Nodding Head – Philadelphia, PA

August 31, 2013

While I was in Philly, I went to two beer-related museum exhibits. American Spirits at Constitution Center went through the rise and fall of Prohibition and Craft Brewing: It’s a Beer Revolution is still an active exhibit at Philadelphia History Museum. It was a great overview of all the local craft brewers and I wish every city had a room like this dedicated to local beer culture.

As for Nodding Head, let me just sum it up by saying that I can’t recommend this place for the beer but as a foodie, it was awesome. The service was great and the atmosphere and vibe give it a pass. This was my first stop on a four day trip and let me just say that the rest of Philly craft beer isn’t this bad.

Why did I hate it as a beer place? Let’s start with the beers being served completely out of any logical tasting order and add that they had a beer on the sampler that wasn’t even brewed by them. As an example, they put their Strong Belgian at 11% ABV as the first thing they serve you when there’s a Wit, Golden, and Bierre de garde in the sampler. They don’t have any kind of tasting card or delivery system, so it’s just a cluster fuck of beer shots sent to your table as they get poured.

In cases like these, I wish they’d just tell me that they don’t do a sampler. Generous 6 oz. samples makes this one big enough to share but even with help, I have never refused to finish so many beers on a sampler before. That and it was $18 for 48 oz. of beer so it’s definitely not a money saving device to do it this way.

I’ll find out later in the tasting that they hit you with the 11% beer first because they’re playing the 2-drink minimum card that comedy clubs invented to warm up the audience – hoping that the drunker you are the better their beers will taste. That didn’t work. Here’s my best attempt to be nice. If you’re a regular reader of mine, you know that’s impossible but the most entertaining reviews to read.

As usual, I picked the sipping order.

Bierre de garde – I’m not a fan of this style usually but it’s not bad. Served at a great temp. Unfiltered, 6%. This is a French farmhouse ale so not sure what the difference is between that and a Belgian farmhouse. So, I found this article to help me out. The only other bierre de garde (meaning beer to store or keep) I have to compare is LeMort Vivant by Southern Star which I don’t like either. Does farmhouse always mean wheat? Plenty of wheat coming through but not a lot of protein in the head. It’s carbonated enough but serves flat. My issue with this or its sister Saison style is that by definition they are completely open to interpretation by the brewers. The further they get away from the pepper and sour in DuPont, the crankier I get.

Allagash White was the guest tap so I did that one next.  No need to review it here but mentioning it to let you know what was on my palate.

Doc – golden ale, session at just under 5%. I like the touch of hops. I’m getting pepper which is a nice flavor following the sweet wheat. It’s a light beer. Not something I would order but it does a job and that job is, ‘don’t waste a good beer on someone who doesn’t like a good beer.’ I’m not gonna finish this one.

60 shilling (cask conditioned). This is delicious – malt, some caramel sweetness. Branded as a ‘lighter’ Scottish Ale. No carbonation at all. It’s like drinking it out of the fermenter. But for a flat beer, it delivers. I really like this and it didn’t last long. There’s a 90 Shilling beer that Odell does is a Scottish Ale as well. And Laughing Lab is my favorite beer of all time. So, if it’s not going to be an IPA, I guess it needs to be a Scottish Ale and not a Saison for me anymore. I just can’t have my heart broken again.

Grog – English style brown ale – the beer that brought me here because someone on the street recommended it. Chocolate comes through as a dominant flavor but it’s balanced. It’s not sweet or sour. It’s very English brown – just as advertised. Nothing special other than it’s a good representative of the style. It wasn’t worth the trip that’s for sure.

BPA – mmmm. Hoppy. But it’s not enough. I get impatient when it takes this many beers to get to the hops. Kind of a disappointing money shot. Like a guy that doesn’t cum a lot. But I need more hops. BPA stands for Bill Payer Ale – is that an owner or brewer or just a phrase in that it pays the bills? I looked it up online and couldn’t find a quick answer so I’m assuming that last thing. But if this beer was named after a person then I can only assume that man has a tiny penis. One more – it’s the beer you don’t tell your friends you’re fucking. Wait, wait. I can do better. This is the beer you binge on in a dark closet while crying. Yeah. That sums up my disappointment best.

We now interrupt this critique with duck BLT. Yes, duck and bacon on the same sandwich. It’s delicious. The bar is upstairs and we had a great window seat. What is it with guys in high water professional pants here? Is it some trend I’ve missed? Some sort of an alternative sock culture? Anything to distract me from this beer sampler.

Rudy’s Kung Gu Grip – This is that 11% ABV strong Belgian ale I was telling you about at the beginning. It reminds me of Port as in the wine kind.  It’s the best thing on their menu in my opinion so I understand why they lead with it. It’s more like syrup than beer. But I can save you a trip by telling you to just drink Irish Whiskey or Scotch someplace else.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse - not a Hefe the menu says – it’s sour and I can’t drink it.

Triumph Brewing Company – Philadelphia, PA

August 31, 2013

10-beer samplers make me horny. When that sampler is only $12, then I do not understand why more people don’t do beer samplers everywhere they go. What was I doing in Philly? My friend wanted to go for her birthday this year to do some historic stuff, and of course my condition was that we do beer stuff too. We visited Triumph Old City (they have three locations and the beer is actually brewed in Princeton, NJ) after a walking tour dropped us off at the Friendship Arch in Chinatown. For any craft beer loving Marines out there, the Tun Tavern historic sign is right around the corner at S. Front and Sansom. Here’s my review of the beer here.

They sell growlers of all their beers.

They sell growlers of all their beers.

Ginger Cream – if ginger ale soda was a beer. First impression is that this sampler is being served in the right order and the words ginger cream had me giggling like a 12 yr. old. This 4.3% session beer is a nice light beer with enough ginger – 3.5 lbs. in an 11-barrel system – to make it interesting and easy to drink. Served on nitro which adds to the creaminess (hee hee hee). I like it. Made with oats. I brewed a Ginger Saison from a kit based on Sam Calagione’s book Extreme Brewing that I did not like at all (The Hopfather DIPA kit on the other hand was AMAZING!). That’s just to say that I really appreciate that they were able to get ginger flavor into this beer without making it taste like plastic.

