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Archive for the ‘beer’ Category

1.  New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colorado

Founded:  1991

Production:  approx 437,000 barrels

(website)

fat-tire-label

The place that started it all.  My own beer revolution.  “Fat Tire” was her name.  And she was delicious and demanding; pay attention to me!, she said.  And I did.  I took note.  For the first time ever in my, albeit young and naive, life, I stopped and payed attention.  Really asked  myself, what am I tasting?  And that’s when I GOT it.  I felt connected to the Germans and their intricate beer steins my father collected in the basement; I thought of the Englishmen with waxed mustaches and elegant manners sipping the Bitter.  I did not know that what I was tasting was an introduction to Belgium; a country and a style of beer that takes you by the horns and casts you into a world of depth of flavor beyond what you ever thought possible (Lambic?  What the f?).  But this beer I grew up with, this beer with the beautiful label of the bike leaned on a tree while you eat your picnic basket in a Belgium wheat field, this beer started my journey and cemented a foundation of beer experiences to come.  “You never forget your first”, I believe the saying goes…

In 1989, at the age of 32, Jeff Lebesch was riding his fat-tired bike through Europe’s famous brewing towns and was astounded by the beer he was encountering.  Riding on one’s bike always brings up the renegade feeling for me; I used to race road bikes and I recall often feeling like a cowboy alone on his horse on the prairie or zipping up and down the foothills for hours at a time.  A one-man survival machine, with all necessary tools to allow yourself to trust being so far from civilization that your mind quiets and your thoughts tune into focus.  But back to Jeff…He returned with new familiarity with different ingredients and went straight for Belgium.  Brewing in his basement, he crafted two beers that would launch New Belgium:  a brown Dubblel with rich, toffee flavors he named Abbey and Fat Tire, his American Amber beer with a biscuity, toasted maltiness backed with a balancing freshness of hops that exhibits a broad range of light, fruity notes.  Today, they have an ever-expanding portfolio of brews that range the gamet in style.

But thats not even remotely the end of the story.  Without the contributions of his wife, Kim Jordan (now a renowned CEO), all that existed was some great beer.  Nothing else.  Together, they built a brewery based on founding principles they wrote together while on a hike through Rocky Mountain National Park with a jug of a home brew and a pen and a pad of paper.  Emphasizing eco-friendly practices and employee ownership, they’ve gained a devoted workforce that has very little turnover because they’re happy.  They ride on frickin bikes, for gods sake!  Its like something out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this bizarre crew of beer craftsmen zipping on bikes from building to building.  Not only that, but they’ve built a massive, two-wheeled following with their annual event Tour de Fat.  A professional bike racing tour/traveling circus that moves from town to town, with each stop culminating in a mass ride of costumed bike fiends from every ilk and sector blowing it all out in celebration of the wheel.

Before 2006, New Belgium was only in 16 states, but has since been growing its distribution tentacles like an aging octupus.  Oh how I’ve waited each passing year for her delicious tentacle to reach us fair city dwellers in Gotham City.  Oh how I miss thee, my fair sweet…somebody smuggle me a friggin case.  Please.

Favorite brews:  Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat, Trippel
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2.  Brooklyn Brewery, Williamsburg, New York

Founded: 1988
Producion:  approx 53,000 barrels
brooklyn-brewery-labels1
When I arrived at the doorstep of the Big Apple, I was humbled and taken down at the knees like every other poor sap that washes up on her shores.  Like a confused baby left alone at the mall, the world moved by quickly with no discernible rhyme nor reason.  In all aspects, I had to recalibrate and start anew.  And one was particularly difficult:  Beer.  I had grown accustomed to a myriad of beer choices at my fingertips, completely used to being flanked on all sides with unique beers, and when I walked into the corner stores and grocery stores near my apartment, I was distraught.  All I saw before me was macro brewed, overpriced swill.  Both my good friend, Hamilton, who moved with me from Fort Collins, and I became callous and accepting of our new plight.  Eventually we began buying twelve-packs of Budweiser to meet our beer needs and appease our wallets…but I never could adapt.  Why was this all there was to offer, I thought?  Where are the options?  The renegade small breweries?  It was aggravating.

