Friday, November 21, 2014

November 21, 2014: This Week in Winter Beer

This week in winter beer was strong right out of the gate.

The season kicked off for me at the Highland Brewing Cold Mountain Release party. Cold Mountain is the seasonal offering from Highland Brewing right here in Asheville. The recipe starts with the same base but each year they change up the flavoring agents. And this year they've hit it out of the ball park. The release party spanned three days last week - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Matt and I hit the Friday event and enjoyed a regular pint of Cold Mountain and two of their flavor infusions: coconut and chocolate. From what we understand the brewery ran out of Cold Mountain on tap by mid-day Saturday. Some locals consider the hype to be overkill. Once the beer hits store shelves people go a little crazy to get their hands on it. But this year especially the hype is well-deserved. (I have a couple 22oz bottles in my fridge and I was able to get some on tap at King James Public House the instant they tapped their keg). If you have never tried Cold Mountain before I think this is the year.

Later this week I found myself at a local bar where two winter seasonals were on tap. Since "Winter Seasonal" isn't a specific style many breweries are just making any old beer and slapping a wintery name on them to sell more this time of year. That is how I feel about New Belgium's Accumulation White IPA. The kicker is that New Belgium has made a number of really good winter seasonals in the past that are no longer in production. Accumulation was available last year at least and maybe the year before so I was hoping they would have a new offering this year. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. I found it lacking in much flavor that would differentiate it from anything else. I knew I wasn't going to like it but in an effort to make this blog as content rich as possible I thought I should give it another try. It was slightly watery and lacked body. However, if you like IPAs you may enjoy this one.

That same night I also drank this year's batch of Sierra Nevada's Celebration. Now here is a winter IPA I can get behind. It was rich, well balance, and a gorgeous holiday red color. Sierra Nevada, who recently opened a facility near Asheville, is known for their IPAs so it makes a lot of sense that they would concentrate on this flavor profile for their holiday beer. Several of the people I was with ordered more than one pint of this beer which I believe speaks to its drinkability. If you do like IPAs I would advise drinking this rather than Accumulation.

But then, the most amazing thing happen. Just yesterday I found myself at the local spot called Asheville Brewing. It is a relatively small scale brewery that seems very focused on maintaining their local status. They put out really good beers but most of them can only be found on tap at the brewery itself (they have three locations in town). They can a few of their flagship beers but the specialty brews are draft only. We were at the movie theater in the back of the restaurant, known as the Brew n' View, for another event all together. Some friends (ZaPow Gallery) had been featured in a PBS series called Start Up and they were screening the episode. What I wasn't expecting to find when I got there was my current favorite winter seasonal. Seriously, I just wanted to drink all kinds of it. The best part - it's called Ninjabread Porter. It is based on their popular Ninja Porter, which has won several awards around the country, but there was added ginger, raisins and some other stuff the bartender-guy said that I don't remember. Seriously, they had me at Ninjabread! I definitely plan on getting more of this while it lasts. So seriously, leave me some! 

I believe that Ninjabread is the perfect antidote for the people who believe that Cold Mountain is over-hyped.

That's my winter beer list for this week. I'm going to try to update every Friday - though with the holiday next week it may not happen as planned. However, I am specifically going on a beer hunt this weekend to find some great seasonals to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. If you have any suggestions please feel free to make them in the comments - including where to find them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Winter Beers of 2014: Let's Make this Happen!

*tap tap tap*
Is this thing on?

Wow, it has been over a year since I did anything with this dusty old beer blog. It isn't that I haven't been drinking beer - in fact, I've been drinking plenty of beer. It is more that I get going on it and then something else shiny distracts me.

But since I did a series on Fall beers in 2013 I thought I would take some time this winter to talk about some yummy beers for the coldest season. Its already snowed a few times here in Asheville so I am ready! 

Highland's Cold Mountain (Winter Seasonal) from 2012
I'm going to try to update once a month and catalog the beers I like and the beers I don't and the reasons why. I hope it can help a few people make informed decisions about beers for the season.

Winter beer is a very broad category. For the purposes of this blog I am going to try to focus on beers brewed specifically for the winter or holiday season. I may also include some other darker beers from time to time like a good hearty stout or porter because that is what I crave this time of year.

If you wan to know more about seasonal beers and dark beers, check out my book How to Drink Craft Beer: A Beginner's Guide. It is meant to be a guide you can take with you as you explore new beer flavors and learn what you love. It would make a great holiday present for the beginner beer drinker in your life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sam Adams Fat Jack Pumpkin Ale and Oktoberfest

Sam Adams is one of the largest craft brewers in the country. Some might argue that definition but Sam Adams does in many way fit the profile of a craft beer maker rather than a large scale macrobrewery.

