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California Love, Part 3: The Good, The Bad, & The Hoppy

Yeah, that’s one from the ol’ wayback machine there. Nice.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve recapped visits to two Southern California breweries–Stone and The Bruery–that I made during my recent vacation. Today, to wrap everything up in a nice little bow, I’d like to talk about some of the things I noticed during my too-brief stay out West:

Good–L.A.’s beer scene: I expected to find all kinds of good beer in San Diego, and was not disappointed. What did surprise me was how many breweries are up and running in L.A. itself. During an afternoon trip to the beach at Santa Monica, my wife and I ducked into The Commons Ale House, a small beer bar just off the beach focusing on craft beer with some great local options on tap. Over games of Connect Four, we got to try Angel City‘s Eureaka! Wit (4.9% and made with Nelson Sauvin? Yes, please!) and El Segundo Brewery‘s Blue House Mosaic Pale Ale. El Segundo makes a handful of Blue House Pales featuring different hops. I noticed some Blue House Citra at a Whole Foods near my friend’s house later on in the week, along with a number of other L.A.-based brewery selections. Reading a Brewing News-style periodical about the L.A. beer scene, it appears that there are more breweries are coming online across the city; always a good sign.

Bad–Hop-centric, sometimes to a fault: What I found in SoCal was a dearth of the Lagers, non-hoppy Ales (Kolsch-style, Golden Ales, etc.), Wheat Beers, and mild Belgian styles that are more readily found here on the East Coast. For the most part, I was fine with this–I got into beer as a hophead, and I’m always going to be one. For people like my wife, the emphasis on big hops in nearly everything being put out by craft brewers can be tough to deal with.

My wife, you see, is not a fan of particularly bitter hoppy beers. Over the 10 years we’ve been together, she’s tried more beers than most people in the industry, and she has a great palate–she knows what she likes, and knows what she doesn’t. Too often in California we’d look through a menu at beer lists and there just wouldn’t be much of anything that she could get into.

Good–That may be changing? All that said, I did see some signs that things might be shifting a bit on the West Coast. The aforementioned Angel City Brewery offers their Wit year-round, along with a year-round Pilsner, and seasonals like a Wheat Ale and Oktoberfest. Modern Times offers a Saison and Coffee Stout that, while relatively hoppy for their styles by the numbers (30 and 40 IBU, respectively), aren’t overly aggressive. AleSmith‘s Anvil ESB was a beer we both loved. Even during our Stone visit, my wife found herself enjoying Go-To IPA (no bittering hops; all aroma) and loved the limited-release Sprocketbier from earlier this year. I got to snag a sixer of Firestone Oaktoberfest and was impressed; hopefully production is boosted enough for next year that we see a little on the East Coast.

Good–If you do like hops, though… Oh man, is it fun being a hophead in California. The night we landed, my friend and I went on a BevMo run to stock up his fridge a bit. I decided to buy some ChronicAle from Port Brewing. I’m a fan of Port and hadn’t tried this one before. ChronicAle is a hoppy Session Amber Ale, clocking in at 4.9%, and comes in six-packs of tallboy cans. How cool is that? Also, those sixers of tallboys cost $9.99 at BevMo–this was the first of many moments where I contemplated staying in L.A., and never coming back. Also found and enjoyed while in California: Firestone 805 (in six-pack bottles and 12-pack cans), AleSmith IPA and Pale Ale 394, Stone Bastard In The Rye, Beechwood Alpha Master, Ritual Single Rye IPA…there’s a lot of great beer in SoCal, y’all.

Good (though bad for my waistline)–The four main food groups: Doughnuts, burgers, shakes, and tacos. They’re all everywhere, and of such quality that it’s hard to pass them up. The doughnuts especially; I had no idea that doughnuts were a thing out there, but they are. There’s an outstanding doughnuts shop a couple blocks from my friend’s house–every morning, we found an excuse to stop in for buttermilk doughnuts with maple icing, cronuts (I had to try one–delicious, but in a way that’s a little too much), Thai iced tea, and simple old-school glazed doughnuts that were so good but I can’t explain why–they just were.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

On the way back from our visit to The Bruery, we stopped at a King Taco location in East L.A., where we destroyed a copious amount of great lengua tacos, sopes, and there was a burrito somewhere in there too (my friend, I think). The fresh cilantro, perfectly done beef tongue, hot sauce, and open-air seating made for one of my favorite L.A. meals.

Put it this way: this was the first vacation I’ve ever gone on that I’ve gained weight during.

Overall, I found many more good than bad things about SoCal. There’s a lot to love (especially the changes of scenery available with a minimum of driving time), but more than anything else I can’t wait to go back. We had a sort of whirlwind tour of the area, barely scratching the surface. I can’t even begin to think about questions like ‘Could I live out there?’–though I am curious. I think I might be able to: it’s not so different from the DC area in that the trick is in finding the part of town that works best for you. I would miss Southern food terribly…

…it would be nice to live in a place like that, though. It’s expansive and mysterious to me. I don’t know L.A. in the slightest: I liked what I saw, thought, and I’m intrigued.