They had great notes on the menu which I always appreciate and have included at the end of this review with details on ABV and hops and malts and such.

Amber Ale – nice flavor punch. I’m also noticing that there are great fresh heads on all the glasses (see? That innuendo doesn’t make me giggle like ginger cream does). This is another great flavor profile that gives a cheer for malts while giving us a sour hop finish. Cascade hops.

English IPA – this is the beer I’d define as representative of what I’ve tasted so far in Philadelphia. Very British, very historic. This one is smooth and did I mention fresh? Compared to the lack of head on the sampler at Nodding Head, this was a relief. Nothing stands out in this flavor profile which makes it the quintessential British beer. Especially if it was a comedy. Dry. Get it? Never mind. Columbus and East Kent Golding hops.

Rye Porter – this is lovely. Creamy. A bit bitter. Chocolate even but I suspect that’s coming from the earthiness of the rye. At 4 oz. pours, we are blowing through this 40oz sampler. It’s hard to linger for too long. After the surprising punch flavors from the first, this is a nice palate resetter.

An Eye for an IPA – seems malty for an IPA. It’s so balanced that it doesn’t even register in my brain as a pale ale. It’s not bad. Tastes fine but I’d be disappointed if I ordered a pint of something I expected to be hoppy. 40 IBUs?! Does that even count as an IPA?! It’s not that it’s a bad tasting beer, it’s just a joke of an IPA. They use 20 whole pounds of hops in this brew. Is that a lot? Compared to the 3.5 pounds of ginger, it sounds like a lot? Zythos, Falconer’s Flight, Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus. It’s not for lack of trying, I just have to wonder if it isn’t a double. Description says ‘nearly an India amber ale.’

I can’t emphasize enough how much I’d order this beer against the fact that it’s confusing the hell out of me. This is like being attracted to an engineer that opens the door for you and softly licks your pussy after years of getting tied up and fucked hard by multiple bikers on a pinball machine though. I mean, are you disappointed or excited at the prospect of something new? I’ll stick to my standard pinball machine gang rape IPA’s thank you very much. But again, this is good foreplay.

Let’s pause here to discuss the significance of unisex bathrooms. They have them here. Public sex. You’re welcome.

Abbey Duppel – sweet. Glacier hops. Everyone knows Belgians aren’t my favorite. Raisin is my least favorite flavor and it’s prevalent in this style. My battery is almost dead on my phone, so let’s just skip it.

Philly Common – same Perle hops from the ginger cream. They really excel at giving subtle flavors a good mouthfeel. I suspect I’d be much more critical of this sampler if the beers weren’t so well made. Is that a coconut aftertaste? This is one to do a growler of.

At this point in the review, I had to look up how to undo typing because I had deleted this review. For you iPhone 4 users out there, shake your phone and an undo typing button comes up. Technology rules.

Belgian Pale Ale – another shoulder shrug. It’s good. It’s fine. It’s nothing new or impressive. Perle, Zythos, Falconer’s Flight, Cascade hops. I give it a single clap on a Fraggle Rock scale of dance your cares away.

Ordinary Bitter – nice temperature. Cask conditioned. 4.5% ABV. This is one of three that I could point to and say, ‘it’s good’ but in a ‘let’s just be friends’ kind of way. These are the nice guy brews of craft beer even though they have iron skeletons as part of the decor.

This is  the kind of thing hanging from the rafters in this place.

This is the kind of thing hanging from the rafters in this place.

Chili amber – one of the bartenders gave us a taste of this mixed with his Bloody Mary mix. The chili amber isn’t very much chili but added to the Bloody Mary mix makes a great michelada.

menu1      menu2

Beach Chalet – San Francisco, CA

August 17, 2013

San Francisco boasts a guild of craft breweries. There are some great names on the list from Anchor, who I will always consider the grandfather of the West Coast IPA, to Speakeasy and 21st Amendment who I’ve been very impressed with but haven’t visited yet. I also went to Magnolia while I was in town and I loved that place so much that I forgot to review the beers. All of that to say that I am a big fan of San Francisco’s craft beer scene and there are a lot of great places to go if you’re ever in town.

Which brings me to the bad news. Beach Chalet, while a great place with good food and view of the bay is quite frankly an embarrassment to brewpubs anywhere. I should have known when I looked around and didn’t see people drinking their beers that this was going to be a bad tasting. Unfortunately, once one person gets a sampler, everyone starts ordering one. I share this with you so you will not make the same mistake I did by doing a sampler even if you see someone order it.

My SF drinking buddy - yes, he's gay.

My SF drinking buddy – yes, he’s gay.

VFW light – Beach Chalet was created during the depression and that’s somehow supposed to explain the name of the beer. This has a unique malt characteristic unless it’s coming from the hops. No info on the menu or a sheet to tell me anything about the beer. Called an Ale, but it has a pilsner sour aftertaste.

Presidio IPA – served second but I’m not doing that. Really think it’s a shame they serve this second. Lots of sour in the aftertaste. This is one you want to drink side by side with water. My drinking buddy hated it.

Riptide Red – a little light on the caramel for this style but it’s still present.

Crystal Wheat – served fourth but I tasted it second. Lighter than the VFW. Filtered. Similar in taste to Stella Artois. Surprised it’s a wheat beer actually. No evidence of it in the taste or head. My partner assures me that this had more flavor and a heavier mouth feel. Great beach beer. I think this was the strong pale – described as Floral and citrus hop flavor and aroma. And this is my point. I don’t think they even served me the beers correctly. I’m positive this wasn’t the wheat even though the map said that’s what it was. Very disappointed. And this was Sunday brunch. You’d think they’d put their best foot forward.

Strong Pale – I really think these were served out of order and this was indeed the filtered wheat. Nice head that lasted a long time.

Green Death – maltiest beer on the menu – Belgian style made for beer week in Feb – this is a winner. Great flavor. It’s got a sweetness but it’s not the right word. Fruity, strawberry? Partner tasted caramel. Takes over your whole mouth. Great beer. Paired with crab eggs Benedict which was delicious.

Dark Passenger Imperial Black IPA – quite a bit smoother than the Presidio. Full bodied – roasted flavor.

