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BEER NOTES FOR LATE SUMMER / EARLY FALL

September 21, 2016 0 comments
Summer or Fall, any time is a great time for beer.
It's been a little while since I posted so I thought I’d share some thoughts about a few of the brews I’ve enjoyed recently…

Hoppin’ Frog | Can Fred Karm even make a bad beer? I don’t think so. My only issue with Fred’s treats is that I just can’t drink a lot of them; the rich flavors are so intense, the alcohol is up there, and the cost—well, let’s just say they are not cheap—but they are worth the price. During the summer I often enjoy lighter stuff like his Turbo Shandy, and his light/dark berry brews. My wife, who is a habitual Miller Lite drinker, has definitely taken a shine to Outta Kilter and Karminator. I guess it’s never too late to change your beer habits. On our most recent visit, I tried one of his concoctions with Peanut Butter, Chocolate/Coffee and it was truly a new experience. Perfectly balanced, the PB came through clearly but did not overwhelm the overall taste profile. I look forward to trying it again. I also had a pint of the Oktoberfest, which was just being rolled out on the Saturday afternoon we visited. It was very solid, with a distinct character; at first I thought the hop bitterness was slightly higher than the style demanded, but after a few more sips I came around to the notion that it was pretty spot on.

I cornered Fred across the room where he was spinning some records and asked him for some suggestions for something I could store in our basement. I built a wine/beer storage cellar under the stairway—most of it is against the solid concrete outer wall, and the temperature stays fairly cool and steady throughout the season. We settled on a BORIS the Crusher Oatmeal Stout and a Silk Porter as a good place to start; Fred said they should do well for at least 9 months, maybe more. I doubt if they will make it past the holidays.

Sweetwater Hop Hash | I keep trying to give IPAs a fair shake, but I keep coming back to the realization that this is not the way beers were intended to taste. My best friend has this stuff from time-to-time; I thought their standard IPA wasn’t bad (the bitterness was light, and dissipated quickly off the tip of the tongue) and I do like their Blue, but the Hop Hash just solidified my overall preference not to drink beers with “hop” in the name. If you like this stuff, it’s not bad.

Gervasi Vinyards Farmhouse Ale | This popular winery is a great place to visit, but go for the wine, not the beer. I tried the Farmhouse Ale (bottled) but it turned out to be a pretty standard, hoppy IPA with no unique or notable characteristics. I was expecting something more interesting, and maybe a little “rougher around the edges” taste-wise. The ale is contract brewed for Gervasi by Thirsty Dog in Akron, who generally makes excellent beers. This one, maybe not so much. I switched to Peroni for my second beer.

Short’s Soft Parade | This is a high gravity brew that’s loaded with four different kinds of berries. While it does exhibit definite fruitiness, the malt also manages to balance out the tartness and makes for a very smooth sipper with just enough of a note of alcohol to remind you that it’s 9% ABV. That’s not a lot, but it means you can’t knock back two or three of these like you could a more typical “berry beer.” A substantial and memorable ale, I was glad to find that this top Michigan brewer was now available in Northeast Ohio. It’s brewed in Bellaire, just a little north of Traverse City—if you ever have a chance, be sure to visit. You may never come back.

Stiegl Lager | I had enjoyed this beer before going to Germany last May, but when we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, the Stiegl Brewery immediately made it on the “must see” list, and we enjoyed both their brewing museum tour and a fine dinner in their central courtyard/bier garten, which was crowded and fun. We sampled several of their beers, all of which were excellent, but I keep coming back to their standard lager, which has become one of my go-to German styles. I also enjoyed a 6-pack of their Grapefruit Radler this summer, which is great for sitting in the hot sun by the pool. Or in the pool.
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ANOTHER FALL SEASON OF BREWING BECKONS

August 10, 2016 0 comments
I generally brew my beer in the Fall; something about the season always feels right, and the thought of entering the Holiday Season with some special beers on hand makes a lot of sense to me. Fall being harvest time also seems appropriate, especially when considering complimentary flavors that might be added. Note—that does not include pumpkin.
My brew tools are pretty rudimentary and common to most home brewers:  a 6-gallon clear fermenter, brew pots, plastic pails for bottling and secondary fermentation, large bottles, small bottles, an ancient capper—you name it. All this and a handful of books on brewing plus a great local supply shop, The Grape & Granary, provide me with just about everything I need.

