Tasting Notes: Foggy Ridge Ciders

Foggy Ridge

I’ll admit up front that I’m not much of a cider guy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I do–it’s just been something I’ve had a hard time really getting into the way others do, and especially in my role as a retail buyer. For years I’ve had cider fans asking me to carry more, only to have bottles sit on my shelves when I actually made the effort to bring some in. So forgive me, but my attitude until recently had been “fuck the cider people” when it came to my stocking decisions.

johnny-cash-middle-finger

Yeah, pretty much that.

Not to mention that every cider I bring in is one less beer I can feature, and when shelf space is at a premium like it is in my department at Arrowine, that’s no small matter.

Another part of my cider animosity is the rollercoaster of levels of quality in the ones I’d try. I can’t count the number of times some rep would say to me “this is our dry style cider“, as if simply saying the word “dry” would tickle the wine guy part of my lizard brain and make me buy in immediately. The worst part is that said “dry” ciders would either be blatantly sweet, meaning the cidery either had no palate to speak of or was just plain lying to me, or the cider would be ‘dirty’–packed with Brettanomyces flavors and effects which yes, can include dryness but at the cost of the fruit’s flavor. Not what I’m looking for. I’m not sold on what UC Davis has to say just yet; as my boss likes to say, wine is essentially grape juice–when you point out to me the part of the grape that is supposed to smell or taste like leather, or ‘barnyard’, or mushroomy I might start forgiving Brett. Until then, I’d like my cider to taste like apples if you please. I’ll keep the Brett in the beers it should be in, where I enjoy it.

Horseblanket

Ran a GIS for ‘horseblanket’; not one grape or glass or wine came up. Side note: how badass does this horse look?

All of this is by way of saying that I’m wary of trying ciders, and a bit exasperated with the prospect of finding and stocking new ones. It was with this jaded, downright shitty attitude that I met with my distributor rep for Foggy Ridge Ciders to try their wares.

Foggy Ridge is located in Dugspur, Virginia, southwest of Lynchburg. It would actually make for a good detour on a trip to Asheville, now that I think about it. Cider maker Diane Flynt has built her lineup around the preservation of heirloom varietals, specifically those with the tannin and acid content to make truly dry, structured Hard Cider. I got to try out five of Foggy Ridge’s offerings, representing the bulk of its line. Here’s what I thought:

First Fruit: Once again, I was told that this would be the driest cider of the group, but for once I was told correctly. The early-harvest fruit used in this cider makes for a truly dry, crisp cider with proper fruit character and–wonder of wonders–actual structure! My heart grew three sizes. Aromas are slightly nutty, but the apple comes correct. Also, it’s CLEAN. Love it.

Serious Cider: Serious is made from a mix of traditional English and American varieties. This is where the pleasant surprises really start: after First Fruit, I was expect a head-first dive into syrupy, cloying cider territory, and that is not what I got. The nose on Serious is more mild than First Fruit, but the blend of apples used gives it a green/yellow apple flavor that is all tartness and acidity in all the right ways.

Sweet Stayman: Made mostly from Virginia Stayman apples which apparently ripen later in the season. From the name alone I was expecting dessert, but Sweet Stayman is more ’round’ than it is ‘sweet’. The apple aromas are bolder and more concentrated here, but don’t suggest cloying sweetness. Stayman is  a tick sweeter on the palate, but it isn’t sugary at the expense of the fruit, or done in a way to pander to the ‘American’ palate. The roundness of the Stayman apple makes for a smoother-feeling cider, but one that still carries some sense of structure. Smart stuff.

Handmade: The only Foggy Ridge to come in 375mL mini-champagne style bottles (more on this in a bit). Handmade is mostly made from Newton Pippin apples and has aromas that made me think of Vidal white wine. The palate was mild compared to the others, but had an interesting pear-like fruit note (which they even mention on their website, funny enough) and was very nice.

Pippin Gold: A blend of a 100% Pippin cider and apple Brandy–think Pommeau without the extended oak aging. Sweet but appropriate for the style; my issue with Pippin Gold was that I missed the oxidation that comes with the long-term oak aging in Pommeau. Thinking about it now, Pippin Gold would be a nice substitute for a Loupiac, or other inexpensive Sauternes-like dessert wines.

So yeah, I really liked the Foggy Ridge ciders. A lot, in fact. But I won’t be carrying any of them.

