Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's Gustatory Time-Travel, Marty!

I’ve been a big fan of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project since Dann and Martha Paquette started brewing in 2008. From their always flavorful, year-round offerings such as Jack d’Or to their festive seasonals such as Our Finest Regards, Pretty Things produces fantastic products that suit a variety of tastes.

One of their most recent releases comes as part of their line-up of historic recreations in the once Upon a Time Series. With these beers, Dann and Martha have teamed up with noted beer historian Ron Pattinson to recreate styles from old brewery notebooks and journals. These beers are created just as they were written down in the time when they were first brewed. I’ve enjoyed each of the beers in this series thus far, but I was particularly impressed with a set of English Mild Ales recreated for the latest installment in the series.

What was fascinating about these beers was that they came from the same brewery, under the same name only separated by 107 years. From the years 1838 to 1945, the beer known as Mild from this London brewery changed so drastically that under any other circumstance you would think it a different beer. Due to a variety of socioeconomic changes (not to mention a couple World Wars) the beer in question went from a light golden-colored beer of 7.4% ABV, to a dark amber-colored beer of 2.8% ABV.

I drank the 1945 Mild with lunch and the 1838 Mild with dinner.  The 1945 exhibited hints of grain and slight caramel malt-like sweetness.  Hops were light with just a breath of bitterness lingering into the finish.  The 1838 was significantly hoppier with a hint of sweetness balancing—just a touch of alcohol warmth in the flavor with a hint of grain and herbal hoppiness playing out through the finish.

I can’t say enough about what these kinds of beers do for beer drinkers, it allows us to taste the past—it’s gustatory time-travel! So here’s to Dann, Martha and Ron, and to their travels through beer history. I look forward to seeing where Pretty Things sets the dial next.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sometime I Just Want a Beer

With the variety of beer I try and the method in which I try them, sometimes all I want to do it drink a beer. Don’t get me wrong, I love analyzing a Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, or fanciful Belgian Strong Dark Ales, but sometimes I just want to drink a beer.

Over the Patriot’s Day weekend I had my refrigerator stocked with a couple beers I was intent on reviewing, but I also picked up a classic that has just recently been released in cans.

I once had a conversation about what beer I would choose to represent America. I naturally chose a beer that I felt embodied the truest character of flavorful American beer: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I chose this beer because it defines the style “American” Pale Ale. In the early 80s many brewers were trying to replicate classic English style beers with ingredients from the United States. The results were beers with pronounced citrus-like hoppiness from American ingredients such as Cascade hops—a variety Sierra Nevada employs adeptly.

As I popped open the first can and poured it into my tumbler pint, I couldn’t help but think how well this beer stands up. It pours a crisp, golden-orange with a fluffy just slightly off white head. The hops are citrusy, slightly herbal with hints of grain and light caramel malt. The finish is moderately bitter with just a lick of malt for balance. Each time I drink this beer it never ceases to impress.

Sierra Nevada is currently in the planning phase to construct a new brewery in Asheville, North Carolina with the aim to remove some of the fuel from each beer it brews. The cans contribute to this reduction as well since they are lighter to transport and take up less space than bottles. These environmentally conscious efforts as well as the incredible beer they produce is why I’ll keep buying beer from Sierra Nevada, well done indeed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Brewing Revolution

There’s a brewing revolution going on, and it’s happening in Everett, MA. Idle Hands Craft Ales and Night Shift Brewing might not have been the first in the most recent wave of new breweries to pop up from the suburbs of Massachusetts,* but they are unique in that they practically share the same room.

I happened to have a free Saturday—a rare occurrence—and I thought I’d make the best of it by driving over to Everett to see what was brewing. It was an impossibly beautiful, spring day and I rolled through Somerville and Medford with the windows down. After a few wrong turns, no thanks to the GPS, I found myself off the Revere Beach Parkway in what looked like some kind of post-Apocalyptic industrial complex. Had it been anything but a beautiful day, I might have felt uneasy, but as I’ve learned in the past, sometimes the best beer comes from the most unusual of places.