Once in a while, however, I come across something new that piques my interest, and so it was with the BrewDemon 2.5-gallon Conical Fermenter. Till now, I’ve always brewed in 5-gallon batches, but I was attracted to the idea of brewing smaller batches, which would allow for a little more frequent experimentation with recipes and new styles. I ordered mine from Amazon with some birthday gift money as well as some spare airlocks and a BrewDemon kit to make one 2.5-gallon batch of Brown Ale, which remains my go-to drink of choice.

For whatever reason, I’ve preferred the beers I’ve made with extract over the last batch I made from a kit that included dry malts and steeped grains. The latter, while good, had more of the roasted malt taste that I associate with American Brown Ales, rather than the sweet, caramel-malt “fruitiness” that typifies good English Brown Ales. My goal with the first batch here is to try and replicate my past efforts, which normally result in a fresh, rich and sessionable Brown Ale, similar to Newcastle, but better. Currently, I’m considering what modest additions I might add to this kit to ensure just a little more body and taste.

I’ll let you know how this works out. I’m also looking at what comes next—I am thinking about some type of rich Harvest Ale, a Holiday Porter, and at least one or two other styles that I can store long term. Over the last winter, I completed building a wine/beer storage cellar under the basement stairs, and it’s been waiting for some occupants. Time to get to work!
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JUST SAY NO TO HOP MADNESS

May 20, 2016 0 comments
I’ve been grousing about the infestation of IPAs into American Beer Culture for some time now, as well as the fact that so many US craft brewers seem to have no clue in how to use them correctly. This attitude was strengthened even more after a recent trip to Germany, Switzerland, Alsace and Austria—where I was actually able to enjoy a number of different beers. While they varied quite a bit in their color, taste and strength, they all seemed to have one thing in common—they were largely formulated with varying combinations of beer’s four main ingredients: Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast.

I’ve often been of a mind that most US craft brewers should first dedicate themselves to learning how to make a solid, well-balanced beer with just these four ingredients before jumping into trendy stuff like pumpkin ales, sours, hop-bombs, chocolate or peanut-butter ales, or any other exotic style. There are a very few US craft brewers who can successfully pull this wizardry off (my local brewery, Hoppin’ Frog, comes to mind) but the truth is, this “everything and the kitchen sink” approach can offer plenty of style and little substance. It also offers some brewers with limited skill a convenient place to hide—behind a truckload of ingredients that can camouflage an otherwise less-than-stellar brew.

After being reminded of what simple, fresh and delicious beer tastes like, it’s easy to get tired of so-called “experts” telling me that I just don’t “get” the appeal of hops, or have “too weak a palate” to appreciate all these bold, bitter hop flavors. What a load of bullshit.

“You need to train your palate to appreciate these bitter hop flavors.” More bullshit. I suppose I could slip a dab of poop into my ham sandwich every once in a while and build up a tolerance. What does that prove other than I have developed a taste for shit?

First of all, I’ve been drinking beer long before some of these morons were even born; and most of it was good beer, not just the swill that the macro-brewers have been foisting upon us for the last 65 years. It’s true that for much of that period, imports were the best and most popular route to quality beer, at least until the late 1970’s and early 80’s. At that time, microbreweries were just beginning to appear and some of the larger brewers responded to the rise of imports by rolling out premium lines and bringing back some old brew house recipes that offered more flavor. And back then, most imports were really imported—not brewed in the US under contract. I believe I developed a fairly sophisticated palate over 40+ years of beer drinking, and while my taste buds and sniffer might not be as good as they used to be, I’d like to think I know what beer is supposed to taste like.

And I’ll be damned if you try to convince me that it’s supposed to taste like turpentine. Or Pine Sol.

Unfortunately, we have a whole generation of beer drinkers who have been marketing-brainwashed into thinking that this is exactly how good beer is supposed to taste; utterly convinced that these “bold” flavors have been missing from beer for generations. Of course the convincing has been done by some craft brewers who have built a reputation on hop-bombing the Western Hemisphere, and US hop-growers who only want to expand the market for their goods.

