Eric's Beer Blog

My online journal for beer (and other drinks) tasting, brewing, tourism, and general musings.

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Location: St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

Monday, March 09, 2009

Beer Lists

I've been thinking a lot about beer lists lately. Since I dream of one day opening my own bar, I spend a rather large percentage of the time I'm at bars thinking about what the bar does well, what it could do better, what I'd do differently, etc.

One of the things I come back to over and over again in my musings is the beer list. I'm really talking about two different things here: first, the physical list (what information is given? how is it presented?), and second, the content of the list (what beers are on it? where are they from? how were they chosen?). I've decided to get down some thoughts about these subjects here.

The physical list:

As far as I'm concerned, a good beer list should be similar in appearance to a wine list. That is, it should have categories (geographical, style, or some combination thereof), and it should have descriptions. What kind of restaurant or bar would have a wine list which threw together whites and reds in one big unformatted list?

If I know that I'm in the mood for, say, an IPA, I should not have to scan through a long list of lagers, stouts, or Belgians to find the 2 or 3 IPAs on offer. Likewise, if I know I want to try something local, it should be easy for me to find the offerings that fit the bill.

As for descriptions, again, it just stands to reason. If there are some beers I'm not familiar with, I should be able to read a bit about them: where are they brewed? what style are they? what are the basic outlines of their taste profile? possibly even what foods would they go with? These things are all pretty standard on wine lists, but they are lacking for beer lists at even some very good restaurants and bars.

The beers on the list:

I'm a big advocate of local beer. It doesn't hurt that I live in an area with a superb beer scene-- I'd put the Twin Cities' local beer scene in the top 5, certainly the top 10, in the country. But in any case, local beer is better, and bars should support local beer. Here's why:

-local beer is generally going to be fresher, and thus taste better, than beer that has traveled a long distance.
-supporting local businesses is a good thing to do in general. It also makes business sense for a local bar (which is competing against national chains like Applebee's) to encourage its customers to think locally
-local beer is one of the unique things a local bar can offer. When I travel and go to a bar in some other part of the country, I'm much happier to see local offerings on tap, at least some of which I've never had before, than to see the same old beers everywhere.

All things being equal, therefore, a local bar should have at least a substantial number of local (and regional) beers available. For a Twin Cities bar, it's pretty simple: we have several wonderful breweries in the metro area, and more in greater Minnesota. Of course, there are even more great beers to be found in neighboring Wisconsin and yet more in the larger region of the Midwest.

My next criterion is variety. A good beer list should have a variety of styles to suit a variety of tastes. There's just no good reason to have, say, Heineken AND Corona. They are essentially the same (usually lousy) beer. It is for this reason that very long beer lists don't impress me much. The longer the beer list, generally speaking, the more space is taken up by duplicate beers. (And don't get me started on the greater difficulty of keeping a larger number of taps fresh and clean...) Nothing bugs me more than to see a restaurant with a small number of taps, most of which are virtually identical (and usually not very interesting) beers. I get that many people love them their American Light Lager. I have no beef with a bar or restaurant having some of these beers available. But will a Bud man's experience truly be ruined if he has to settle for Miller?

If a place has 5 taps, why not have one American Light Lager (Bud/Miller/Coors), perhaps a European Lager (Corona/Heineken/Amstel), maybe a nice local IPA (nearly every part of the country has a local/regional example of this style that is decent), something light and refreshing (a Wheat?), and something dark and complicated (porter, stout, a Belgian). Even for a place which is not catering to beer geeks like me, this seems like a reasonable list.

If the place is more of a beer bar and has a substantial number of taps, I'd like to see a good proportion of them taken up with local and regional beers, a few nationally available craft brews, and an import or two. There's no need for a huge number of imports-- the days when Americans had to feel bashful about our place in the world of beer are over. Most beer experts will tell you that the #1 country in the world for interesting beer is right here in the U S of A.

Of course, a bar gets major extra credit in my book if they regularly have cask-conditioned beer available. This beer is usually local, very fresh, and terribly yummy.

OK, enough about the criteria of a good beer list. Future posts will examine the lists of local bars and restaurants with a critical eye. If you've actually read this far, I'd welcome your comments and feedback.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Oktoberfest reviews, part 1

So I picked up a sampler 6-pack of Oktoberfest beers from my favorite local liquor store.  

I really love Oktoberfest beers, so I've managed to drink all of them in a couple of days.  Here's the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good: Hacker-Pschorr.  Always a favorite.  Wonderfully malty and sweet, but clean and dry-finishing.