I pulled the car into the Charlton Place Small Business Center, but couldn’t see a clear sign of where to park the car, so I backed out to the street and slid in behind a row of cars opposite a large fenced lot. The Night Shift Brewing website indicated there would be a set of signs pointing the way, so I walked back towards the building and spotted one on a telephone pole. While the signs were helpful in leading me to an entrance, I was still unclear if I was in the right place.

I found a door that appeared to be correct and I descended down a ramp and into a hallway that continued the post-Apocalyptic theme with slightly flickering fluorescent lights, an abandoned desk and chair and a beeping smoke detector. I walked through the hall to an open loading bay of sorts where I found a few parked cars. At the far end of the bay I could hear music: a sure sign of life. I hastened across the rough concrete floor towards two open doors and two of the state’s newest production breweries.

Night Shift Brewing was my first visit and brewers Rob Burns, Mike O’Mara and Mike Oxton were there to greet me. As Rob showed me around the brewery he told me about a few bottle projects they had in the works including a 10.5% ABV Belgian Quad and a Berliner Weisse brewed with lemongrass. All three of Night Shift’s current releases were available to sample and Rob was kind enough to walked me through their line-up.

First up: Trifecta, a Belgian Pale Ale brewed with Chimay, Rochefort and Westmalle yeast, then aged on vanilla beans. The quality of each of the yeast strains is present in the beer, contributing spicy, earthy and fruity notes. The vanilla bean lingers on the palate well into the finish, contributed a unique sweetness that contrasts the herbal hoppiness. Their second beer is a Belgian inspired wheat beer brewed with honey and green tea. Bee Tea is earthy with just a hint of sweetness and a dryish finish. Finally, their Taza Stout, brewed with chicory root, a healthy dose of ginger, and cocoa nibs from local chocolate producer Taza Chocolate. Taza Stout is a complex beer that reminds me a lot of chocolate-covered candied ginger—I can think of few other beers I’d rather pair with dessert.

Conveniently located one door down and to the right of Night Shift Brewing is Idle Hands Craft Ales. Proportional in size to Night Shift, Idle Hands has a similar setup, and I found brewer and owner Chris Tkach behind the tasting bar. He had quite a few beers on draught for tasting and for growler fills ranging from a Patersbier brewed with 100% Pilsen malt to a fascinating Belgian Stout aged on a variety of wood chips. Patriarch, the Patersbier, is only available on draught for growler fills, a tradition, Chris says, he is unwilling to change. Patersbier is still brewed by monastic brewers as a drink only available at the brewery for the monks and their guests. To release this beer formally would go against that tradition. Patriarch is wonderfully drinkable with hints of grain, spice, and mild fruit—a hidden gem if there ever was one. The other standout was certainly the Belgian Stout, with hints of vanilla and wood from the oak chips, and a sweet, chocolate finish—another dessert beer for sure.

As I thanked Chris and headed back out to the loading bay, I thought about these two breweries and their unlikely location. I guess it isn’t dissimilar to the idea of a brewery being housed in a Belgian farmhouse or a windmill or something, and places like the Charlton Place Small Business Center are plentiful around the city of Boston. With the relatively low overhead in neighborhoods such as we find here, breweries like Idle Hands and Night Shift can produce world-class beer without charging too high a premium to drink it. As I said before, there is a revolution in brewing happening right here in Massachusetts and I’m only too eager to participate and watch it grow.


*I seem to remember Mystic hitting the shelves, then Slumbrew. Then, of course, there’s been a steady stream of new breweries including Notch, Backlash, Blatant, Jack’s Abby, etc., etc. But we’ll save those for another time.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cask ale for all!

I popped over to the New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX) on Thursday to sample some cask ale from the UK and US. I had previously avoided NERAX after hearing about cramped conditions and malfunctioning toilets, but since it had moved from the Dilboy VFW Post in Davis Square to larger accommodations at the American Legion Post near Union Square in Somerville, I thought I might give it a go—am I ever glad that I did.