Why? Well, the First Fruit, Serious, and Sweet Stayman come in 750mL bottles that would retail in the ~$18 range. The smaller bottle Handmade comes in, used ostensibly to make pricing more attractive to retail and restaurants, would still hit shelves around $12. Pippin Gold (in what I remember being a 500mL) would shake out damn near $25. I just can’t do it. I have world-class beers in those prices that have Yelpers and BA’s pissed at me as it is–I simply can’t put these ciders out there at these prices and expect folks to buy in because they’re from Virginia, or simply because they’re great (which, make no mistake, they are). I just can’t.

A smaller format would still be pricey, but I think doable for the main thrust of Foggy Ridge’s line. Hopefully someday this comes to pass; I really enjoyed the ciders and would love to feature them. Foggy Ridge is doing just about everything I want cider makers to be doing right now. If you get the chance to try their stuff out, do so; you won’t be disappointed. If you have time to make the trip, go visit–I’m sure it’s beautiful out there.

Oh well.

Off-Topic: Nerd Boys, Listen Good…

So, If you haven’t been in the loop, comic book artist Tony Harris stirred up all kinds of shit with these comments on his Facebook page. My wife emailed me about it and I had some things to say. Here’s what I sent back to her, which I felt I should share. Enjoy, or not.

“Wow.

Well, I’d heard great things about Starman and Ex Machina, but I guess I’m never picking those up now.

If we were having a conversation about this, you’d be wondering why I don’t sound more pissed off or surprised. Well, this kind of woman-hating is nothing new in the geek world. It’s not nearly as accepted as it used to be (it seems to have embedded itself in the Gamer community these days), but Harris was born in 1969, meaning he’s of one of the last generations where nerds were treated like, well, nerds growing up.

I saw this with a lot of guys I knew growing up: There’s a weird juxtaposition where they see the ‘jocks’ and ‘cool kids’ getting the hot girls and being angry about it, wishing those girls appreciated them for what they were. Because of this when any girl showed interest in comics, fantasy, scifi, etc., she was immediately looked upon with suspicion. Sad to say, less attractive girls were more likely to get a ‘pass’ because let’s face it, for most of us we dive into solitary hobbies like comics because we’re flat out not athletic or attractive enough to merit any great social attention. But Spaghetti Monster help the poor girl who happened to be moderately or worse extremely attractive who claimed any sort of geek title. Hot nerd girls were an impossible concept back in the day, and were rejected out of hand.

Those poor middling girls, though, took and continue to take the worst of it. Not ‘conventionally pretty’ enough to be ignored, but too pretty not to raise suspicion. Those girls were bait to bring out the worst in young nerd men. That dangerous cocktail of teenage hormones, male privilege, and a propensity for over-compensation due to the pressures from society at large (and usually fathers in particular) to be more ‘manly’ in the face of their lack of physical gifts gets shaken up by a slightly-more-attractive-than-average girl who likes what they like more than just about anything else.

She’s too hot  to really be into comics, but she’s not as hot as the kind of girls they deserve. She’s got big boobs because she’s a little (or a lot, let’s not lie) heavy, not because she has hot big boobs because she’s not that hot why aren’t you hotter?  She can hang with the guys or join in on whatever reindeer game they’re playing, but there’s always a palpable undercurrent of lust, anger, and entitlement. Suffice to say, it usually ended up driving many women away from comics and other forms of nerdery. I always had a soft spot for girls like this; I always tried my best to keep them involved in the group and to keep guys in line. But I was an exception–a young man who had been raised in a house full of women, who was more comfortable (if I’m honest) in the company of women rather than men of any age, and who was athletic and (I guess) good-looking enough not to be ostracized out-of-hand by my peers on sight. I had my own point of privilege, but I did what I could to help my fellow geeks into a greater understanding of what I can only poorly define as feminism.

The good news is that screeds like Harris’ are greeted by this generation with the disdain and disgust they deserve. The bad news is that all over the internet you can find comments like Harris’ in forum discussion and find them mild compared to others. Yesterday’s ‘jock’ is today’s ‘alpha’, with the difference being that ‘alpha’ is something to aspire to, and merely an excuse for being a selfish, misogynist asshole. What these boys will never understand in their hearts, and it’s sad to say but 100% true, is that there is a difference between a ‘hot girl’ and an expensive car, or a designer watch, or the hottest shoe on the market. To them, it’s all the same.

Of course there’s a difference between any girl and those things, but from this base lesser attractive girls don’t exist. Baby steps.

Tony Harris and his ilk aren’t pissed because moderately good-looking girls are getting lots of attention at cons; they’re pissed because they’re getting dressed up and coming to cons not for the specific purpose of walking through the doors, dropping to their knees and servicing every ‘deserving’, like-minded nerd like himself who thinks the world owes them something. That’s the part of this whole thing that’s dangerous, and needs to be stated bluntly and fucking stopped.

