Friday, March 30, 2012

Big Blind, Wee Blind

Amanda and I were in Scotland back in March of 2009 to visit her relatives near Edinburgh and in the Highlands near Inverness. Scotland in March can be a dreary place, which was immediately evident by the slushy mess that was covering the ground as we landed. But we found our bright spots.

We were picked up at the airport by her cousin Ian and driven to the town of Linlithgow, some 20 miles or so West of Edinburgh. Linlithgow is famous for having been the birthplace of James V and Mary, Queen of Scots. The town’s coat of arms in that of a black female dog and locals are lovingly referred to as, well, I’ll let you figure that one out. Amanda and I giggled every time we drank at or passed by Ian’s local with the nickname in large white print above the door. It’s still amazing to me that one of the only things that separate us from the British is our language.

Ian was very keen to invite us down for a pint of two with his friends, but was especially excited to have us down for poker night. The buy-in was £10 and Amanda, Ian and I were split between two tables. Now, I’m pretty bad at Texas Hold’em, but I’m especially miserable when playing with a group of people I don’t know very well, so I was a little apprehensive at first. What transpired was probably one of the most memorable parts of our two-week trip to Scotland.

We drank and played and talked with the locals. The winners from each of the tables were then placed together and a final round was played, all the while we sipped our drinks and laughed as the last players duked it out until, literally, the “wee” hours.

It was getting quite late and the pub downstairs was closing, but we finally had a Linlithgow Texas Hold’em World Champion. The £10 buy-in from each player was given to the winner who was benevolent in victory and bought a round for the whole lot of us.

Do I remember what beer I was drinking that night? It was most likely Belhaven Best, a light draught beer that clocks in around 3.2% ABV, what the brewery calls “a pint for all occasions.” You probably won’t find it here in the US, but you will be able to find their export ale on draught (mostly nitro), in bottles and in nitro cans. A supremely smooth (especially the nitro versions), creamy Scottish ale with hints of caramel malt and a very mild earthy hoppiness. Every time I drink this beer I think of the attic of that pub and that wonderful night.

A lot of people ask me what’s the best beer I’ve ever had—what would appear to be a very difficult question for someone who has tried so many. I always answer that the best beers I’ve ever had are in moments like the one in this story. As long as the beer is as good as the company, I’m a happy man.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mystic Brewery

Mystic Brewery of Chelsea, MA seemed to be one of the first in what has become a wave of new breweries in the Boston area. I first heard about them about a year ago and became interested in what they had in the works.

I tried the first batch of their Saison in early September and was very pleased with the results.

It poured a turbid, orange-yellow with a fluffy head of white foam. Hints of peppery spiciness in the aroma, some citrusy, grassy hops and hints of mild banana-like fruitiness. The flavor exhibited more of the peppery spiciness found in the aroma with a very mild fruitiness (again, mild banana). Hops balance things out quite nicely with some minty, grassy hops. Semi-dry finish with a lingering of grain and yeast.

It was a perfect compliment to the late summer day.

Since then I’ve been as equally impressed with their other offerings including Descendant, what they call Suffolk Dark Ale and what I’ve deemed a Belgian Porter. A dark ale brewed with molasses and their house yeast strain, Descendant was light and drinkable with hints of cocoa and yeasty spiciness.

But my favorite has to be their Sauvignon Blanc barrel-aged Saison. With many of the same attributes as their standard Saison, this beer benefits wonderfully from aging in the barrel. Anyone who is familiar with Sauvignon Blanc will recognize the citrusy, grapefruit-like notes immediately as they mingle with hints of wood and the flavors of the beer. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the base beer used here was excellent to begin with, but there is something remarkable about the combination that just sets this beer apart.

I have yet to pick up Mystic’s most recent releases, a Cabernet barrel-aged and Bourbon barrel-aged version of Descendent, but here’s to hopping they’re as intriguing and delicious as their other creations.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Breakfast Beer

I'm serious when I tell you this: Witbier might just be the perfect beer for breakfast.

Okay, this isn't about waking up on a Monday morning and slugging down a beer, this is about refreshment and effervescence and pairing with a fine weekend brunch, like a Bloody Mary or Mimosa.

I first experimented with beer and breakfast pairing a number of years ago on Mother's Day. Amanda and I planned a lovely breakfast for both our parents and I thought it would be fun to try pairing a light-bodied beer with the meal. I naturally thought of some kind of wheat beer, but couldn't decide between a German Hefeweizen of a Belgian Witbier. Both would provide the adequate refreshment factor and the spritzy effervescence that I was looking for, but the Witbier I had in mind had a lovely honeyish quality with notes of peppery spiciness. I chose the Witbier.