So-so: Paulaner.  I was a bit disappointed in this one, since it's a classic example of the style.  But it left me underwhelmed-- too little malt on the aroma, and too little in the flavor as well.  Just not enough there there.

The surprisingly good: Schell's.  A local brewery, most of whose beers tend toward the mass-market American light lager, or the mass market pseudo-microbrew.  But this was very good.  The best of the locals (in this batch).

The just-OK: Redhook?  I think that's what it was.  It was so forgettable, I've actually forgotten what brewery it was from (and I've already recycled the bottle).  Just not great.

The boring: Leinenkugel.  See comments under Paulaner, but even more so.  This tasted like a regular light lager with a dash of Oktoberfest....

The bad: Really, really bad, that is.  Lakefront.  A Wisconsin brewery, so you'd think they might know a thing or two about German style beers.  Yikes-- a big blast of diacetyl (fake movie popcorn butter) right up front in the aroma, and unfortunately, persisting all the way through the bottle.  Also, the malt profile is all wrong: more biscuit than toasty.  I probably should have poured this one out, but I kept hoping it might get better (and I've only poured out a couple of beers in my lifetime..).

More to come!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Homemade Limoncello

A few weeks ago, I saw a recipe in the paper for homemade limoncello. I don't think than anyone who knows me would be surprised that I immediately began planning to make my own batch!

I was very curious to see how it would compare to the limoncello we had in Campania and elsewhere in southern Italy last year (where limoncello was invented), and also to the limoncello I've had at a fine local restaurant which makes its own. (The picture at the top is from a wonderful restaurant in Basilicata, Italy, in the town of Aliano-- I asked for some limoncello after lunch, and they brought me the whole bottle!)

The recipe is pretty simple. Start with 2 pounds of lemons (I used organic lemons).
Zest the lemons (phew!).
(We used the leftover lemons to make a big batch of lemonade. Yum!)

Soak the zest in a quart of vodka for at least 3-5 days, stirring frequently.

I used 2 kinds of Minnesota-made vodka. Mostly this one, which is new and happens to be organic!
And a bit of this one, after I ran out of the other one...
I steeped for about 10 days, after which I was sick of waiting. Next time I might try to do it longer.... It says the zest should turn white when all of its flavor has been extracted-- mine never did....

Strain out the zest. Meanwhile, add 2 1/2 cups of sugar to 6 cups of water and heat over low heat till dissolved and clear. I used slightly less than 2.5 cups of organic sugar. Next time I think I will use even less.

Once simple syrup is at room temp., mix with vodka. Strain through coffee filters and bottle. Chill. The recipe says to strain through "several changes of coffee filters," but I just did it once. Again, I'm impatient. It's pretty clear but could be clearer....

I made up some labels, got some nice bottles at the local homebrew store, and voila!

Limoncello, a.k.a. grown-up lemonade. It has a lovely pale yellow color, a nice lemon aroma, and a delightful taste. It's a bit sweet for me, but I think it's right about the same as the "real" stuff we had in Italy. I just might prefer a bit more lemony pucker.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Avery Maharaja

Other members of my beer class had mentioned this beer, and I hadn't had it in a while.  So I picked one up today.  I will review this beer as if I'm judging it by the BJCP guidelines for an Imperial IPA.  It's Maharaja Imperial India Pale Ale from Avery Brewing Company, Boulder, CO.

Aroma: some piney/resinous notes, followed by a hint of pineapple.  It's really almost all hops here-- just the slightest suggestion of malt.  10/12

Appearance: light copper with slight orange tint; crystal clear; rocky head is off-white and persistent; occasional thin lace.  3/3

Flavor: puckering (grapefruit) hop bitterness punches you right up front; lingering sweetness at the end; resiny hop flavor is prominent; as it warms, the malty sweetness comes more to the fore (thus explaining some of the comments I just read on BeerAdvocate about it being sweet, comments which at the time I thought indicated insanity on the part of the reviewer); alcohol is noticeable only in its effect, not its taste.  17/20

Mouthfeel: medium to medium-heavy body; moderate carbonation; slightly creamy.  3/5

