Tasting Notes: Rodenbach Alexander 2017

Flanders reds are considered sours.  When you look them up in the BJCP style book there they set under the European Sour category.  Tasting the Rodenbach Alexander 2017 makes me question the nomenclature used to describe these beers. This was beer tasted off draft and not from a bottle.

When well made, Flanders reds aren’t sour.  They are tart and maybe slightly puckering like a wine, but they aren’t sour.  At least not sour in the way people expect sours to be after the introduction of kettle sours to the American craft beer landscape.

The Alexander pours a nice reddish-brown color.  It has a little haziness to it and a thin off-white head.  The carbonation is not obvious on the pour.

The aroma wraps around you.  I get cherry, oak, and hints of vanilla, apricot, and apple.  There is enough vinegar in the aroma to remind you it is supposed to be a sour, but it doesn’t overwhelm the nose.

This isn’t a beer trying to hide anything, so the taste runs right along with the aroma.  There is the cherry, oak, vanilla, plum, and hints of apricot and apple.  The acid gives it a tartness, not a puckering sour taste along with a welcome dryness that works with the carbonation to make you want to explore the complexity in the next sip.  That is the beauty of a complex beer like this, each taste provides you something different.  This is a beer that benefits from “breathing” outside of the bottle.  It changes ever so slightly as it warms in the glass and in your mouth.

This is one of the beers you drink to remember how wonderful and interesting this thing we call craft beer is.

Suggested food pairings from my trusted tasting partner:  anchovies, spicy ramen, dashi broth, or Korean barbecue.

Craft Apprenticeships Are Awesome

From GL Stock Images

There is a push/pull between art and commerce every creative must navigate.  Craft brewing is no different.

Real example: You the brewer want to make an old ale and a rauchbier.  Your investors want you to make 3 new IPAs because they are getting ready to go into distribution and need stuff they know will sell regardless of quality.  How does the business navigate that?

You have to have a well thought out vision.  Not a business plan which you also desperately need, but the vision on which the whole enterprise is based.

Artists often spend years of trial and error and public failings to figure out the vision behind their art.  Brewers may not get that opportunity.  They probably homebrew and have friends and acquaintances tell them how great their beer is.  Then they decide to start a brewery with a vague notion of making Belgian style, German style, English style, or IPA heavy American style beer.

What they need is a clear idea of what they like, what they are good at, and how they want to express that to consumers.  These can’t be vague platitudes about “returning to the roots of beer” or “putting an American take on Belgian style beers.” It has a to be concrete ideas of what you are accomplishing and how you want to do it.  It isn’t your business plan, but it is the place from where your business plan flows.

Most craft brewers get into brewing the same reason that most professional artists get into art.  This thing that they do is what they love, and it is an expression of a part of who they are.  The difference is, as I see it, that artists spend their whole learning curve honing the core ideas of what they want to do.  From their medium to their subject matter, artists spend much of their early career finding their path.

One difference in how and why artists have such clear ideas about who they are and what their art says is the art world has always had apprenticeships both formal and informal.  In this country with Prohibition almost killing the brewing industry, brewing lost its infrastructure and informal craftsman apprenticeships.

Until the last handful of years, the path to becoming a brewer has been much less organized and centered on homebrewing. While homebrewing has fueled the passion of and set the template for craft beer love, it is not necessarily the best training as a professional brewer.  With the rise of craft brewers, that idea of apprenticeship is slowly coming back to the fore, but slowly.  These apprenticeships allow brewers to go through the crucible of rejection and self-examination to come out on the other side not only with a clear vision of who and what they are as brewers but a clear vision of the value of themselves and their craft in a monetary sense and in a creative sense.

As craft beer matures and the idea of being a craft brewer matures, I hope and expect this idea of apprenticeship to take hold to give potential brewers the time and space not only to learn their craft but learn their own way to operate within that craft.  I don’t just want there to be formal schools of brewing, which is awesome and necessary.  I want brewers to come from within. Apprenticeships and more learning may not solve the problem of whether to brew that rauchbier, but it will help the brewers understand the scope of the consequences of that decision.  It is through the combination of book learning and practical application can any craft grow and continue to innovate.

