Beer Journal

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

Saturday, December 04, 2010

A Brief Overview

Brooklyn Brewery was established in 1989, by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, neither of whom came from brewing backgrounds. They were neighbors and, upon Hindy’s return from a stint in the Middle East (during which he learned how to brew beer), quit their jobs to found the brewery. Though they haven’t quite hit the mainstream the way other small brewers have (Sam Adams, Shiner), Brooklyn Brewery is now, according to their website, among the top 40 breweries in the nation.

The brewmaster since 1994, Garret Oliver has a reputation for quality beer and excellent writing. His book, The Brewmaster’s Table, is a wealth of knowledge on beer and food pairings.

This particular creation of Oliver’s, Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout, is a regular seasonal for the brewery.

Some Thoughts on Design

The signature “B” of the Brooklyn logo is eye-catching and easily recognizable. The designer of the logo is from the same firm who designed the world-famous “I Love New York” design. Money well spent if you ask me.

My Experience

I rarely focus on food pairings as it pertains to beer, I assume a good beer will stand up to any meal. The night I tasted this beer, my wife was serving up Salisbury Steak and Parmesan Broccoli. A hearty, manly dinner, now paired with a hearty, manly beer.

The first pour was darker than expected. Even held up to the light, this dark-as-night stout showed no light. The head was thick and dark, over a quarter inch, in face, I spilled some, due to the amount.

The first taste is a rich, chocolatey flavor, of course. The mouth feel is firm and buttery. This is a RICH beer. The darkness of the color translates well in the taste; while the beer is sweet, it is also heavy and foreboding.

The ABV is high, 10%, and, after two I was ready for bed. A belly full of this beer and a 1/2 pound of ground beef did the trick.

Final Thoughts

The beer is a wonderful example of an Imperial Stout. It is rich and dark, full of sweet and licorice tones. I very much enjoyed it, particularly with the cold weather we have experienced lately. Probably the best Chocolate Stout I’ve tasted.

Rating: 9.1

Pair it with: Something heavy or something sweet.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brewery Visits 2010: Spoetzl Brewery

Living in Texas and educating oneself can be a dangerous and counterproductive activity. The more you learn, the more you discover reasons to hate your home state. Part of me, though, is resistant to hate all things Texas. I still enjoy the concept of the Alamo and get excited when I see the Lone Star flag. I still find amusing the “Don’t Mess with Texas” and “It’s bigger in Texas” slogans, though their time has come and gone. One lasting Texan item which hasn’t yet lost its luster is Shiner beer.

Most everyone’s first Shiner beer is their most famous line, Shiner Bock. Originally brewed during Lent as a seasonal, Shiner Bock is now over 80% of the beer produced. The ram on the label is due to the heavy German influence from the original brewmaster, Kosmo Spoetzl. “Bock” is ram in German.

My wife and I made the visit to the brewery as part of a wider week-long vacation and it was the first stop of the trip. Shiner is a tiny town about an hour from San Antonio and two hours from Houston. Passing through the town, there is little else in the area but the brewery, though we weren’t complaining.

The parking lot (an unpaved patch of dirt) of the Brewery is located against a stream across from the main entrance. The front yard is almost pastoral with massive oak trees and benches in the shade, hotter than hell the day we visited, it was a welcome sight. In contrast to the lawn, Spoetzl Brewery is an imposing structure, industrial and factory-like in appearance. The hard lines of the silos and smokestacks are only broken by the gentle wave of the roof over the entrance to the gift shop.

The tours began at 10, 11 and 1:30, and, it being 10:15, we had time to comb the shelves of the gift shop looking for swag. Upon arrival we were handed a sample of one of available beers on tap: Oktoberfest, Hefeweizen, Bock, Black, Blonde and a seasonal, today, 101. Along with our sample cup (about 4 oz.), we were handed 3 wooden tokens, redeemable for samples. I hit the Black first, my favorite of the bunch. From the tap, Shiner Black is incredibly robust and full-bodied. I double-took the first sip and thought someone had snuck a Guinness into the line of taps. I was very impressed. From the Black, I tasted the 101 and, let me reiterate, I LOVE this beer. Great tasting Czech-style pilsner. I so hope they give this seasonal the same treatment as the Black Lager, we should all be so lucky. Then the call went out that the tour was starting outside the gift shop entrance.