I began to see something called “Brooklyn Brewery” but wrongly assumed it to be a member of the Evil Empire and had its base on a far corner of the Death Star.  (Oh, how wrong I would turn out to be…) A few years later, I found myself in the lucky position of having dinner with Tom Potter (founder of Brooklyn Brewery), and his wife in downtown DC.  Hearing his story of the rise of his business, from nothing but a mere carboy and a dream, was inspiring and riveting; how could I have assumed he was one of them?  This guy was one of only a select few who were brewing in NYC.  Wow.  I was dumbstruck.

I received his and Steve Hindy’s book, Beer School, for Christmas two years ago and was riveted.  Seriously frickin not able to pull away, riveted.  Their story of struggle in the challenging landscape of Brooklyn, a borough with a rich, rich history of brewing that near vanished by the end of Prohibition, will make any home brewer stop for a moment and think about his or her dream to open a brewery.  It’s a whole new ballgame, kid.  And these guys are super stars; they showed determination and courage in the face of multi-million dollar marketing strategies that were unleashed to beat them out at every step of the way, gangsters yielding guns and complicated distribution channels.

I dove back into their beers with a vengeance, and came to see them as a beacon, a shining light in a city owned by the big boys.  Their beers are adventurous, risky, and always surprising.  And with Garrett Oliver at the helm, they continue to put out an ever-growing selection of solid brews.  He is known for his smooth demeanor and classy approach on the outside, and it is clear that underneath lies a thoughtful, driven craftsman with high standards and the enthusiasm to back them up.  For turning my beliefs about New York beers into such an aggressive 180 and igniting my own brewing at home, Brooklyn Brewery is my number two pick.

Favorite brews:  Local 1, (and soon to be Local 2!), East India Pale Ale, Lager, Pennant Ale

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3.  Odell Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado

Founded:  1989
Production:  approx 60,000 barrels

(website)

odells-beer-labels2

It’s gotta go back to home for me.  Doesn’t it always?  Something about those early years of ANYTHING.  Your first stumbling in the dark with a girl’s brassier.  Your first, horrible taste of coffee leading to that next, almost palatable, strangely forbidden sip.  The rowdy fans slamming their cold cans of Bud together at the tailgate party as you sheepishly waddle by slightly scared for your young life.  What’s the fascination with these items, I thought?  Why do I see them all around me?  For me, New Belgium and Odell’s were like two pony-tailed, Swedish foreign exchange students skipping towards me in knee-high socks while holding hands and shouting my name in unison.  Who were these devilish beauties?  Why am I so viscerally charged by them?  And how do their socks stay up like that?

Odell’s 90 Shilling remains to this day one of my favorite beers of all time.  Have I had it in years?  No.  Would I recognize it in a blind taste test?  Probably not.  But just the sound of its strange name brings back memories of my days in high school…those formative years when we were stumbling awkwardly through our days, slowly developing our identities and learning to connect with (or rally against) the world.  Like the smell of burning wood which always skyrockets me back to the campsites of my youth, Odell’s beers transport me.  They were my litmus, my palate-trainers….I didn’t know it at the time, but 90 Shilling and Easy Street Wheat laid the foundation for all of my experiences to come.

So where did it all begin?  After moving to Fort Collins in the 1980’s to search out his destiny, Doug Odell followed his bliss and bought an old grain elevator built in 1915 with the plan of moving his homebrewing hobby into a full-time business.  Soon, he began to make his dreams a reality and Odell’s became the second microbrewery to open in the state of Colorado.  Employing what must have been a jury-rigged system that looked a lot like the Millenium Falcon’s engine room, they built a four-level, gravity-fed brew system which employed open fermentation tanks.  Whoa.  Now that’s a vision backed up by sheer tenacity.  And within five years, they couldn’t produce enough beer to meet the demand that the hippies, soccer moms and professionals alike began to be fascinated with.