The best thing about Sam Adams is that their beer is pretty good, sometimes even great, and you can get it almost anywhere. While I tend to frequent establishments that specialize in small craft beer every once in a while I find myself at a bar where they have only Bud, Bud Light, and Sam Adams Lager. I go with the Sam Adams.

The brewery also produces a few great seasonal beers. Their Winter Lager is decadent and delicious, but I'll save that review for another time.

I want to focus on two of their Autumn seasonal beers today: the Pumpkin Ale and the Oktoberfest.

I enjoyed the Fat Jack Pumpkin ale over a dinner of chicken tikka masala while sitting outside on our mountain next to a camp fire. It didn't hurt that the setting was wonderful to begin with. For fun we split the beer by pouring it into our 4 ounce beer tasters. It was delicious. It had all the spices that I love along with a sweet pumpkin flavor which complimented each other well. It was very satisfying and the pumpkin, spices, and maltiness went extremely well with the spicy cream sauce of the tikka masala.

If you aren't sure whether or not you would like a pumpkin ale, this would be a pretty good one to try out. It is rich and decadent and should give you a good profile of a well made pumpkin beer.

Along with the Fat Jack Pumpkin ale, Sam Adams also produces an easy to find Octoberfest lager.

Lagers are the most common type of beers produced by the macrobrew companies. Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are all lagers, but most craft beer enthusiasts will agree that they lack any depth or real flavor. Most are made using adjust ingredients such as rice or corn. The Germans, who kind of perfected beer centuries ago, created a beer purity law which insisted beer be made with only four things: water, hops, malt, and yeast. I do like beer with added flavors - such as pumpkin spices - but I am not too keen on rice or corn in my beer. The reason I am going into this kind of detail is because I think Sam Adams Octobefest is a good "Introduction to Craft Beer" for someone who has otherwise only experienced offerings by the major macrobreweries. It is light, crisp, and refreshing with all the richness that a traditional marzen beer should have.

I am a fan of Samuel Adams Boston Brewery. I love a lot of their seasonal beers, including their Fat Jack Pumpkin and the Octoberfest. Check them out for yourself before it is too late. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Brown Beer and Autumn Hikes: Two Great Tastes that Go Great Together!

The last two weekend I've gone hiking. After these hiking trips I have enjoyed a brown ale at a local watering hole. I thought I would share those with you.

The first hike was at Laurel River near Hot Springs, NC. It was a 7 mile hike total, which was a little long for someone like me. I really wanted to give up at about the 6 mile mark but where would I go? No helicopter would come rescue me, so I had to keep hiking.

After we did finally crawl back to the car we drove into the town of Hot Springs to the Spring Creek Tavern and had a seat at the bar. It is a really nice place with great atmosphere. We haven't tried their food yet, but we plan to next time we're up in Hot Springs.

I ordered a Bell's Best Brown, a great year round brown beer brewed by Bell's in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I consider Bell's my first craft brewery even though that is a slight exaggeration. I went to college in Kalamazoo but at the time I didn't drink beer at all so I can't really claim to have been a fan in the 90s. I'm willing to jump on that band wagon now, though.

This brown ale is one of my favorites when I am in the mood for malty goodness, which I usually am about this time of year. It is well balanced with just enough hops to give it some character but not too much to draw attention away from the roasted malt flavors.

If you like traditional browns with just a hint of something extra this one is a good bet for you. It is sweet and caramel-y. It is perfect for a crisp fall afternoon or for the first beer to quench your thirst after a long and strenuous hike.

For the second hike in as many weeks, we drove down to Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia and met up with some friends from Atlanta. The hike around the gorge is pretty easy with the most difficult being over 600 steps down to a suspension bridge and 500 steps back up to the top of the gorge. It took me a while to make it up the steps. I'm not really what you would call "in shape" and I have asthma so I puffed my way up one section of stairs at a time.

After our hike we drove up to the town of Clayton, Georgia and discovered their quaint downtown area. We stopped for dinner and drinks at the Universal Joint. I was surprised to find this place in such a small town. There is also a Universal Joint in Ashevlle.

There I ordered a Duck Rabbit Brown Ale which is brewed in Farmville, North Carolina. They served it to me in a Red Hare glass, which is a brewery out of Atlanta. It seemed appropriate. Duck Rabbit specializes in dark beers and their Milk Stout is one of my very favorites of all time, which I know is a pretty bold declaration.

Duck Rabbit Brown Ale is rich with a very well played bitterness to the hops profile. It is a strong beer that can stand up on its own if you like that sort of thing. The dominating flavors for me in this one is chocolate and coffee but neither are overwhelming. They play off each other and the hoppy bitterness very well. If you want a brown beer with a little more punch than most of them check out this one.

Have you been out hiking this fall? Have you stopped for a beer afterwards to quench your thirst? What have you been drinking?

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Most Astoundingly Mediochre Pumpkin Beer of the Season

When I am out with friends they often ask me what kind of beer I like.