Trippel – served the best for last. Unfiltered, sweet, smooth. Perfect aperitif.

So, there you go. Two beers out of eight were good but the whole experience was tainted by the lack of information given with the sampler, the fact that two beers were mixed up on the tray indicates that the servers were not well versed on their beers, and the décor and smell of the whole place reeked of a hotel lounge bar. I’m all about historical significance but when you’re a slum lord who rests your reputation on a mural on the wall downstairs instead of really trying to brew a beer worthy of your San Francisco counterparts, then shame on you for even joining the guild. Maybe membership is mandatory? It would be like having a strip club owner join the chamber of commerce. Seriously, stop ordering the beer here.

Rock Bottom – Pittsburgh, PA

August 3, 2013

I’ve been to enough Rock Bottom breweries to know that this is not your typical chain brewery. I’ve never had the same sampler twice at RB like you get at places like Gordon Biersch or BJ’s Brewhouse. I visited the Rock Bottom in Pittsburgh in February which means that I had to drive through snow and traffic to get there. That was pretty terrifying but I figured with all those cars on the road I was probably just being a pussy so I sucked it up and white-knuckled my way there. In retrospect, I think the ice in the parking lot was the most dangerous part of the trip.

For my trouble, I was rewarded with a great bartender and friendly conversation with locals at the bar. It was one of those with an ice tray down the middle. Not as cool when it’s already 18 degrees and snowing outside but it’s still a neat gimmick I think. I also like picnic tables with ice troughs built into them. They didn’t have any of those.

Kolsch – I really like this style for a light beer. Great start to a 10-beer sampler.

Belgian White – this is also decent. A good rep of the style. Good palette builder. No complaints.

And this is where I continue to take issue with the whole concept of serving beers by color. I guess it’s just easier for the servers to remember it that way? Why in the hell would you serve an IPA next in the lineup when there are quite a few malts left to get through?

Here’s the order I did them in:

Red – Good caramel. What I want a red to be. I can appreciate how a chain brews consistent beers. No risks taken here but these are their 5 signature beers. Sits at 5.7%, and you could drink this all night.

High-level Brown – It’s got a nice sour aftertaste that comes from the taste of burnt or caramelized malts. This was a great follow up to the red.

Christmas Curmudgeon – not bad at all. In fact, better than most in the execution of cinnamon. Really easy to drink. Nice spice that stays on the nose.

As for food, I ordered the Bourbonzola burger. I’m one of those people who doesn’t like bleu cheese so I’ve never bothered to pay attention to other names it might go by. Gorgonzola is apparently a bleu cheese. This burger was surprisingly good. I’ve since been eating soups and dips even when people say there’s blue cheese in them. But I refuse to eat hot wings with bleu cheese. That’s just wrong.

At this point, I took the time to write down that I like that the beer styles presented at Rock Bottom are distinct enough that it leaves no question as to what you’re drinking – White, Red, IPA, etc. I appreciate truth in labeling. This fits in very well with my impression of the beer culture in Pittsburgh. They’re very malty up here and seem satisfied to drink a really good interpretation of a German beer (I’m remembering Penn Brewery). People like Church Brew Works are experimenting but I suspect their best sellers are still the classic malt styles. What I’m trying to say is that it was kind of poignant that a historical city would make a craft beer drinker appreciate going back to our roots as an American beer culture.

IPA – nothing special but ok for the style.

Double Down IPA – 10% – very smooth. Love this beer. The fact that my notes are so short at this point of the night is an indication that I was talking (and let’s face it, flirting) with some of the most friendly strangers I’d met in all the weeks I traveled and worked in Pittsburgh. Maybe it was just the part of town? It’s across the river from Heinz Field so maybe this part of town is just friendlier? The only group that beat the crowd here was The Pittsburgh Beer Ladies. I attended one of their socials at Carson Street Deli when I was in town. Great group of gals that I miss terribly now that I’m back in Houston.

Brakeman’s Breakfast Stout – lots of coffee. I didn’t catch the maple syrup they advertised in the description. Might have just been too cold from sitting on the ice bar. In fact, I’m sure of it. Should have pulled it off the bar but I drank it too fast. I have no regrets.

Neh Notta Nib Porter – No nitro head but it’s not an embarrassment of a beer. It has some depth. A bit thin on the mouthfeel for me. I think the brown could follow this so it’s not one to feel like you have to finish with just because it’s called a porter. And this is where I second guess myself on where I put porters and stouts in the line-up of samplers. I will usually do the IPA’s in the middle and leave the porters and stouts for last. I think it’s mostly because I get impatient and I REALLY want an IPA as soon as possible. Samplers that only give me one or two IPA’s test my patience. Maybe I just need to start building my own samplers and leave the malts out of my review.

Barley Wine – This is good too. Everything has been solid here. Not the high alcohol notes I expect from this style (no complaints here!), and it’s still at 10% ABV. This one would sneak up on you and fuck your virgin daughter.

Buff Brew Beer Dinner at Rockwell Tavern

August 3, 2013

This beer dinner was held at Rockwell Tavern in Houston, TX (technically Cypress) on December 10, 2012. Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company provided the beer and Rockwell brought Chef Blythe Beck (“The Naughty Kitchen” on Oxygen) from Dallas to prepare the food. The place was packed. Rockwell isn’t a huge place but they found a way to arrange us in rows that accommodated as many people as I’m sure the fire marshal would allow. I sat next to the owners of Texian Brewing Company and here’s what we ate and drank for the low, low price of just $65.

Small bite – deviled egg with pork and a fried scallion paired with Buff Brew’s flagship beer. A lovely start. Rockwell’s signature dish is their 3-legged pig – 3 beer braised pork shanks, flash fried and served over a potato and apple hash with apricot jalapeno sauce over the top. So putting the pork from that dish on top of the deviled egg was a clever way to pair the two flagships.

Paired With: 1836 – British ESB malts, Victory Yeast and IPA hops – whatever this is, the brewer admitted it’s not found in any style guide. This is the only one they brew year round. They frequently age this beer with different types of wood (more on that later).

