Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 June, 2016

The Black Sheep of the Family: Baba Black Lager by Uinta Brewing Company



If you look at the December 28-29, 1996 issue of The Capital Times you will see me mentioned briefly. I was innocently enjoying the Badgers beating Utah in the Copper Bowl at Babe's sports bar with some friends. One of them, Dan, disappeared at some point and returned a short while later saying that he had been approached by a local representative of the Fourth Estate and had chatted with the gentleman for a spell. The next day I got namechecked while Dan was quoted in the paper as saying, "It wasn't much of a game. You know, it's Utah. Mormons. They can't put a football team together."

That is not a bad analogy to how I've felt about Utah with regards to brewing for quite some time. "Mormons don't drink. They either don't have microbreweries or, if they do, they can't be any good." And then word trickled in from out west that there was a beer from out in the land of Mormons called "Polygamy Porter". "Well I'll be. There was microbrew out there. And they had a sense of humor too."

But that brewery, Wasatch, was out in Park City which is chock full of Richard Florida's vaunted creative class types who hang out and do things like attend the Sundance Film Festival. Of course you'd have craft brews out in a tourist trap like that. But then in 2014 Epic Brewing came to Wisconsin store shelves. They are out of Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country. The blasphemers even specialize in strong brews. No doubt Joseph Smith and his wives are still rolling in their graves. And then last year Uinta Brewing, also in Salt Lake City, began appearing at my local bottle shops.

Their Tinder, a rauchbier, caught my eye as did Baba, a black lager brewed with organic barley and hops. Although the brewery lists Baba as a year-round beer, it is rather elusive in Madison. Or at least at the joints I frequent, anyway. Perhaps the Jenifer Street Market carries it ex gratia for us dark lager lovers.

Baba is a dark bier. Very dark. I think it's about as dark as copper can get before becoming pitch. I held the glass up to a quintet of light bulbs and even their 4,000 lumens struggled to penetrate the gloom, the likes of which I hadn't seen since April. But they did enough for me to see the color. I could also see that Baba was clear and that there was a gaggle of bubbles moving on up to a generous light tan head. The foam was firm and lasted a good long time.

Dark chocolate was the first thing that my nose caught with coffee and highly roasted grain trailing right behind. They smelled slightly bitter but were mostly delectable bursts of Maillard reactiony goodness.

Baba has a nice clean malt flavor and it was dark chocolate hit my tongue immediately as I took my first sip. It was joined by that dark roast grain flavor just as with the smell but coffee was fainter here and there was just a touch of smokiness too. These dark grain flavors had a mild bitterness which was complemented by some grassy hops but, overall, the bitterness was restrained. Joining in on the fun was a slight sweetness which was like plum or cherry. I think that latter is the result of me savoring the chocolate flavor here and having a chocolate malt suddenly appear in my mind's eye. The carbonation was like the drummer in this group, keeping all of the flavors in check and in balance.

For the finish – and I know this is going to be difficult to believe – that dark/bitter chocolate flavor stuck around as it was joined by some of those organic Hallertau hops which gave a tasty bit of spiciness and also a goodly dose of bitterness for a dry finale. I was left with some fine Schaumhaftvermoegen on my glass with rather thick streaks all around.

For a bier that is only 4% A.B.V., Baba will not leave you wanting for taste. Someone described Led Zeppelin's music as being "tight but loose" and I'd opine that Baba is light but full. It has a fairly light body but all of those dark malts with their chocolate and coffee goodness lend the bier fullness of flavor. As someone who thoroughly enjoys everything that darker malts bring to a beer, Baba hit all the right buttons for me. However, there's more going on here than simply chocolate malt. In addition to the roasted grain tastes, some low-level sweetness along with a dash of hops add to the circus of flavors all being kept in harmonious order by the carbonation.

Baba puts the lie to the common misconceptions that low alcohol beers are low in flavor and that dark beers are heavy. This should be in everyone's arsenal of summer brews.

Junk food pairing: Baba pairs well with complementary foods such as Hostess Ho Hos and Dark Chocolate Crunch Pretzel Crisps.

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29 June, 2016

Buy the beer, take the ride: Numero Uno by Flying Dog Brewery



Preparing for this review has been a real learning experience. Firstly, I've always thought that Flying Dog's labels looked like they were drawn by the guy who did illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson's books and sure as shit, I discovered, they were. But let me step back for a moment and admit that I can't honestly say I've had a Flying Dog brew prior to this one. My guess is that I have at some point but that it has been a while and I don't recall the quaffing. While I don't know when Flying Dog began distributing in Wisconsin, the brewery has been around for a long time. Well, as microbreweries go.