Searching for Better Beer or How To Define Craft Beer

This is a bunch of craft beer

How do I define craft beer?

This question vexes me. I continually try to move past the, “I know it when I see it,” definition most of us use. (ABInbev High End is not craft beer but Oskar Blues CANarchy is).  I create a definition in my mind and then I correct it with 10 different exceptions.

Let’s begin at the beginning and start with, “What do I think of when I think of craft beer?”

The first thing I think, when I think of craft beer, is the mindset.  The very simple yet important thing that separates craft brewing companies from big beer companies is the idea that beer is more than just a commodity to be sold.

During the period in the American beer industry between 1933 (the end of Prohibition) and 1979 (when homebrewing became legal), brewing beer was treated the same as manufacturing tires.  Beer was simply a product to made as cheaply as possible and sold with as big a margin as possible.  Quality, taste, and creativity were barely tertiary thoughts.

Craft beer begins with the idea that the beer is the important thing.  This whole enterprise started because a bunch of guys who spent time abroad for school and in military service came back to the US and wanted to drink better beer.  English pubs and cask ales and German bier halls and fresh lagers created a thirst in these people.  Charlie Papazian’s seminal, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, coined the phrase, “better beer” and the resulting mindset of making beer for beer’s sake instead of treating it as a simple commodity is the is the cornerstone of what craft beer is.  At least it should be.

The second thing I think craft beer has to have is creativity.  Alongside that should be a sense of fun and adventure sparked by the creativity of its brewers.  Sometimes that creativity can vex me when I’m just looking for a nice pale ale and I have options that range from hibiscus goses to BBA chocolate stouts.  However, it is that creativity and need to push boundaries to come up with something new and awesome that makes craft breweries different from big beer companies.

The Brewers Association has a definition of what a craft brewery is as part of its membership requirements.  I don’t necessarily follow that definition because it is a definition that fluctuates as needed.  That isn’t a shot at the BA, but it is a simple acknowledgment of how running an organization like the Brewers Association can be a fluid adventure.  The BAs charge is to speak for the small independent brewers in this country.  Sometimes that means you make exceptions to keep some brewers (Boston Beer and Yuengling) and sometimes that means you create rules that exclude others (ABInbev High End brands).

My definition doesn’t rely on numbers or ownership.  The first two parts of my definition focus on the liquid in the glass and how that is the focus and how I get a sense of creativity and adventure with every sip.  The final part of my definition touches on the business side.  A craft brewery is a brewery whose business practices are not malicious and predatory.  Craft breweries do not see the beer business as a zero-sum game.  For a craft brewery, this isn’t a simple dialectic of win or death as it is for big beer companies.

While all breweries, at least the ones with an actual business plan, want to be successful and want to make money, they also have a sense of collaboration with other craft brewers where they try to promote not only their beer but all beer.  They try to work together and promote craft beer and make sure consumers get better beer.

We know the big beer companies don’t look at it the same way.  We have the Department of Justice and various state attorneys general investigations and fines to prove it.

In sum, my definition of craft beer is, a beer crafted with the idea that the beer, the liquid in the glass, is the most important thing.  It is a beer that embodies a sense of creativity and adventure.  Finally, it is a beer from a brewery that cares more about the beer community as a whole and making sure drinkers get better beer then they do about crushing the competition and making a quick dollar.

Tasting Notes: Maine Beer MO Pale Ale

I love the creativity and risk-taking of craft beer brewers.  Without it, this thing we call craft beer would not be as important or as vital.  However, I think sometimes brewers (as with all creative types) get too caught up in recreating the wheel and pushing the creative envelope and they forget to just make a quality product. No bells and whistles, just something good, consistent and tasty.

I like NE-style IPAs and big sugary stouts and hibiscus, rosehip, honey goses.  I love to taste the crazy things brewers try to come up with to set themselves apart.  Yet, there are times when all I want is a good well-balanced beer.  A well made Irish Stout has become my go-to beer.  Something dry and easy drinking.  One of the original session beers.

