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Are Craft Beer Events the New BaconFest?

4 Nov

There have been a flurry of articles lately surrounding the rocket rise of craft beers in the US which have some of us wondering if this is just yet another trend to witness and release a la all things bacon.

Some weekends ago, I received free tickets to a beer tasting here in Chicago. It was at a ballroom / concert venue and they managed to fill about 90% of the huge space with vendor tables. We were given about three hours to make our ways through “for 10 tastings” but no one ever checks those punch cards so we were pretty much at an open bar for three hours. I took my girl Maria with me, who is in my ladies’ craft beer group She’s Crafty. We beelined for a few familiars then wandered into the cider room where we had some truly tremendous offerings (my tasting notes are below). After that, we tried a few others before going upstairs to the local breweries’ tables. Part of the time was spent trying really cool, weird beers, and other parts were spent networking in hopes of finding the next location for one of our She’s Crafty meetings. Because of that, we found ourselves talking to those doing the pouring much more than making sure we hit every table to sample their wears. The best of intentions paving the way to hell and all, the more we talked, the more they gave us and the more we drank so before I knew it, the time was up and we were drunk. I did manage to make some great connections though and added a few spots to the “must do” event locations. That to me, is what tasting events are for: discover new, fun brews and make some connections and friends. Not everyone sees them for that though, sometimes folks just want to get drunk (I dare say, under the guise of a classier-sounding “beer tasting” than “openbarfuckyeah”).

There was a bar here in Chicago seven or eight years ago, and I’ve heard of others doing this since, that offered cheap or free baskets of bacon during “happy hour”*. I got way, way up on my highest horse about that and waved my fist in the air about how bacon isn’t your whore and if you truly love it, you won’t put it on the street corner and hand it out to every single person that has a yen for it. Treat it with respect, don’t give it away. By making it common – hell, even free – its intrinsic value is taken down to the floor. Suddenly we have bacon lip balm and bacon wrapping paper. In short: a trend.

Craft beer has been eeking its way towards that same descriptor for a while now, but in the last two years or so, Chicago at least, has simply exploded with new breweries and shows no signs of stopping. This is great, right? More yummy beers to explore? More people to get really into the scene and create more conversation? In theory, yes. In reality, we see a lot of Lyle Lanleys coming in, bringing their IPAs, ales, and over-the-top flavors with them. Suddenly it’s put on the street corner and next thing you know, craft beer tastings with 150 vendors that include the likes of Blue Moon and the “artisanal” division of MillerCoors lines up next to the guy who brews with his buddy in the basement that managed to get a four-bar distribution deal set up. For the record: Blue Moon and MillerCoors better bring something really cool and interesting to the party in order to compete with that guy. True beer folks can see right through those shenanigans pretty quickly. For instance, did you know that MillerCoors is behind Redd’s Apple Ale? I see that stuff everywhere and I’ll admit, it’s actually pretty tasty, as is their Belgian offering, St. Stefanis. What? You didn’t know those were made by a beer company giant because nowhere on the label does it tell you so? Interesting…

Last week, I received a Facebook invite to join yet another beer event. It has “Chicago” in the title however, it occurs in a suburb 20 miles away with no direct way to get to the venue via public transit. Chicago is a city of  almost three million people, with over a quarter of whom don’t own vehicles. While our public transit system is pretty good (minus the crucial ability to traverse north to south without going all the way to the far east in order to do it), it does not extend to that particular area. In this case, the promoters used the city’s name for allure but haven’t thought much beyond that. In my kinda humble opinion, that is a good metaphor for what happens when something that takes such time, effort, and art, becomes fodder for “foodies”. I suspect a Food Network show about a brewery isn’t too far behind.

I love the opportunity to try new things, particularly when its beers that are hard to find in an area or within a few bars’ radius. I am all for that kind of blitz learning. In fact, tomorrow my sweetheart and I are going to take advantage of a free day and head over to Small Bar. This particular establishment is closing soon, another victim of the kind of gentrification that happens when a formerly neighborhood-cool area succumbs to the oontz oontz douchebag crowd and jeopardizes the vibe so many came to love. They were over it, and rather than fight for a stronghold on a block that is now more interested in Irish car bombs and Jaeger shots, they’re packing up with their dignity in tact. This is great news for the scavengers, in a lot of ways. My man doesn’t know a lot about beer and wants to, and bars like Small Bar are perfect for daytime sit-and-sip sessions. Their bartenders are about turning people on and getting them excited, not just drunk. So we’ll do a little tour, sip some interesting items, and I’ll take some more notes. I hate that we’re losing another one to a street that’s changing for the worse, but I’d rather see them go out on top with a Local Option Morning Wood than a $15 Bud Light pitcher special. With that, I will leave you with some tasting notes and suggestions for your next trip to the local booze house. But before you do that, patronize your local fancy beer bar. They may not be around for long.