The tour guide, Dotsy, was a no-nonsense 16-year employee of the brewery. She set the pace and tone of the tour from the beginning, there would be no pictures, no cell-phones and do NOT think of touching the copper. For all her rule-making, she was an incredibly warm person with a ton of information about the brewery and a penchant for cracking jokes with her audience.

The tour itself was a little shorter than I would have liked. First stop was a hall lined with pictures of Kosmo and several employees from the past 100 years. She gave us a brief overview of the local history, the brewing of Shiner beer, and the future plans of the company. From this room, our guide took us upstairs to a large room dominated by several massive copper kettles. she described the automated processes used for transporting the ingredients from this place to that, but, honestly, it was too quick to really catch much information. Our next, and final, stop was a windowed-room that overlooked the bottling floor. Having worked in several industrial packing plants, I wasn’t surprised by the view: bottles slinging by on conveyors, greasy men in stained shirts gawking up at our blank stares, the

constant rattle and buzzing of machinery. Shiner Bock was the brew of the day, if you are curious. And with that, the tour was over.

We went back to the gift shop to finish off our samples and land some souvenirs. I had an Oktoberfest (so-so) and an experimental combination of Black and Blonde (kudos to Sam Cook, the friend who suggested it via facebook). We dropped close to 60 bucks in the gift shop but walked out with a full bag of Shiner merch.

The tour left me with three bullet points.

1. Shiner beer is growing. Our tour guide made this clear, pointing out the construction of beer holding tanks, as well as mentioning the statistics of the growing number of Shiner consumers.

2. The gift shop was great. Along with the free beer and super-courteous tour guide, the prices were really reasonable on a variety of products. Stickers as cheap as a dollar, hats and shirts all around 15, it was a great place to spend some money on Shiner-branded merchandise.

3. Dotsy is no photographer (proof below). However, she made the tour great. Can’t thank her enough. She is a credit to the brewery. She was interesting, informative, and humorous.

I am happy to report, that during the research of this article, I discovered that if you google image search "Shiner 101", I am on the first page.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reads: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent

I'm not expert in the field, but it seems to me that a good history book will accurately report on past events. A very good history book will accurately report while shining new light and by providing new insights. And a great history book will do those things, plus provide a lens for readers to use past events to interpret their modern worlds. Last Call, a singularly-focused tome by Daniel Okrent (Slate interview), former public editor of the New York Times and inventor of Rotisserie Baseball, falls into that last category.

In roughly 400 digestible pages, Okrent intricately detailed an era that school children across the nation can name, without focusing on the main points that most readers would already expect going in. Sure, Al Capone, Andrew Volstead and William Jennings Bryan get their due attention, but so do lesser-known noteworthy characters (in every sense of the term) Carry Nation, Al Smith, Billy Sunday and Sam Bronfman, none of whom are unjustly deified of damned. Places, such as the French-owned (and thus, prohibition-free) islands off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are rightly treated as potential protagonists.

Perhaps just as important in this reviewer's estimation is the overall non-judgmental tone of Okrent's narrative, which does not fall into the predictable pratfalls of stereotyping the different people or events as simply "good" or "bad", but instead focuses on which were more effective and/or lasting.Okrent leaves it up to the reader to apply the lessons of prohibition to modern contexts. And there are many opportunities to do so. How you interpret these lessons is largely likely determined upon your present ideological slant.

For instance, modern day conservative talking heads like to remind everybody within earshot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that it was his party that freed the slaves. However, it is rarely mentioned that they are also the party the that installed big government Prohibition and, as a result, the federal income tax, two aspects of modern society that conservatives like to rail against. Furthermore, during the Prohibition era, Prohibitionist politicians aligned themselves with the KKK and had their campaigns supported by mobster and bootleggers, all groups that where able to make hay (and money) once alcohol was outlawed. Liberals might appreciate the way progressive politicians and privative citizens worked together to pass the 21st Amendment, but the good vibe can only last so long before remembering that modern day Democrats are too impotent to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, let alone an entire Constitutional Amendment. What's more, the repeal itself took the flip-flopping of 17 senatorial votes, a prospect that should frighten any political party in the majority.