Flying Dog began as a brewpub opened by George Stranahan in Woody Creek, Colorado (sound familiar?) in 1990. The name came from an adventure Stranahan had back in 1983 when he and some friends attempted to climb K2. It failed (they "totally ran out of booze") and the crew retreated back to a hotel which featured a large painting of a flying dog that captured Stranahan's attention. The brewpub eventually grew into a full-fledged brewery in 1994 which opened in Denver. The Denver facility couldn't accommodate the growth they were experiencing so another move was made, this time to Frederick, Maryland in 2008.

Stranahan had become friends with Thompson, a denizen of Woody Creek, prior to opening the brewpub as they had shared interests in "explosives, high-powered weapons, politics, football, whiskey, and beer." Thompson would go on to introduce Stranahan to Ralph Steadman, the man whose portraiture of Raoul Duke and a certain Samoan attorney is legendary. Steadman began applying his signature style to Flying Dog's labels in 1995 and has apparently been doing so ever since.

I had no idea Flying Dog had such a gonzo pedigree.

Numero Uno is an agave cerveza. Agave is well-known as being the taproot of tequila but the sap of the succulent native of the Americas is also used to make agave nectar (or syrup), a potent sweetener, which is used here. I don't recall having tasted agave nectar before so this was going to be interesting. Numero Uno's recipe also includes lime zest.

One thing that attracted me to Numero Uno was that, being a flavored lager, it was a relative rarity. While not as uncommon as a Lichtenhainer, for example, lagers tend to be treated as "classic" styles – something simpler and more traditional that brewers slap together when they want to take a break from a prolonged bout of concocting novel ales with THX1138 hops, a fruit found only on Guam, krill, and yeast from the brewmaster's beard after having performed cunnilingus on his significant other.

This cerveza interested me not only because of its novelty but also because I didn't see the words "natural flavors/flavoring" on the label. After drinking some unfortunate radlers with those very words on their labels in type of varying sizes, I was happy with their absence. I suppose another factor was a simple desire to try Flying Dog and I don't often see lagers by them.

Numero Uno poured a bright yellow which was clear as day. Sadly, the head was small and the loose white foam dissipated rather quickly. I had a fairly clean glass so there were few bubbles clinging to the side and more heading up from the bottom.

The cerveza had surprisingly little aroma. In fact, it was slightly disturbing. There was a mild graininess and what I take to have been the agave which I can only describe as being like botanical honey.

Before taking my first sip I pondered whether this would a Mexican-style brew or if the word "cerveza" was simply being used because of the tropical/desert ingredients. I suppose it was the former as I could clearly taste maize and a lot of it. The lime zest was in the background though not hidden and it added a little zestiness. There was some sweetness which I presume was the agave. Although a very sweet nectar, this cerveza was too low in alcohol (4.9% A.B.V.) for all of the sugars to have been eaten by the yeast. That was my hypothesis, anyway. The agave added a honey-like flavor but it was less floral/fruity and instead a brighter, more botanical/cactusy taste.

That corn flavor and the zesty lime lingered onto the finish. There was no lacing left on my glass.

Numero Uno was a pleasant surprise. The lime zest and agave were not overpowering and they complemented one another very well. It was light and fairly bubbly. I think the agave nectar took the edge off of the lagery crispness and mellowed the overall taste a little bit but the cerveza still had that clean lager flavor for the most part. I drank some of this last Saturday outside in the 90° heat and it was fantastic. No big flavors to impede its refreshment capabilities.

Junk food pairing: Get yourself a bag of Lay's Limón potato chips or, for a sweet treat, bust open a box of Little Debbie Zebra Cake Rolls.

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28 June, 2016

I've Got Sunshine in My Stomach: Cage Radler by Victory Brewing Company



I am going to bring my radler mini-marathon to a close today with Cage Radler from Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing.

Victory is a veteran of a thousand craft wars having been formed in 1996. They made the news recently when they became part of Artisinal Brewing Ventures, a holding company that, um, holds, Southern Tier as well. Beyond this, I rarely hear about Victory. I suppose that's misleading. Their Prima Pils is highly regarded but I just don't see their other beers getting mentioned very often. I've not had many of their brews, admittedly, but will attest that Prima Pils is very tasty and they also make a mean Kirsch gose.

I just don't hear about people eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new Victory IPA. Then again, this may just be my narrow window on the microbrewing world. And my understanding is that the brewery does not have a rep in Madison which I'd imagine would limit promotional efforts such as tap takeovers.