First course: Sleigh Bells Arugula Salad – the inspiration was Sno Balls, but these were made of goat cheese and rolled in pistachios with cranberry vinaigrette and pickled red onion. I love goat cheese and do agree with the chef that the pepper notes from the arugula are soothed by the cheese. It’s not a simple salad and I think there was too much going on by the time I got to the onion. The cranberry flavor was lost in the vinaigrette. It came through as sweet but not cranberry.

It seemed like the salad wanted to be the star of the show and forgot all about the beer pairing. Too many flavors in the salad unfortunately meant that it competed with the beer as opposed to complimenting it. In this case, it was better to finish the salad and then drink the beer. The goat cheese and this ale were spot on as a pair and with arugula as an aftertaste; it would have been brilliant, and not so confusing for my palate. Looking for the cranberry was distracting and then the onion was unnecessary in my opinion.

Paired with: Pistachio Cream Ale – It was a test batch that they ended up selling 80 barrels from. The joke made was that one of the brewers tried this to avoid making the lemon basil beer again. Buff Brew has made a name for itself experimenting with different flavors and locals love it. This beer by itself looks hazy with some alcohol notes. I don’t know much about cream ales but drinking this one by itself (without food) would have been tough for me, so even a mismatched pairing was a blessing.

Second course: Smoky Yuletide Butternut Squash Bisque (with candied pecans and pulled pork) – Smoked with pecan shells that have been soaked in 1836. The soup smells amazing and it’s the consistency of gravy which is as awesome at it sounds. Very flavorful and nice to have the pulled pork we were teased with on the deviled egg small bite. Pecans are a toast to the collaboration that Buff Brew did with Rockwell where they had different restaurants soak their 1836 in different malts to make Smoke on the Bayou (more on that later).

This is the kind of pairing I prefer. Not too many flavors allow both things to shine through. The soup and meat with the beer and then chewing the pecan after is brilliant. One of the people next to me said he was looking forward to it the least but that it will probably be his favorite of the night. One mistake in the presentation I think was referring to the squash as ‘smoky’ in the name of the dish. I know why Blythe did it based on the process of preparing the pulled pork but the butternut which was the dominant flavor gave us pumpkin pie spice and not smoke so I think we were all pleasantly surprised when we tasted it. There is some heat here too – hot spice in the meat. The flavors are great and while it’s hard to remember to drink the beer with the dish, this was a good beer pairing.

Paired with: 1836 aged on Pecan – The brewery has aged this beer on eight different types of wood, but it was the first time they aged it on pecan based on the previously mentioned collaboration where Rockwell opted to use Pecan shells to contribute to the smoke mix for Smoke on the Bayou. It works best to taste the difference wood makes to the flavor of the beer when trying 1836 side-by-side with any of the brews aged on wood. Sometimes you can do this at the brewery during their tours.

At this point, we’re all full even though serving sizes have not been too big and we’re all dreading the two courses left to go plus dessert.

Third Course: Naughty or Nice Crab and Spice – crab fingers and a Fontina cheese fondue paired with Smoke on the Bayou on nitro. They chose this pairing for the ‘melt in your mouth’ factor, and this was another culinary win. The cheese holds up well against the alcohol notes. Some spice in the cheese, and the cheese tastes and feels better in your mouth than the butter you’d typically dip sautéed crab fingers into. The spice in the dish didn’t last or build – it may just have just been a cayenne garnish. And I’m not complaining about that. Already feeling full, it was a relief to have such a light dish. Three crab fingers was plenty.

Paired with: Smoke on the Bayou – nitro – This was that collab beer I keep referring to. Alcohol notes and almost sweet malts. Local restaurants smoked malts for the beer. Buff Brew wanted to make a local beer that couldn’t be achieved anywhere else. Beaver’s soaked theirs in maple and hickory, Goode Co used sweet mesquite, and Rockwell soaked pecan shells in 1836 and then smoked their malts in that. I don’t normally like smoked beers but I always liked this one, and Nitro gives it an even softer flavor profile. Buff Brew gave each restaurant the beer brewed with just their malts in addition to mixing all the malts for the commercially available Smoke on the Bayou.

For as good as this beer was, it was clear looking around that we were all slowing down our drinking and there was going to be a glass shortage in the restaurant by dessert because we weren’t turning them over fast enough.

Fireside Slow Roasted Buffalo Filet – Love that they used the obvious choice for an entrée. Buffalo was paired with blueberry and this is why we should all try new things. The texture of the meat against the pickled blueberry is quite nice. I loved the temperature it was served at too.

Pink Peppercorn Porter – pink peppercorns apparently have a bit of a berry flavor. Who knew? I’m not getting any pepper from this beer but I loved the buffalo entrée it was served with.

Orange Angel Chiffon Cupcake – with brown sugar whiskey icing served on a ‘plate’ of spearmints. Best pairing of the night – cupcake icing and stout.

Whiskey Barrel Aged Gingerbread Stout – Time for the magic of Christmas. The first keg of this beer sold in Jan 2012. It’s an Imperial stout at 10% ABV. The beer we drank was brewed in February 2012, sat in Jack Daniels’ whiskey barrels for 4 months and had been aged ever since (6 months). They do wash some of the whiskey out of the barrels when they get them so it’s not too much of a flavor. This beer is amazing and a popular marketing campaign for them.

Rockwell Tavern is a huge supporter of local craft brewers and this was better than any corporate holiday party I could have attended to get me in the spirit of Christmas. Buff Brew brewed and released Gingerbread Stout for Christmas in July in 2013. Very clever.

Full Pint – North Versailles, PA

August 3, 2013

This brewery was hard for me to find. It’s about a 30-minute drive East of Pittsburgh on a twisty road that the locals go very fast on. It was dark and I was already stressed out from the drive and the GPS kept telling me I’d arrived but all I could see was a used car lot. I finally saw this tiny sign high up on a light pole that pointed me down a driveway where I saw a warehouse with a great big sign that said Full Pint on it.

The bright lights on the car lot kept what was behind the lot dark and the Full Pint sign wasn’t lighted plus the road is crazy busy with traffic and there was no good way to keep turning around to look for the place. Here’s a tip if this is your first time out to the brewery – if you’re heading East and you see Rivertowne on the right, then you’ve gone too far. Pull into the restaurant and turn around, look for the liquor store across the street and turn into the driveway next to it and go up the ramp to the brewery.

