Friday, June 03, 2011

beer update

Back in April I solicited Gameblog readers for new beer suggestions, as I am a novice in the field. Based upon telling you I like Guiness and recently tried and enjoyed a Newcastle Brown Ale, you all suggested a great many beverages to try. A few people also suggested I check out, which has been very useful in smartening me up on the subject. Wikipedia also has a beer portal that I found helpful at times. Anyway, here are my results of a month and half of getting beer instead of soda pop when dining out, as well as hitting up local merchants that will sell you six-packs that you can fill with whatever singles are on the shelf.

Any English-style brown ale, porter or stout I've tried has been a solid hit for me. Last week I tried a bottle of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale and it was either the best or second best beer I've ever had. Newcastle and Guiness still remain excellent choices in my opinion and are much easier to obtain locally than many others in there respective categories. I was at a drugstore the other day and there were twelve-packs of Newcastle in the refridgerator. And Guiness seems to be the default "neither American nor pale" on-tap option at a lot of places. By the way, does anybody else think bottled Guiness and the tap variety taste noticeably different? I like the bottled stuff but it seems better from a tap. Or maybe I'm just tricking myself, getting into the scene more than the drink.

Since my last beer update the family and I took a weekend trip to Indianapolis to visit the Children's Museum there. That's a heckuva cool place. My wife and I went once before we had our daughter and loved it. While we were in the Big City I decided we should eat lunch at someplace spiffy, so we went to the Rathskeller. I've never seen them outside the Midwest, but around these parts instead of going to stereotypical fancy French restaraunts, normal folks tend to go upscale by visiting German restaraunts with lotsa dark wood and shelves festooned with Old World knick-knacks. Jumer's in Peoria, Illinois was the closest one when I was a lad. We'd visit there only for very special occasions. They had a stuffed bear in one hallway and a faux suit of armor holding a halberd. And really great sausages, as I recall.

Man, this post has gotten rambly. Anyway, the Rathskeller had a killer beer list. I was overwhelmed by the available choices, so I just picked the first one my eyes alighted on, which was Orval Trappist Ale. I assumed that the Trappist part meant that a bunch of German monks brewed this stuff the same way they had for centuries. Turns out I was part right. Orval is still made by Trappist monks, but the monastery is in Belgium, not Germany. Either way, it was a truly exceptional beverage, the only one I've tried so far that is in the same league as Samuel Smith's Nut Brown.

Upon returning from Indy I started fishing around for a cheaper alternative to Orval, the way Samuel's Smith is great but Newcastle is a cheaper but still enjoyable brown ale. So far the best resemblance I've found is in New Belgium Abbey. Colorado-based New Belgium seems to be the hippiest brewery around: they're employee owned and eco-friendly. Their Abbey dark ale is one of the two new beers I've tried where I could see myself buying a sixpack to take home, as opposed to just an occasional one-off drink.

New Belgium's flagship brew, Fat Tire, was recommended by several folks in the eariler beer posts. (I haven't had a chance to try New Belgium 1554, which was also recommended.) I tried Fat Tire and didn't much care for it. In fact, I haven't had much success with anything you could call a red ale, amber ale or pale ale. India Pale Ale, which I know a lot of beer nerds love, is particularly harsh on my tongue. I'm new to this and still filling out my vocabularly, but I'm thinking that anything with too much hoppiness is putting me off. Does that make sense, given I seem to like dark ales a lot better than lighter ones?

I've found two exceptions to this simple "Dark good, light bad" set-up. Anchor Steam Beer is the other new (to me) beer which I'd buy a six-pack to take home. Since I was having no luck with lighter-colored beers, I really wasn't expecting to like it. I tried it mainly because "steam beer" (a.k.a. "California common") is the only truly American beer style I have been able to identify other than "American adjunct ale", which I'm pretty sure is's polite term for the watery stuff we call beer that all the other countries laugh at.

The other lightly colored beers that interest me are witbiers. As I understand it, Blue Moon, pretty much the one mass-produced American beer I've ever drank more than one of, is based upon the witbier style. So I've tried several more legit witbiers. I can't quite bring myself to say I like them, but I don't hate them. All that I've tired so far have this weird sour note that's muted in Blue Moon and I'm not sure if it's an aquired taste or just something that hovers on the good/bad line for me personally.