It was a drizzly sort of early evening, not enough for an umbrella, but just enough so I got marginally wet as I walked the block or so to the hall. Since I was unfamiliar with the proceedings, I made a loop around the block to scope it out and returned to find myself in the cash only line; the other line was reserved for will-call patrons. It wasn’t long before the will-call line began to move and not long after that that our line was ushered through the doors and down into the hall to purchase our tickets and to pick up a cash refundable nonick pint glass.

I came with a plan of attack, I had printed the list of beers and breweries the night before, and while not all of the beers I had highlighted were pouring on Thursday evening, it helped me focus my efforts. I knew I wanted to start in the UK since it wasn’t everyday that I had the choice of so many beers from England, Scotland and Wales at my disposal.

The first beer of the evening was a deliciously malty 80/- ale from Stewart Brewing, a brewery located just south of Edinburgh. Poured at just the right temperature with a hint of natural carbonation, it proved to be a great start to the proceedings and was actually one of my favorite beers of the night.

Over the course of the evening, I drank my way from London to Southwold, up to Leeds, and into the heart of Yorkshire, back down into Wales and all the way to the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. I did manage to take the slow boat back to the states, just to start closest to home with an excellent representation of local breweries. I particularly enjoyed the Scottish Milk Stout from Notch Brewing Company. Brewed with lactose sugar and dark malts, this 4.3% American session beer was drinking incredibly well on Thursday evening, with hints of sweet milk sugar and cocoa notes from the dark malts balancing magnificently on the palate.

As the evening wound down, so did I. I grabbed a quick pulled pork sandwich from Redbones Barbeque, sipped on my last beer and looked around at all the happy campers. Overall, I had an excellent time, and it seemed that all those around me did as well. Earlier in the evening I overheard the police detail assigned to the event say into his radio that it didn’t appear to be too rowdy a group, “more like the wine and cheese crowd, if you know what I mean.” He was probably right, we cask ale fans aren’t really there to get “rowdy,” just don’t try to over-carbonate or serve our beers too cold and we’ll be perfectly respectable.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ein Bier bitte

I had originally posted this entry in the first interpretation of this blog almost two years ago. I recently stumbled upon some old photos from my trip to Germany back in June 2001, including some of the beers I tried. This was before I had a digital camera so most of the photos are terribly blurry, but I did manage to capture a great shot of a Schwarzbier I drank along the banks of the Oder River in Frankfurt. The beer was from Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, a brewery located about 35 kilometers south of Frankfurt-Oder. The beer was very low in alcohol (about 3.9%) and very sweet and malty. At the time it seemed amazing, but all these beers were quite novel to me so any beer seemed amazing. Please enjoy this former entry.


Originally Posted April 2010
I had never been to Europe and I had hardly been out of New England, but here I was at 17-years-old standing atop the Reichstags looking across one of the largest beer drinking nations in the world. I had promised myself that whenever possible I would sit and drink a different beer, a regimen that I accepted readily.

When I landed, my host family picked me up from the airport in a large Citroën bus. German dictionary in hand I tried to use my four years of high school German to communicate that I was more than tired and in broken English they explained that they had prepared a large and possibly stomach-engorging array of heavy German dishes for me.

I knew it was breakfast back home but it was dinner in Berlin. I had slept very little in nearly 24 hours, but I dug into the thick vegetable-sauce-topped potato dumplings, braised ham hocks, sausages and, of course, fermented cabbage. To wash down this “breakfast” of champions was a crisp, hoppy Czech Pilsner—my first beer ever. The food was delicious and the beer was satisfying. I finished what I could and slept the rest of the afternoon in my corner room with the warming sunlight of late June spilling in the window.

The two weeks were filled with seeing the sites and enjoying the local flavor. I drank Hefeweizen under the shadow of the Berliner Dom, Dark Lagers in Frankfurt-Oder across from Poland and crisp refreshing Pilsners everywhere in between. I distinctly remember one pleasant afternoon strolling through Potsdam just outside Berlin.

The sun was peaking through the trees creating spots of coolness as I walked through the tall grass around the Heiliger See, a small lake in the northern part of the city. I sat and realized that my two weeks in Germany were coming to a close. I was looking forward to a final meal with my host family that night, but I thought that I’d allow myself one more beer before heading back to Berlin.

