#mycraftbeerepiphany Newcastle Brown Ale

Some might not consider Newcastle Brown Ale to be craft beer, but it’s what did it for me. On my 21st birthday, my mom went to Colorado Springs to celebrate since I was in the Army and couldn’t make it home. I chose to go out to Red Hot & Blue for dinner, and that particular place was a brewpub. I ordered a beer as I explored my newfound legality, but whatever I ordered was simply too much for my palate. Heavy, dark, and hoppy is all I remember. A convert that night I was not.

Years later I found myself in a hole-in-the-wall pub in another area in Colorado Springs with a friend who was brought up in England.  He ordered me a Newcastle Brown Ale (Nukey) and I think I drank it from the bottle.  It wasn’t overbearing, and it didn’t smell like vomit.  It was served at a temperature somewhere in the 60s Fahrenheit, and it was so surprising that it wasn’t rancid.  I was hooked.

I still drink industrial beer every once in a while (on a hot day), but less and less often every year.  I just learned the other day that hop extract is in use more often now at the big breweries than real hops.  A beer made with hop extract, corn, and rice isn’t a beer at all, so I really should find a craft alternative to AB-InBev and MillerCoors, like the no-adjunct Bomb Lager (Helles) from Bomb Beer Company.

Ben on Beer Show #1

Here’s a reference to most of the stuff I talked about in The Ben on Beer Show number 1: Arrogant Bastard Ale can be found at arrogantbastard.com – ego beware. Reviews and ratings can be found at Beer Advocate. You can read my written overview of the brewing process at this blog post.

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New Belgium Blue Paddle

Randy Mosher, in his book Tasting Beer, says to have patience when pouring to get good foam. His method described in the text usually goes past anyone’s level of patience while waiting for a beer (depending heavily upon the quality of the beer and the head retention). Given that, I present you with an astonishingly boring video of my pouring New Belgium’s Blue Paddle, a Pilsener I have evidently been unaware of until I found it in a sampler. I poured it according to Mr. Mosher’s directions in the book. No one typically wants to wait this long for a beer at home:

Blue Paddle is a decent Pilsener, but I’m comparing it to my memory of Pilsner Urquell and the likes of Stella Artois (a Belgian Pale Lager). There’s a bitterness that I’m looking for in this one but only finding smoothness and the slightest citrus note. It could be that my palate is wrecked tonight, making this little chat of ours moot. It is very drinkable though – 4.8% ABV and 33 IBU with that hint of citrus, perhaps lent by the Saaz, Liberty, and Target hops. From the bottle:

Blue Paddle Pilsener Lager crafted with malt-only brewing and noble hops, explores the boundaries where American Lagers seldom journey. Reflective of Europe’s finest Pilseners, BLUE PADDLE delivers a refreshing bitterness, vibrant finish, and a subtle but intricate depth of flavor.

If that’s all really there, my palate is certainly not detecting it tonight. It has a light sort of taste that now makes more sense after I’ve let it warm up a bit. Even then it still doesn’t have that smell of vomit that other beers of the same color possess. It’s clean all-around and, served cold, goes down the gullet with much haste.

Pick some up when you get the chance and try it – even if you have to buy the whole sampler. New Belgium is proud of what they make and rightly so; top quality beer is all I have ever had from Fort Collins (and soon Asheville, NC!).

Cheers!

New Belgium Dig

I fished around the house for something to drink tonight while I was writing and reading, but I didn’t want an Imperial ale or anything thick. I was also limited by what I currently had in the tiny beer fridge (the fridge is tiny, not the beer) so there wasn’t much to choose from. I’ve slowly been dipping in to the beers I have yet to review because I simply can’t resist. So far I have tried to stay away from a beer until I have the opportunity to review it as I taste it for the first time. I’ve been taking notes and pictures to post reviews later of beers I don’t take the time to write about yet. Dig is different because it drove me to write this tonight. I simply clicked “New Post” and started typing as I sipped. Here it is, disorganized and sincere, complete with a picture from my iPhone at the kitchen table:

Hoppy on the nose, awesome head retention. First sip: I am genuinely smiling. I’m a huge Ranger fan, but I can’t drink it every day for the sake of my palate. This has that clean hoppiness (hoppyness?) that I love about the Ranger IPA, but such a subtle finish that makes it damn refreshing (and palatable every day). If I swirl a bit I can taste a strong floral hop flavor, and not much malt. Something is toasted. Dig is related to Fat Tire in the mash tun.

Keep in mind that I don’t read any reviews or much description about a beer before I review it.

Such a perfect pale ale! At my table tonight I wish I had an overly warm spring day to complement this experience. It is such a joy to drink this beer. I think it would be a great idea to review this again on-camera. I can talk about this for twenty minutes. And no, New Belgium has not offered me anything for this glowing review. Not that I’d refuse a free glass, hat, shirt, or a parking space at the Asheville facility.