One oddball beer I tried is Professor Fritz Briem's 13th Century Grut Bier. Devised by some sort of German beer R&D guy, it's an attempt to recreate a pre-hops beer recipe. It came in a large bottle so I split it with my buddy Pat. We both agreed it tasted like fermented sweet pickle brine. It wasn't bad, just weird. Another weird one was New Grist, which uses sorghum and rice as it's basis. I swear to Grodd, if you poured this stuff into stemware and hid the bottle you could trick people into thinking it was white wine. Not bad, but I don't see the point, unless it was designed for people who are allergic to both gluten and tannin.

So that's everything I've learned so far about the wide world of beer. I now know enough to have some embryonic opinions, a few ideas for what I want to drink next and a couple of "regulars". Thanks again for all the advice.

One last question for those in the know: Are Black & Tans (a mixture of one part stout and one part something lighter, like Bass Ale) considered gauche? I ordered one with supper at an Irish type pub on Monday and as I was drinking it I started to wonder if a Black & Tan was considered as crass as mixing white wine and red in the same glass. I won't stop getting them now and again even if they take away my Beer Snob license, I just like to know when I'm committing transgressions against good taste.


  1. A black and tan isn't a bad thing in terms of a drink, but the term has certain connotations which might not go down too well in a proper Irish pub. I would imagine that the further removed one is from the Old Country -- or if everyone involved is pretty easy-going -- the less of a problem this is.

  2. Oh, and draft Guinness varies considerably. I've had an excellent pint in Minnesota, and an awful pint in London. The best I've ever had was in a pub called The Bishop's Finger, in Canterbury.

  3. I have recently (well, what, twenty minutes ago? :D) tried Ferran Adria's infamous Inedit, which in the world of gastronomy is a bit like Salvador Dalí painting you a little watercolour something. A very nice, light beer to be served chilled and drunk from a white wine glass, more wheaty than malt-like. Good stuff. However, still massively overpriced.

  4. Guinness used to come in a bewildering number of variants, and no, you aren't imagining the difference between bottle and draught.

  5. Guinness quality, like most beers, depends on the temperature, so often a fridge at home may leave it cold enough to mute the flavours. In addition, the head does not come out as well from a bottle as it does from a tap, though the widgets in the cans can help with that some.

    My take on a black and tan is not at all gauche, but they need to be poured properly, so that the two beers are layered and not just mixed together.

  6. Black and Tans and Half and Halfs (Guinness plus Bass) are some of my most absolute favorites.

    These days I drink mostly American beers, particularly localish. Lots of Leinenkugel, lots of Goose Island, lots of Great Lakes. I mention them because, of course, they're relatively local to you as well. All three of them have a lot of varieties that are worth trying. Sort of like midwestern versions of Sam Adams: readily available and high enough quality for solid everyday drinking, and with a shocing amount of variety.

    I think as you go you'll find that "light = bad, dark = good" doesn't hold up in the long run. There are excellent and terrible beers of every style, and I encourage you to try everything. Because there is no such thing as too much beer.

    Right now I'm drinking bocks, which are kind of a dark beer that goes down like a light beer. Most delicious. I like Shiner, but it's a Texas beer that can be tricky to find in the midwest. Leinie's has an 1880 Bock that's great, but it might only come in a variety pack. Never fear: variety packs are always a good investment.

    In any case: beer snobbery rarely pays off--you just wind up missing out on good beers for no good reason. There's a difference between having a sphisticated beer palate (good!) and being a beer snob (bad!). You can safely avoid the megabrews (Bud, Miller, Michelob, etc.), but anything else is almost always at least worth your time. And even the megabrews will do when there's no other option. Any port in a storm.

  7. I really wish I hadn't read this post at noon. Sorely tempted to leave work now and start drinking a delicious local microbrew!

    I've been spoiled, having lived in Portland, Vancouver and now Montreal, all which have excellent local brewpubs.

    You may want to look into some eastern European Pilsners for a lighter beer that has a great taste. Pilsner Urquel is one of the classics and really quite delicious served cold with a big sausage on your plate.

  8. Good call on the Sam Smith's! I decied a long time ago it was my favorite beer of all time. Once, after a months-long underway on a submarine during my sea-going Navy days, I returend to find my wife had bought me a case of the stuff. I was a very happy camper!

  9. Mmmm, Pilsner Urquel.

  10. I think that Black & Tans are staples of Irish pubs 'round the world.

    I've had them made with Guiness and either Bass (a British ale) or Harp (an Irish ale).

    Unfortunately, I haven't had one in a LONGGGG time. ;>

    To pour one, I think the ale goes in first, and then I've seen a bent spoon used to "disperse" the Guiness. See here:

  11. Anonymous11:37 AM

    I had an Airdale Dark and Stormy Imperial Stout two months ago and I'm still recovering from it. It was one of the best beers I've ever had - or maybe it just knocked me on my ass and I'm just saying that...