And now, as I track their business practices and brewing experiments, they are still pushing the envelope.  They began creating barrel-aged beers in the summer of ’08, and use an ingenious five-barrel pilot system which gives their brewers the freedom to experiment with new recipes every couple of weeks.  Rock on, Odell’s.  And rock on Fort Collins.

Favorite brews:  90 Shilling, Easy Street Wheat, Cutthroat Porter

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4.  Dogfish Head, Milton, Delaware

Founded:  1995
Production:  approx 35,000 barrels
(website)

dogfish-logo

Extreme.  Fire up the frickin taste buds, because these guys are doing some funky, bold beers.  Using such ingredients as fresh oysters, arctic cloudberries, green raisins, st johns wort, and beet sugar, they’re off to the races..and running like mad greyhounds.  Sound interesting?  How bout their Malt de Liquor; a bottle-conditioned malt liquor served in its very own brown paper bag.  Now that’s street-swilling in style.

They seem to be everywhere in the media at the moment, their classic fish-shaped icon appearing so much you’d think you’d popped your head in the aquarium, and they deserve to be.  The American Homebrewer’s Association has picked their 90-Minute Pale Ale as their top-voted beer two years in a row (and who ain’t gonna listen to the legions of home chemist/hop geeks/brew monks/flavor-craving-crowd of die-hards when they sound their collective horn).   Like all the other brewers in my top 5 list, founder Sam Calagione is passionate.  But his passion lies in pushing the limits of imagination and what’s possible to capture in liquid form.

I got it in my craw to make a Pumpkin Ale a couple of months back (“Praise the Gourd”), and did a lot of reading and tasting to get familiar with what’s out there.  I found a number of approaches to this style, some over-spiced messes that wiped the spit off your tongue, and many in which no pumpkin could even be detected.  I wanted pumpkin… and was happy when I got a solid backbone of gourdy goodness in my final beer (I baked fresh pumpkin sprinkled with brown sugar until caramelized and placed in a hop sack during the boil as opposed to with the malt extracts–believe it or not, a much-debated question of timing in the homebrew community).

Of all those I tasted during my ride down gourd lane however, I most dug the Dogfish Punkin Ale.  It was hearty, well-spiced and evocative of children wearing spit-filled rubber masks greedily running from door to door through the brisk Colorado air.  It brought me back to my childhood and the details you remember:  A chill in the air.  Strange cutouts of witch silhouettes in the windows.  Yards filled with thick spider webs capable of swallowing children whole.  I think you get the picture…  That power was what hooked me to Dogfish.  That “style”, and how it took you on a ride.  Their beers are rich and full of depth like dark Syrahs from the Northern Rhone–embodied with soul.

Favorite brews:  90 minute pale ale, Punkin Ale, Raison d’ Etre

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5.  Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico, California

Founded:  1979

Production: approx 680,000 barrels

(website)

sierra-nevada-pale-ale

No god-fearing microbrewer could ever not bow down in worship to Sierra Nevada.  It would be an outrage.  I would have to throw my shoes at you.  (I still think it would have been off the chain if Mr Bush caught one of the shoes, centered in on the thrower with his beady eyes, and threw it back like a Chinese throwing star…but no…instead, he flinched.  Anyway, back to Sierra).   Sierra Nevada is a forerunner in the field of microbrewing.  Practically THE forerunner in the field.

Along with Anchor Steam brewery in San Francisco, they broke new ground and shined a beacon of light into the dark night of “American Lagers” that had become ubiquitous since America’s post-Prohibition days.  They shook people up.  An underground following began, and people started to want more out of their grog.  They wanted an experience.  So, through a combination of renegade thinking and the tried-and-true techniques of the past, Sierra influenced a new wave of American brewing.

Starting from nothing, Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi cobbled a brewery together from dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottler, and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries before the term “microbrew” even existed.  And now, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a three-time gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival (an annual gathering composed of louts and connoisseurs alike who descend on Denver in staggering numbers every year to guzzle or swirl their way through a ridiculous number of beers). It represents for me the solid choice you’ll find on A LOT of beer lists around the country.  When in doubt, you’ll oft hear a chirpy waitress list Sierra’s name in amongst the long list of mostly domestic swill you’ll find the country swimming in.