According to the sticker on the book cover, Ken Burns is working on turning Last Call into a PBS documentary chock-full of cameras panning over still photographs (it already has a Facebook page). That program is already listed as a must-see not just because of Burns's involvement, but because Daniel Okrent provided source material that is both thorough and vivid enough to provide surprises for history buffs that thought they already knew everything there was to know about the largest restriction of personal freedom in recent memory.

Orkent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

Indie Bound

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Eats: De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery

De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery
500 S. Telshor (next to the Mesilla Valley Mall)
Las Cruces, New Mexico

When driving west during the spring and summer along Interstate 10 from El Paso to Las Cruces one cannot help but notice the army of pecan trees that surround the highway just outside the New Mexico city's limits. But outside of pie during autumn, I never find much use for that particular nut, so other than providing a burst of color to the otherwise dichromatic scenery, I hadn't given the trees much more than a passing glance.

That's partially why my family and I came across De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery by accident. We were actually on our way the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market when I spied a large silo decoration (a sure-fire sign of a brewpub) adjourning a restaurant close to our exit. After spending the morning at the Market (which, in spite of it's lack of beer-relatedness*, was quite fun), we decided on lunch at the brewery.

* Check out the print and screen work done by one of the market's artists, Tom McFarland, who will be starting his first semester at the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall of 2010.

As most readers have probably already recognized, most new brewpubs in this country follow a specific pattern: rust belt industrial décor complimented by American bistro pub fare and a predictable roster of beers (IPA, brown ale, blonde/pilsner, lager, and a porter and/or stout in their most homogenous forms). De La Vega's does not follow this pattern, and instead seems to be focused more on the individuality of its restaurant venture. For sure, brewpub staples such as burgers, sandwiches, fried appetizers and salads that are in no way healthy for you are all there, but additionally, the restaurant offers its own takes on catfish, pasta, shrimp as well as a few varieties of soup. The house cuts are of Sterling Silver beef, and the meat is cooked over a fire fueled by the titular wood, giving the food a subtle smoke flavor**. My wife had the catfish - the fillet could have been thicker, but the flavor and breading were both tasty. I enjoyed a hamburger stuffed with cheese, topped with a garlic aioli and served on a potato roll (I think it was called the "lava burger"). As long as you're expecting a gourmet burger, I would highly recommend this sandwich, but be warned: it's a two-handed, multi-napkin, possible-knife-and-fork-involved affair.

**I can't vouch for whether or not pecan is the smoking wood of choice for New Mexicans, but it certainly gets a lot of play in the Las Cruces region. My personal preference is for apple wood.

The front of the house is phenomenal, both in look and execution. High-rise ceilings reveal murals depicting local farms and scenery; the color scheme is cool and natural; a smartly-designed floor plan divides up space so that four-top tables receive the impression of privacy even when located in the center of the room. There is a beautiful patio area/waiting room with couches and fireplace, a fully-stocked bar and a large AV-ready room that I can only assume is available for private groups.

Similarly, the service at De La Vega's was excellent. Some families go hiking together, some spend time doing yard work: our family eats out. Even in our short time in the El Paso region, we've witnessed the entire quality of service gamut, and this was near the high water mark. Rather than spell out each specific instance, I'll surmise the experience with two points: No less than six different staff members offered us assistance during our meal; I'm a big fan of the collective approach to food service - few things bother me more when dining out (or working at a restaurant) than servers consciously ignoring tables that aren't technically "theirs". A second aspect that we loved was our daughter's meal. She's not a heavy eater, preferring to pick off of everyone else's plate, but we're always sure to order her something specifically that she'll enjoy, and this time we asked for broccoli. Now, as far as I could tell, nothing on the menu contained broccoli, but knowing that restaurants with rotating specials tend to keep a lot of ingredients off-menu, I gave it a go. Our server's*** professional and respectful response was exactly what this customer wanted to hear: "I'm not sure if we have any, but I'll ask the chef, and if we do, I'll bring some right out." Grace loved the steamed vegetable, which she chooses to eat like a lollipop.