The lake was surrounded by vendors selling ice cream and large glass bottles of Coca-Cola and I was certain that Germans would not miss the opportunity to also have a beer on such a beautifully sunny afternoon. Passing through the trees and back out towards the street I spotted a wooden shack with the word bier written on the side. By now my German was sharp, especially when ordering beer. I opted to try a Berliner Weisse with the traditional addition of green waldmeistersirup or woodruff syrup, a sweet, herbal syrup with green dye used to “enhance” these very tart, cloudy wheat beers. I sipped and enjoyed.

Back with my host family, my last meal was a little less than traditional as we sat on the deck of a Greek restaurant drinking ouzo, Dark German Lagers and eating pepper steak. Of course, my experience wasn’t only about beer. I had learned to speak German with Germans. I had seen things I had only read about in books. I got to drive really fast on the highway. And, okay, I got to drink lots of delicious beer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Well, I made it through Lent having fasted FROM beer for 40 days—it’s sort of the opposite of what medieval monks would have done. I celebrated Easter and the break from my fast by eating a variety of pork products, cheesecake and indulging in a few of my favorite beverages.

I started the day with Froach Heather Ale, a delightfully sweetish Scottish ale brewed with heather with just the hint of honeyish sweetness and a floral nose. It paired well with our breakfast of stone-ground cheddar grits, thick-cut bacon and deviled eggs.

I drove to Easter lunch with Amanda and Abigail where I paired a Green Flash Rayon Vert with my meal. A Belgian Style Pale Ale conditioned in the bottle with Brettanomyces yeast, Rayon Vert is one funky beer. I passed the glass to my father for a sip, Amanda having refused, knowing all too well that when I say funky it usually involves descriptors such as cheesy, barnyard, goaty of horsey. There was a little bit of each of those in this beer, with a moderate hoppiness to boot.

I rounded out the afternoon with a few Jack’s Abby Jabby Brau Session Lagers. I picked up a couple after having tried it a while back. It was just as good as I had remembered with hints of tangerine-like citrus in the flavor and aroma, hints of grain in the finish and an altogether unbeatable drinkability at 4.5% ABV.

When we came home I ended my night in front of the television with a large glass of Oskar Blues Deviant Dale's IPA, a massively flavorful Imperial with loads of citrusy, resinous hops and that chewiness that provides the malt backbone necessary to support all those hops—a great finish to the day.

This week I’m heading over to NERAX (New England Real Ale Exhibition) in Somerville for some cask conditioned beers from the UK and US. Should be a great time, I’m sure I’ll have a few reviews from the festival to share—‘til then.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Two Hours in Brussels

As a follow-up to my last post, I should mention that my trip to Brussels was akin to bringing a child to Disneyworld, letting them see the entrance, allowing them to go on Space Mountain and then leaving.

Our class left London early from St. Pancras Station on the EuroStar to Brussels. As I watch the French countryside slide into Belgian countryside, I couldn’t help but get excited. We pulled into the station and jumped on a subway train to the city center. Our guide was quite adept at getting us around the city quickly and assured us some time to explore on our own after our lecture at Boston University’s small offices in Brussels.

Besides the incredibly early morning, the lecture was hampered by a language barrier that caused me to loose focus a few times. The consolation was a very lovely brunch of sweet and savory tarts that would have been made better by some local indigenous beverage, but that would have to wait. Patience Michael, patience I thought, you will somehow be rewarded…hopefully.

Our excursion into the city began at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, or Bozar, as it is called. We were met by a very enthusiastic docent who spent WAY too much time telling us about the crown molding in the main foyer. I think it was somewhere in the orchestra hall listening to the docent describing the etchings of the something, something, something, that I thought I might be able to make a break for it. I could sense the tension of my fellow classmates. I looked at the time and saw that we had less than two hours until our train was set to depart and I began to panic. Did I just come all the way to Brussels and NOT have a beer. The tour mercifully ended back in the main foyer and our guide let us free. We split off into small groups to explore the city, promising to meet up at the train station in less than two hours. Time for lunch, a few sites and beer.