Another well-balanced sometimes forgotten style that I’ve found myself coming back to again is the pale ale.  One of the best made today is the Maine Beer MO.

This is a beer that immediately looks beautiful in the glass.  It has a nice light golden color and a thin white head.  The head doesn’t last long but it does leave a good lacing on the side of the glass as you drink.

The aroma is equally as beguiling with citrusy hop aroma and a bready malt backbone.

It is the taste, however, that really highlights MO’s balance.  As it should.  You get the characteristic American Pale Ale hop flavor: bright and citrusy.  However, there is little to no hop bitterness.  Just enough to give it a nice dry finish that begs you to take another sip, but not something overwhelming.  You also get a bready malt sweetness with, to my palate, a hint of apple/apricot.  MO is soft and medium on the palate with good carbonation and finishes dry and clean.

A good pairing for this beer would be an “adult” grilled cheese sandwich with a nice sharp cheddar on sourdough or rye bread.  If you are looking for a more meat-focused pairing you could also go with a lean pork dish.  (Don’t worry the meat recommendation comes from a very close friend who eats meat.  Not me.) You can also drink it with a fig based dessert where the crisp hoppiness cuts through the natural sweetness of the fruit.

I am recommending Maine Brewery’s MO even though I know a lot of beer geeks who may read this, already love it.

Beer and Food Pairing Quick Shot: Rev. Nat’s Sacrilege Sour Cherry Cider and Chocolate Cake

Rev. Nat’s is a new cider to North Carolina coming all the way from Oregon.  One thing that makes it different from most other ciders is that Nat uses beer yeast instead of champagne yeast.  That lends a heftier mouthfeel and different esters and taste profile.  For the Sacrilege, Nat chose English ale yeast.  It is a specific one from a specific brewery, but I don’t think he is allowed to publicly say which, but he told me and a few other beer/cider people here in Charlotte when he came in for the product launch.  If you are beer geek at some point you’ve drunk this beer from Cheswick, England.

Anyway, Sacrilege is a cider using 100% Granny Smith apples and Montmorency and Morello sour cherries with a hint of red pepper to add a spicy dryness.

The cherry flavor, the sourness, and the touch of dry spiciness makes this a great drink to pair with a nice decadent chocolate cake.  I highly recommend it.

Beer and Food Pairing: Twin Leaf Rosemary IPA and A Bunch of Vegetarian Food

What makes a good beer and food pairing?

For me, it starts with the abiding thought (THE abiding thought when it comes to beer) that beer is fun and should be enjoyed.  As long as you are drinking beer, there are no “bad” pairings.  There are pairings that are less successful than others, but if the beer is good, everything will be OK.

Another thing that makes for a great beer and food pairing is the people with whom you are eating and drinking.  Again, the overriding beer thought must be that beer is to be enjoyed with people you like and care about around you.  That makes every pairing worthwhile.

Enough with the philosophical aspects of beer and food pairings, let’s get to what makes a particular beer work with a particular food?  Why does beer work so well with food?

First, beer is a cooked product.  From the malting to the boil, beer is affected by heat the same way the meal you are preparing is (unless of course, you are eating a salad).  Many of the ways you describe food are also how you describe the ingredients of beer.

Also, the natural carbonation of beer helps clean the palate between sips and between bites helping make each bite a separate experience.

So, how do I use all that philosophy and technical/physical aspects of beer to make a beer and food pairing?  First, I try to match intensity.  I don’t want either the food or the beer to overwhelm the other.

If I’m doing a beer tasting I try to pick foods that either merely clean the palate or allow the beer to shine through with no interference.  In a beer and food pairing, you are going for the opposite.  I want both parts of the pairing to highlight and complement each other and help each other bring out their best parts.