BeerHoptacular 2014 tasting notes (less descriptors as beer flowed on, but I had the wherewithal to write it down so it counts):beer notes

Cider:
Seattle Cider – incredibly tasty and dry, maybe my favorite or def. top 3 ever. 16 oz. cans
* Dry Cider, 0 brix
* Pumpkin Spice, 2 brix
DeMunck’s – Southern Tier makes a cider! Super tasty, crisp, dry.
Virtue -Lapinette has serious funk. Gorgeous, soft cheese funk. Brettanomyces! Yiss!

Beer:
Dry Hop – More Stories than JD Got Salinger. 6% ABV, garam masala what!
Spiteful – Abbey single, beer bread caraway. Freedom Fries – nice stout
Begyle – pretty much everything they do rules (female brewer! new brew facility soon!)
Marz – What The Pho porter, 6.5%. They ONLY beer we had twice. Freaking amazing, pho spices! Weird, man!
Blue Moon (yeah, I know) – Horchata wheat. Freaking horchata and beer. Better than I wanted it to be. Test market.
Ale Syndicate – local darlings, everything they do is great and their branding is awesome

And then we ate all the cheese leftover on the Whole Foods table, made friends with some dude pouring the last of his dark beer, grabbed a t-shirt off a bench, ran into some friends and went across the street for another one. Frankly, it ended on a light note considering how often and easy it is to just keep going and going. The afternoon tasting is always going to be way less of a shit show than night, since the night time ones are the ones no one has anything to live for and the brewers are going neck and neck with the jamokes. It’s ridiculous fun if you get the right mix of folks involved.

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Who Put the Punk in Pumpkin?

1 Nov

It’s fall and you know what that means: knee socks, impending snow, flannel sheets, slippery fallen leaves, picturesque wooded drives, the slide towards the holiday season and pumpkin everything. This has, in recent years, included beer. Lots and lots of beer. Seemingly, if you’re a brewery which kicks out more than five types annually then one of those must include something with a preponderance of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. And I guess pumpkin. Kinda.

As my love of beer has grown and my tastebuds have matured, I’ve noticed a glaring truth amongst the pumpkin beer genre which seems to go unspoken more often than not: this stuff is way more carrot cake than pumpkin, and way more carrot cake and pumpkin than beer. The spicier and more cake-flavored, the more popular. If I order a gingerbread latte from a particular popular coffee chain and love it, I’d argue that it’s not the taste of the espresso I love. It’s clearly the gingerbread flavoring (or at best the combination of the two even if the proportion is 70%/30% in favor of syrup).

Thus, our first taste subject:

Southern Tier Pumking (8.5% ABV, $2.30 single bottle price). Arguably, the king (if you will) of pumpkin beers. It’s not everywhere but where it is, it sells out and quickly. Bars can get away with selling it anywhere from an imperial pint for $4, to a 10oz. goblet for $10. Astonishingly the people will pay it and I know this because last Saturday night while on a Halloween bar crawl, I was one of those. That $4 pint by the way, is what I normally pay when I order it (which is not often). If I order beer, I want beer. I want hops, malt, yeast, fizz, cold. Not cake. The residual flavor is spice, the mouthfeel is thicker than a pilsner but not nearly a Belgian or even a red. The flavor is the dominant feature here, and for my money there are far more interesting beers on the shelf or in the tap. It’s fine for a 10oz pour, ideal even, but I could never have two in a row. Pumking is, to be blunt, the Sbucks Pumpkin Latte of beers: a creature unto itself not closely resembling its source beverage.

And then we have Dogfish Head’s offering: Punkin Ale (7% ABV, $2.59 single bottle price). Now this is a weird beer. For  everything I just said: I want a pumpkin beer to taste like beer with just a wee bit of spice, I kind of now take back. This is a very beery pumpkinish beer. The slightest hint of spices and flavorings are at first sip and they remain on the tongue for a while after, but the middle is just a kind of flavorless ale – though to be fair the bottle’s verbiage toes the line of pumpkin and brown ales. The flavor improves as the temperature rises, or at least the individual flavors become a bit more pronounced anyway. It has a nice sparkle and good body but I wouldn’t put it on my top three. The search continues…

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