My perceptions, however misguided, aside, I was happy to hear earlier this year that Victory would be releasing a radler. I drink a fair amount of them during the summer and finding a good one at a better price than Stiegl would be great. The brewery has a good mix of lagers and German styles and trendier ones such as Citra-laced IPAs and I was confident that they would do a good job.

Completely tangentially, a couple friends came over this past weekend and we sat out on my deck in the 90° heat. I was drinking lagers when a my friend opened a New Glarus variety pack. I decided to give a Moon Man (an APA, I suppose) a shot. It surprised me just how much of a chore it was to drink it. But drink it I did and I even finished the bottle. I immediately grabbed a Cage Radler afterwards to get the taste of all those hops out of my mouth and just to have something better suited to my hot weather quaffing taste.

Victory describes Cage Radler as a blend of lager and citrus. At 3% A.B.V. it seemed to be a real radler instead of a lighter beer with flavoring added. But the fine print says "Beer with lemon extract". D'oh! The bier was a bright, light yellow and, strangely enough, very cloudy. Is the base bier some kind of wheat pils? Or perhaps they just decided to forgo filtering/centrifuging. Regardless this stuff was almost opaque.

To complement the sunny yellow hue, my glass got a big white head on it. It was on the firm side and lasted a while. Again, my mug was dirty and so was lined with bubbles. The first pour cleaned it, however, and it looked much better after that. There was a goodly amount of bubbles inside heading on up.

The aroma was lemomy, as in lemon juice from concentrate. My mind envisioned those green ReaLemon bottles. It has a slight tartness to it. The taste had that same reconstituted lemon juice flavor to it. Citrusy tartness was moderate and there was sweetness which was just a tad stronger than the tartness. The carbonation was bright and tingly and the brew as a whole had a tangy acidity to it.

For the finish the lemony tartness and the sweetness lingered. My mouth was also left with a mild acidic tang. Schaumhaftvermoegen was minimal with just a few spots of foam left clinging.

Cage was by far the best brew to call itself a radler in my recent radler/shandy binge. It was light-bodied and bubbly plus it had relatively little alcohol. However, the lemon extract was disappointing. It didn't taste bad but reconstituted lemon juice has a flavor to me that lacks the bright zestiness of the fresh stuff while also tasting too real to be soda. It doesn't clearly occupy a neat, tidy category. It's juice queer, if you will. Beyond this, though, I really liked how it balanced tartness and sweetness.

I will also mentioned that I did not taste any bier in Cage. This made me dock it a few points but this is not a big deal for me. Sure, it does mean that Cage, had it a better lemon flavor, could not have entered the hallowed upper echelon of radler goodness currently occupied by Stiegl, but first things first.

Junk food pairing: Cage goes well with more traditional junk foods. Try some Lay's Beer 'n Brats potato chips or a bag of white cheddar popcorn.

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27 June, 2016

Meanwhile in Peshtigo: Cherry Radler by Forgotten Fire Brewing Company



My initial encounter with Forgotten Fire was not particularly thrilling. But, like many Americans, I like to root for the underdog. I want this company up in Peshtigo (although the beer is brewed in Stevens Point) to succeed. And so I was eager to give the brewery a second chance and did so recently when I saw their Cherry Radler for sale. It's summer and I'm in media res of a multi-radler expose à la Woodward and Bernstein so the timing was perfect.

To reiterate something I wrote earlier, Stiegl Grapefruit Radler is, to my taste, the apotheosis of the radler. It is a 60-40 mix of grapefruit soda and Stiegl-Goldbräu, a helles lager, and it is fizzy, moderately sweet, and a bit tart. The beer alone is 4.9% A.B.V. while the radler is 2%. So when I saw that Cherry Radler was 4.8% and described on the label as being "beer with natural flavors added", I did not get my hopes up. A radler is, for me, a mixed drink – a cocktail, if you will. Just as one does not distill a martini, one does not brew a radler. Beer meet soda.

If you're not mixing soda and beer at a rate of 50/50 or thereabouts, it's not a radler to me. Sure, you can, say, take a beer and add a splash or two of soda for a refreshing treat. Just don't try to pawn that off as a radler. If you add extract to your beer, it's not a radler. If you age your beer in the barrel that your fruit-flavored extract came in, it's not a radler. Soda meet beer.