Clear skies, bright sun, light breeze. The time of year where the sun is warm but the air is still cool. The part of spring that’s perfect because the gnats have yet to make their appearance. Sitting on the deck out back, watching the kids play in the sprinklers. Hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. Friends and neighbors over, and all is well. This is the beer for that day. And that evening. At 5.6 ABV Dig is appropriate for multiple servings at social occasions.

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Dig is a seasonal spring ale, and soon it will be gone. Somersault is out by now, which tells me that I should have tried Dig before today. I was reluctant to get a 12-pack and waited until I found it in a sampler with Fat Tire, Ranger, and 1554. Let me tell you – it’s worth the 12-pack.

I don’t even know what to close with. It’s bedtime and I want another one. I want spring to stay. I want everything to remain bright and new, and everyone joyful and just out of the winter’s dim mood. I can dig that.

 

Beer Wars

I know I’m late to the game, but I just recently had the opportunity to watch Beer Wars, a documentary on how craft brewing is having such a hard time against the big three. One thing I learned watching the film was that I should do a blind taste test myself to determine the difference among Coors, Budweiser, and Miller. The folks in the documentary were 100% confused about what they were drinking, and I figure I need to have that little experience on my belt to explain to the public how shitty the corn/rice beer is.

Craft brewers produce something that is admittedly for a select market, but that doesn’t mean everyone else should go and piss off. We’re connoisseurs, not snobs. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find a variety of beers where I live. When I go to a package store, I find it annoying that I don’t see much that I haven’t already had. My location severely limits my selection of craft beer and that bothers me most of the time.

The fact that mainstream media has a stronghold in the Southeast doesn’t help my case at all. Quite a few people believe what they hear other people say in front of them in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, and the major cable news stations are gospel. So when it comes to deciding on beer, that 64-calorie bullshit seems cool on the commercial…

If anyone had the chance and the desire to learn about the history of beer, they would certainly and quickly find out that until the 1800’s in the United States, beer wasn’t so light on color and taste. It was dark at times, murky, nutritious, and necessary for survival. The push to sell more and beat the competition led to the unfortunate majority of beer we have on the market today.

Still, the United States has the most diverse beer market in the world. With a reported 1,938 craft breweries in this country operating in 2011 (including brewpubs), we have a nearly endless selection across this land. I share my favorites with my readers all the time, and I get new favorites every month. I just discovered the Clown Shoes series of beers by Mercury Brewing Company, and the Muffin Top – a “Belgian Style Tripel India Pale Ale” – is exactly what it says. To me, anyway.

Back to my point, which is really just a call-t0-action: Learn about beer. The history, how it’s made, and the immeasurable variety of it that we have to choose from. Vote with your dollar. Craft beer is good for the economy, and I’m not going to elaborate on that point. To know your beer is to enjoy it. If you have any questions or need some pointers on where to begin your craft beer journey, just ask me.

Oh, and one last thing (I’m going to make this a point at the end of every podcast): enjoy your craft beer responsibly.

Cheers!

Review: New Belgium Shift

I tweeted the other day about comparing canned to bottled beer, assuming that I would be able to get the Shift Pale Lager from New Belgium in both packages.

According to this article, though, Shift is only packaged in a 16-oz can. New Belgium is putting Fat Tire and Ranger IPA in cans (12 and 16 oz) as well as the 12oz bottle, so I’ll definitely get to do a blind bottle-to-can comparison.

In the mean time, here are my thoughts on Shift:

The initial nose-in-glass gives a likening of Ranger IPA – the finishing hops are very present to begin with (Shift and Ranger IPA have Cascade hops in common). Head retention is awesome – like that ocean fizz that hangs around for days. That could be the last bit of conditioning in the can showing off, though. Great stuff.

This brew is somehow especially appropriate for the end of a long day. It’s not too filling or overpowering in mouthfeel, yet at 5.0% ABV it is difficult to say it’s not a perfect beer for a Tuesday sunset. And one 16-oz can is enough, especially if it’s before dinner. It has a palate friendly bitterness at 29 IBU, so it won’t ruin supper – you could even start eating before you finish it. I did.

There are so many pale brews out there that one could partake in the early evening – it’s difficult to say which one I’d pick over the other. Being me, I’d choose the one I’d never had before. If the choices were smaller, Shift would definitely be at the top of my considerations.

Again – I don’t quantify my beers, so you’re not going to get a number score. New Belgium continues to impress me with their products and their love of the craft and the culture. They’re serious about what they do and it shows. I recommend Shift to anyone who likes a crisp, cold, palatable beer after work. It’s way more rewarding than anything from the big three.