At any rate, I found it and I was one of about five people who came in that night (a Tuesday) which made it worth the trip since I basically had one of the owners (they invest money in exchange for shares) all to myself talking about the place all night. He even gave me a private tour! If one-on-one geeking out isn’t your style, they fire up the pizza oven on weekends (and Thursday nights if you email ahead) and get a pretty good crowd in the place. They take yeast out of the fermenter to make the pizza crust. I like the way the place is set up. They have tables and a bar with taps behind it and a little spot to the side where they have merchandise for sale. They build six packs for you to go as well.

They brewed 5,000 barrels in 2012 which is the most after Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh. They distribute to west Florida (lots of Steelers bars there) and they are going into Ohio this year. Their Rye is doing well in Philly. Here are the beers I tried in the order the bartender suggested.

All in amber – very approachable and the first beer they ever brewed. They’ve been brewing three years at this location and four of the five original brewers are still here. That came up as the story behind the name of the beer – all the brewers contributed to and agreed on this recipe.

Festivus – I visited in January of 2013 so this brown Christmas ale with vanilla, cinnamon, and mace (nutmeg shell) was still available. It’s their third best seller (a very close third) and they only sell it two months out of the year. I brought one back home with me and am aging it to try at Christmas this year.

White Lightning – unfiltered, Belgian white ale. I don’t know how many of you remember Celis White which is now owned by Miller and brewed in Michigan, but this beer tastes like what I remember Celis White tasting like. Peter Celis chose Austin, Texas, as the place to brew because the water in Austin is apparently similar to the water in Hoegaarden. Celis White is the domestic counterpart of Hoegaarden White. Hoegaarden is the original recipe that Peter Celis learned how to make at the Hoegaarden Brewery in Belgium. The story goes that Peter was a young apprentice at the brewery when it was closed down. With the recipe in hand, Peter began brewing the beer and distributing it to the neighbors. As his business grew, the brewery was able to open once again.

They are used to this beer being compared to Blue Moon though. Look close at the White Lightning label. That’s one of the brewers throwing a lightning bolt through a Blue Moon. They design all their labels and have different things hidden in each one. If there’s a person on the label, they’ve been modeled after someone affiliated with the brewery.

Rumpelpilsen – I taste a lot of pepper in this though they don’t claim it as an ingredient. This is their lowest seller but it is amazing and a favorite of visiting brewers. That’s one of the brewer’s on this label and his dad is on the Hobnobber label.

Hobnobber – This beer was a marketing disaster. The idea was to release it as a series using the same malt and a different hop. So, a session (low ABV) and a smash beer (one malt, one hop) both. So what happened? Well, the Simcoe hop version was VERY popular and people got upset when the beer didn’t taste the same once it used a different hop. People just didn’t understand what the brewery was trying to do with the brew. After the disaster, Full Pint realized they needed to be able to duplicate it for the market. I got to try the first attempt at this new approach out of the tap and then he brought me a taste of the new batch out of the tank to compare (I told you, star treatment!). This is a well-balanced beer and I think people will be happy with it.

Read on to see that this concept of brewing the same beer the same way every time is something the brewers are just now getting on board with. They have such a good time tweaking the recipes and quite frankly disagreeing with one another on what the beer should taste like that they struggle with consistency. I’m not sure that loses a fan like me so long as I know that’s what’s happening but again, it’s proving tough to ‘market’ that approach.

Tri PA – Don’t let the name fool you, it’s a double IPA. One that opted to balance the hops with sweet coming over from the malts and I’m not a huge fan of that approach. But it does the job and hides the alcohol (10%) well. It didn’t take long to feel it sneak up on me. I was either drunk by now or the sweet faded as it warmed up in the glass and sat on my palate. It’s over 200 IBUs! By the way, the name came about because they blended three batches together. How in the hell do you duplicate that over time?! Seems like a lot of effort, but there’s no doubt these brewers are working very hard to make the best beer possible and I’ll drink to that every single time.

Night of the Living Stout – called a West coast stout and it sits at 110 IBUs! This one, they say, they hit exactly on the first try. In fact, they haven’t changed the recipe since the first batch (first time that’s happened). And this one is awesome! Definitely my favorite. Not the pandering stout that most people do -  there’s not a chocolate or a coffee flavor in the glass.

Chinookie – 25% of their total sales – and you guessed it, they redid the recipe. This batch smells amazing! Other ladies like roses, but give me a 12-pack of this instead. If you didn’t like Chinookie in 2012, then you need to try it again. This is not a double but I’d put it up against one in terms of flavor.

Nerd’s Reserve – I didn’t get to try any but this is what they call it when one of the 4 brewers gets to make their own beer.

North Country Brewing – Slippery Rock, PA

July 10, 2013

This turned out to be one of my favorite places when I visited Pittsburgh. It’s North of town about an hour in a place called Slippery Rock and the brewpub has a great story with good food and atmosphere. Sure, the service was great and the food was delicious, but my favorite thing about them is they have an almost unprecedented sampler that includes 12 beers (I’ve only ever experienced this at Chicago Brewing Co. in the Four Queens in Downtown Las Vegas) and is served on a block of hand-carved wood. Imagine a clock face with beers instead of numbers.

My beer buddy, Sandy

My beer buddy, Sandy

When committing to 60 oz. of beer, I recommend having a beer buddy, and lucky for me, I had my friend Sandy helping me out. You’ll remember her from the Blind Taste Test of Pittsburgh IPAs. This sampler review represents two visits to the brewery – one in December and one in February – and it covers 20 different beers! That gives you some indication of how often the beers rotate out – you’ll never get the same sampler twice.

Northern Lite – some good balanced hops but not overpowering. More flavor than what you typically get from the average American-style lager. Nice, solid light beer. Easy to drink this one very fast. The mouthfeel is really light and as with all light beers, it really only serves me as a good alternative to water.