*** Unfortunately, I cannot recall the particular server's name, but if any of the De La Vega's management is reading this, just extend thanks to the entire staff.

This is all good and well, I'm sure you're thinking, but what about the beer? De La Vega's has a good variety, most of which fall into the aforementioned expected styles. With my food, I tried the Las Cruces Lager (I usually go lager with a burger). It wasn't the ballpark refresher I was kind of hoping for on a 95-degree day, but what it did have was a sweet malt start and a legitimate hoppy finish. I also had a D's Pecan Beer, which provided the exact flavor the name would suggest, and even better, was one of those rare beers that my wife and I agreed on. (Although I think it would work better as a late fall/early winter seasonal.)

Rather than stopping by the next time you're in the Las Cruces area, El Pasoans should make a trip to De La Vega's. And if any of you out-of-staters come to visit, this is where we're taking you for dinner.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Belgium's Ranger India Pale Ale

A Brief Overview:

After reading my old buddy's review of New Belgium’s Explore Series Trippel, I couldn’t help but notice another of the Explore Series, Ranger India Pale Ale, while passing through the supermarket. Ranger IPA is New Belgium’s “hoppy beer.” It was brewed for the employees of the company that push New Belgium products over 26 states. Apparently, a demand for more hops was consistent from their crew and in response, Ranger IPA was born. “Ranger” is the name used by the company to describe these beer advocates, it was included in the name to honor their service (or something like that).

Some Thought on Design:

I do love the stripped down label, a departure from the light-hearted paintings of bicycles (Fat Tire) and canoes (Blue Paddle) that typically adorn the brewery’s selections. This is for explorers, damnit! No fancy paintings. Drink the unknown.

My Experience:

I know Monty is big into pairing his beers and searching for the perfect combo, but I tend to drink beer as it comes to me and Ranger IPA was no exception. The wife and I picked up some sandwiches from Subway, finished off with some Golden Oreos, and I settled into the tasting chair to sip this beer.

Ranger IPA poured a nice light amber topped with a thick two finger head, slightly offwhite. I was pleased to see that head hold for a while, lingering on the surface of the brew throughout the tasting. The smell has a slight sweetness to it, a fresh citrus smell with hints of floral. I think the one word to sum up the smell would be “fresh.” It smells like the summer wind through a distant orchard (ok, maybe that is going too far, but it has a very nice aroma).

The taste of the beer matches well to the smell, starting the tongue with that combination of citrus and floral flavors and wrapping it up with a distinctly hoppy finish. This beer has a slight dry bite on the tongue that elicited a slight cringe from me, your malt beer loving taster. This is an IPA for drinkers who want a slight bite, rather than a tongue destroyer.

(pictured above, an EXPLORER!)

Final Thoughts:

It’s a smooth beer, very summery, with all the fruit undertones, but still a manly IPA. I would heartily recommend this beer. I’ve never been one to pair beers, as beer seems to go with everything fantastically. My suggestion, drink some great beer and explore New Belgium’s Ranger IPA.

Rating: 7.3

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Looking for TR

Brewseum is a fundraiser for the International Museum of Art and Science in Museum. In a its own words: “A Night at the Brew-seum” celebrates diversity, culture, and art from around the world, with live music, prizes, international cuisine, and of course, beer. This was my experience.

The crowd was large. Too large for a space so small. It was a mixed bunch, with the elite of our small town blending with the lower levels of society. Beer and food were the common denominators that allowed this convolution and subversion of the social order. They milled about, blinking like subterranean dwellers newly-released into the day, though it was near dark and the only lighting was out-of-place Christmas lights and the outdoor variety meant to protect the interests of the institution from the teenage taggers. In search of inebriation and satiation, they ignored the restrictions of class and race and bumped and ground to the beat of cover bands and piped-in music.