Cherry Radler pours a light gold hue that is quite clear. My glass ended up with a pillowy white head of about half a centimeter that last 30 seconds or so. There were lots of bubbles inside my glass apart from the ones clinging to the side. I am going to try a different brand of dishwasher rinse aid hoolie to see if I can get a glass without stuff on the side to attract bubbles. Even if your radler is really an extract-laden beer, it still deserves to at least look pretty as I denounce it as an impostor.

The aroma here was mostly cherry candy. Cherry candy that is bereft of anything resembling a cherry, that is. It reminded me of cherry Twizzlers but less sweet. I also caught just a hint of grain in the smell too.

I must admit to not being surprised that this stuff tasted like a combination of cherry candy and cherry cough syrup. It was fairly sweet but not cloyingly so.

The more medicinal cherry flavor persisted on the finish. There were a few specks of scattered Schaumhaftvermoegen.

If this brew didn't taste like cough syrup, it wouldn't be half bad. It was light and fizzy so it's not without any merit.

According to Robin Shepard of Isthmus, Forgotten Fire is going to be tweaking their recipes in the near future. If and when I receive confirmation of this I will try their brews again. Until then I'm off of Forgotten Fire because the Cherry Radler I drank was just bad. Remember the Sacred Radler Credo: Mix the beer with the soda. How would Buffalo Bill put it? It puts the soda into the beer.

Junk food pairing: Pair Cherry Radler with Jays Hot Stuff potato chips. The faux stone fruit goes well with the earthy, paprika flavor of the chips.

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23 June, 2016

Orange is the New @!$#: Orange Radler by Sprecher Brewing Co.



Glendale's (Milwaukee) Sprecher Brewery is one of the founding fathers of Wisconsin's microbrew scene having been established in 1985. Chris Welch of Trixie's Liquor here in Madison noted last month that the venerable brewery derived 70% of its sales from soda. I don't know where he got that number from but I've heard for some time that Sprecher sells more soda than beer.

This is a real shame considering that Sprecher makes some mighty tasty brews. There are the stalwart Amber (one of my all-time favorites) and Black Bavarian (another classic) plus their seasonals are great too including the current one, Summer Pils.

But for better or for worse – OK, for the worse, in my opinion – Sprecher has seemingly put more effort lately into malternatives than into beer. I am referring to their series of "Hard Craft Soda(s)" which began with root beer – what else? - and has now expanded to six flavors including Hard Apple Pie. And more recently Sprecher has released a line of radlers. It certainly fits the brewery's German image and the radler would seem to be the perfect marriage of libations for a brewery that excels at lagers as well as sodas.

And so I recently purchased some of Sprecher's Orange Radler with grapefruit, peach, and mango rounding out the host of flavors on offer.

Orange Radler poured a lovely light gold hue and was extremely cloudy. The haze was no doubt from the wheat. Yes, Sprecher's radlers are wheat ales with "natural flavoring". Well, the orange one was, anyway. It had a very soda-like head in that it wasn't very foamy and it disappeared quite quickly. There was a fairly large number of bubbles inside heading on up.

As I was diligently examining my glass and the liquid therein visually, I could not miss the brew's aroma. It must have been what John Glenn smelled while orbiting the Earth in a Mercury capsule and needing to quench his thirst – Tang. Nothing says craft thirst quenching goodness like 1950s convenience food.

I was not looking forward to drinking this stuff but I had committed myself to a run of radler reviews so I had to. And actually it could have been worse. Orange Radler was light on the tongue and had a nice fizziness. At first there was the Tang drink mix flavor but it was followed up by a more natural orange juice taste. There was also a bit of tartness that, along with the carbonation and the cold serving temperature, took the edge off the sweetness which was not cloying to begin with. Once the natural flavoring had had its say, it was the beer's turn. A relatively prominent grassy/spicy hop flavor took me by surprise. I mean, any recognizable hop flavor amidst a sea of orange flavoring and juice would stick out like a sore thumb. Lastly there was a little bit of grain to be had as well.

For the finish a mild hop bitterness mingled with the mix of orange for a drier finish than one had any right to expect.

It both saddens and flummoxes me that a brewery which makes such great lagers and great sodas would play against their strengths and come up with this. A grand disappointment. There are some good things here, however, such as the tingly carbonation, the way the beer slyly sneaks into the picture just as the orange flavors think they've got the place to themselves, and that it's not overly sweet. But I should not be tasting instant drink mix here! Sprecher brews a fine orange cream soda already; why do I not taste the orange half of that drink here? Or even better, an orange soda that utilizes juice and tastes more natural. Surely they can brew a fine helles and mix it with their fine soda. Instead they add natural flavoring to a nondescript wheat ale for a brew that comes to 4.5% A.B.V. when it should be much lower, to my mind.