Overall impression: hoppy enough for any hophead to enjoy; while there is a substantial malt backbone, it is perceived more in the body and alcohol than in the actual flavor, which tends overwhelmingly towards hop bitterness and hop flavor.  This is, according to the label, batch 7, brewed in February 2008, and 10.54% alcohol by volume (2 decimal places?  is that really necessary?).  I'd like for there to be a more complex hop aroma and more of a malt backbone.  It also seems to me that it's a bit thick in mouthfeel for the style ("medium-light to medium body"-- this is definitely heavier than that).  But there are no egregious faults in this beer, and it's very drinkable.  8/10

I scored it a 41/50, which puts it right in the middle of the "excellent" range (2nd highest) on the BJCP guidelines.  I could be persuaded to go a bit higher than that (and initially did).  A very nice beer.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Long time, no post

It's not that I haven't been drinking beer lately, just haven't blogged about it. I'm going to try to get into a regular posting habit, especially since I just started my BJCP class. For those who aren't beer geeks, BJCP stands for Beer Judge Certification Program. The class runs for 12 weeks, at the end of which time I will take the exam. If I pass, I will become a Certified Beer Judge. One can then advance, earning points for each competition judged, and become a Grand Master and all kinds of other fun and geeky titles. Anyway, the class involves lots of beer tasting and beer evaluation. I'll learn lots of fun jargon and, more importantly, refine my palate and practice describing what I taste. So I plan to use my blog to practice some of the stuff I'm learning on beers I find.

Here's my live-blog (written as I go along) tasting of a new (to me) beer:

Tres Blueberry Stout, Dark Horse Brewing Company, Marshall, Michigan.

Appearance: inky black, utterly opaque; brown head appears and quickly leaves; incredibly thick as it pours

Aroma: pronounced blueberry aroma hits you even as you pour the beer; more typical stout aromas are present too (dark roasted malts).

Taste: a definite blueberry flavor blends seamlessly into the malt; a surprisingly high amount of hop bitterness; if you didn't smell the beer, I'm not sure you'd be able to identify blueberry, but it's definitely there. Quite interesting. Hints of spice, perhaps some chocolate and coffee.

Mouthfeel: doesn't taste as thick as it looks, but it definitely ain't thin. Hop bitterness lingers, blueberry doesn't: it's all on the front end and the nose.

Overall: a nifty beer. I've had blueberry beers before, but they've always been light. A blueberry stout is a new one for me, though I'm not surprised that it hasn't been done more. The blueberry really goes well with the stout flavors. Add this to the list of good fruits to blend with stout (I've had cherry and raspberry stouts that were superb).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Favorite Beers

I am really bad at favorites. "What's your favorite movie/book/food/beer/etc." is one of my least favorite questions, because I have a terrible time coming up with anything other than "ummm." I can come up with a list of favorites, but not a single favorite anything.

So, since I am often in the position of being a "beer authority" (i.e., I've drunk more beer than most people I know), I am relatively often asked about my favorites. Here's my attempt, more or less off the top of my head, to list some of them.

5 Favorite Breweries:

  • Bar Harbor Brewing Co., Bar Harbor, ME. Three words: Cadillac Mountain Stout.
  • Dogfish Head Brewing Co., Delaware; all of their many beers are interesting, most are amazingly good, among them Aprihop, 60-, 90-, and 120-minute Ales, World Wide Stout...
  • Bell's Brewery, Kalamazoo, MI. Two-Hearted Ale, a variety of incredible stouts (including the inimitable Cherry Stout), various crazy seasonals.
  • Three Floyds Brewing Co., Munster, IN. All of their beers are fantastic-- Alpha King (pale ale), Robert the Bruce (Scottish, natch), Alpha Klaus (Xmas porter)... if only we could get them here in Minnesota!
  • Surly, right here in the Twin Cities. Bender and Furious, their first two beers, are both delicious. Their first anniversary beer, One, was astounding. And I've heard that their seasonal imperial stout, Darkness (released at Halloween) is something special.
5 Favorite Brewpubs:

  • Minneapolis Town Hall. I'm not just being biased because I live so close by. It is legitimately one of the very best in the country. Their Masala Mama IPA is nectar from heaven. Their insane seasonals (Cabernet Stout? c'mon!) make each visit exciting.
  • McNeill's, Brattleboro, VT. Really the first brewpub I visited, and still one of my favorites. The beer is all very good, but the atmosphere is what sets it apart. The closest I've ever seen in this country to a real neighborhood pub-- there are usually kids, dogs, and all kinds of people sitting around the long tables, playing darts, and enjoying a pint.
  • Bosco's, Germantown, TN (now relocated). This was my regular place for the 5 years I lived in Memphis. I'm not just being sentimental, either-- their beer was excellent, and the atmosphere superb. Amazing bartenders who treated regulars like royalty-- free drinks and/or food, first-name service...
  • Amnesia, Portland, OR. The latest one to get added to my list. Great beer, great atmosphere (complete with a brewhouse dog).
  • Great Dane, Madison, WI. Incredible number of beers available, and all of them excellent. Great service. A lovely place... and thank goodness it's not too far away!
Also in contention: Franklin's, Hyattsville, MD; Magnolia, San Francisco, CA; Dogfish Head (the brewpub), Rehobeth Beach, DE, Three Floyd's (brewpub), Munster, IN.

Five Favorite Beer Bars:

  • Toronado, San Francisco, CA. We've only been there once, but any bar that has a barleywine festival with approximately 50 barleywines ON TAP... well....
  • Rich O's, New Albany, IN. Actually also a brewpub and a fine one at that, but they also have an amazing selection of other beer. And good atmosphere.
  • Michael's Bistro, Charlottesville, VA. A small but fabulous and ever-changing beer list. Introduced me to some of my favorite beers...
  • The Saloon, Washington, DC. Again, a small list, but with stuff you don't ever see elsewhere (Urbock?), and a wonderful atmosphere, amazing bartender, great regulars...
  • The Happy Gnome, here in St. Paul. Excellent list, changes often, and regular casks. We need to go here more but we usually end up at their sister establishment the Muddy Pig (also great list, but no casks).
Also in the running: the Map Room in Chicago, but too crowded; RFD in DC, tremendous selection but crappy service and no atmosphere; Racer's in Baltimore, MD, only been there once, but it seems like a great place (and Geoff would agree).

5 Favorite Beers Not Mentioned Elsewhere in This Post:

  • Anchor Liberty Ale, Porter, and Our Xmas Beer (Anchor is too big to really be a microbrewery, but darned if everything they make isn't incredibly good)
  • Weyerbacher Raspberry Imperial Stout-- doesn't it just sound delicious?
  • Victory Storm King Stout-- Victory's beers are all good, but this one is world class.
  • Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout-- seems I've gotten on a bit of a stout kick...
  • Tilburg Dutch Brown Ale-- the only non-American beer I'd cross the street for. Frequently in our house as a great session beer.

Did I miss any?

Drinking locally

(cross-posted at The Menagerie)

Daniela has written about the "Eating Locally Challenge" in which we're participating this month. She mentioned in one post that we're trying to drink locally, too, so I thought I'd expound on that aspect a bit.

Drinking locally is quite easy here in the Twin Cities. We have Summit, one of the larger "craft breweries" (they say they're too large to be considered a microbrewery these days) around, whose beers are available just about everywhere-- even at the Metrodome (home of the Twins and Vikings).

Then there's Surly, which Beer Advocate recently named the best brewery in America. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but Surly is undeniably very very yummy stuff.

Just this year we've also added Flat Earth, a brand new brewery operating here in St. Paul. I just had their Angry Planet Organic Pale Ale and found it to be very tasty.

Minnesota also has a number of old breweries which somehow survived the massive consolidation of the 20th century-- Schell, Grain Belt (actually now brewed by Schell, but still), Stite, Gluek, to name a few. These breweries generally make beers in the American light lager category (ala Budweiser), but at least they're local! Then there are the micros located outside the Twin Cities metro area, like Lake Superior (Duluth).

And last but not least, included in the "local" category are beers from nearby Wisconsin. That means that even the crappy bar with nothing but lousy beer might have something local (Miller, anyone? or Pabst, or even Leinenkugel, though they're better than the other 2). Milwaukee was recently named America's drunkest city, (Twin Cities were #2!) and there's no shortage of beer made in Wisconsin. Putting aside the bad stuff, there are some great micros from the Cheesehead state too-- New Glarus, Furthermore (whose interesting smoked stout I'm drinking as I type), Sprecher, and Viking, to name a few locally available ones.

All in all, I'd guess that outside of the Pacific Northwest or northern California, we're probably in the best area for beer in the country. Or right up there... (if only we could get Three Floyds beer here, I'd have no problem with the previous statement)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Portland, Day Five

I planned to do three quick stops on Day Five. Unfortunately, I arrived at my first stop, Roots Organic Brewing Company, only to find it closed until 3:00. I was there at 11:30, needing an early start and planning to eat some lunch and drink some beer! 3:00... geesh...