I promised my group that if they came with me they would enjoy a quick beer and a stop at one of the best beer shops in town. The four of us nearly ran from Bozar and headed down the hill towards the city center. We made a brief stop at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, a beautiful Gothic building upon a smallish hill just east of the Grand Place, before we hustled towards one of the beer bars that I had looked up before leaving London.

My first (and only) beer in Brussels was Rochefort 10. If I had to do it, I had to do it right. It came served in an appropriately logoed chalice with a dense head of foam atop a murky brown body. It…was…delicious. I nearly died drinking it. St. Michael had surely looked down upon me at the cathedral because the beer was heavenly. What happened next only confirmed that my namesake angel was looking down upon me. After our drinks, we flew through the Grand Place towards de Bier Tempel, a bottle shop that had come highly recommended for its exquisite selection of Belgian beers.

The assortment of beers was simply staggering. Beers from every corner of this tiny nation were neatly arranged on shelves from floor to ceiling. I quickly scanned the bottles to process what beers I could get stateside and to determine which beers to bring back to London. As I made my way along the shelves my heart nearly fell into my stomach. Sitting there on a shelf near the window was a row of label-less beers with blue and silver caps. Right there, just, sitting on the shelf was a row of Westvleteren Eight bottles. Oddly, I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing, I guess I felt like I had found something that shouldn’t be. I hesitated a moment before placing four of them in my shopping basket, surely there must be a bottle limit, I thought. But as I took my four, a stock boy simply replaced them with another four bottles! I quickly explained to my compatriots how rare this beer was and that they should grab some for themselves. We left the shop our bags full of goodies and made our way to the train station to meet up with the rest of our classmates.

While we were waiting to get onto our train, I thought I might have the opportunity to drink one of the Westvleteren Eights on the ride home. Then I noticed a shop near our platform selling all kinds of Belgian products, not least of which were four packs of Chimay. I scooped up a four pack and decided to leave the Westvleteren for another day.

The train ride home was sublime as I cracked open each of the bottles and poured it into a glass I hard procured at de Bier Tempel. As the countryside rushed passed my window and I sipped my beer I thought how providential it was to have had the opportunity to purchase those bottles of Westvleteren, especially considering the short amount of time I had in the city. As we pulled into St. Pancras Station and I thought of the wonderful experience I had in that short amount of time, I promised myself to return to Brussels as soon as possible.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In the Land of Wine and Cheese

In June of 2010, I travelled to London for a class in Comparative Cultural Policy and Administration at Boston University’s London campus. As exciting as that sounds (and believe me it was!) this trip also afforded me the opportunity to see a little bit of Europe. The class was to meet for one week, so I booked my ticket to arrive one week before so I could take the train to the continent.

I had the choice to either visit Brussels or Paris via EuroStar and while the choice may have appeared easy, it was not. The problem was that the class had an excursion scheduled towards the end of the week in London to visit Boston University’s campus in Brussels, so I would be travelling to Belgium later in the trip. I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of time to spend in Brussels during that visit, but I figured it was enough to keep me satisfied, so I opted to visit the land of wine and cheese for two days.

Those two days in Paris were beautiful. I’ve told Amanda a dozen times that the only thing that would have made it better would have been her company…

Of course I visited the major tourist sites, I walked up the Eiffel Tower, did a quick loop around Notre Dame and shuffled along corridors of beautiful paintings at the Louvre. My favorite moments were simply wandering around the streets and alleys finding places to purchase bread with the only French phrase I had memorized, “une baguette s'il vous plait.
I managed to find a few beer bars with some decent Belgian beer on tap and I even stumbled upon an expatriate Scottish pub with Belhaven on draught, but of course this was not Brussels.

On my last evening I had a lovely meal along a busy back alley and enjoyed plenty of crisp white wine with the meal as a small cat circled my table trying to nibble the crumbs that had fallen off my plate. I strolled back to my hotel, a lovely old place near the banks of the Seine and within earshot of Notre Dame’s blessed bells. I set my travel alarm to catch the train the next day and fell asleep to the sounds of the city just outside my open window.