Junk food pairing: When consuming Sprecher Orange Radler, get a bag of Fritos Scoops and fill them with generous amounts of Dean's Sriracha dip.

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21 June, 2016

By the Way, This One's Pink: Paletas Guayaba by 5 Rabbit Cervecería



I am going to continue the aestival brew theme and even stick around my hometown of Chicago for today's review. Yesterday I started things off with Goose Island's Calm Radler and am going to continue today with 5 Rabbit's Paletas Guayaba. "Paletas", the bottle helpfully informed me, are named after the Spanish word for "popsicle".

This is 5 Rabbit putting their characteristic Latin American spin on the radler/shandy epidemic and in this case we have a guava flavored brew. I was pleased to see that it comes in at 3.5%, a wonderfully summery sessionable strength.

Paletas Guayaba is a glorious shocking pastel pink color. It is a wheat cerveza and so I was not surprised that it was quite turbid. I did my level best to pour the Paletas so as to produce a nice head and I was generously rewarded for my effort with a glass adorned with 1"+ of pure cloud white foam. And it lasted as long as the Duracell bunny. The combination of the pink cerveza and white head makes it the Sonny Crockett of brews. (Jan Hammer music is optional.) The brew was so cloudy that I couldn't see inside it so it may have a modicum of effervescence or it might not have had much to speak of.

The aroma smelled of tropical fruit, quite unsurprisingly, but it was not very strong. There was also a really nice fruity tartness, which I appreciated as I had been hoping for something less sweet than Calm. Surprisingly, I caught a little sour funk. No, "brett" was not plastered across the label nor was the scent particularly potent. But it was pleasant and added another layer to the perfumatory profile.

I had to drink my way through the head to get to the cerveza and the foam turned out to be luscious and creamy. The cerveza itself was no slouch in the mouthfeel category either and was quite smooth with the silkiness cut a little bit by a fair touch of carbonic bite. Would you believe me if I told you that guava was the order of the day on the flavor? It was moderately sweet but there was also an equal dose of tartness too.

On the finish the guava sweetness faded to a lingering tartness which brought the proceedings to a fairly dry close. Lacing abounded with big streaks and patches lining my glass.

I am a big fan of 5 Rabbit Cervecería and their use of coffee, chilies, spices, and, yes, tropical fruits. And they deliver here. Paletas Guayaba is light-bodied making it perfect for the dog days of summer. It also has a great blend of sweet fruitiness and tangy tartness along with a heaping dash of carbonation to make it even lighter and fizzy to boot. A perfect summer refresher.

Junk food pairing: Paletas Guayaba goes very well with Kettle Chips Avocado Oil Lime Ranch potato chips. The lime adds a nice tang while the ranch flavoring and fat complement the cerveza's smooth body.

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20 June, 2016

One From the Vine: Calm Radler by Goose Island Beer Company



Now that the temperatures outside have begun to resemble Hades, I tend to look for lighter brews and so often indulge in radlers (and shandies too). The radler is, to my mind, a 50/50isih mix of a light lager and citrus-flavored soda. The legend has it that one Franz Xaver Kugler, a Bavarian innkeeper was beset upon by a horde of bicyclists one June day in 1922 and he began to cut his bier with lemon soda to quench the thirsts of the sweaty, unwashed masses. The German Beer Institute says of the incident, "...some 13,000 cyclists descended upon the Kugleralm and demanded beer. They almost depleted Franz Xaver's stock of brew."

If 13,000 thirsty cyclists couldn't drink Herr Kugler out of bier – even cutting it with soda – just how much bier did this guy have on hand? We're talking the population of Stoughton. He must have had a billion hectoliters. This guy could literally have supplied an army with bier.

Ever since Leinenkugel hit the jackpot with Summer Shandy, many microbrewers have jumped on the bandwagon. I recall asking bartenders at the High Noon and Glass Nickel to mix me a radler on hot summer days 4-5 years ago and was met with a blank look each time. My guess is that things are different today and that the radler is not quite the unknown quantity that it was at that time.

The problem is that American brewers tend to add some flavoring to a light beer whether it be a helles lager or a wheat ale and call it a shandy or radler. (To me, a shandy is beer with ginger beer.) But you mix a shandy/radler, you don't brew it – like a beer cocktail. If your shandy/radler is 4%+ A.B.V. and you have "natural flavor", you're doing it wrong.