Or they ask me what kind of beer they should like.

The divisiveness of Pumpkin Ale always stirs up an interesting conversation. Do I like this one? Do I like that one? What makes a good pumpkin ale?

Really, if you like a pumpkin ale - drink it. Don't worry about what everyone else thinks.

I like many pumpkin ales. My favorite of the season so far has been the Boxcar Pumpkin Porter.

My least favorite was this one:

The New Belgium PumpKick.

I like New Belgium beers just fine. Some are better than others. Because it is widely distributed I can usually get one even in a place that only serves the macrobrewed giants and that makes them worth their weight in gold.

What I will say about the Pumpkick is that it was all around average.

Of course, one of the reasons that this pumpkin beer is not among my favorites is because it has a fruitier flavor rather than a spicy one. Give me those pie spices and that is how I know it is fall! 

If you, on the other hand, are a bigger fan of actual pumpkin flavor then this might be a reasonable choice for you.

This one should be available in bottles at most grocery stores through the fall, and New Belgium is pretty spread out these days, so if you want to give a pumpkin beer a try check this one out. See what you think.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mecktoberfest in Charlotte, NC

Earlier this month, Matt and I were invited by some friends to see the Indigo Girls play with the symphony orchestra in Charlotte. These aren't just any friends but friends from college - old roommates. One happens to live only an hour from us here in Asheville now and the other...well, he may be considering a move south some day relatively soon. This area of the country does have a certain magnetic draw to it. Once you're bit it is hard not to let it spread under your skin. As the Indigo Girls say:

When God made me born a Yankee he was teasing.
The concert was simply amazing and it was absolutely great to spend time with our friends.

But, this is a beer blog, is it not?

Yes, yes it is. And I am getting there. While in Charlotte we were able to enjoy an Autumn Seasonal beer from the area's largest beer maker, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.

The beer of choice was their fall seasonal offering Mecktoberfest. It was pretty darn good.

Here is yet another truth about beer drinking. The beer is always better if you're with people you care about and are enjoying yourself. Beer is an extremely social beverage and is meant to be enjoyed that way. If you're thinking about trying a new beer go check it out at a bar or the brewery rather than buying a six pack and drinking it at home. You can talk with the bartenders or the brewers. You can start conversations with other bar patrons who can tell you about their favorites. Invite some friends and enjoy the experience.

So, part of the reason I enjoyed the Mecktoberfest so much was because I was sharing an evening of music and friendship. I highly recommend you try this approach as well.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Catawba Valley King Don Pumpkin: Not as Bad as I remembered It

Brewed in Morganton, NC, not far from Asheville is Catawba Valley's annual pumpkin ale, King Don's Original Pumpkin Ale.

Shortly after I began to enjoy beer I decided to give this one a try. We we were at Barley's, a popular taproom downtown, and I spotted it on the wall.

If you're not a craft beer drinker I am here to tell you that beer is, in fact, and acquired taste. It took me forever to like any beer and when I did it was a progression from one style to the next. For example, I use to hate the taste of hops but now Pale Ales ad IPAs are some of my go-to beers. Your tastes really do change.

This first time trying Catawba Valley's King Don's Original Pumpkin Ale was...well...traumatizing. I did not like it! However, at the time I found it hard to express what I didn't like about it. It took me a while to develop the "Pumpkin vs. Pumpkin Spice" flavor profile comparison chart (patent pending!). All I knew is that whatever I just put in my mouth was revolting.

There is one other important truth to know about beer. It is subjective. While beer snobs can say that the big name macrobrews are "disgusting," clearly their sales indicate that someone likes the taste of their beers. Not all palates are created equal. For example, there are two beer trends that I am not particularly fond of: smoked beers and sour beers. But both of these are popular for a reason - because someone likes them. The same is clearly true about Catawba's pumpkin ale.

So, to make a long story short, I did not like Catawba Valley's King Don Pumpkin.

Recently, as people are learning that I am attempting to DRINK ALL THE BEER! this fall, they began to ask me about this particular, and popular, pumpkin ale.

When I saw it on tap at our regular Monday night bar, I figured it was a reasonably safe environment to give it a try. The bartender, also a friend, would gladly make fun of me for it but I knew the pain would only be temporary. I asked her for only a half pour so I didn't have to commit to a full pint.

Tenatively, I took a sip.

And it really wasn't as bad as I remembered it.

Here is the third truth of beer drinking: Go ahead and try things you though you didn't like before. If enough time goes by you may find your tastes have changed just enough to let you appreciate this beer.

I certainly wouldn't put the King Don Pumpkin at the top of my list of favorite Pumpkin beers, but it wasn't awful. There was more pumpkin spice flavor than I remembered. It was entirely drinkable. If you really love the pumpkin beers this time of year and are in the Catawba Valley Brewery distribution area, it is worth a try.