The next morning I packed my belongings and headed to the train station. As I walked passed the Pompidou Centre down another small side street, I noticed a shop with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the window! I quickly popped my head inside and was greeted by the shopkeep who, after my clumsy exchange, asked if I wanted to speak to him in English—I guess I didn’t blend in too well. Simon was very interested in American beer and I was very interested in what the French were brewing and we chatted as I browsed his selection.

La Caves à Bulles was filled with artisanal beers from all around France as well as an ample selection of Belgian beers—I was quite overwhelmed by the selection. I asked Simon if he wouldn’t mind picking five or six beers that were his personal favorites for me to take back to London to sample. It was a shame that I hadn’t found this shop on my first day in Paris, but I wasn’t exactly looking for beer and I didn’t even know that France had such a burgeoning beer scene. I left the shop with a handful of delightfully obscure beers and I made my way to Garde du Nord to catch the EuroStar back to London.

When I got back to London I was very eager to give the beers a try. My favorite of the bunch was a beer from La Brasserie de Fleurac. Fleurac La Triple Brune IPA poured a dark brown with an appropriate café au lait colored head. Deep, rich, earthy hop aromas mingled with hints of toasted and roasted malt and some cocoa notes. Nice hop balance in the flavor with pine and earthy undertones and the accenting flavors of dark malt. The other beers were as expertly selected as the next. Simon certainly knew his beers and made sure I left his shop with the finest examples of artisanal French brewing.

I’m still amazed that I stumbled upon those beers completely by accident and that they were so fantastic—sometimes you find the best beers when you’re not even looking. The next time I’m in Paris, La Caves à Bulles will definitely be one of my first stops.

I did finally manage to make it to Brussels, but the time spent there was all too brief. Sometimes I think I should have chosen to spend my time there instead of Paris, but seriously, who gives up the chance to go to Paris? And I also remind myself of that little bottle shop a few blocks back from the Seine and the amazing beer I found there. The choice was easy.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

NOT Hoegaarden

I had a pretty busy weekend so I didn’t get to post anything on Saturday and Sunday. I did, however, drink some terrific beer. Sunday is a day free from fasting during Lent, so I indulged in a couple beers that have been in my fridge for some time.

I picked up a couple of Belgian Witbier, and interestingly enough neither happened to be Hoegaarden. It’s been a while since I’ve done a side-by-side comparison, so I poured Blanche de Bruxelles and Wittekerke into a pair of balloon tulip glasses from their 11.2 ounce bottles.

Blanche de Bruxelles poured a hazy, grayish yellow with a lively off white head. Beautiful clinging lace lingered as the head fell down the sides of the glass. The Wittekerke was just a hint brighter in color without that sort of dull gray—wonderfully bright yellow with a craggy cap of foam. The head wasn’t as lively as the Blanche de Bruxelles and it fell faster into a thin layer of bubbles around the sides of the glass.

For beers of the same style, the aroma and flavor could not be further apart. While it is true that the brewers employ many of the same ingredients, it is the use of the traditional coriander and orange peel that sets these beers apart.

The Blanche de Bruxelles was quite perfumy with a big dose of coriander in the nose with hints of orange lingering. The Wittekerke was altogether more subtle in aroma, with just a whisper of spice. The citrusy nature of Wittekerke was also well incorporated with more of a hop presence in the aroma. I also detected a hint of honey (although none is used in brewing) and a lemony tartness in the aroma from Wittekerke.

Both beers were both quite far apart in flavor as well with the more robust spiciness of the Blanche de Bruxelles dancing around the palate and the more mildly assertive hoppiness of the Wittekerke playing through to the finish.

It’s great to compare these two beers side-by-side. It exhibits the range that Belgian beers can have even within the same style parameters. If I were to award a winner of the taste test it would have to be the Wittekerke with its subtle spicing, refreshing tartness and aromatic hoppiness. While I did not prefer the Blanche de Bruxelles, it certainly had plenty of character with an abundance of spice and citrus and lively effervescence. Both beers would prove to be wonderful refreshers on a warm summer day and a great companion to seafood and other light fare.