Fuck him and fuck everyone else who thinks like him. You don’t think the girl that just walked by isn’t ‘hot’ enough to wear that outfit? Who gives a fuck what you think? Move the fuck on–let that girl live her life just like you want the rest of us to let you live yours. Fuck. OFF.

Sorry for the rant, but shit like this just sets me off. Love you.”

You are now free to go about the rest of your day.
–Nick

Pumpkin Beer Thunderdome 2012

Last weekend my wife and I hosted her close friend Chassie for a fall beer tasting for her blog. I wrote my notes up for this week’s ArlNow.com column.

Check out the column here; and keep and eye out for Chassie’s blog post at Chassie’s Food and TV.

TBR: Reader Request–Jester King Farmhouse Black Metal

So,

Friend and noted Beer Trader About Town Matt came into some Jester King stuff lately and brought me a bottle of Farmhouse Black Metal to try. Matt had tried one out and seemed to dig it, but something about the beer seemed to throw him off. In so many words he told me there was a spicy element that jumped out at him and he was curious as to what I would make of it. Well, I just polished my bottle off and here’s my take:

Yes, I’ll be randomly inserting Black Metal vids into this post. Don’t like it? Don’t click ‘play’. Easy enough.

My bottle of Black Metal had been in the fridge for a few days, so I decided to keep an eye (and nose, and palate) on it as it warmed up. Almost immediately after pouring it I picked up something in the nose and was struggling to place it; it seemed almost briny, like Oyster Stout briny. Or mussels? Could this be the note that Matt was talking about? More concerning in that moment was figuring out what it was I was smelling in the glass. I handed it to Mrs. Monger, whose nose and palate are far beyond mine (even if she won’t admit it) and in no less than three seconds she said “It’s olives”.

Dammit. She was right–the unmistakeable scent of Kalamata olives. I would’ve figured it out at some point, but damn if her sensory recall isn’t just that damn good. As the beer warmed up in the first few minutes, the olive note was pretty forceful in Black Metal. I was loving it, but I love the combination of briny and fruity flavors and aromas in olives. Maybe this wasn’t a beer for those looking for a rich, beastly Imperial Stout.

That said, the finish on that cold Black Metal felt and tasted like nice hot chocolate. and the mid-palate was exceptionally easy-going. As it warmed more I started noticing some more spice coming out. Cinnamon? It was faint, but the more the chocolate notes came to the fore the more spice I was noticing too. Ok, then, this wasn’t going to be an easy beer to pin down. Better take it up a notch:

That’s better. Anyhoo, I let it come to temperature and that’s when things just got cool. Like the gigantic dork that I am, I pulled up my Untappd app on my phone to check my beer in like a good nerd. Whomever created the listing for Farmhouse Black Metal in Untappd listed it as a Dry Irish Stout, which isn’t how it’s categorized on Jester King’s site, but it made a lot of things click for me. Now that it was nice and warmed up, the olive note had faded and the malts had asserted themselves, it jumped out at me that the last beer I’d had that it reminded me of was Schalfly’s Irish Stout.

The big difference though, was that at that exact moment it hit me–the spice; what it was that Matt was talking about in the first place. Enough to remind me of the slew of peppery beers that took over my shelves during the past year: Fade To Black, Cocoa Mole, El Mole Ocho, Terrapin/Schmaltz Reunion, etc.

What sets Farmhouse Black Metal apart is the Farmhouse yeast. Having recently tried Boulevard’s Dark Truth Stout, it was fresh in my mind how much any Belgian-style yeast strain can make even the boldest and most intense combination of flavors approachable, and I feel like that’s the case here. Not only does the Farmhouse yeast contribute its own spicy character to the beer, but it helps to round out what could otherwise be seen as just another cartoonishly “BIG FLAVOR” beer.

So Matt, here’s my verdict: Great beer if you dig the spicy stuff. Those not prepared for it or who just aren’t into peppery beers could easily be turned off by its unexpected heat, but I thought it was quite the treat. Thanks for bringing it by.

Until next time, folks.

Cheers!

Ok, one more for the hell of it:

I did NOT get into a Twitter Fight With Total Wine

Really, I didn’t. I swear.