The gold standard for radlers to my taste is Stiegl's Grapefruit Radler. It is light, fizzy, and has a great balance of grainy lager goodness and tart-sweet grapefruit soda. And it's 2% A.B.V.

Which brings me to Goose Island's Calm Radler. Calm Radler is the second beer in Goose Island's Fulton & Wood series of limited edition brews this year. (To be bottled?) The first was the excellent Rasselbock. Now, it comes in at a very radler-like 3.0% A.B.V. but it is described as a wheat ale with "natural flavors" added. In this case there is cucumber, mint, and lime. Quite a variation on the traditional radler.

Calm poured a slightly hazy light yellow. I suppose the haze comes from the wheat. Sadly my glass was again afflicted with dishwasheritis or some such thing because bubbles again clung to the side of my glass. The pisser is that I washed it by hand in an apparently vain attempt to avoid this. Curses! Foiled!

I got a medium-sized head that was pure white and faded quickly. In addition to the accursed bubbles on the side of my glass, there were quite a few further in making their way up.

After having had a cucumber Kölsch from Flat12 Bierwerks in Indy a few years back at the Great Taste, I became of fan of cucumber in beer. Here the aroma was of cucumber, mint, and lime and in that order of strength. It certainly smelled refreshing.

As on the nose, so in the taste. Calm has a big cucumber taste while the mint was no slouch either. And the lime trailed in a rather distant third. It was nice'n'fizzy with a soda-like level of carbonation. But it was also endowed with a lot of sweetness – to the point of being cloying. There was so much sugar here that what must have been a very light beer ended up with a medium body.

Calm finished with the sweetness deciding not to go anywhere and instead keep a slowly fading mix of cucumber and mint company. There was no Schaumhaftvermoegen.

The bottle said that there were "hints" of cucumber, mint, and lime. While the lime have been available in hints, the cucumber and mint most certainly were not. They were not accents - they were up front and in your face. I am not a huge fan of mint, but it did complement the cucumber well. It also helps that all of these flavors tasted fairly fresh and real as opposed to some kind of extract. But there is just too much sweetness here. Drink this stuff very cold to cut down on the syrupy taste.

Junk food pairing: Pair Calm Radler with some junk food from the Orient like an Oriental/Asian snack mix. The puffed rice bits will keep your mouth from being mired down in heavy textures while the flecks of seaweed go well with the mint. Another option is wasabi/soy sauce almonds. The wasabi is sharp enough to cut through the sugar while the soy adds a hearty dose of umami.

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15 June, 2016

Smokin' in the Barroom: Kindled Spirits by Vintage Brewing Company



The helles is one of my favorite bier styles and also one that has largely been forgotten in today's microbrew milieu. It is neither hop-forward nor extreme. Instead it relies on subtlety of flavor – a gentle maltiness accented by hops. Being a lager, the malts take pride of place and brewing up a clean, understated bit of malty liquid gold must be no small feat.

I am also a fan of the rauch or smoked helles and the way they balance the bready malt flavors of the traditional helles and the smoky goodness. There are precious few of these around and I have been able to review only two - Luther from Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery and Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier from Schlenkerla in the motherland of the rauchbier, Bamberg, Germany.

Over the course of a few months earlier this year I politely asked Vintage Brewing's brewmaster Scott Manning to brew me a rauch helles a few times. (He, however, maintains that I "pestered" him for "several" months. We find ourselves at a Rashomon-like impasse.) And then one day last month I received a missive which began "Brewed yer damn Rauch Helles today."

Christmas came early this year.

I helpfully suggested the name "This Beer Kills IPAs" but this was rejected for reasons unknown. Later I was told that the bier had been christened "Kindled Spirits". The brewmaster himself most kindly brought over a couple of crowlers. These, however, did not last long. And so I made a trek out to Vintage to fill up a growler. My plastic vessel was rejected on the grounds that it wouldn't survive the heat of a plastic hoolie being shrink wrapped on the cap. Vintage kindly gave one of theirs free of charge. Now that's customer service.

I poured my Kindled Spirits into a mug and was surprised to see the sides of the glass covered in bubbles. This is a tell-tale sign that your glass is dirty. In my case it was my first time using my new dishwasher and so I'm going to blame it for improperly rinsing the mug. Still, Kindled Spirits' lovely light gold hue and brilliant clarity were obvious. Behind all those bubbles on the side of the glass I spied a goodly number of bubbles going upwards.