    -Nils Nordstrand

  12. "Dark and Stormy" is also the name of a cocktail: rum mixed with ginger beer. Delicious!

  13. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Jeff, our beer tastes seem to run in the same vein. I'm a longtime lover of both Guiness and Newcastle as well as their more expensive analogs. Chimay is a nice Trappist ale if you want to venture further thataways. Its easy to find in my neck of the woods but expensive. They come in different color labels and I know people that swear by one or the other, but they're all good to me.

    My experience with the Pilsner Urquell recommended above is that, being a lager and brewed overseas, it easily goes bad. So in the States its tougher to get one worth it. Your mileage may vary, but its a tasty and light lager when you're in the mood for one. Very refreshing summer drinking.

    Also refreshing and closer to home... have you tried any IPAs? A good one might put the kybosh on your light/ bad theory. I won't risk recommending a boutique beer you can't easily find, but for a domestic if you can get Dogfish Head or my first love - Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA, you'll get a sense for the style.

  14. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Love dark and stormy's... discovered them on a trip to Bermuda long ago. I used to special order the Goslings rum and Barrit's ginger beer before kids came along and my spending priorities were changed for me.

  15. I really think one of the best beer's I've had is a Trappist from Belgium. I'm also pretty fond of Andecher's Dunkel Dopple Bock. Great dark beers. Ettal Monastary outside Garmisch also makes a good Doppel Bock. I'm regretting not picking some up last week when I was in Garmish on a work trip.

  16. I drank a Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA just last night. Goose Island's IPA is also very good.

    Keep in mind IPAs are very hoppy and thus very bitter, especially compared to the typically maltier dark beers.

  17. Only 95 minutes left until I can access beer...




  18. @Olman:

    Staropramen is a wonderful Czech pilsner (duh) that is fairly inexpensive if you can find it (inexpensive for an imported beer, anyway). Hands down the best pilsner I've ever had, flavorful and light without some of the aftertaste you end up with in a lot of beers in that range.

  19. urgh, IPAs. Bleh. Easiest beer to make and 90% of them should have been left as ingredients.

    veriword: Phallysi
    A clearly specious argument made solely with the aim of getting laid.

  20. I realized while reading your great post about the joyful discoveries of different beers that I am indeed the opposite of a Beer Snob. I am a Beer Scumbag.

    I like all those fancy beers, no doubt. Alot! But when I sit at a bar, I go for the traditional American Boilermaker, Beer Scumbag style. A pint of PBR or Bud Heavy, with a shot of lowgrade bourbon served next to it. Sip both until empty, repeat.

    This may explain my excellent DM skills.

  21. SirAllen, I'm much the same way with wine. If it tastes vaguely of grapes and will give me a buzz then I'm pretty much good with it. I try to limit myself to bottles with corks rather than screwcaps, but that's strictly for show.

  22. I think the most important thing to remember is to trust your mouth. I hated New Belgium's Abbey, but guzzle their Fat Tire and their Summer seasonals. This has nothing to do with a lack of sophistication of your palate; you just like a different beer.

    My wife and I just got back from Belgium and were mad about the Trappist ales we tried there. Alas, her favorite Chimay Bleu "only" costs $12/1-liter bottle here. :/

    In total agreement that Guiness in the bottle tastes different from the tap. You may also wish to try: (1) Guiness in the can [it comes with a charger that carbonates it when you open it, ostensibly to make it more tap-like] and (2) Guiness at room temperature (not to be tried with the cans, however). There was The Poet & Patriot Irish Pub in Santa Cruz back in the early 90's, and they had Guiness on tap at both temperatures. I came to prefer it warm.

    Thanks so much for the follow up!

  23. There's a Guinness Black Lager out there that I like for the same reason I like Shiner Bock.

  24. You like the dark beers, and you were OK with the trappist ale, so I'll suggest you try (if you can find it) Ommegang Abby Ale. It's a dubbel (8.5% alcohol) and it's a little pricey, $6.99 around here for a single, cork-stoppered 29.4 oz bottle. What it is, however, is fantastic, and a wonderful occasional treat. And because it's a bit on the strong side alcohol-wise be careful or it'll catch you when you don't notice. It's dark and smooth but lacks bitterness. You may like it.

  25. When I drank regularly, the Guiness in the bottle with the yellow label was my daily drinker (it was called extra stout IIRC). Whenever it began weighing too much in my belly, I would switch to Harp for a bit.