Slippery Rock Dew – brewed with local honey. Not too sweet but the honey flavor is ever present. It’s interesting that they didn’t opt to do a mead instead. This still tastes like a beer but I puzzled over when they would add it to the mix. As part of the boil or instead of caning sugar? I suppose it’s a ‘spice’ like anything else. Perhaps it was just added for yeast food or to help carbonate the beer? I did some research later and found this advice on brewing with honey that confirms that the best way to use honey is to add it to your beer during fermentation. If you’re thinking of doing it, it’s like drinking an alcohol-infused tea. This one goes down dangerously smooth.

Station 33 Firehouse Red – an Irish ale with 5% of every draft sale going to local firefighters. Station 33 and Rescue 52 to be specific. This is a nice red. Not a lot of depth but still has some firm malty character. Roasted flavors are the main takeaway. I would still consider this a light beer offering but a great way to prep the palate for what’s to come.

Squirrel’s Nut Brown – very nutty. Toasted malts shine through. Another light mouthfeel beer but a great flavor. A bit of sour in the aftertaste. Easy to drink. Another one you power down in anticipation of what’s next.

Jodi’s ESB – not what I’d call an ESB in flavor but the ‘flatness’ is true to style. It may just be coming off the nut brown. Perhaps this should be tasted before the brown ale. It’s easy to drink. Caramel flavors come through. This would be a good place to start. The first one in the batch that I didn’t feel the need to shotgun.

McCafferty’s Ale – ‘a true Celtic red’ they say in the description and it was popular at the bar when people were ordering growlers. It’s not for me though. It’s confusingly bitter for what seems like a malt-heavy beer. My table mate said it was boring. I said that this beer is like realizing halfway through sex that this is only going to be a one-night stand. Very disappointing. It’s between a red and a brown but it doesn’t do either style justice. It is literally the red-headed step child of this sampler.

Hammer Strike – Belgian pale ale – Our server said that typically belgian rock candy is added but they used locally made hop candy that they melted down for this batch. Interesting. I’m not a fan of the Alcohol notes in Belgians that are present here but an interesting experiment for the brewery that panned out to some accurate style results. Die-hard Belgian fans might not be so amused.

The Other One – an old ale. So after what I just said about the alcohol notes, for some reason, they work for me here. I think that it balances against the toasted malts of a darker beer. Maybe it’s because it’s cold outside and it feels like a winter warmer. Whatever the reason, I love this beer.

Fruit beer – They always have one on tap and cherry was what I had my first visit. The smell is stronger than the taste. You know how you soak cherries in alcohol? It’s the reverse. It doesn’t taste like cherries soaked in beer but like beer soaked in cherries. Light, refreshing but a bit like drinking a Lindeman’s cough drop. It tastes like sugar. It’s not medicine tasting but that’s the flavor of the cherries. Again, I’m not going to criticize their love of doing something consistently different (they have a diff fruit beer on at all times depending on what’s locally available when they brew). This is what the macro beers are going for when they market fruit infused beers to women. Strawberry fields was the fruit beer my second visit and the only note I have for the beer is, “yuck.”

Imperial Amber – perfect follow up to the Firehouse Red. This has a lot of alcohol notes and really warms the belly. Too much for me but this is the choice I think for Belgian beer lovers. Almost like drinking apple cider vinegar to me and that’s not fair. It’s a good beer, just too many esters for my taste.

Heather Ale – Scottish Ale style using heather. Cloudy appearance. Floral. Didn’t leave an impression beyond the fact that it would be good before the Winter Gold.

Buck Snort Stout – Coffee flavors. A lot of body and depth with some nice sour and acid. But not vinegar. Like the sour you get from coffee. This is as good as it gets for me with stouts.

Stone House Stout – has some oatmeal in it but not called an oatmeal stout. Thinner mouthfeel, more head but certainly not enough to be confused with a porter. Side by side, it’s a tough call. I would do this one before the Buck Snort just on mouthfeel alone. If you’re doing the math on where we were in our dinner, then you won’t be surprised that I know firsthand that this stout pairs well with their bread pudding. I really liked this beer.

Friars Coffee Porter – this is a good follow up after the Stone House. I think I like coffee as a porter flavor better than as a stout flavor. If I had it to do all over again, I would have put the nut brown before this in the sampler.

Paleo IPA – added hops to oak barrels. They gave this one to us side-by-side with the draft and cask versions. Obvious differences are carbonation and temperature. Cask was almost too warm by the time we got through 10 other beers and dinner. I taste some orange zest that may or may not be there in the cask version and I may just be confusing a citrus hop flavor with the taste of flowers. Or wood from the cask presumably. It’s not the typical IPA but it’s smooth and satisfying considering it was the only hoppy beer on the menu my first time around. That was not the case during my second visit. Read on.

Wheel of Destiny!Winter Gold – this is smoother than the Paleo – a bit plastic in the flavor. I drank it after the Paleo but I should have done it after the Heather Ale and then the Paleo after this. I like this. Some sour. Not sure about the style but geared towards hop heads. It wears on you. Tastes different with each sip.

Double Vision IPA – 2 pint limit. This is smooth. Kinda sweet at first but not sickly.

Psychedelic Nightmare – Belgian Trippel inspired. I gave it to Sandy – fruity – dactyls is apparently what I don’t like – makes my belly feel like it’s on fire.

Simcoe Pale Ale – Cask – no description but this is deliciously piney. Good serving temp. Sandy gave me this one and this is just about the perfect beer for me. Love me some Simcoe hops.

I forgot to talk about the food. Salmon was awesome and the coconut cake was delicious. Second time I had steak and bread pudding. Delish. Did I mention the 12-beer sampler? That was my favorite part. And the fact that I got to try so many beers from one brewery was a real treat. Don’t skip this place if you’re in Pittsburgh. It’s worth the drive. Just bring someone whose willing to drive you back into town.

Blind Taste Test – Pittsburgh IPAs

March 14, 2013

As mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to do a blind taste test of Pittsburgh IPAs and my friend Sandy was happy to help. Here is the link to the podcast we recorded while we were tasting. Right click on the link and Save target as… for best sound quality. There’s no video, I just have one still picture of what our breakfast table looked like, so feel free to start the recording and then read along with the notes below.