I have yet to find a more perfect beer for breakfast. The large portion of wheat that is used to brew a traditional Witbier lends a certain tartness to flavor and lightness to the body that makes it an ideal pairing. The spiciness of the Belgian yeast along with the traditional inclusion of coriander play well with peppery bacon or sausage and the hint of orange peel in the flavor of the beer is a natural substitute for the more temperate orange juice.

One of my favorite versions comes from the Brouwerji St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium. Emblazoned with the name of the Godfather of Belgian Witbier, Pierre Celis, St. Bernardus Witbier is yeasty and bready with a gentle blend of spice, sweetness and citrus. Thirst-quenchingly drinkable with a palate-scrubbing effervescence, St. Bernardus Witbier would certainly be at the top of my breakfast beer list.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mike's Beer Compendium

Today I finally printed my accumulated beer reviews.

The page count is somewhere in the 300 range and includes beer reviews from December 29, 2008 to February 20, 2012. I take great pleasure in having reviewed and savored all 867 beers included in the tome. It feels weird to say this, but I can remember almost every single one of those beers. I would often put in personal notes or where I had the beer or with whom. I can tell the type of mood I was in when reading some of the reviews (if I was drinking a beer it was almost always happy!).

Some of the first reviews were quite terrible actually. I think at the time I thought to add a speck of humor to the reviews so as not to make them boring. Then I moved on and became more serious. My understanding of beer in general is evident with each successive review.

Once I’m back from my beer hiatus I hope to put all my new reviews here at The Tippling House blog. It’ll be a little more comprehensive and little more personal, and as you can see already I intend to capture the moment with a photo. Until then let’s end on one of my favorite reviews from the compendium:

Baltika No. 7

So, a few years ago a thrift shop opened up close to where I work. It is a Godsend when it comes to finding great beer glasses at discount prices. The only problem is the Russian women who always seems to be working when I go in to purchase my wares.

It seems that she makes it her job that I pay the most for my beer glasses, even though the sign in that section of the store clearly states the price of all glasses as no more than $1.15 for the very largest and a mere 65 cents for smaller ones.

"Is beer glass, is cost more," is her usual reply as I try in vain to haggle. I usually talk her down and receive the item for the posted price.

I've purchased some fantastic and sometimes obscure glasses from this shop over the past two years, sometimes with an argument from my Ruskie friend, sometimes not, I've come to view it as a kind of battle of wills between two Cold War-era operatives—mutual respect but complete animosity.

So, a few days ago I walk in to find a .5 liter Baltika No. 7 glass...

I really, really want this glass. It's different, I don't have a Russian beer glass in my collection and a quick internet search doesn't bring the glass up for sale as far as I could find.

But...I really, really don't want to spar against my adversary over a glass from her home turf. I just don't. So, I hide the glass in a corner of the shop and plan to arrive early tomorrow to purchase it while she is away. But when I return in the morning, after thinking about the glass all day and night (I'm a glass junkie, I know), she's still there. Damn.

I decide that this glass is worth it and that I'll suck it up and face my foe. You know what happened?

Nothing...she doesn't even bat an eye, she charges me $1.15 and says nothing, no argument, not even a mention that the glass is covered in Cyrilic writing (perhaps she could have translated for me). This is what it must have felt like at the end of the Cold War, a mild submission, no all-out battle, no rain of nuclear warheads, a gentle wave of the hand and that was that.

I think I'll miss our battles, that back-and-forth over how much a beer glass should cost at a thrift shop.

Anyway, now that I had the glass I needed to fill it. Luckily, I work near an area of Boston that has a bunch of Russian specialty shops (if you ever want Kvass, I know where you can find it, cheap!). I mosey over during lunch and find what I'm looking for. I thought I had seen Baltika No. 7 in cans at this shop a while back, but all I could find this time was a three month old green, pull tab bottle—I don't have high hopes...

1 Pint .9oz Green Bottle into .5l Baltika No. 7 Glass

Crisp, pale straw yellow with a quick off white head. It looks amazing in this glass, however :^)

Steely, sweet graininess with a mild grassy hop aroma. To my great surprise, this beer is not skunked (I did dig deep in the cold cooler at the shop).

Flavor is crisp with hints of that sweet graininess. Hops are subdued with just the faintest flavor of herbal hops. Maybe a whiff of sulfur in here and just a hint of...plastic tubing???