Once I’ve decided on the intensity, if I start with the food, I then think about the characteristics of the food and what beer characteristics would highlight the food best or vice versa. Is the food savory/sweet? Does it have an herbal/vegetal taste?  Is it spicy? Is it creamy? I consider all that as I decide what beer I pick.  Not only am I looking to resonate the food and beer, I’m also looking to contrast the food and beer.

Mouthfeel is my favorite way to get a contrast.  If I have a food that is creamy I usually like to hit it with a beer with good carbonation and crispness. Think Belgian Tripel.  Another place I like to find contrast is spiciness with creaminess.  One of my favorites is to drink a stout or porter with spicy food like Mexican or Thai.

The one place I always have trouble with is pairing beer with sweet foods.  This is another place where dark beers come in handy.  You can either go with matching sweet with sweet or what I prefer is to match dry with sweet.  A good Irish stout comes in handy.

For the initial beer and food pairing that spawned this post, I paired the Twin Leaf Rosemary IPA with a meal, my girlfriend made. The meal consisted of tofu seared in a Marsala rub, sautéed mushrooms, and roasted Brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar.  If you can’t tell, I’m a vegetarian.

What I liked about this pairing is how the rosemary married with the hops in the IPA in a great way.  Sometimes, rosemary can be very overpowering, but in this case, just the right amount was used allowing the rosemary and hops to play well together and complement one another.  The other thing I like with this dish was how the rosemary harmonized with the spices in the rub and with the sautéed mushrooms.  Then the hoppiness and crispness of the beer cut through the creaminess of the tofu and balanced out the sweetness of the balsamic vinegar.

This the kind of everyday beer and food pairing that makes life more fun.  Not every beer and food pairing should be an attempt at a 7-course meal where you are trying to recreate a Henry VIII feast.  It should be good food, good beer, and good company all harmonizing together to let you have a good time.

The Beer Counselor 3.0 or something like that

If you know me or have seen photos of me over the last year, you know that I have undergone a significant weight loss.  I abhor taking medicine, and when my doctor told me I could lose weight or go on high blood pressure and cholesterol medicine, I decided to change my lifestyle and lose weight.

This past week, I went shopping for a new winter coat and had to buy a medium.  I was shocked.  This time last year I was comfortably wearing an extra large. This is a change I like and it is a change I intend to keep.  Again, it isn’t just about weight loss, it is a change in lifestyle and mindset.

This is where the beer part of losing weight comes in to play.  This weight loss means I have to drink less beer then I did before.  I have chosen as my profession, selling and writing about craft beer.  By definition, I have to drink craft beer.  However, I am treating it not as a sacrifice, but as an opportunity.

Two things about losing weight and drinking less.  The first, it makes me a cheap date.  If I drink more then one or two beers over 6% ABV, I might not be drunk, but I can definitely feel it.  The second thing it means is I have to drink beer in a way that gives me maximum enjoyment.  That means drinking really good beer (already doing that) and ensuring every interaction between my beer and my food is as good as it possibly can be.

Yes, I’m talking about beer and food pairing.

This blog has always been a living thing to me. It has changed to reflect the changes in the craft beer world and the things that most interest me in that world.  This is the next evolution of The Beer Counselor.  In this iteration, I endeavor to write 2 reviews, 1 beer and food pairing specific post, and 1 general (sometimes kvetching into the internet void) post.

Also, I have a new accomplice to assist me with my food and beer pairing.  Plus, in the very near future, there will be a new project hitting the interwebs with me and Aaron Gore.

Tasting Notes: Baltika Russian Imperial Stout

What makes a good beer? Is it one that follows the style guidelines to the letter?  Can a beer be bad if it hits every checkmark in the BJCP or Brewers Association style books?  Is being a good beer something more?  Something ineffable?  Can a slavish devotion to style a detriment?

The Baltika Russian Imperial Stout hits all the markers of what a Russian Imperial Stout should be.