Here are the links to all the beers we had in this test:

As you listen, here is the order that Tiffany was tasting them in:

  • East End – Big Hop
  • Full Pint – Chinookie
  • Fat Head’s – Head Hunter
  • Church – Thunderhop

And here is the order of the beers Sandy was tasting:

  • East End – Big Hop
  • Church – Thunderhop
  • Full Pint – Chinookie
  • Fat Head’s – Head Hunter

At one point in the recording, I’m referencing what I call a hop chart. Here is the picture that I’m referring to:

hop chart

The night before this recording, I took some not-so-blind tasting notes of three of the beers:

Thunderhop – floral hop flavor – 121 IBUs – they dry hop with Glaciers which are listed as earthy/grassy on my hop varieties chart – darkest in color with caramel undertones – following the Head hunter, this one falls a bit flat – the hops are a really subtle flavor even though the IBUs are higher. Floral comes through even more as it warms up. Some pepper notes come through too. Need to try this side by side with Ithaca Flower Power. I would pair this with food. Even though I like floral IPAs, I have to say this is my least fav of THESE three. That is not to say that I don’t love this beer.

Big Hop – a very malty beer –maybe it’s just the ‘low’ IBUs – 70 – Centennial and Cascade hops – listed as citrus – I don’t pick up on those notes but do get some sour – may not be considered an IPA by anyone accustomed to the west coast style. This would be the one I would start with if I was having multiple IPAs in one night and let’s face it, that totally happens. Fans of double IPAs will appreciate the balance in this one.

Head Hunter – this seems the ‘hoppiest’ in flavor meaning the most bitter but it’s in between the other two at 87 – Columbus (Herbal), Simcoe (Evergreen), Centennial (Citrus) hops – lightest in color – this one ‘smells’ the most like gym socks and what I would put up as ‘typical’ for an IPA – punch you in the mouth bitter with an after taste that stays on your tongue. Considered a west coast style IPA. This is my favorite and that was before I saw that it had a 98 BA score. This is an exceptional IPA.

Other beers mentioned in the recording:

We discussed IBUs and at the time neither one of us knew what IBUs were measuring or what a higher number of IBUs actually meant. I did some research and it is in fact measuring the acid (specifically the alpha acids) in a beer. It is not measuring perceived bitterness but rather the concentration of chemical compounds from the hops. No tasting is involved when measuring IBUs. So my reference to being surprised at how smooth Thunderhop is at 120 IBUs is irrelevant since the measurement has nothing to do with how the beer tastes.

Finally, I couldn’t find any recommendation anywhere that eggs worked to cleanse the palette, so you heard it here first.

East End Brewing Company – Pittsburgh, PA

February 17, 2013

When I visited East End in December 2012, the tasting room had just moved to a new location. Parking was tough. It’s is in a warehouse off of a narrow street and I learned on a trip to the East End later that narrow streets are the norm in this part of town. All I can say is trust the GPS as it doesn’t look like much from the outside and there weren’t very many markers at the time telling me I was in the right place. I parked halfway on the sidewalk which would have gotten me a parking ticket in Houston but seemed to be the only polite way to get a car down the street when sharing it with parked cars in the East End. I went to the tasting room on a Tuesday night and basically had the place all to myself with plenty of time to talk to one of the volunteers about these beers.

IMG_0719

Customers came in to fill up growlers throughout the night while I was there and I couldn’t help but notice the PVC tubes on every tap. At East End, they only sell growlers (PA law for their type of license). That means they don’t have a tasting menu that you can purchase and you can’t buy a full pint of beer, but they do allow customers to sample a beer or two while their growler is filling up, so I purchased a growler off the shelf to take back with me on the plane and I loaded up on souvenir merchandise in an attempt to compensate him for allowing me to try all the beers over the course of a couple hours. Here’s my review of their sampler.

Cider – “not for kids” it says on the handwritten sign above the tap – not bad. Not too sweet which I like plus some sour with the apple. They start with unpasteurized cider from Trax Farms which is a farmer’s market South of town. It’s not on their regular beer menu on their website but it looks like a Winter seasonal they do each year called Along Came a Cider that’s usually tapped out sometime in February.

Nunkin – This is their take on a spiced ale with no pumpkin in it (name makes sense now that I know that). It tastes kind of like potpourri smells. Surprising. Vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon – pumpkin pie spice but without the pumpkin. It’s surprising at how spiced it is. It’s like drinking what your grandma’s house smells like at Christmas. I like their explanation of it on their website from 2011. All the spice with none of the mess of actually using pumpkins whose flavor is too subtle to come through in a beer anyway. “Embrace the lie.”

Monkey Boy – This is a year-round Hefeweizen with strong banana flavors. I continue to be pleased with their naming conventions. My local friend, Sandy, told me this was her favorite before I came out to the tasting room so I was excited to try it. This is very good and very easy to drink. One of my favorite things about beers in Pittsburgh has been how well they do beers at or under 5%. This concept of having low alcohol session beers works well for folks like me who really are into craft beer for the flavor and not the hangover. For Monkey Boy, they use Czech Saaz hops, Pilsen Malts, and a German hefe yeast. No bananas or banana flavors are added. So just like with the Nunkin, these brewers are keeping the brew house clean when they brew. I can really respect the science behind this beer.

Fat Gary – this is their year round session beer and like I said above, there is a lot of flavor in this 3.7%. The Southern English Brown Ale (17 IBUs) was a great follow up after the Monkey Boy. I was introduced to this one at Bar Symon in the Pittsburgh airport. They’ve always got it on tap there.

Slartibartfast – because the abv is 4.2. Ha! Get it? If you don’t, then I’ll follow up by telling you that this is the name of a character in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s the one who takes Arthur on the tour of Earth Mark II. If I have to say more than that, then I hate you and nothing you say will ever make me like you. This is also #42 in their Session Ale series. The style of this beer is English mild (the laughs just keep on coming for me). Light color for something this toasty. Bartender says it’s authentic to what you get in the UK. Kent Golding hops.

My favorite hotel bar of all time is Bigelow Grille in the Doubletree Downtown Pittsburgh. They have six of the best rotating taps in town and I ran into this beer again a few weeks ago when I was in town. Order it if for no other reason than the name is just fun to make the bartender try to say!