The bier's aroma was smoky. It is common to describe rauchbiers as smelling and tasting like bacon. While I don't feel that this is totally off the mark, I have to say that, the more I drink rauchbiers, the less they taste like bacon and the more they taste like, well, smoke. Now hold that thought. I think that the bacon/smoked meat comes across more in the smell – from a compound called syrnigol. Kindled Spirits had a fairly prominent smoke aroma endowed with some of that smoked meat scent.

Where does smoke flavor come from? In large measure from a compound called guaiacol, apparently. As I said above, the more I drink rauchbiers, the more they taste like smoke. My hypothesis is that the bacony aroma and reading/hearing the piety that rauchbiers are like bacon have made people predisposed to tasting bacon in them. When people eat smoked chicken or turkey they taste fowl, not bacon; and when people eat smoked beef brisket, they taste smoke and beef; when they eat smoked cheese, they taste smoked cheese, not bacon. Because there's some smoked meat in the aroma, I'd expect the taste to have some of it but I think the whole bacon taste is exaggerated.

Kindled Spirits has a really nice smoky flavor that isn't particularly bacony and neither is it very strong – at least compared to a Schlenkerla Märzen or Ur-Bock. Scott used beech-smoked malt imported from Heidelberg. You can't miss the smoke flavor but it strikes a nice balance with the unsmoked varieties here. There's North American pilsner malt und Vienna malt from Bamberg and the bier has a wonderful bready flavor underscored by a little doughy sweetness. There's even a touch of fruitiness here – stone fruit, that is. Yes, this is a malt fest but there's also some grassy hop hovering just below the surface.

A wisp of smoke remains on the finish as that grassy taste, courtesy of Tettnang hops, takes on a little spiciness, also courtesy of the Tettnang, leading to a mild dryness on the end. There wasn't much Schaumhaftvermoegen to be had aside from a few spots.

While I am biased to be sure, I love Kindled Spirits. It has a medium-light body with a touch of carbonation which lends itself well to the warmer weather we are now experiencing. Being a helles, the malts are up front with the gentle smoke and grainy flavors living together in malted harmony. (Side by side in my gla-ass, vom fass, why don't we?) There's nothing extreme here – just a nice, easy going dose of smoky nectar of the gods. If you are not a rauchbier fan, give this bier a shot. Try to taste the smoke instead of simply tasting bacon as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Junk food pairing: Sadly, Cheez Its Smoked Cheddar and Monterey Jack crackers are now a thing of the past. Luckily smoked gouda potato chips are a trend, however minor and Cape Cod's are quite tasty. But the trend appears to be ephemeral. If you cannot find some of these limited edition chips, grab some Chipotle Cheddar Pretzel Crisps instead. And don't be afraid to dip them in bacon & horseradish dip.

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06 June, 2016

The Two Gentlemen Return to Verona: Hefeweizen by Wisconsin Brewing Company



I once read an interview with Wisconsin Brewing Company's brewmaster Kirby Nelson in which he described his beers as not being about extreme flavors or chasing trends but rather he wanted them to be the perfect accompaniment to the pursuit of happiness. Sitting around with friends and family, enjoying their company, laughing, and sipping a cold one. A cold one at the time of the interview was a Capital brew and Nelson has since taken to brewing extreme beers at his current gig but WBC retains the laid-back Gemuchlikeit of the Capital biergarten.

And so it is always a pleasure for me to visit WBC and pass the time with good company while sitting on an Adirondack chair overlooking the pond with a cold one. The brewery's Forward! series, consisting of very small batches of trial brews, featured an ESB a couple of weeks ago which drew me and a friend out to Verona and a hefeweizen last week which did the same.

Kirby brewed a fine hefeweizen when he was with Capital – Kloster Weizen. I believe it went into hibernation around 2006. It reemerged in 2012 as Weizen and Kirby left for WBC shortly thereafter. To the best of my knowledge WBC has not brewed this style until now – certainly not bottled one – although there could have been one earlier in the Forward! series. Truth be known, I don't know that the current weissbier was even brewed by Kirby or if it was done by one of his minions.

The placard at the bar described the bier as having "notes of banana, clove and bubblegum". And yes, the sign lacked a serial comma. (Long live the serial comma!) Now, these flavors are all well and good but which one would be most prominent? The sign had it in the correct order as far as I am concerned. My preference is for banana accented by a little clove with a hint of bubblegum being optional.

Hefeweizen was a lovely light gold color that shimmered in the evening sun. Being unfiltered, the bier was quite cloudy. My glass (plastic?!) had a decent-sized white head that was very creamy and lasted a good while. There were plenty of bubbles inside the bier heading upwards.

