Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Funky Belgian 7

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/24/2011
Warren offers up one from his personal collection
Over the last seven years our pal Warren Becker has organized an invitation-only beer tasting/fundraiser at BARCADE, and in that time it has raised thousands of dollars for The Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC). The event is kind of an organized pot-luck tasting, for which everyone brings a big bottle of something special, and everyone helps themselves, and each other, to samples of whatever looks interesting.
Bill's Otto and Sophie are alums of BARC
But it's not  just any beer -- it's specifically Belgian style beer brewed in America. The idea behind it was to showcase the fact that American craft brewers not only can brew the sometimes esoteric and unique (and wonderful!) Belgian Grand Cru, Kreik, Pale Ale, Wit, etc. -- but many kick ass at it!
The invitees let Warren know weeks and days in advance of what they are planning to bring. Warren creates a list and circulates it to the invitees every few days, so that 10 different people don't bring the same exact beer. This year there were about 50 people at the start and about 135 different bottles of various styles from possibly 100 different breweries. A full list of the beers is listed at the bottom.
Additionally, Warren reaches into his own pocket to buy a stack of pizzas from LA NONNAS for everyone, and other participants bring various delicacies (cheeses, mustards, cakes, salads, etc.). But one of the biggest attractions are the mouthwatering Belgian waffles that Mary Izett makes every year -- cooking them on the spot!
Mary waffles as Teddy hopes she drops one
Starting at about 1pm, people begin to gather around the tables, loaded with all manner of Belgian style beers. It's like a gathering of "Warren's Beer Pals", many of whom work in the craft beer business.
 The bottles are loosely arranged alphabetically. Many partakers refer to the list to hunt down a favorite brewery or a rare beer that they've been wanting to try. For many, bringing the most rare, hard-to-come-by bottle is a goal. Beers show up from as far away as Alaska. Some folks bust out prized possessions from their personal beer cellars. Cave-aged Hennepin? Capt. Lawrence Cuvee de Castleton Batch 4? Anchorage Brewing Whiteout Wit? Yes, yes and yes! And how about SEVEN different bottles from New Belgium?
When someone discovers something special on the table, rather than hogging it, they insist that the person next to them try it, and they excitedly search for their pals to make sure that they get a splash, so that they don't miss out. If someone brings something very special, they may open it themselves and then walk around the room with the bottle, trying to find folks who they know will appreciate it.

Over the course of the afternoon, thousands of sips of dozens of styles of beer slowly but steadily empty out the forest of large bottles. And hundreds of dollars are collected for BARC -- $500 this year. And if someone were to get the deposit back on all of the bottles, that in itself could pay for a few bowls of dog chow and meow mix!

The Corkmen get the party poppin'

So, a dachshund walks into a bar(cade)... so why the long face?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Homebrew Contest At Heartland

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/18/2011

On August 16 HEARTLAND BREWERY held a homebrew contest at their Empire State Building location. B.R. was on the panel of judges who selected a Cascadian Dark IPA as the best of show. The BOS prize? Brew a 15 barrel batch of the beer with Kelly, and have the beer featured at some of the 7 Heartland pubs throughout the city!

Some of the entries after the contest
B.R. spoke to Kelly of Heartland at the conclusion of the contest to get the details on this very cool and very generous contest and has the details on the judging below.

Who are YOU to judge?!

There were about 50 entries from homebrewers throughout the city and the judges were a mix of professional brewers, beer writers, beer judges, and others from the beer world. Since it wasn't a sanctioned BJCP/AHA contest, we didn't fill out scoresheets to return to the entrants. Instead, each judge personally judged 4 beers and put forth the best of the 4 to the group of judges at their table. The tables then voted on their top choice and those beers proceeded to be be judged by all of the judges. As well as objective judging based on stylistic accuracy and lack of obvious flaws, we were also encouraged to add a subjective element, keeping in mind that the beer would be brewed for the public. As Kelly told us, "is it something you'd want to drink?" As much as I was hoping that I could sabotage the contest and push a crazy beer like a Mango-Rutabaga-Cinnamon Stout that Kelly would be forced to brew, there was luckily (luckily for Kelly!) nothing too outlandish among the entrants.