Their use of hops and ability to capture their essences in a myriad of styles give their beers a refreshing, vibrant undercurrent.  Sierra Nevada’s journey was hard-fought, but its insistence on quality ingredients and experimental craftsmanship paid off; their beers now enjoy a large, devoted following.  And rightfully so.

Favorite brews:  Pale Ale, Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, Harvest Wet Hop Ale

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If you’re anything like me, the onset of fall means leaves crunching below your feet (or was that a dried profelactic washed into the gutter?), the smell of chimney smoke in the air, and the spicier beers in my Tiffany’s crystal mug.  So fire up the Oompah band, Heinrich, it’s time to strap on the suspenders and raise a glass to our German comrades…but I guess the real question is:  what the devil are we celebrating?  October?  Fall?  The end of sweat marks in our armpits?

Well, nobility actually.  And german nobility at that.  First held in Munich on October 12, 1810 to commemorate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and his buxom bride Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (try to remember THAT name while playing a game of Asshole at the Epsilon house), the festival honored the merry couple with the finest grub and grog, finally culminating in an elaborate horse race on October 17th.  And thus, the party was born:

Oktoberfest is now a sixteen-day, suds-heavy affair held each year in Munich, Bavaria, Germany in late September and early October.  “Oktoberfestbiers” are the beers that have been served at the event in Munich since 1818, and are supplied by 6 breweries known as the Big Six:  Spaten, Lowenbrau, Augustiner, Hofbrau, Polaner and Hacker-Pschorr.  Tourists the world over flock to this village for a Mardi-Gras like party atmosphere to nosh on rich and hearty traditional fare like white sausage (weisswurst), knuckle of pork (haxn), potato dumplings (knodeln), roast pork (schweinsbraten) and grilled fish on a stick (steckerlfisch).  And to further rush the fat and oodles of butter through their systems, they drink the beer…and lots of it.  In 2007, the 174th Oktoberfest hosted 6.2 million visitors who drank 6.7 million liters (equivalent of 11 million pints) and ate 104 oxen.

So just what are the beers being enjoyed by the swinging beauties above?

Traditionally, Oktoberfestbiers were lagers of around 5.5 to 6% abv called “Marzen”; lager beers brewed in March and allowed to ferment slowly during the summer months.  (To “lager” a beer is to cellar it at cooler temperatures and use a bottom-fermenting yeast, leading to a lighter, milder beer.  But this is a generalization as the flavors and colors of lagers can vary greatly).  Originally done to circumvent strict German laws that did not allow brewing during the summer months, these beers are most often characterized by a medium to full body, a malty flavor balance, a wide range of colors, and a clean dry finish.  Common names for Märzen include Märzenbier, Wiener Märzen, Festbier, and Oktoberfestbier.

So, the next time you sink your teeth into a steaming pretzel from a cart across from Central Park, or pop the top on the Lowenbrau in front of the boob tube, give a wink to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and her good man Ludwig…they’ll be watching down on you.  While noshing on a knuckle…

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Beer rules

Beer rules.  Fuck it.  I’ll say it: beer rules.  I came to that decision about ten, fifteen minutes ago.  If I was forced, and i mean ‘forced’ cause this would suck, to choose only beer or wine (an oft-asked question), i would choose beer.  Maybe its just because i happened to have just taken a swig of it before asking myself the question, but the feeling of the cold glass in my hand, the perfect amount of liquid flow out of the bottle….its near primitive, that feeling.  Walking around with only a swath of animal skin around your midsection, and a cool beer in your hand.  Does it get any better?  And the more beer i drink, the more my eyes are opened to the myriad of flavors that beer can offer.  Damn…seriously, we all seem to hold this fact up about wine, and for darn good reason, but the beer is IN us.   Before the pyramids, baby.

What do YOU think?

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