I was slightly disappointed to smell a pretty big bubblegum bouquet. Banana followed while the wheat hovered in the background. Let me clarify my tastes and say that I don't dislike that bubblegum flavor in a hefeweizen but rather it is the least desirable of the flavors that the bier's yeast produces.

The taste followed suit with bubblegum at the fore trailed by the banana and a succinct bit of clove too. The bier had a light body with a nice mild wheat/grainy flavor beneath the trifecta of yeasty tastes. It was well-carbonated which made for a very refreshing bier out in the sun.

On the finish there was some lingering maltiness which was slightly sweet. This was joined by some grassy hop flavor and a modicum of bitterness – just enough for a slight dryness. There was also some lemony-citrus here which added a little zesty sharpness to complement the hop bitterness.

Hefeweizen is, if I may quote from the Supper Club can, not bad. Banana esters are my preference for the style. Not only for their taste but also because they add body. While it can certainly be overdone, I do like just enough to give my weissbier a little chewiness. Now, having given an account of my Platonic ideal of a weissbier, I will say that I enjoyed Hefeweizen. Its light body and fizziness definitely made it refreshing while sitting out in the sun. (It's 4.8% A.B.V.) Even if the bubblegum isn't my preferred flavor, it tasted fine and, besides, there was banana too. And the little bit of lemon on the finish was just perfect.

Junk food pairing: WBC's Hefeweizen goes well with lighter foods. I suggest guacamole flavored tortilla chips as well as Cape Cod Sweet Red Chili potato chips.

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05 June, 2016

Go to Westport young man and drink up the Grainne's: Grainne's Special Bitter by Parched Eagle Brewpub



Not long after having a flat, warm, and very tasty ESB out at Wisconsin Brewing Company, I noticed that the Parched Eagle Brewpub in Westport also had an ESB on tap – Grainne's Special Bitter. How fortuitous! A fine opportunity to expand my extremely limited ESB horizons.

The Dulcinea and I were rather hungry so we stopped at Athens Gyros next door for some victuals before visiting the brewpub. We both had chicken souvlaki and I discovered that proprietor Gus Kyriakopoulos and his minions do not skimp on onion. I think they have figured out how to overcome Van der Waals force and fit a whole onion in a single piece of pita bread and yet leave room for a generous portions of tomato and chicken.

Having filled our bellies, we moseyed next door. Proprietor Jim Goronson was there training a new minion. Soon enough I had a pint of Grainne's Special Bitter before me. I neglected to ask who Grainne is or was and it's a mystery to this day...

Whoever this person is or was, their eponymous ESB was a light copper hue and clear. My pour had a small white head which was gone in a flash. I should note that the beer was served from a regular tap and not a beer engine as was WBC's ESB. However, Grainne's was put on tap on a beer engine at The Malt House.

The aroma was quite inviting with caramel and estery banana scents wafting up my nostrils. Still, it was odd not to smell any hops. Does eating a lot of raw onion mess up one's ability to smell hops or some such thing?

Despite having a fondness for the dunkles und schwarzbier and thusly knowing full well that a beer's color doesn't necessarily correspond to its body, I think I took my first sip of Grainne's thinking it would have a fair bit of heft to it. I mean, I saw the big board and it listed the brew at 7%. But it turned out to be surprisingly nimble on the tongue with a medium-light body. Fruitiness came first with the banana from the aroma making a return engagement. There was also clove, which was strange. I later asked someone who knows much more about beer than I ever will and was told that this flavor was not to style.

This is not to say, however, that it tasted bad. The clove was not very strong and certainly didn't interfere with the other tastes here that are more "proper" for an ESB. For instance, there was some toffee as well as a bready flavor from the malt. While MIA from my nose, my tongue got to enjoy a prominent hoppy bitterness which tasted a lot like grass with some black pepper thrown in for good measure.

At the finish the malt flavors were off like a prom dress leaving a light fruity taste and the clove to duke it out with the hops. And the hops won hands down with their grass-pepper 1-2 punch accompanied by a healthy bitterness which made for a rather dry finale.

As I noted above, my pint of Grainne's was served from a regular tap so it was cold. It really benefited from warming up as this brought out the hops which had a grassy flavor that I really enjoyed. One thing about the ESB that appeals to me is that it does this malt balancing act where you have sweet toffee or caramel flavors as well as more savory bread-like ones. Grainne's did a nice job of this, to my taste. Clove be damned! This was a tasty beer.

Junk food pairing: Crisps! Pair Grainne's Special Bitter with a bag of Herr's Steak & Worcestershire potato chips.

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