Now the usual response to my view is always – “Well, if you don’t like it, just don’t drink it.” And that sounds reasonable, until you realize that the tidal wave of IPAs has pushed a vast number of great alternatives off the store shelves. It’s getting harder to obtain beers I actually like. The local super-grocers offer dozens and dozens of IPAs in their cooler, both in 6-packs and in single bottle (“build your own 6-pack”) selections. But where before I could choose from among 10 or 15 English ales, or 18 different German beers, or a few dozen other imports, or some reliable, high-quality domestic beers, now I can only find a handful (cold) and maybe a few more (warm) on the store shelf.

Yes, there are a number of US Craft Beer offerings that are not IPAs, it is true; but the simple fact is—I don’t trust a lot of these brews to deliver on their promises. Many are not “true to style”. Many are still over-hopped, as brewers end up massaging their entire brewery lineup to cater to the “hop-forward” tastes of today. I’d be happy to give some a test shot, but I’m not going to buy a $12 6-pack to experiment—or give away later.

Other bozos will try and make some technical argument that bitterness is not always associated with hops. They add fragrance and aroma, too. Yes, I know that. And I will respond by simply stating that, while yes—a beer with extra hops does not always have a bitter taste, the other side of the coin is simply this: almost every beer that tastes too bitter is the result of being over-hopped.

Or the result of using the wrong hops. I really do think a lot of craft brewers are using hop varieties for taste that should only be used for aroma. For example, let me be clear in stating that while Pine-like flavors may lend a nice aroma, they have absolutely no place in beer taste.

Have you ever had smoked meat or fish? Have you ever wondered why expert barbeque masters only use hard woods like oak, hickory, mesquite or cherry on their fires? Did you notice that they never use pine wood? The reason is simple: pine leaves a sharp, resinous and wholly unpleasant taste in the mouth that ruins food. No grillmaster with a brain uses it. Why would you want to put that taste in your mouth via beer?

Again, we see generations of simple knowledge and proven experience go by the wayside, as idiots try to convince us that this is actually a good taste for beer to have. I’ll be honest and also admit that I have found few American hop varieties that I appreciate as much as traditional, noble hop European varieties. I’m sure there are some good ones, but it’s hard to judge when they are being used by the boxcar load.

Do I sound grouchy? Good. Then you’re catching on.

Just as lame arguments break on the rocks of four decades of beer drinking experience, the same can be said for trendy brewing approaches that go against the grain of several hundred years of beer brewing tradition. Just how bitter can a beer be, anyway—before it becomes palate-tiring, overwhelming and undrinkable?

Ever had a real, traditional English IPA? Bass dropped the “India” from its “Pale Ale” some years ago, but the taste hasn’t changed all that much over the years; this style was never intended to be as bitter as the stuff that has been pushed on us today in the US. Ever had an English “bitter”? Try a Fullers ESB. The bitterness is subtle; it embellishes the taste and balances the malt. It doesn’t overwhelm it. Same with a genuine Pilsner, which has slightly more bitterness than a typical Lager.

Hey, if you wanna drink this bitter swill—go ahead. Pay $12 a 6-pack or $8 a pint and support the Hipster Brewmaster & Organic Hop-Grower’s Retirement Fund. Of course IPAs are selling so well, but what do you expect when (aside from Macro-Brew) that’s mostly what you find on today's store shelf? It’s a self-fulfilling cycle—and a cycle that’s making it harder to obtain truly good, honest beers that have been enjoyed for decades.

For the craft brewers who are focusing on innovative, well-balanced stouts, tasty porters and drinkable ales that people can actually enjoy, my hat is off to you. Continue to innovate, and please resist the urge to obscure the tastes you’ve worked hard to develop by wrapping them in an overly-bitter hop shroud. Hopefully this hop madness will wear off, the pendulum will swing in the other direction and more brewers will come to their senses—not to mention beer drinkers who haven’t had enough experience to know any better.