Snow melt – winter warmer – higher abv at 6.8. Can taste the alcohol notes. No spice. Very good. Favorite so far. I can’t find anything on the website to give you more details than that, but at this point in the tasting, I’m realizing how weird it is that there’s a coffee shop in the same space as the tasting room and I can’t smell any roasted coffee. The name of the coffee joint is The Commonplace (it’s a local chain, so this is the location on Julius) and the owners know each other which may have had something to do with the relocation of the tasting room but that’s just speculation on my part.

Want more info? Beer Advocate to the rescue! It says it’s a mahogany-red ale and a piney hop flavor which would explain why I loved it. This is a flavor term I’ve recently been introduced to in reference to hops. The fact that they picked a seasonal flavor but kept the pumpkin pie spice out of it is appreciated by this beer lover. Winter can be tough on the local, seasonal beer drinker. If you don’t like most winter warmers, try this one. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Black Strap Stout – they use brown sugar and molasses during the process. And now that I know that, I wonder how many times I’ve confused the taste of molasses in the brew with coffee. I’m highly critical of stouts that pander to the coffee and chocolate flavors and now I know to ask if there’s molasses in the mix before I accuse them of going with a coffee-flavored profile. This is certainly not the stout for everyone but it’s what I personally wish more stouts would be. This is a really great beer. I like seeing a brewery with such a complete set of offerings – low ABV’s and great dark ales all in the same place. Why aren’t you here right now filling up a growler or two or three?!

Blabber and Smoke – light color lager, very smoky with what I’d describe as a plastic and numbing aftertaste (like Robitussin throat spray). It’s okay. Let’s face it, I can’t like them all. I don’t go in for smoke beers anyway but I can appreciate that this one isn’t adding roasted flavors in addition to the smoke. This is not to be confused with their Smokestack Heritage Porter which I haven’t tried and that has a BA Score of 90 on Beer Advocate (as does Black Strap!).

Big Hop – As a casual observer, this seems to be their flagship beer as you can find it in most draft bars around town and it is just awesome. I love this beer and it was the reason I wanted to visit this brewery. Again, I’ve got to go with pine as the dominant flavor profile which probably means that I need to be hanging out with more IPAs that use Centennial and Cascade hops. Bitterness is at 70 IBUs so it’s not the hoppiest you’ll have in this category but certainly well balanced for what I’ve come to expect from American IPA’s.

As a local comparison, my favorite Pittsburgh IPA before I tried Big Hop was Thunderhop from Church Brew Works (my review linked here) and my favorite since I’ve tried Big Hop is Fat Head’s Head Hunter. Now I need to figure out how to get all three of those side by side for a blind tasting to see if that holds up. Maybe my friend Sandy will help me out.

Miss Spelt – They didn’t have this on tap and I liked the label, so I took a growler of this back to the hotel with me to try. You all know how disappointed I typically am in saisons and this one is no exception. Because there’s no pepper and no sour, it’s not the saison for me. The aroma is great though and if I’m going to be ‘wrong’ about what I want out of a saison, then this is how I’d want to be wrong about it. What makes this one interesting from a trivia perspective is that spelt is an ancestor of wheat. Spelt is referenced in the Bible (Exodus 9:32 if you want to look it up). But the bartender said that it was gluten free and upon further research (Wikipedia), it seems that is indeed not the case so hopefully people with coeliac disease aren’t being encouraged to drink this at the brewery and instead are sticking to the ‘not for kids’ cider.

East End’s year round beers are Big Hop, Monkey Boy, Fat Gary, and Black Strap. They do a seasonal Wit in Spring, Petal Pale Ale in Summer, Big Hop Harvest in the Fall (wet hopped), and Snow Melt in the Winter. But wait, there’s more! They also have two sodas and a couple of customers were coming in just to get their growlers filled with these sweet treats. The Ginger Ale is awesome and lies somewhere between the harshness of ginger beer and the sweet of commercial ginger ale. It’s a clear color and would be a great mixer. If they’re not already offering this on the gun to local bars, I think they’re missing a marketing opportunity. Real lime, real ginger, real sugar. Real awesome. The Root Beer was also nice. They use real sugar, buy the syrup, and then add some stuff. The bartender was right – don’t miss out on these when you visit the Tasting Room.

After all that, I ended up at D’s SixPax & Dogz afterwards which is literally suggested to me by every single person I meet in Pittsburgh once they find out I love craft beer. I opted for a mac and cheese hot dog and bought a 6-pack sampler of local IPAs to bring home to Houston with me.

Potato-Leek Soup with Clams

January 1, 2013

Or call it Clam Chowder with Leeks. Either way, combining these two classic soup recipes dulls the strong flavor of the clams found in most chowders and adds something to chew on for people wanting to make soup into a meal instead of an appetizer.

Ingredients:
1 lb. Red potatoes, peeled and quartered
5-6 Pieces Bacon
1 TB Bacon grease
1 TB Salted butter
1-2 large Leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 medium Onion, white, diced
3-4 cloves Garlic, minced
1 bottle Clam juice
10-12 oz. Clams, whole with liquid
¼ cup Chicken broth, as needed to bring liquid to 2 cups
¼ tsp. Salt and pepper, each to taste
1 TB Cornstarch, dissolved in a little cold water or chicken broth
½ cup Half-and-half

Directions:
Boil potatoes until fork tender. Meanwhile, cook bacon until crispy and set aside. Add butter to bacon grease and stir in leeks, onion, and garlic until coated. Cover and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add clam juice and chicken broth (measure 2 cups) and stir in soft potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to a boil, add cornstarch, then lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Pour mixture into a blender and pulse 3-4 times to desired consistency (or use an immersion blender). Return soup to the pan, add half-and-half and stir in clams. Heat to serving temperature. Dice or crumble bacon and either add to the soup or use as a garnish. Serves 4. Estimate 360 calories per serving.

Beer Pairing:
When the weather is cold, our thoughts turn to hearty soups. Pair this soup with a Belgian Ale (Wit, Pale, Saison, or Biere de Garde) or a Winter Warmer brewed in the English style (no pumpkin pie spice flavors). What you’re going for here is the warming quality of the esters and the alcohol notes which will enhance the feeling you were going for when you started craving soup.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.