Okay, after all that, this beer isn't all THAT bad. Yes, it tastes mass-produced, but it actually tasted "okay" as it warmed up, unlike some other mass-produced lagers. I knew all that work wouldn't have paid off, I didn't expect it would, it was just fun to put all the pieces together.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask

The story behind the Scottish brewery Innis & Gunn seemed kind of weird to me.

Apparently, a whisky distiller was looking to produce a whisky with an "ale finish" so they contacted brewer Dougal Sharp to brew beer to be placed in barrels that would then be used to age whisky. After many batches someone came up with the great idea to actually taste the beer that had been aging in the barrels. Prior to this the beer had simply been dumped! What?! If I were the brewer, the FIRST thing I would have done was taste the beer. Why on Earth would you simply dump it? Anyway, the beer tasted great and they began to brew beer, age it is barrels and then NOT dump the beer. Crazy, I know.

There have been many variations since the first batches back in 2003 including a particular favorite of mine, the Highland Cask aged version:

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask

11.2oz Bottle into Innis & Gunn Cervoise

Amber orange with a delicate off white head.

Maltiness in the aroma is toffee-like with hints of caramel. Vanilla from the oak with just some faint whispers of Scotch, merely a hint.

Again, the malt comes off a bit toffeeish with hints of vanilla and caramel. You really get the character of the Scotch in the finish with a lingering bitterness.

I've enjoyed all of the Innis & Gunn beers that I've tried thus far. Really just differing degrees of oakiness and hints of what was left (or not) in the barrel. I'd be interested to try the beer before it goes into the casks, actually. I think this may be my favorite of the bunch. The Scotch gives it a bitterness in the finish that the others lack. Very well done.

Nothing could go better with Scottish beer than Scottish Whisky, right? The blending of the flavors just seems to work. I have a bottle of their Scottish Stout aged in Irish Whiskey casks sitting in the fridge—can't wait to give that one a try soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


For some, the taste of smoke in their beer can be an acquired tasted. Historically speaking, most beer at one time would have had at least some smokiness in the flavor and aroma. Before the use of fossil fuels, the grains used in making beer would have been dried over some type of wood (or peat if we’re talking Scottish beers). That smoke would have permeated the flavor of the barley and inevitably the beer.

Today, most maltsters use modern means to dry their grains, but a few continue to create a variety of smoked malts for beers in which that touch of char layers on another dimension of flavor.

I love smoked beers done right. The flavors are intense and you might never find a more perfect pairing for smoked meats and barbeque. For a long time I have been a fan of the Schlenkerla beers, a particular brewery in Bamberg, Germany specializing in smoked beers, or Rauchbier.

Almost any beer style can beer a Rauchbier. Schlenkerla produces a Smoked Lager, Weizen, Bock, Märzen and a few other specialties.

For me, I love a Rauchbier with a big malty backbone. I find that the flavor of the smoke is better supported by the sweetness of the malt and the overall flavor reminds me a lot like smoked, honey-glazed ham—not even kidding.

I recently came back to the beer that was the very first smoked beer I tried: Schlenkerla Urbock.

The beer pours a dark cola-like color with a tan head.

Deep smoky aromas, woodsy, hints of smoked bacon or beef jerky. Malty sweetness pulls from the depths for balance.

The flavor is reminiscent of smoked ham with a sweet glaze, hints of wood throughout with a long lingering smokiness. Some mild hints of cocoa are present to fill in the gaps, but this beer is really all about the smoke.

If you like big bold flavors I highly recommend drinking these beers. A number of craft brewers play around with smoked malts and Rauchbier, but they are sometimes a bit hesitant to give the beers the full treatment. One exception that I tried recently was a beer from the Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams). Their Cinder Bock is very similar in flavor to Schlenkerla’s Urbock with a higher ABV. The same sweet smokiness is present and they aren’t afraid to make it the centerpiece of the beer. With domestic Rauchbier few and far between, it’s nice to see a brewery as large as Boston Beer Company produce a Rauchbier as unflinchingly bold as this one. Find it. Get it. Drink it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kate the Great 2010

Back in March of 2010 I woke up at 2:30 in the morning. It was a miserable half winter half spring day, the kind of day that produces a drizzly slush that soaks the clothes and keeps you cold.
I put on all my warm clothes, including purple thermal underwear I borrowed from Amanda, and headed to Portsmouth, NH. The driving was equally as miserable as the slush had formed a slick, icy mess on the road—the only consolation was that at 2:30 in the morning hardly anyone else was driving I-95 North.

