Beer Journal

A quasi-daily examination of beer and things related to beer.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Review: Ambitious Brew

Ambitious Brews: The Story of American Beer is the third book written by Maureen Ogle, and the first, as the title would suggest, that piques the interest of the Beer Journal. In it, Ogle attempts to chronicle our nation's history of commercial and marketed beer. There are short mentions of independent brewers, microbreweries and home brewing, but make no mistake about it: this book is primarily about the big names. Specifically, we are treated to the familial and company histories of the Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Miller. Starting in the 1840's and progressing along a time line that mirrors the most notable dates in United States history (the Civil War, the Great Depression, Prohibition, both World Wars, etc.), Ogle tells the tale of the cultural, political and social importance and influence of our favorite drink.

Most subject-specific histories tend to be just that and this author follows suit, constantly giving the reader the reoccurring impression that beer didn't just play a part in this nations history, it damn-near formed it. For instance, why did Coca-Cola and other soda brands become so popular? If you are to believe Ogle, it's because during Prohibition, Americans had to find something new to drink.

As mentioned earlier, Ogle focuses mainly on the two giants of early American brewing, not even mentioning Coors until the 1970's. And outside of a few sections covering Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company, smaller - and let's face it better - brewers are hardly mentioned. For that matter, any mentions as to what makes a good beer (or not) are absent. Also missing is much of the litigation against the industry; I understand that Ogle is attempting to paint beer in a positive light, but how can you provide an objective history and not talk about the numerous ill effects of drinking?

What is present is an abundance of hands-to-paper research, particularly of American brewing's early days, research that can't easily be done online, and for that, Ambitious Brew is probably the cumulative standard-bearer of its kind. But that also makes the book's read a front-heavy one: as far as beer books go, it's very good; as a history, it's lacking.

Rating: 7.8

Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. Harcourt, Inc. New York, NY: 2006.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Review: Saranac 12 Beers of Summer

Brewer: Matt Brewing Company
Location: Utica, NY, USA

Many medium-sized breweries (Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada) offer packaged variety packs of their seasonal beers. Saranac's summer pack showcases six brews that are light in both color and mouthfeel. Three are German in influence, one British, one Belgian and one American. Furthermore, each one has a relatively low alcohol content, making them ideal for hot summer afternoons. Of course, I had to buy this pack in Massachusetts and personally drive it to Texas, but whatchagonnado. Here's the rundown of the pack's roster, with brief reviews for each.

Name: Kolsch
Type: kolsch
Alcohol: 5.0
German offerings such as this one are usually more commonly associated with autumn, but Saranac's version of the kolsch-style beer is crispy and fast-moving. Sure, there is a little bit of a sour finish, but most of the drink is fresh and light and quite enjoyable.
Rating: 7.1

Name: Belgian White
Type: uh... Belgian white
Alcohol: 5.3
The first thing that strikes the drinker of Saranac's Belgian beer is the pleasant bouquet of... marshmallow. Seriously! Floating particles of something or other give the beer a cloudy look, but these do nothing to detract from the taste which is airy and sweet.
Rating: 7.9

Name: Hefeweizen
Type: ok, so the beers aren't too creatively named...
Alcohol: 5.6
Oddly, the German wheat beer is one of the more darker brews in the pack. The Hefe certainly looks the part of a real hefeweizen, and for the most part tastes like one, too. The ending, however, lacks the banana-taste of many successful drinks of this kind, instead its close is conspicuously absent. There are certainly better hefes around.
Rating: 6.5

Name: Summer Ale
Type: herb and spice ale
Alcohol: 4.7
More heffe than the Hefe, (sorry), with solid a taste of wheat that bucks the traditional ale design. Words like "fresh" and "crispy" keep popping up in my mind, and the drink embodies both of those qualities perfectly.
Rating: 7.4

