been clear about the advantages of being "fire-brewed"...but a cold bottle of Stroh's was not such a bad thing--especially if it belonged to your dad, and you thought he might not miss one if you snuck it out of the fridge. One of the most enjoyable beers I can remember was a fresh, tasty Black Label I had at the Frankenmuth Carling Brewery tasting room back in 1983.

That brewery is no longer there. It's gone, now. Just like a lot of other things.

But that's not a lament. In may ways, things are better for American beer drinkers now than they've ever been--at least in my lifetime.

I still drink a lot of "major" imports along with my craft beers, and I really don't care who owns them, since they generally taste just as good as they did 30 years ago. I do refuse to drink almost any domestic light beer, with the exception of Bud Light Lime, which is a mainstay in my pool on a hot summer afternoon, along with Corona and Modelo. I don't automatically "write off" any product that comes from a large brewery, just because it comes from a large brewery. I drink for satisfaction, not to make a political statement.

I sit here now writing this and watching Monday Night Football with a Miller Fortune next to me. It's not a superb beer, but it's decent, not over-hopped, and reasonably priced. I'll save my better craft beers and local offerings for the weekend, and time with friends.

As for the dinosaurs, well--I guess it takes one to know one.

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September 14, 2014 0 comments
I would never say hops are a bad thing. They're an essential part of beer--and well used, are critical to imparting great aroma and flavor to our beers and ales.

But the current tendency in American Craft Brewing seems to be adding hops to the point where they often dominate the taste profile...and where their over-use almost becomes an end in itself. As a result we are left with double and triple-IPAs, "Hoppinators," "Hoppus Maximus," "Hop Killers," etc. etc.

While some of these beers are fine for sampling, their bitterness and "hit you on the head with a hammer" qualities make them impractical for any type of session drinking, and I've found many to be almost undrinkable. (I've had some beers that were loaded with so much Simcoe that I thought someone had poured a cap full of PineSol into my beer.) At best, I find myself saying - "Well, that's good, but I couldn't drink more than one."

For those who like these kinds of beers, fine. But my worry is that this hop craze is having a detrimental effect on Craft Beer overall--to the point where the high-hop focus is insinuating itself into beer styles that are not traditionally hoppy. Even experienced craft brewers seem to be falling into this trap. I've always loved GLBC beers, but over the years, I find their offerings all morphing into a very similar hop taste profile. Over the past year, I've had an Oktoberfest and a Pilsner from them that were far too hoppy for the claimed style--and many other quality craft brewers seem to be heading in the same direction.

It's easy to think that the hop-craze we've seen here in the US might have filtered into our general approach to brewing. A lot of Americans under 35 have become accustomed to highly-hopped beers...perhaps to the point where brewers feel a certain amount of bitterness is required if the beer is going to "taste right" to those folks. If so, that would be a shame--since those of us that don't need a ton of hops in our beer to know we are drinking a good one will be forced to suffer.

Of course, I'm not the first to complain, and I won't be the last. It may get worse before it gets better. I've heard about an upcoming hop shortage (we can only hope) - but then I am also reading so many articles about how many people are growing hops in the US now (and why not, you can grow them in your backyard) that it seems inevitable that more and more are going to end up dumped into our beer by the bushel-full. Why? Just because we have them.

I'm beginning to think US brewers should do us a favor and label some of these beers "American Oktoberfest,"  "American Helles," etc. -- so we get fair warning that we shouldn't expect these beers to adhere to the traditional beer styles at all; that they have been "hop-boosted" to please what they have come to believe is the common American preference.

That way, they would not disappoint experienced beer drinkers who are expecting something more refined, subtle and well...traditional.

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