I had parked way out, in a grassy field, unmarked spaces that blended into each other, particularly where certain large-SUV drivers had parked contrary to the rest of the row, almost pre-drunk in the anticipation of the evening’s drinking. The grass was dry and crunchy on the way in, showering me with buds long-dead, the hope of tomorrow gone without water, or even a farmer’s daughter. I passed a cowboy and his companion for the night. She may have not been receiving a check for her evening’s rental, but she had chosen the costume regardless. She smelled of cheap perfume that focused on quantity of smell rather than quality. I pressed by them, through the door and into the melee.

My ticket had come to me at a slight discount, ten dollars off, leaving me with a forty dollar bill to pay to enjoy the festivities. To offset my discount, I had volunteered to work a cooler during the last two hours of the evening. Some 25 local restaurants were serving food and next to each of their booths was an ice chest, filled with a beer pairing and manned by a volunteer to pour. My wife, on the planning committee, had offered the list of beers and allowed me to choose my brand. With glee I looked over the list and selected my favorite brewer, Shiner.

The first two hours were a blur, bumped, bruised and assaulted by the milling crowd, in search of food, beer and company. It was a bar atmosphere, overflowing into the art-decked walls of the museum, and I was just another piece of flotsam, pushed by the ever-shifting tides. The food was spectacular, particular Roosevelt’s @ 7, a local favorite of mine. They were serving both of my favorites, the Roosevelt club (an amazing club sandwich, topped with a fried egg) and the Sammy Davis Chipotle Pasta. I passed three times, each passing filled with requests for a little more to fill the plate. Adam was pushing their beer pairing, which slipped my mind at the time (I was 3 Shiner Blacks in, at that point), and, though indeed I tasted it, my slightly muddled mind was unimpressed.

Four steps out from their booth, I ran into Beth, one of Roosevelt’s managers (and a friend). She was eating couscous, eyes wide in pretend interest, claiming the mealy and repulsive pile on her plate was delicious. As a critic, as an urban explorer, as an undaunted light-bearer, I passed. She laughed, I slugged back whatever Adam was serving and wandered towards my wife.

There is a moment during every good drinking night when the haze begins to settle in and whatever emotion is bubbling beneath comes rushing out. Suddenly I was filled with glee and excitement to an overflowing point. I skipped three steps, walked up to her table and loudly proclaimed, “HI!”

Sis and I have been married for three years, and in my then-present state of inebriation it only took her one look. “You. Need to settle down.”


And that was that. My buzz blunted, I submersed myself in the crowd, allowing their energy to vicariously appease my own desire for stupidity. It was a good night for people-watching, for drinking with abandon, for staring into the face of democracy and fearing for the future, for losing oneself in the maelstrom.

I felt her hand on my arm. “It’s time to push some beer.”

Sis led me to her office and handed me a t-shirt emblazoned with the Brewseum logo. She kissed me on my warm lips, my glistening forehead, my glowing, alcohol-powered machine, and wished me luck.

The original occupier of the Shiner cooler hadn’t seemed too interested in his work, more excited about sampling the other wares then pressing his own into eager hands. Me, half buzzed, took to the job with a passion that left many of my patrons asking if I was employed by Shiner. The cooler had been stocked with Family Reunion Packs consisting of Shiner’s Bock, Black, Blond, Kosmos, Light, and Hefeweizen. My favorite of those has always been Shiner’s Black Lager, so I gathered up three of them (two in one hand, one in the other), turned to the passing crowd and called out in my best carney-voice:

“Today you can have 100 years of Texas tradition in a cup! Step up here and hold out your cup, you’ve tasted everyone else, now sample a homegrown brewer, independently owned and operated!”

The heads swung around, almost comically, like ducks on a pond, hearing the hunter’s foot across a dry branch. The vendors to the right and left of me started laughing, but teetering on the edge of drunkenness, I felt no shame; and the line began to form.