The beers that made it to the final round were a clean British Bitter that came in a close second, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, and the eventual winner, an Imperial Cascadian Dark IPA. Congratulations to the winner and cheers to a great job by the rest of the contestants!

There was also a ticketed People's Choice event, open to the public. Homebrewers brought samples of their beer - some of which were entered in the official contest - and the attendees voted for their favorite beer. The winner of the People's Choice was a Belgian specialty ale.

Thanks to Heartland for supporting the local homebrewing scene; let's hope they make this an annual event!

Brewmeister Kelly
You can find part two of this week's podcast/blog post HERE.

Sour Beers At Jimmy's No. 43

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/18/2011

Every Tuesday at about 7:30pm JIMMY'S NO. 43 hosts a beer tasting with a different theme or angle each week. It's only $10 and usually includes roughly 5 to 7 different beers. The tastings are organized and lead by Mike of UNION BEER, a local distributor of craft beer.

This past Tuesday, the theme was SOUR BEERS. While B.R. was busy judging a homebrew contest at the Heartland Brewery, I dropped by to find some regular non-beer-industry folks to talk to and see what they thought of sour beer.

Now, in general "sour" is not how beer is supposed to taste, and when most beers become sour, it's considered one of the worst possible flaws. It typically means that the beer has been contaminated by bacteria. But there are a handful of styles that, in fact, are supposed to be sour, and they achieve sourness by intentionally allowing certain bacteria strains to interact with the beer.
The beers featured were:

 Instead of talking to some expert about the beers, we thought that it would be cool to talk to some non-industry, non-beer judge people. One such person whom I had arranged in advance to talk to was WFMU's Liz Berg. Unfortunately, the the event sold out before Liz arrived, so she didn't make it in. But I recognized two people at the tasting from the street hockey league that B.R. and I play in -- Mike and Heather. So, after a little persuading, they became our guests!
 They were great to talk to, because they definitely were outside of the local inner beer scene, BUT they were not total novices when it came to craft brew. They're just getting started in homebrewing, they hit the occasional craft beer event here and there, and, most importantly, they love trying new and different styles of beer.

Our conversation about the sour beers that we sampled is part two of this week's two-part podcast. Part one, and interview with Kelly of Heartland and Kelso, is HERE.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

La Birreria: What About The Beer?

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/10/2011

To paraphrase their own website, LA BIRRERIA is Eataly’s rooftop restaurant and brewery created in collaboration with American brewery DOGFISH HEAD and Italian breweries BALADIN and DEL BORGO, brewing unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales, served through traditional hand pumps.
BR, always happy with beer; Bob, who punched you in the face? WANDA?!?
We're not going to waste your time telling you about the famous people involved with LA BIRRERIA -- and there are plenty of 'em. We're not going to fill the post with 41 pictures of Martha Stewart in the 3.5 barrel (roughly 110 gallon) brewhouse, the bar or dining area, encompassing 4,500 sq ft as reported by others. All of that info is readily available at the establishment's own website, and a pile of other blogs and websites. But what the others don't have is what we're aiming to provide -- what the heck is the beer like?!?

O.K. -- I hate to be negative. And even when commenting on the occasional gag-inducing infected homebrew when judging at a contest, I try to find something positive to say. "Nice choice of bottle! Excellent capping job! The beer had really good carbonation! You totally nailed the temperature!"

So, to delay the criticism a bit... we entered the Italian food wonderland known as EATALY at 23rd St. and 5th Ave. A Disney World of Italian cuisine? I don't know. I just know that if I didn't have blinders on and was not pointed at the elevator entrance to the brewpub, I'd probably never make it to the brewpub. There's just too damn much amazing looking and smelling stuff, going on there... for acres. It's truly a spectacle. Tourists-taking-photos kind of spectacle (which we did indeed witness).