Where was I going? Well, I was going to stand in line for a beer. Not just any beer, mind you, but the most famous beer on the eastern seaboard: Portsmouth Brewing Company’s Kate the Great.
I managed my way to Portsmouth while it was still dark, parked my car in a lot I had scouted a few weeks prior and walked about a mile in that cold slush that w
as thankfully letting up.

With my large umbrella open and my hood fastened tightly I stood listening to the news on my iPhone about fifty feet back from the main entrance of the brewery. It was about 3:30am and the line was forming fast. My part of the line was already snaking around the corning and the end quickly disappeared around another.

As the sun started to come up and the slush starting to dissipate, the line began to move and in short order I was inside being handed a calendar page from a “Get Fuzzy” desk calendar, or something like that, and my hand was marked with a Sharpie to denote that I had already been in line. With this page I was guaranteed two 22-ounce bottles of Kate the Great at $10 a pop, what a deal!

I grabbed a quick bite to eat, drove my car around a bit and returned some time later when the bottles were being distributed. Once again I was called into the brewery where I handed over my $20 and received in return a paper bag with my allotment.

Since then, the Portsmouth Brewery has changed its policy about the Kate the Great release. No longer can the intrepid beer geek simply wake up at an ungodly hour and stand in the cold. The system now works by lottery scratch ticket, the bottles are smaller and the price has increased per bottle. It seems like the system works, but I guess I always liked the idea of keeping luck out of the equation and leaving it up to true grit and determination (that being sleep depravation and the possibility of frostbite and hypothermia).

So for all that work, here’s what I thought of the beer:
22 oz. Bottle into Portsmouth Balloon Tulip

Opaque. Just, opaque inky darkness. I poured this into two glasses to share with Reilly—the first glass had a bit more of a cascading head than the second but some swirling quickly brought around a smallish mocha cap.

Aroma is a combination of sweet fruitiness and roasted grain. Hints of molasses, bittersweet chocolate, and a biscuity nuttiness. Not crazy nutty, but almost a shortbread-like buttery nuttiness. Faint almond, perhaps. There's definitely a hint of the oak peaking through with a sort of gummy dried pluminess.

Flavor is similar to aroma--sweet molasses, a bit vinous with hints if bittersweet cocoa, raisins, dried plums. The roasted character is present but doesn't end too dry--fine and even.

A fantastic beer—while the mouthfeel may not be super thick like many Russian Imperial Stouts the flavor and especially the aroma make this beer something special. Drinkability is definitely up there for a beer of this stature—letting this one open up a bit reveals some nice oakiness. Fantastic.

So there you have it. Was it worth it? Sure! It was a fun experience and it ended up being a great beer. I’m not sure yet if I’ll give the lottery system a try, it’s been two years since they started that and I have yet to participate. And with the size of the bottle decreasing as the cost has increased, I’m not as determined as I once was. Plus, the world of beer is vast and there are many more beers out there to try—maybe I’ll stumble upon this beer again—time will tell.

Ipswich Pumpernickel Rye Porter

I’d like to give a shout out to one of my favorite local breweries. Mercury Brewing Company (AKA Ipswich) consistently produces some of my favorite beers. Ipswich Oatmeal Stout was one of those beers that I tried early on that really made me pay attention.
They recently release a series of beers subtitled “Five Mile” indicated that most of the ingredients were grown locallyincluding malted barley from Valley Malt in Hadley, MA and hops from their own hop farm in Ipswich.
The second beer in the series is a Pumpernickel Rye Porter. Deep dark and rich, this beer appears opaque in the glass with a head of dense mocha fluff on top. Hints of dark cocoa and coffee mingle with hints of spicy rye to create the sensory allusion to dark pumpernickel bread. The flavor is similarly tuned to recall the flavors of dark rye, with hints of spice, grain and bitter dark chocolate in the finish.
I’m always happy to pick up a beer from Ipswich and I eagerly anticipate any new release. Sometime this summer Mercury plans to open its new brewery in Ipswich complete with restaurant serving beers from their lineup as well as beers that are contract brewed at their facility. Can’t wait to see what they brew up next.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Westvleteren 12

"Mike! What an amazing time to start blogging about beer!"

"Yes, especially considering I gave up beer for Lent!"

Yes, I gave up beer for Lent. All drinking as a matter of fact. So I guess the reboot of this blog is partially in response to the fact that I can't drink the substance that is so crucial to its existence.