The Black was the first to go, as every third guy in line would ask what I recommended. I was honest and pushed my favorite. It was surprising how little information people had concerning one of my favorite brewers. After the Black, Kosmos was the next empty, though in actuality the vendor next to me, Bad Bob’s BBQ, were to blame for this. Every time my cooler would swing open, an empty hand would dip in and return with multiple Kosmos for their crew. I didn’t complain, as the beer was enjoyed and it saved my fingers an icy bath.

The Bock was the next crossed off the list. Customers always seem to call that “A Shiner,” not understanding that there are multiple brews to choose from. I guess that’s the curse of branding and simple-minded consumers (consuming a product that makes the consumer more simple-minded!). Few things brought me as much joy as older men shuffling up and asking for a Bock, rattling off a story of their first one, 40,50 years before. There is beauty in the past, the past is remembered not only in minds, but also in actions repeated, the twist of a cap, the turn of a wrist, the flow of that familiar taste down the throat, the exhalation after, this memory is just as important as any other, and in our company we repeated the ceremony, calling up the past and passing it a cold one.

Without my three popular brews, I began scrambling to find someone in charge. But tonight, with so much alcohol around, food to fill the stomach, loud music, and 700 friends to share the moment with, there was no one to supply me with more of my Texas faithful. So I decided to push the rest of this stuff out.

I must confess I dislike both Blonde and Hefeweizen. But they followed the previous just as quickly, and I was left looking at a cooler full of Light, a line full of previous customers looking for repeats of Bock and Black, and the vendors were beginning to shut down shop. My pitch shifted from aggression to stressing caloric responsibility. I laughingly pointed out to the sods that they had eaten more meals than they could count, and maybe it was time for a light beer. Ah, the simple-minded drunk, bless him.

I poured the last beer into a cup and turned to the family next to me, the founding family of Cocina del Caribe, and asked if they had anything left. One of the daughters passed me a tray filled with fried, cheese-filled, pastries called pastillos. Drunk, hoarse, and tired, I bit into this pocket of awesomeness. My eyes widened and I instantly regretted focusing my attention on the BBQ all night, while all along, the most amazing drinking companion food was resting a foot from my hand (for the record, their food had been paired with Red Stripe, which I enjoyed, as well). I wonder if the drunken patrons that passed their booth all night even paused to consider the food, blazing with alcohol and focused on the next glass of beer, but those that did found a new favorite.

The night was a success, as a fund raiser, as a time for revelry, as a moment to lay aside the importance of academia, as a chance to get drunk, as a opportunity to educate Texans one their oldest local brewery. I wandered into the night, buzzed, happy, ready for a smoke, a toothbrush, and a bed.

I was the only volunteer that emptied my ice chest.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Now on Tap: Trippel

Trippel Belgian Style Ale
Brewer: New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado
Style: The name says it all
ABV: 7.8%

The New Belgium Brewing Company's (fairly) new "Explore Series" of beers offers a quartet of brews that the company has either never tried or is reimagining. The first thing that grabbed me is the break from the traditionally-framed NBBC labeling; the Explore Series packaging has a simple dichromatic design, perhaps as an intentional suggestion that the beer, like its packaging, is not a permanent endeavor. And truth be told, I might not have picked it off the shelf if it had the old label, so good on New Belgium for switching things up.

Thankfully, the quality of the drink is what you'd come to expect from the New Belgium name. If all you've sampled from the New Belgium Brewing Company is their Fat Tire (no slouch, of course), do yourself a favor and pick up some of these experimental beers.

Trippel didn't have the same cripsness that I've come to expect from a light-colored Belgian, although I think that was kind of the point. Any time a beer is named for a multiple, you can usually expect a strong, oftentimes dominant flavor. True to form, Trippel seeks that strong alcoholy punch, moving the Belgian from a nice accompaniment to a headliner.

The New Belgium website provides a wonderful palette of food pairings. I enjoyed my beer with an eggs Benedict salad (egg, grilled ham, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes on fresh baby spinach). The strength of the drink overpowered the delicate flavors a bit, but it still paired well. I wouldn't recommend this with brunch, though.

That being said, this beer does not overpower the drinker. The major change is the context of when I would drink it. This is a back porch sipper for Friday afternoons. Which, come to think of it, is only a few hours away.