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BEER & BOATS: A SUMMER DAY ON THE PORTAGE LAKES

August 6, 2015 0 comments
THE DECK AT ON TAP - WEST RESERVOIR - PORTAGE LAKES
Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of hosting a couple of my old college pals for a relaxing day on the Portage Lakes—a chain of several inland lakes just a mile or so south of Akron. One of my friends is a younger brother to the Conways of Great Lakes Brewing Co. fame, so it was no surprise that he showed up at my house with a cooler filled with 12 bottles of their new Sharpshooter Session Wheat IPA.

While that was indeed a wonderful gesture, I explained to him that the Portage Lakes, being state-owned lakes, do not allow alcohol on board any vessels. At all.

My friend, who primarily boats on Lake Erie, was unaware of this, since on the Great Lakes, it is ok to have and consume alcoholic beverages on board (except if you’re the captain and operating the boat – your BAL must not exceed the legal limit).

That noted, the three of us left the cooler at my backyard Tiki bar and headed off to The Lakes, where we scored our pontoon and set off to check out the various restaurants and watering holes that can be found there. The weather was beautiful; mid-80’s, a mild breeze and total sunshine—in other words, perfect boating weather.

I won’t get into all the details of our trip; as captain of the boat, I was obviously designated as the responsible party in terms of consumption, which was very limited. However, a couple of beer highlights did include a sample of the previously-mentioned GLBC’s new Sharpshooter Session Wheat IPA as well as the delicious Founders Brewing Rubaeus Raspberry Ale.

The Sharpshooter was a pleasant surprise; I’ve always made it clear I’m not a fan of many IPA’s—most American versions are too bitter for my taste. Wheat beers are also not on my regular list…while some are refreshing, others are a little too highly spiced, or have a shade too much clove flavor for my taste. The GLBC product was bright and well-balanced; clearly a wheat ale, but not overly-hopped, as there was little if any residual bitterness. At a shade over 4% ABV, it qualifies (in America) as a Session ale. Just a touch of citrus fruitiness made it quite refreshing, and I was intrigued by the Jarrylo hops—a dwarf hop variety with which I was not previously familiar. I wouldn’t mind home brewing with those.

The other beer I particularly enjoyed was the Founders Rubeaus. I had first sampled this a couple of weeks prior during a brief stop at The Highland Tavern and enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it even more sitting at On Tap (formerly The Harbor Inn) on West Reservoir, which was packed with happy people enjoying the sunshine.

Normally, I like my berry-beers on the mild side, with just enough berry flavor to offer some character and extra refreshment. The Rubaeus goes all-in, however—exploding in your mouth with a generous sweet-and-tart fresh raspberry taste and a clean, dry finish. The aroma is deliciously fruity, as you might expect, and the color is a brilliant red. If I hadn’t been captain of the boat, I would have enjoyed more than one.

We were able to stop at a couple of other spots as well, such as The Upper Deck and The Nauti Vine (which makes its own beer) – so my friends had ample opportunity to see (and taste) what The Portage Lakes has to offer. There are some other fun places out here too, like Dusty’s Landing, Dietz's Landing and Howie’s on the Lake, which we did not have time to visit.

Overall, this is a great summertime spot to go, whether by sea or by land. My friends, who hail from the Cleveland area, had never been here before, and they thought the atmosphere similar to the (old) Cleveland Flats or even Put-in-Bay (though not quite as rowdy; the crowd here skews a little older).

Most of the places here have a beer selection to fit any taste—but you have to keep in mind the waters are patrolled, so boat captains must be responsible and operate safely. The lakes and the connecting channels can get crowded on warm summer weekends, so it’s important for you or someone in your group to be operating the boat with a clear head. That said, you must check this area out.
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BUDWEISER BASHES CRAFT BEER: BECAUSE IT CAN

July 20, 2015 0 comments
Once the brewing giant AB InBev started throwing shade on the craft beer movement, the craft beer world was understandably up in arms over the insult. In response, those who make and enjoy craft beers continue to hammer the brewing behemoth—most notably for the company’s clear hypocrisy: making fun of craft beer and its adherents while heavily investing in small, independent craft breweries and trying to position some of those products as “craft.”

The fact is, I’ve often made fun of Budweiser myself. Even though it was one of the first beers I ever consumed, there is no sense of nostalgia associated with it—in fact, my memories are usually associated with post-party headaches (I used to blame the beechwood aging).