Color:  Dark brown with a slight opacity/chill haze.  Check

Aroma:  Roasted with slight dark fruit and low floral hops. Check

Taste:  Malt bitterness, a taste of alcohol, and dark fruit. Check

Mouthfeel:  Chewy and medium to heavy mouthfeel. Check

Here is the problem.  While it hits all the check marks it is still not a good beer.  There is no subtlety or art to the beer. This is a brusk, harsh beer.  Russian Imperial Stouts should be roasty and forceful, but here it blows past roasty into charred.  Combined with the very noticeable alcohol flavor and warmth, it makes this beer borderline undrinkable.  I know a baker who loves using this beer in her cakes and cookies.  The over the top nature of the malt flavor combined with the distinct alcohol presence makes this a good beer for using in cooking and a bad beer for everyday drinking.

For the ABV, this beer is a ridiculous value.  You will find it for less than $4 almost everywhere and it clocks in at 10% ABV.  This may be the sole reason for its existence.

Tasting Notes: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout

What is a classic?  Pyscho is a classic.  The Old Man and The Sea is a classic.  However, they are static.  They are forever unchanging.  Our interpretations of them may shift as our cultural and social lenses shift, but they are essentially what they are.

Hamlet is also a classic, but it is different.  Hamlet as it is performed on stage changes from night to night. It is also different when it is interpreted by different directors and actors.  That is more what classic beers are like.  They morph and shift from year to year and from brewer to brewer. That is what makes yearly seasonal offerings so interesting.  They are the same, yet they are always different.

Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout is one of those classic winter seasonals.  It pours dark brown almost black forming a nice light brown head. It has a nice clarity and carbonation, but it is opaque with the occasional ruby highlights.

On the initial nose, you get a lot of coffee and bitter chocolate.  As it warms you also get plums and other dark fruit.  There isn’t much if any hop aroma. You also get an alcohol aroma, if you can call it that.

The flavor is a good reflection of the aroma.  This isn’t a beer trying to trick you or play games with your expectations.  You get the dark chocolate and coffee flavors. The plums and other dark fruit come through on the back end as well as a nice flavor of alcohol.  It isn’t overwhelming but it is there to remind you this is a 10.5% beer. The bitterness you taste is a combination of the hops and bitterness from the dark malts that contribute the coffee flavors.

The mouthfeel is the one place this beer surprises. The smoothness provided by the oatmeal included in the malt bill makes it easy to drink and gives It an almost medium mouth weight.  The alcohol warms you as it goes down making this a great cold weather beer.  It finishes with that warmth and the dark chocolate/coffee taste lingering long enough to make you feel good and want another sip.

This is one of those dangerous dark winter beers. The high ABV is hidden by the expert deployment of dark malts and brewing skill.

Grimm Artisnal Ales Double Negative Imperial Stout

It could be easy to make fun of Grimm as the epitome of hipsterism.  It is a brewery headquartered in Brooklyn started by artists and musicians who strive to use locally sourced ingredients and the official name of the brewery is Grimm Artisan Ales (italics mine).

However, then you taste the beer and you understand they are serious beer makers.  While the brewery is best known for its double IPAs and sours, the Double Negative Imperial Stout is my favorite of their beers and highlights how serious Grimm is about making good beer.

Weighing in at 10 percent, Double Negative isn’t as inky black as you would expect.  It is a deep brown almost black color like that of a good French roast coffee with no cream.  I had a slight haze and good carbonation.  You get a nice tan almost light brown head on the pour that dissipated quickly in my glass (I’m assuming it was beer clean since I cleaned it.)

On the nose, my bottle had a slightly leathery aroma up front that turned into dark fruit and bitter chocolate as it warmed in the glass with little hop aroma.

I immediately got the taste of coffee up front followed by bitter chocolate as the beer worked through my palate.  I got very little hop bitterness.  All the bitterness comes from the dark malt giving the coffee taste but there is just enough dark chocolate sweetness to offset it.

My bottle had a surprisingly medium mouthfeel.  It didn’t cling to my tongue and palate and finished nice and clean.  The chocolate and alcohol linger a bit and there is a nice alcohol warmth in the beer.  The carbonation helps keep it crisp and provides for that clean finish.

This is an overall excellent beer and serves as a good base for its barrel-aged variants.