Cheers!

Bud Light Platinum Pseudo-Review

I don’t think I’m going to be able to review this one. It’s simply a matter of principle – Bud Light Platinum is not craft beer. It comes in a blue bottle – wait – make that cobalt blue (wha..?) and tastes like Bud Light and claims to have “top shelf taste”. It’s 6% ABV.

For some reason I had been led to believe that this newly-designed box had something to offer the connoisseur. I was wrong. You see, I only heard it from a few eaves-droppings and passings-by, and assumed it was another shot by Anheuser-Busch to reel in the actual beer lover (remember American Ale?). Turns out, I don’t have cable and didn’t see the commercial.

I walked into the gas station today (where else would I find it?) and looked for a single bottle or can to grab for a quick sample. I ended up with a 6.99 six-pack (more than Bomb Beer’s Helles) and thoughts of regret for wasting $7. My kid got Doritos, and I am now of the opinion that the two-year-old chose a bit wiser than his father.

It is, however, a bit warmer down the throat than normal. I mean, after all, they got it to 6.0% ABV, and still kept it from getting any darker than, well, Bud Light.

I expected to see more carbonation in the glass, but it wasn’t very active. It is certainly a clear lager, but why do they have to triple-filter it? Maybe someone who has seen the commercial can tell me what’s so special about it; I only imagine that they took out all the goodness to make it clear, crisp, and marketable. I’m trying to finish it off to reduce embarrassment when someone comes over. Maybe I won’t have a headache tomorrow.

I’ll take the dusty bottle from down in the cellar over “top shelf taste” any day of the week.

A Brief Overview of the Beer Brewing Process

I have heard some people suggest that home brewing is hard. Whenever I’ve heard that point given it’s usually stated by someone who has never tried it. The more I read about brewing the more complicated it seems, but when I take a step back and look at the overall process it’s really very simple. Sure, there are a whole bunch of variables and ways to change or improve your beer, but the guy brewing his first batch shouldn’t be worrying about when to add gypsum or attenuation levels.

I’m about to attempt to give you a brief overview of the entire brewing process so you might can get a handle on how easy it is. I want to remove any barrier you may have with regard to the complexity and sheer work involved. While I can’t make your spouse agree with what you’re doing or make your kitchen any bigger, at least I can try to make you say, “It’s really not that complicated…” I have read books and numerous articles on the myriad aspects of home brewing, and sometimes the whole idea just seems daunting because there’s so much to it.

Home brewing beer is only as complicated as you can make it. There are some very basic steps that if followed will create great tasting beer without any worry. In the words of some anonymous person, “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” Whatever you do, just keep it cool and don’t worry about it. It’s science, but it’s not exact.

To be honest, I couldn’t figure out how to write a decent summary that would be a good length for a post. I could either put it in a nutshell-type paragraph, or I could bother you to read a short story. The nutshell version won’t give you enough information, and the short story would be too long for you to sit at your kitchen table this morning to read it. Stay with me – I’ll try my best.

Beer is made by yeast turning sugars into alcohol. That could also be said for wine, so I’ll revise: Beer is made by yeast transforming the sugars derived from malted barley into alcohol. I believe for it to be classified as beer the sugars must come from barley at a minimum. There are other things that will create fermentable sugars, but we’ll stick to malted barley for now. The sugars are extracted from the grain through a process called mashing. A process called lautering has the brewer draining those extracted sugars and placing the concoction (called wort) into the boiler.

The boiler is where the magic happens. During a typical 60-minute boil, hops are added at specific times to counter the sweet taste of the wort. Sometimes the recipe will call for finishing hops, which are simply hops added at the last 10 or 5 minutes of the boil. The wort is cooled down as quickly as possible (pretty important) from a boil to 70 degrees or so and then transferred to the fermenter. This is the final step of what I lovingly refer to as “brew day” (with the exception of cleaning up), and also an important part: the yeast is added.

For those of you who don’t know, yeast is a living organism. It’s really easy to manage but it requires some attention. Yeast should be activated if it has previously been packed for shipping – sometimes brewer’s yeast comes in a vacuum-packed envelope, and the instructions say to thump the bag several times before opening. I don’t agree with that practice, but go ahead – relax, have a homebrew…

Yeast is added to the cooled wort in a little activity called pitching. After the yeast is in there and the brewer is happy with it, the lid goes on the fermenter and science and biology take over. As long as the fermenter is kept at a consistent temperature, all should be well. Room temperature (typically below 75?) will get you decent ale. The importance is stressed on the consistency of the temperature, even if it’s a bit high. In about two weeks, the yeast will transform the wort into beer. After that, the beer is bottled or kegged and carbonated in either forced or natural processes.