What has been a little surprising is the fact that after taking its initial shots, AB InBev has doubled down on its “let’s-chide-craft-beer-lovers” strategy, with new ads that celebrate Bud’s macro heritage.

With macro-brew sales slipping, this might seem like a pointless effort. But in reality, I don’t see what choice the mega-brewers have. As Chris Morris noted in a recent Fortune post, Bud is really preaching to the choir now—reinforcing the behaviors of long-time Bud drinkers who are slow to try anything new, and who generally see beer as a high-volume commodity, not something to be sipped and savored.

This might not increase sales, but it may help slow the erosion of its market.

After all, not everyone is an experienced or educated beer drinker. Some people simply like to drink LOTS of beer, and they cannot or will not pay craft beer prices. While there are lots of fine craft beer bars here in Akron, for example—I would also tell you that for every one of those, there are 8-10 other bars that slam out innumerable bottles of Bud and Miller Lite and Coors Light each and every night.

Sure, their customers may have briefly switched to Yuengling after it first became available in Ohio, but now the novelty has worn off and they are back to their old standby.

For these consumers (and boy, do they consume) it has always been about quantity over quality. To make the appeal clearer, you could plan out your weekly bar stops here in town and probably enjoy your “Dollar Domestics” night somewhere—at least five nights a week. That’s five or six 12 oz. bottles of beer for the price of a pint of something much better. That is, if you care about better.

The Bud ads are the equivalent of saying “Yeah—who’s the smart guy now? Six beers for the price of One? And ours will wash down that burger just as good.”

Most of us know the truth about quality. But this is the line of thinking that AB InBev is taking in speaking to its target audience. This is the same audience that ran the Sam Adams Rebel IPA off the tap at one of my local bars, after no one bought it and the barmaid characterized it as “undrinkable.” I know there was nothing wrong with it per se, only that it was a bitter, highly hopped IPA that was totally foreign to the palates of the “regular beer drinkers” who frequent that bar—and was quickly rejected.

It’s the same mind-set that takes umbrage at anyone trying to tell them what they are “supposed-to” like:
“Dammit, my dad drank Bud, and it was good enough for him. I’ve enjoyed it for years, and dammit, I’ll be dammed if any liberal, smart-alecky, thinks-he’s-better-than-me SOB is gonna tell me what I should drink or like. Same damn people that wanna take away my guns, tell me I gotta like gay people, or tell me where or when I can have a smoke. Hell with them. Give me another Bud.”

...then he goes out to his pickup with the Rebel Flag mudflaps and cranks up some Bro Country CD.

Okay – this characterization may be a little unfair. A similar attitude could be found with the college kid that never grew up; raised on dorm fridges filled with Bud, or PBR, or Busch—it may be all he ever feels the need to drink. The college degree did not include the finer points of beer brewing or consumption.

This is precisely why it may take years or decades before Big Beer cedes a really substantial portion of the market to craft beer. It took Prohibition, decades of TV advertising, force-of-habit, more advertising, and macro-beer economics to get to where we are today. The attitudes of most macro-beer consumers may never change, and AB InBev’s ad strategy seems to be designed to ensure that any change, if it does come, will come at the slowest rate possible.
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A BEAUTIFUL BEER WEEKEND IN MICHIGAN: PART TWO

July 13, 2015 0 comments
BOATS LIKE THIS AT BOYNE THUNDER: X 100
Well, after we left Bellaire, you might have thought the beer highlights of our trip were over. But not so. Our ultimate destination on Friday was Boyne City, at the far eastern end of Lake Charlevoix. While the Boyne Thunder Poker Run is on Saturday, the Main Street organization organizes a great street party, where people come from all over to check out awesome powerboats, cool cars and rat rods, as well as listen to some great music by the lake. Boyne city is one of those “perfect small towns” in which you can easily imagine yourself living.