Where it all started today was with this post from @BeerInBaltimore, who’d spied this sign at a Total Wine location for American Craft Beer Week:

Needless to say, the fires got lit and a conversation ensued. A lot of stuff got brought up, from the nature of what ‘craft’ is to the merits of undercover macros like Shock Top and Blue Moon as ‘gateway beers’ for those unfamiliar to craft beer to the nature of large versus small retailers and their role in the movement. Here’s a quick (by my standards) recap of what I think are the important things to take away from this:

As far as the ‘gateway beer’ concept goes; the gang at Total and I have different opinions. I don’t consider Blue Moon or Shock Top a gateway to anything but more profit and shelf space for the macro producers who put them out, and many of those chiming in today seem to agree. At one point I mentioned Port City’s excellent Optimal Wit as something I’d consider a gateway; I’ve sold Victory’s Prima Pils for YEARS as THE gateway beer for those who thought craft beer too haughty or exclusive. There are too many great craft options available these days–and local ones at that no matter where you are–to say that the best gateways for new beer enthusiasts are made by the two biggest corporations in the industry, who by the day appear to be headed down the path toward being the SINGLE biggest corporation in the industry. Maybe Blue Moon sends someone down a path that leads to further exploration, but let’s not make things out to be more than they are.

The big point about today’s discussion in my opinion is this: Beer Geeks of the world–what did you expect? I know how this is going to sound for the next few sentences, but I’ll just say it for the sake of saying it; we’re talking about Total Wine here. Not exactly Indie, right? Who else is going to have the scratch to create a banner like the one above and who else is gonna hang it up? The big supermarket chains are only just dipping their toes in the craft beer ocean; like it or not, this is what Total is.

Here’s the important part: There’s nothing wrong with that. Total is a fantastic resource for beer and wine fans alike; they’re convenient and usually well-stocked and if you get lucky you can meet a specialist there and develop a relationship over time that can expand your knowledge and enjoyment of whatever booze you have a taste for. But if you think they’re keeping all the lights on only by way of the craftiest craft that ever crafted, you’re just being naive. About six years ago I left the wine/beer biz and went to work at a small guitar shop here in town. We were right down the road from a Guitar Center location. Customers liked to play it up as if there was some big rivalry; like we were fighting The Man all day everyday, and to tell the truth it’s fun to think that you are. Except the reality is that one day you’re a nice specialty shop with cool stuff and the next day you have to find a niche and step up your game because the Big Box down the road knows how cool people think you are. It’s not fighting The Man; it’s fighting for survival. That little shop I worked at is thriving now; in the time since I left it’s found its groove and become so good at what it does that most of us in the area who play find it irreplaceable. That’s how you survive in business; you make yourself irreplaceable.

But that’s just business. Guitar Center has not only gotten by selling the biggest brands; while they make the vast majority of their money off of them they’ve also gone out of their way to respond to the high-end and independent market by ordering in on small house luthiers, amp builders, and effects producers, which allows those small guys to grow and thrive. Total’s the same way. So don’t light your torches over them hanging an InBev banner for ACBW; if you must, have your little chuckle at Shock Top being craft’s representative and move on (which for the record was all I was originally doing on Twitter today). When 7-11 or CVS hangs that banner, light ‘em up.

The only real bone I had to pick today was with this tweet from the @TotalWine account:

“Hear U, but folks, let it go…advocate BEER: bring ppl 2 Craft”

That’s just some cognitive dissonance there. You got called out by Beer Geeks for touting Shock Top for ACBW–I say own it. Don’t tell us we’re the problem after you hang that thing up when it could just as easily be a print-out or chalkboard with a Dogfish Head, Stone, Victory, New Belgium, Sierra, Sam, or Lagunitas logo up there, or any one of hundreds of craft breweries spearheading an exciting new era in the beer business. Total is putting on great tastings all over the country this week to celebrate ACBW for sure, but the average consumer–the one that doesn’t know anything about anything past Blue Moon or Shock Top–doesn’t need to see those logos on banners this week. All it does is legitimize the ‘macromicros’ at the expense of everyone else.

But even in this I see little to get worked up about. Total’s ACBW tasting are going to bring new people into the fold, and their buying power will make the difference between life and death for more than a few emerging craft brewers this year alone I’m sure. They do what they do; I do what I do. We’re all raising the level of awareness for craft beer and in the end that’s a good thing.