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Bomb Lager Review

Today at the package store I discovered a stack of boxed six-packs that simply said “Bomb Lager,” and under the logo was CRAFT BEER. I’m only guessing that’s what caught my eye. The six-pack of 12-oz cans was $5.99 which, for craft beer, is rare. The guy at the checkout counter asked if I’d had it before, and I replied in the negative. “It’s not much different from Budweiser,” he said. Since there was no description at all on the box, I was purchasing on faith that this was actually craft beer and not some spinoff LLC from one of the oversized breweries. It’s not.

Bomb Beer Company is located in Manhattan and they contract with breweries across the country for production (Terrapin Brewery in Athens, GA started off the same way). Their Website is well done and they seem to be fairly responsive on Twitter, though the brewery is not well-known. They began distributing in Georgia in late February this year.

Their website says it’s a “traditional Bavarian Helles…” and that’s what we expect. I popped the first can this evening to find a well-carbonated, light-in-color Munich original, only somewhat comparable to a Coors or Budweiser (the lagers, not the lights). For those of you who don’t know, Coors and Anheuser (and Yuengling, Schaefer, and the lot) came to the U.S. from Germany and the area. The Helles is also from Germany and was created to compete with Pilsner from Czechoslovakia. What I expected was a light, fresh, clear lager that was perfect for the warm spring afternoon. I was not disappointed.

The Helles style was invented by Spaten, and this is a great specimen – light on the nose. There is a slight bitterness up-front but the finish is dry and balanced. In my opinion, this is better and has more mouthfeel than the traditional mass-produced American lager. After that, though, there’s not much left to say. It’s great to see a beer with the same drinkability as their hugely-mass-produced counterparts from a small craft brewer in the Northeast. I know that consistency between batches is a difficult achievement, and a beer this light is quite fragile and susceptible to many alterations. Bomb has done a great job producing this. I’m having another as I write, and the finish draws me to another sip every time.

I don’t review with numbers; the whole independent review is too subjective to quantify it. I like this beer and the style is spot on. I wouldn’t change a thing. The fact that it’s canned says that they’re looking to ship very far from the Northeast United States, and they should – or at least contract with more distant breweries for a further reach. At the end of a warm spring or summer day, I’d much rather have this than the stuff sold in 30-packs. It’s an inexpensive lager that is still worthy of a glass, and I’ll leave it at that while I have another.

New Belgium possibly coming to Asheville NC

New Belgium Brewing Company has announced that they are looking for a location to place a second brewing facility on the East Coast. Rumor has it (so far) that the choices are now between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Asheville, North Carolina. At this time of writing I believe I have read another rumor that a site deemed a great possibility for a brewery is under contract in Asheville, but mum’s the word.

I’ve never been to Asheville, North Carolina or to Philadelphia. I have, however been to Fort Collins, Colorado, the birthplace of New Belgium Brewing. I’ve researched Asheville in the past as a potential place to live and I liked what I saw during my review. A small town in the mountainous region of North Carolina is much more like Fort Collins than Philadelphia is. Asheville has about 83,000 people and at least seven breweries show up on a Google Maps search. That tells me that in addition to being a college town, beer has a great presence and probably drives a lot of the culture there.

I like the state of North Carolina and their support for beer culture. Their laws seem to make it pretty easy to found a brewery and begin distributing. There are more breweries in Asheville than there are in the state of Georgia. My state could learn a thing or two from North Carolina. Anyway, New Belgium and I have a good history together since I discovered Fat Tire in Colorado. The relationship was even further solidified when, after I moved to Georgia, they began distributing here just a few years ago. That being said, any facility they build on the east side of the country should be as close to me as possible. Asheville is so much closer than Philly is – I may could even help build it for a day if they have some sort of community effort!

So there it is: no good reason for New Belgium to choose Asheville other than my own selfishness. Philadelphia just doesn’t fit for the company culture. I’d like to make it a point to visit the new place either way; it will just be easier to visit more often than if it were in Pennsylvania. Congrats to New Belgium, though – it’s exciting to think my favorite brewery is enjoying this much success!

I’ll be sure to update this post as I hear things, whether they’re confirmed or not. I’m on my way to NC next month and quite possibly could make it to the Asheville area. Until I hear something, though…

Cheers!

 

Update: New Belgium made an official announcement on April 5, 2012 regarding the new East coast facility, and it will be in Asheville! It’s seven hours from my house in Georgia and will be an awesome road trip in the coming years. Ground breaking is expected to be sometime in early 2013, with production beginning in 2015. This says a lot for Asheville’s economy and beer culture, and I would only be more excited about it if they were coming to my hometown. I’m glad New Belgium took my advice – I heard that Philly brushed them off.