We took in the sights, sounds and smells of the street party, stopped in at The Sportsman for a beer, then wandered into Boyne Country Provisions, a great wine/beer emporium and market. The carry-out beer choices here are incredible, and their individual bottle selection really shines – plus, you can mix-and-match a 6-pack and get 10% off, which is pretty standard at most bottle shops now.
After a walk over to the docks to gawk at the boats that would be participating in the poker run, we headed back to Boyne Mountain resort for the night. The next morning, we headed back to Boyne City, to see some more of the 100 boats making the run and then watch them run their “parade lap” off the seawall before heading west down the lake towards Charlevoix.

This is really an experience to see; you’ve got about 100 big boats, most are powered by twin engine big-block V-8s, but some of these monsters have triple engines, turbine engines, and multiple outboard engines. When they all start up, it’s gotta be as loud (if not louder) than any NASCAR race. They slowly roll out onto the lake to get into formation, which takes about 45 minutes; then they get up to speed—throwing 100-foot roostertails—and run past the lighthouse point seawall, around 150 yards out, at about 60-70 mph.  They would go faster (a lot of these boats can do over 100mph or close to it) but the resulting boat wakes would create multiple small tsunamis and drench the spectators at the seawall. As it was, we still got splashed a couple of times!

After this experience, it was time to drive west over to Charlevoix—where there’s a nice harbor and a narrow channel that allows access to Lake Michigan. At this point I have to mention that the weather was perfect. Low-to-mid 80’s…not a cloud in the sky…and little to no breeze, which made wave conditions great for the boaters.

OK. Now for the Beer…

THE PATIO AT LAKE CHARLEVOIX BREWING CO.
After perusing all the great stuff available at the annual Arts & Crafts fair in Downtown Charlevoix, we headed over to Lake Charlevoix Brewing Company and parked ourselves on the patio overlooking the marina. The brewery here is just a few months old; there’s also a newer tap-house next door—both places are excellent for soaking up the sun and some suds.

The wife and I managed to grab the last seat on the patio. There was no umbrella at our table, which is not so bad (I tan well) but drinking beer in the hot sun can catch up to you after a few. Nevertheless, I started with a Nutty Hobo, an excellent brown ale that went down ultra smooth; nice caramel touches, without the harsh hoppy bite that you might find in some American brown ales. As I've said before, it's a matter of preference--and where brown ales are concerned, I prefer malty over hoppy.

FRANKENMUTH BREWERY
After that, I switched to the Michigan Bleached Blondie, which was a nicely balanced, refreshing blonde with a slightly sweet, malty finish. Perfect for sitting in the sun on a hot day, great for drinking more than one—and I did. We tried the Liquor Store Nachos, which were great (slathered in cheese and smoked pulled pork) – a perfect pairing with the cold beer. Did I mention the service was excellent?

At this point we needed some walking and some time to recover so we could make our next stop. We considered overnighting in Charlevoix, but the wife talked me into a 3-hr drive south to Frankenmuth, MI—another great beer town and tourist destination. Years ago, there used to be a large Carling Brewery here, as well as the local Frankenmuth Brewery, which still runs a great and very popular operation. Thankfully, some of their products are available in Akron, though I was intent on trying some new styles if I could.


THE BAVARIAN INN - FRANKENMUTH, MI
So we headed off, got to town about dinnertime, checked into a hotel and started walking down Main Street. You could get fat here; we stopped in the Cheese Haus, walked past the fudge shop, a taffy shop, and then headed to the Bavarian Inn, where I had a couple tulip glasses of Strawberry Short’s Cake, which I did not remember seeing when we were up at Short’s in Bellaire. It was perfectly delicious.

While there, we sat at the bar in Michigan on Main, a spot at the Inn where they feature all Michigan-made food and drink. The service was unbeatable and the people we met there were incredibly friendly. Also, the wine and beer shop downstairs is not to be missed. While a lot of retail stores have trimmed their import selection to make room for the innumerable US craft beers, the Bavarian Inn had an excellent selection of imports—particularly German favorites—that are not quite as easy to find as they once were. As a result, I grabbed some up to bring home.

I was able to enjoy a Hofbrau Dunkel with our late dinner; by the time we got to the Frankenmuth Brewery, their kitchen was closed, but we stopped at a crowded wine bar across the street that (thankfully) had a few good beers on tap. A delicious pastrami pannini went well with that, and made for a great exclamation point to our Michigan weekend.  Prost!
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