This whole post was inspired by my texting my wife earlier today. I said: “Today’s been interesting. Check my Twitter feed.” She wrote back: “Damn Nicky, you got in a Twitter fight with Total?” Well no, actually I didn’t though I know more than a few of you would have enjoyed the entertainment value if I had. Hell, just a couple years ago I would have too, and gone scorched earth about this. But I’m at a place now where I know better what to take personally and what to get upset about. This is simply a matter of perspective. If it means that much to you, just don’t shop at Total. Easy as that. If you don’t like that I don’t have some of the beers you expect to see on my shelves, don’t shop with me. Believe me, I get as many eye rolls and sighs of disappointment every week as I do thank you’s and smiles. And I send a ton of people to Total as a reliable source of beer and wine that my employer either doesn’t stock or can’t get for someone when they absolutely need it. As Beer Geeks, we’ve helped spur a real revolution within an industry that had never really had one here in America, but our blog posts and Tweets and Facebook groups don’t add up to the impact of one person making one purchasing decision. Under all the passion and debate and history, this is a business. Never forget that. Keep it in mind at all times, then make your choice.

Until next time.

 

p.s. I’ve known a number of Total employees over the years, and they’ve been great folks who have a genuine love for beer and wine and look to help their customers every bit as much as I do. If Total Wine takes offense to anything I’ve written here it certainly is not intended and I’m available to chat in any venue if further discussion is warranted. As always, my views are my own and do not reflect those of Arrowine nor any of the breweries I mentioned in support of.

Serenity Now: Stillwater Debutante, The Beermonger Review

This may not completely come through to those of you who have met me, but I try to live pretty ‘Zen’.

Many things bother me and if I’m not careful I’m far too easily bothered. From my teens I’ve set as a goal for myself to reduce the number of things that I allow to get to me, which coincided with the Comparative Religions class I took in high school when I was first introduced to many of the principles of the great Asian religions. In my typical American fashion, I found aspects of many religions and philosophies that tweaked something in me and found myself focusing more and more on patience, acceptance, and letting go (I particularly recommend The Analects of Confucius and Budoshoshinshu). This has served me well over the years, personally and professionally. Today I feel like I’m in a good place, like I’ve found and don’t stray too far from my center.

I told you all of this to set up this story: Last night I’m at home and realizing I had the next day off, figured I’d open an extra bottle of beer for the hell of it. My wife and I had some good stuff we’d been sessioning over the past week or so (Abita Mardi Gras Bock, Bell’s Oarsman Ale) but I wanted something a little…more. I found myself staring into the fridge trying to decide between Stone’s 11.11.11. Vertical Epic and the Stillwater Ales Debutante which arrived late last week. As much as I dig the Vertical, I went for the Debutante.

Why? Well, it spoke perfectly to my mood. I felt balanced that night–serene–and the Vertical just seemed too brash for my mood. As soon as I got that first sip, I knew I’d made the right choice. I first tried Stillwater’s beers a couple years ago when my wife stuffed my stocking with a bottle of his American Farmhouse Ale. I was immediately struck by the combination of balance, innovation, and singularity of flavors in Brian Strumke’s work. The Debutante is no different in this: from a humble Saison yeast there comes something so rich, delicate, and unique that it is unrecognizable as a Farmhouse Ale yet could not be anything else.

Debutante first twists the Farmhouse tradition by including spelt and rye malts, which add a rustic, bready tone that plays incredibly well off of the spicy, fruity Belgian yeast. Going a step further, Debutante features heather, hyssop, and honeysuckle. These add beautiful aromatics and on the palate take this beer to another level. With all of this and a smooth mouthfeel with fine carbonation, Debutante has officially joined my list of “happy place” beers.

When I was a boy one of my favorite things about spring and summer was honeysuckle in bloom. You can just grab a flower and get right at the nectar, and it just screamed warmth and joy to me. I’ve of course romanticized it in the years since, but thinking back on all the bullshit that was going on in my life when I was a small child, the things I found happiness in particularly stand out, and honeysuckle is one of them. The tiny, subtle hint of the honeysuckle that comes through in Debutante is enough to make me think of those little moments of solace, and at the risk of being completely blinded by sentiment it really puts the beer over the top for me.

I’m not sure what else to say about Debutante. If you enjoy Farmhouse Ales, this merits an immediate buy. In many ways the Stillwater lineup is a harbinger of a coming wave of craft beers, which aren’t so much dedicated to style as they are explorations of ideas; flights of fancy. I’ve got a whole post coming up dedicated to this and I don’t want to throw a bunch of stuff out there just to repeat it later so I’ll just say if you can find Debutante get a couple and enjoy. If you can’t, look for any of the Stillwater Ales line as they are all excellent and a glimpse of where beer is going.

Stay centered, folks.

Link: My Guest Post at Yours For Good Fermentables

My friend Tom Cizauskas over at the excellent Yours For Good Fermentables blog asked me to weigh in on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 25 beers of the year. The post is a look at the wine palate’s perspective and how that can influence their outlook on beer. Check it out here. Thanks again, Tom!

-Beermonger