The pub is on the roof, 15 floors above. Sidenote: others have mentioned that it's the "highest brewpub in the world!" -- well, guess what? At over a mile high, some folks in Denver, and brewers in other elevated locales, would be quick to disagree. Anyway... There are two elevators that can get you there. Finding them might require some assistance, as they're tucked away into an obscure corner, though, appropriately, it's a corner in the beer section of the über-gourmet-mall. On a busy day/night, it can take some time to get roughly 150 people (their stated capacity) up to their seats, at 8 passengers per lift. But once you're on top -- beauty. The pub/restaurant has a retractable glass roof. And if the weather is right, the view is inspiring -- one of those "only in New York" things.

On Tuesday night, in the middle of a typical NYC "out of town" summer, after a day-long rain, we figured that it would be kind of quiet. I think that it actually was, though we still found it too crowded and noisy for our gentle demeanor. This is not a place you'd find us lining up for on a Friday night. But what do you want -- NYC, trendy spot, rooftop viewing, big name chefs, yadda yadda yadda. You just deal with it.

And despite all that -- the crowded bar and noise -- we were still able to get the attention of an astute bartender named Brad who managed to communicate with us past a thicket of barside customers and the din that they generated.

We expected to find three of the pub's offerings on cask, but one was out, and its replacement was yet to be tapped, so we had the WANDA and the GINA to sample. At $10 per 16-ounce pint, it's a pricey ride, but it's likely that a healthy percentage of that price is paying for the real estate.

First impressions...

Wanda, a chestnut mild ale: thick and murky with the aroma of someone's second batch of homebrew -- yeasty and earthy. So, they're going for a real old country experience?

Gina, a thyme pale ale: certainly more clear than her sister, but with an appropriate clarity for an unfiltered cask beer, with a subtly spicy nose.

On tasting...

Wanda: oh dear. My most positive comments could be that it tasted "rustic." B.R. kindly said "watery". When was the last time that you heard someone sidle up to the bar and say, "Barkeep! Pour me a rustic beer! Or a watery beer! WAIT -- a rustic watery beer, if you've got that rare vintage!"

At first it seemed drinkable. You know -- you made a special trip to try a special beer in a special place for the first time. You want it to be... special. But as the critical mind takes over, "special" takes on a darker meaning. Frankly, it just wasn't very good. (And "very" was an unnecessary adverb, I'm sad to say.) The one benefit of the doubt that I'd grant is that the bartender seemed to have had trouble pulling the pint, and he dumped his first attempt. Was the cask at its dregs? I sincerely hope so.

Looking at the picture of the two pints side by side, you can see what I tasted.
Mud-thick Wanda and beer-like Gina.
Gina: ok... I could be convinced that there's thyme in there. It seems "spicy", hoppy, estery. By the by, why would you put thyme in a pale ale? Were they out of oregano? I'll let B.R. expand on the Gina experience. In her own words, BR grows her own thyme, and had some earlier in the day, and she wasn't impressed with the thyme presence in the Gina. The thyme presence was so subtle that it could easily be thought to derive from the spicy, herbal notes of some hop varieties. While I generally prefer non-spiced beers, when I do drink them I like it when the spices are subtle and well-integrated, complementing rather than overwhelming the base beer. But in Gina's case, the thyme was beyond subtle to be practically non-existent. And as a pale ale, the beer lacked the biscuity, chewy malt character and hop crispness.

All in all, I feel like I need to return to this place, at the very least, to try their SOFIA, a BELGIAN WIT beer, which is due to be tapped soon. It seems unfair to write off a place based on one not-so-perfect experience. Believe me -- I want their beer to be good, because I'm an optimist, and I'm thrilled that BEER is such a central focus of such a big-deal food spot. And that said, it should be noted that there's LOTS more on offer on tap and cask, in terms of craft beer and cask wine at La Birreria. Check their menu. Though, in summary...

You know, you can eat a hotdog on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and it'll be the most amazing hot dog you'll ever savor for your entire life. And yet that exact same hot dog eaten at the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the NJ Turnpike could send you to the hospital. It could be said that 99% of the "experience" is everything surrounding the core of the experience.