Fortunately, stop 2 was right around the corner (this happens frequently in Portland-- brew pubs practically on top of other brew pubs!)-- the Lucky Labrador. I ordered some lunch, which was excellent, and had a sampler of beer.

Another good-looking pub, a beer-hall atmosphere-- high ceilings, a piano, dartboards-- with a large patio (as the name suggests, it's apparently very dog friendly). Besides the great food (I had a delicious lentil soup and a half sandwich), this place has good beer. Of the samples I tasted, my notes say, "all good, none revelatory." That about sums it up. I tasted their Magnolia PA (IPA), Rose City Organic Red, Black Lab Stout and Stumptown Porter (liked these two the best), Super Dog (hoppy pale ale), Crazy Ludwig's Alt on cask, and Goat Rocks Maibock.

I hopped a bus to head to stop #2, my first foray into the McMenamins chain of brewpubs. Starting from a single brewpub in 1983, the McMenamin brothers have now opened more than 50 pubs and "gathering places" in Oregon and Washington. Perhaps the most unique among them is the Kennedy School. They bought this abandoned elementary school and turned it into a hotel, pub, and movie theater, while retaining much of its school building character (for example, many of the hotel rooms have chalkboards!). They even kept the elementary-sized water fountains:

It's a gorgeous building with beautiful grounds. I headed to one of the bars (called the Detention Bar and the Honors Bar) for a beer and some freedom fries.

I had an IPA (when in Portland...). It was good but not outstanding. But the atmosphere of the place was pretty neat... Would be a fun place to stay, I imagine, though it's not an especially convenient location.

That evening Daniela and I headed to yet another brewpub for dinner. Laurelwood NW Public House is a converted house and specializes in organic beer and locally sourced food. I didn't take notes, but I recall that the beer was (again) good but not mind-blowing, and the food was good as well. We had some excellent gelato for dessert at a litte place nearby...

And that was the end of my beer tour. I managed to visit 8 brewpubs and 1 beer bar in 5 days... not too bad, I suppose. My one major regret is that I didn't make it to Hair of the Dog's brewery. Next trip!

Portland, Day Four

I decided to keep my plans modest for Thursday, following the difficulties arising from trying to do too much on Tuesday. So I had only 2 destinations: Widmer Brothers and Amnesia.

I took the light rail train to Widmer Brothers. This brewery is famous for its Hefeweizen, which one can find even here in Minnesota (saw it at the Xcel Center while we were there to see The Police!), but I wasn't about to waste my time on wheat beer. Nothing against the style-- it's just not my thing.

But I figured Widmer has been around a long time (est. 1984, I believe), so they must have some good beer. There was a promising beginning: as soon as I stepped out of the train, I could smell beer. Brewing beer. It's a delightful smell, and immediately confirmed that Widmer actually makes their beer at this location. The brewpub is plush and pleasant. I drank a nice pint of Broken Halo IPA, a solid if not thrilling example of the style. Given that I was not overwhelmed by my first beer, and that none of the other beers on offer seemed like one I couldn't live without, I decided to move on.

My next stop was a slightly less than 1 mile walk (made slightly longer by the fact that it was almost entirely uphill!) to Amnesia Brewing. You can read my review of the place on Beer Advocate here, but I'll repeat here as well: this is the best place I visited in Portland, and that's saying something.

It wasn't just the beer, though it was very good-- I especially liked The ESB, with lots of nice biscuity malt flavor, and the Copacetic IPA, exceedingly bitter with stunning grapefruit flavors. I also tried the Dusty Trail Pale Ale, Desolation IPA (darker and more alcoholic than Copacetic-- and gotta love a place with 2 IPAs on tap!), and Slowtrain Porter (yes, I had a sampler).

But it was also what an old drinking buddy of mine calls "the beer experience." Another place where the smell of brewing beer was quite strong-- as you can see in the above photo, the bar is mere steps from the brewery, with big bags of malt stacked next to the restrooms. The pub appears to have been a warehouse or garage of some sort.

There is a resident dog (above, named Leslie), and there were numerous other dogs outside, where a big tent covers a large seating area. There's also a big barbecue grill (in picture below, on the right), which is the only kitchen in the place-- they serve locally made sausages and burgers which smelled great, though I didn't try any.

All in all, a great neighborhood bar in what seems like a great neighborhood. This would be the place I'd want to live near if I lived in Portland....