    The other fun thing we did a lot was irish car bombs. a shot glass half-filled with jameson, topped off with a bit of bailey's, and dropped into a pint of guiness. then you gotta slam the whole thing at once. it tasted like a milkshake for drunks.

    captcha: "facesat"
    that one speaks for itself!

  26. C. Edwards8:39 PM

    If you ever feel inclined to try some Mexican brews I recommend Negra Modelo. Dos Equis Amber Lager is a decent backup if you can't find the Modelo. Both are crisp and refreshing, with the Modelo having a saltiness to it. Both may or may not taste better with lime depending on how you feel about such things.

  27. Jeff, sounds like you've had fun in your beer explorations. It also sounds like you've started to define some favorite styles.

    I don't know how easily you can get a hold of imports or craft beers at home (most of the stuff you've cited is pretty widely available.)

    For some Germans you might like (in your stated spectrum, I think), try Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock, Paulaner Salvator, or Spaten Optimator. You might also like Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a black lager.

    You mentioned Anchor, so I hope you've had Anchor Porter? Rogue's Shakespeare Stout might be available out there too.

    Also, if you can find any Fuller's from England. Fuller's ESB is in that red-ale zone that you weren't sure about, but my gut sense is it's the American reds you might not like (hoppy). Fuller's is malty-sweet with a rich mouth feel.

  28. First your amazing RPG posts and now this? Can this blog get any better?!

    A lot of great suggestions in this thread. It's interesting that you prefer darks to lights--beer newbies tend to go the other way in my experience.

    Keep trying the heffiwiessen (ie wheat beers). They are fantastic during the summer months with a wedge of lemon.

  29. Not sure if it's been mentioned, since I'm rushed on time at the moment, but I recommend Flying Dog Brewery's In-Heat Wheat.

    It's basically the big brother of Blue Moon. A full-bodied, richly flavored hefeweizen (sp?) that perhaps is just a little more hoppy than Blue Moon, but I think it would be a solid try.

  30. Anonymous11:13 AM

    Thumbs up to the Pilsner Urquel. There are other amazing pilsners to try. My two favorites are Staropramens and Czechvar. Two very full-flavored beers that go down light, capturing the essence of the true pilsner. If you are more into the darker german beers, you might want to try the Warsteiner take on pilsner, called the Warsteiner Verum. Or something to that effect. I don't much care for it, as I'm not really into german beers. The czech pilsner is much better.

  31. I second the recommendation of Negra Modelo. I am by no means an aficionado, but it's become one of my go-to beers.

  32. You seem to like the darker beers, which in the U.S. run more to the sweet side (excepting Guiness) as opposed to the hoppier beers. There has been a fad in the U.S., now known as 'hop hype', which gave rise to an unfortunate syndrome of 'anything you can brew, I can brew hoppier.'. It has been the bane of those of us who prefer a bit of hops.

    Nevertheless, I would recommend Bell's Amber, Pale Ale, or Oberon.

  33. Jeff, if you're ever in the Sioux Falls region (described as extreme southeast South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwest Iowa, or northeast Nebraska), drop me a line.

    I'll introduce you to one of the best "beer snob" bars I've ever been to in the entire world, and given my experience, that's saying something.

    They have a very nice smooth draught selection, among other things. Monk's House of Ale Repute.

  34. I'm right with you on the issue with bottled Guinness. I've generally held to the line that I only drink Guinness from the tap, it's not really worth bothering with the bottles or cans, in my mind, even with the widgets.

    I'm generally not a fan of IPAs myself, and tend to favor the darks. If you want to give a light a try, I suggest Magic Hat's #9. It's a brewery out of Burlington, VT, and #9 is billed an "almost pale ale". I haven't found anything quite like it, it's wonderful.

  35. Mmmmm, Guinness. You haven't come across a source of Tennants Lager that isn't Glaswegian in your travels, have you?

  36. Bob Oboc10:30 AM

    Sounds like your personal preference is for malt over hops. Hoppy beers have that bitter edge and astringent taste to them that American drinkers love, Malty beers are more rich and full, think chocolate, caramel, smoke and earthy flavors. I prefer malted beers myself.
    The definitive reference guides on beer were written by, I kid you not, Michael Jackson (no relation to Thriller). He was a renowned expert of beer and whisk(e)y. Check out his book "Beer", in the DK Eyewitness Companion series. It's available at every major bookstore and only runs $15 or so.
    Also one more recommendation. Hard to find, but try Schlenkerla Rauchbier. It's a smoked Marzen from Germany, and tastes like lager, smoke, and hints of bacon, yes bacon. Delicious.