So this is as good a time as any to take a look back on some of the most memorable beers from the past.

Since it's Lent, and since it is arguably one of the most sought after beers in the World, why don't we start off with the infamous Westvleteren 12 from the Trappist Monastery of St. Sixtus?

Up until 1992, the monastery contracted the commercial production of their beers to an old cheese factory that had formally been a monastery itself (it is now know as the Brouwerij St. Bernardus). That year the six Trappist monasteries in Belgium and the seventh in the Netherlands agreed to control the appellation Trappistenbier, which disallowed secular producers from using the name and benefiting monetarily (the Trappists are not-for-profit). They also agreed that to be called Trappistenbier it must be produced inside the walls of the monastery.

Westvleteren's outside contract was nulled and all beer production was kept within the confines of the monastery. Because it is produced in such small quantities, the beer was only made available for public pickup at the monastery on specific days during the year. This, in turn, makes it somewhat rare considering that all other Trappist monasteries provide their beer for commercial consumption.

This is what made this beer especially attractive to me and to many other beer enthusiasts. So for my 25th birthday I obtained a six-pack of beer from the Trappist Monastery of St. Sixtus in Westvleteren, two of each of the three styles it produces.

After a few days rest in the cellar to allow the yeast to settle, I cracked one open. I even procured a Westvleteren goblet for the occasion.
REVIEW FROM 5/19/2009

11.2 oz. Bottle into Gold-Rimmed Trappist Westvleteren Goblet

Pours a dark mahogany brown with a one finger off white head that settles into a splotchy hazy cap.

Earthy grassy-like qualities in the aroma with a peppery spice kick. Sweet malt aromas and mild dark fruits are released from some swirling.

Flavor is very well balanced between sweet malt, earthy hop bitterness and alcohol are definitely what make this beer one of the best in the world.

Mild sweetness lingering on the palate with hints of hop bitterness as well. Balance is definitely the key to this beers greatness.
This review came somewhat early in my beer evangelism so I'm not certain I fully understood what I was drinking but I knew it was good. I stashed the other bottle away in my cellar for an opportune moment. Here's the review from the very same batch nearly two years later.

REVIEW FROM 2/19/2011

Today I found out I'm having a daughter.

The cap doesn't have a date stamp which leads me to believe it was produced when the Abbey's stamper was broken (sometime in 2008, I believe).

The long rest in the cellar has done this beer very well. Without disturbing the layer of yeast at the bottom of the bottle I managed to pour almost the entirety of the 11.2oz bottle into my Westvleteren goblet producing a clear mahogany red body with a smallish off white head. The carbonation has greatly reduced since last I tasted this vintage.

Deep plummy raisin-like aromas float out of the glass, candi sugar, hint of vanilla, honey. Port-like in the best way.

The flavor is...amazing. Sweet fruitiness comes skimming across the palate as dark fruits, dates, raisins, figs. The figgy quality is full and rich with hints of the candi sugar intermingling. The hops that were present two years ago have mellowed into a fleeting bitterness that simply compliments the entire presentation. Not a lick of alcohol can be found on the palate but the warming in my stomach and the flushness in my cheeks tells me that it's there.

What else can I say? Yes, this is probably the best beer in the world. Fresh it was amazing, but with a couple years on it...CANNOT be beat. What a wonderful day.
A lot can be derived from those two reviews. In one, I was a relative new-comer to the beer scene and the review really reflects that. In the latter, I am about to become a father and I had come to understand beer on a whole different level over the course of two years of "research." The other thing I've come to learn over and over about beer, and I think it is reflected in the second review, is that the enjoyment of beer is entirely relative to the moment in which it is enjoyed and with whom it is enjoyed.

So, as we come to the halfway point in my Lenten fast from beer, I reflect on those times and those people with whom I shared the best moments of my life.

A New Format

I've decided to re-imagine The Tippling House blog.

It was originally a place where I could post researched essays and such on everything from hop production to bars and everything in between. I quickly found that I simply wasn't having any fun and the posts were scattered and inconsistent (or, for the most part, nonexistent).

Since then I've been posting on Twitter @TipplingHouse with a very quick assessment and a picture of the beer in question. This is much more fun! So with a little more effort I think I'll have another go at this blog using a similar format.

I may occasionally write something similar to the old format, but for the most part this will simply be a place I can post my beer reviews and pictures and maybe even a video review--we'll see.

Hope you enjoy!