At this point, I get the feeling that La Birreria may be just another ride in the theme park. And for some people to be satisfied, the core of the experience doesn't have to be that good or even that real. It just has to be an "experience". The stuff surrounding the beer at La Birreria might be enough to make it work for most people. We'll give the Italian Brewpub ride at the Italian Gourmet Food Disney World one more shot.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pilsners At Blind Tiger With Sean of Victory Brewing

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/4/2011

PILSNER style lagers are unquestionably the "kings of beers" the world over and have been for the last century. But beer wasn't always bright, clear, crisp and clean. Two changes in the brewing process in the mid-1800s made pilsners possible: lighter malts, pioneered by English maltsters who began malting barley with indirect heat, and bottom fermenting yeast that worked at colder temperatures.

The result, when brewed with German and Bohemian noble hops such as Tettnang and Saaz, and with the soft water found in Plzen, is a beer that is clean, clear, with an extremely light golden color, and which is the definition of "refreshing". Prior to the advent of the pilsner/pils/helles style, you can imagine that most beers would be dark, roasty and yeasty. But the cleanly fermenting lager yeast and the process of lagering -- fermenting and aging the beer in cold caves -- changed all that.

How and why was this beer revolution begun? According to the PILSNER-URQUELL brewery, in 1838 the Burghers of the city of Plzen dumped out 36 barrels of beer down the drain in protest of the poor quality and inconsistency of the beer at the time. In 1839 they formed a municipal brewery for the purpose of correcting the situation, and by 1842, with the help of German brewer Josef Groll, pilsner beer was born.

You can find lots more on pilsner history at the websites of Pilsner-Urquell, Wikipedia, Budweiser Budvar and others.

As part of their monthly series, this Wednesday Blind Tiger loaded up their taps with 12 special pilsner beers. One of our favorites, VICTORY BREWING's BRAUMEISTER PILS was one of them, and Sean, the brewery's "king of New York and Connecticut" was on hand to talk to us about it.

We didn't try all twelve, but from the seven that we did try it was clear that there's quite a wide range of interpretations of the most popular style of suds on earth. The Victory Braumeister Pils is an unfiltered American pilsner (available only on draft), with a more assertive hop character than most European versions -- a big hop aroma and bitterness along with full bodied maltiness -- and delicious! Though similar to the Victory PRIMA PILS, which can be found in bottles and on draft, it is, in the words of King Sean, more of a Kellerbier.

The Victory brew had more in common with the MAHR'S PILSNER, also a sumptuous unfiltered lager, though from Bamberg, Germany. Quite on the other end of the spectrum was the MIKKELLER DREAM PILS (aka American Dream) from Denmark, which had even more hop flavor, aroma and bitterness than the Victory, and a slightly deeper copper color than all, though crystal clear. It also had a nice malt sweetness.

CHRISTOFFEL BLONDE from the Netherlands had a softer profile, very light straw color and a slightly sweet malt flavor, with a bit of a haze -- it's one of those rare unfiltered pilsner varieties. Another malt-centric lager that we tried was the SCHLENKERLA HELLES. This one was together quite different from all the others, with it's subdued smoke-malt flavor and aroma -- well, subdued when compared to the full-on Rauchbiers of Bamberg! I love all the Schlenkerla beers and, frankly, all the rauchbiers of Bamberg that I've tasted, and it's amazing to taste a pilsner beer in this traditional rauchbier style. This one gets special honors for achieving uniqueness, enjoyability AND the oft hard to nail subtlety.

And the always tasty KULMBACHER EDELHERB PILS was on tap, which is considered a quintessential example of the German Pils style. Classic.

BLIND TIGER has beer events pretty much every Wednesday often featuring a particular brewery's beers, but the first Wednesday of the month generally reserved for featuring a particular beer style, rather than one exclusive brewery.

BONUS PODCAST! A loud, noisy bar recording of some tasting comments by B.R., Bob and Alan Rice!