Name: Golden Pilsener
Type: American-style pilsener
Alcohol: 5.1
Normally, the phrase "American-style pilsener" would send me running for the hills; long gone are the days of keg stands and "drinking to get drunk". But to my delight and surprise, the Saranac Pilsener is pretty darn good. Compared to the Buds and Millers of the world, its damn-near fantastic. This is due to two things: 1. it doesn't taste like water and 2. it doesn't leave a sour aftertaste.
Rating: 6.8

Name: Pomegranate Wheat
Type: fruit ale
Alcohol: 4.7
I was equal-parts intrigued and confused by this beer. Buying a six-pack of fruit beer is practically suicide, they're normally waaaaay too sweet to drink in abundance (think Sam Adams' Cherry Wheat). This beer is not like that. In fact, the only remnants of fruit is in the bouquet of pomegranate (or starfruit, or guava, it's not like I know the difference). After the initial smell, however, the beer disappears into a wash of generic wheat beer. Saranac could have taken a bigger risk with this beer.
Rating: 6.0

Each beer in the Saranac 12 Beers of Summer Mix Pack operate as a affordable versions of similar beer types. (Except for the Pilsener, which beats the pants off of other American beers of that style.) While none of the beers are individually spectacular, the set works well for its variety and its seasonal appropriateness.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Review: Smokey Mountain Brewery

Type: Non-chain, mass-market brewpub
Menu: Traditional American fare (burgers, pizza, etc.)
Location: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Beers: Mountain Light, Cherokee Red Ale, Thunder Road Pilsner, Velas Helles, Black Bear Ale, Tuckaleechee Portor, seasonals, "Brewmaster's Specials"

When the location is listed as the foot of the Smokey Mountains, you'd expect a rustic, woodsy atmosphere and hardened patrons with discriminatory pallets. That's what I expected when I found the SMB online and planned a diversion of my summer road trip. But then I rolled into Gatlinburg, which can best be described as Walt Disney World for poor people, streets lined with tourist traps, mini golf and theme dinners. Crammed into a corner of one of the decorated strip mall parts is the Smokey Mountain Brewery. The father in me sees the nature-meets-commodity aesthetic making a great family vacation destination; the beer aficionado in me sees a missed opportunity.

It's probably not a good sign that the best part of the menu was the soft pretzel appetizer with cheese sauce. Not that this combination was an entirely novel idea, but it did work well, as a sort of permanent Oktoberfest. Predictably, the rest of the meal was rather plain.

Sadly, the brews follows suit. Rather than crafting original, singular beers that match the aesthetic of the mountains, not to mention the drinks' names, SMB seems to be using Mr. Beer-type mixes for their beers, placing the image of the brewery before the actual product. I suppose this is the downside to microbrewing's increase in popularity - the breweries become run like business rather than crafts, so the product has to be designed to appeal to a mass audience. As a result, less creative risks are taken, and the overall product is cheapened.

Beer: 3.8
Food: 3.0
Atmosphere: 9.0/2.5 (Smokey Mountains / Gatlinburg)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Review: Old Salt Ale

Style: American Pale Wheat Ale
Brewer: Harpoon Brewery
Location: Boston, MA
Alcohol: 5.1%

Brewed exclusively for its Hub neighbor Legal Seafoods, Old Salt Ale is in actuality Harpoon's UFO Hefeweitzen, only made with an additional dose of fennel. It is served in a salt-rimmed pint glass (and lemon slice), which probably has more to do with the naming of the than anything particular about the taste of the drink. While this novelty is kind of cute, it does nothing to add to the drinking experience, and in fact, detracts from the flavor of the beer.

To that point, there is a citrusy flavor that goes along with the ale's lemonade color, as well as a bittersweet aftertaste that can be compared to licorice. I would like to say that I liked this beer more than I did; I love Legal and the other Harpoons, but unfortunately, this drink is a one-pint-er.

I imagine that this beer gets a lot of play, considering the restaurant's popularity, but even the brewery seems to know that it's a dud, not even mentioning it on their website. Forgo this drink for the original UFO.

Rating: 3.2