I say stuff like this every time I come back from anywhere else, it seems. Even I’m annoyed with myself at this point. I’ve been thinking a lot about my life lately–what I should be doing, what I might want to do, where I want to live, what’s important to me. Basically, what the hell am I doing with my life?

My wife and I both have obligations that have us tied to the DC Area for the foreseeable future, so even if we found a place we’d want to move to, we wouldn’t be doing it any time soon. I think I keep using the idea of moving to another area as a way to daydream about what I could  be doing, instead of trying to do that here. Instead of having the difficult conversations with myself to figure out exactly what it is I want to be/should be doing.

It’s very early on Friday, September 12th. I am watching a collection of footage from the September 11th, 2001 attacks. It’s a day I remember vividly, but I always watch some of the news reports from that day every year. I don’t know why. A reporter talks as people scramble; in the background is the sound–what I understand to be the sound of sirens of vehicles that were crushed in the collapse–that I’ll never forget. My dog is laying on the floor; he opens his eyes alertly when he hears it, having been drifting in and out of sleep. He was born more than a decade after all of this; he doesn’t know what the sound is.

On 9/11 I was 21 years old. I had recently gone through a break up that would mess with me for some time to come. I sold guitars by day and occasionally played them at night, and had taken to quitting my job every few months when the bullshit of the place got to me. It would be about 4 years before I even took my first job in a wine shop.

I was just beginning to sort myself out back then; but when I think of those days now I look through the lens of the maxim “Do what makes you happy.” Back then I was happy when I was playing–and with one person in particular. No matter the project, or the circumstance, there was a guy who always made it worthwhile for me, who allowed me to be happy. We made no money, and a lot of the time I spent in the band I was in back then was chock full of unnecessary bullshit, but it was all a means to an end, and being on stage led to meaningful moments.

That they were meaningful only to me is irrelevant now; what is relevant is that I’ve rarely felt that sense of meaning since. I love what I do, and it’s amazing to have been witness to so much growth in the industry I’m a part of. But I’m turning 35. I hobble when I get out of bed in the morning. I don’t know what it is I’m working toward, but I know the path I’m on right now isn’t getting me there. I like where I work; I like the people I work with; I love my customers; and I love the spectrum of breweries and beers I get to support in the position I have.

I work in beer. I’m not trying to change the world–frankly, with my family history, it’s probably for the best for me not to try to change the world. I’ve been looking for the sense of purpose, of meaning: I get some of it from the writing work I do, but it’s fleeting–supplementary income on a subject I enjoy. I’ve been looking for BIG meaning, where instead I just need to remember I was just as happy with those moments doing things that only held meaning for me and a handful of others, at most. I’m looking for what’s next; I’m looking for the point. And it’s so much easier to imagine all the things I could do somewhere else when really I’d just be having the same struggle in a new setting. Most days, I’d say that’s enough of a change to be worth it–but it’s not. It’s not even close.

I’ve been doing my job and trying sort it out, just like I imagine most of you all are, and I’ll continue to do my job the best I can. As I do, I’ll continue visiting new places, and maybe I’ll pass through the right place at the right time and it’ll all come together. Maybe not. I wish I had a conclusion; some kind of epiphany that would make all of my typing a little more relevant. But I don’t.

L.A. was cool; as were Palm Springs and San Diego. I don’t know if any of them are the place for my wife and I. For certain, you can expect me to make at least a few more visits–for research, of course. Until then, we keep going. Best of luck to you all.

Until next time.

 

 

 

California Love Part 2: A Visit to The Bruery

Yeah, we’re just gonna keep with the theme here.

 

Last week I recapped the first weekend of my recent Southern California vacation, which included a trip to San Diego County for Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party and a tour of the brewery itself, along with a great lunch experience at the Stone Bistro and World Gardens. This week I’d like to tell you about the other brewery visit I had while I was staying in Los Angeles—to The Bruery, in Placentia.

Depending on where you’re staying in L.A., you can get to The Bruery’s Orange County location within an hour or two (I was staying near LAX, and the drive took about 50 minutes in late-morning traffic), though with the tasting room opening later in the afternoon most days travel time is subject to the whims of the freeway gods. I mention the tasting room hours because tours of The Bruery are currently on hold; I was lucky enough to be shown around thanks to The Bruery’s Virginia distributor setting me up with Jonas Nemura, Senior Director of Operations and Distribution for The Bruery.

As I mentioned last week, most brewery tours are fairly similar experiences, but what fascinated me at The Bruery was how different their approach was compared to Stone. Both breweries aim for world-class quality and expression of style in their beers, but for all of its experimentation Stone is much more in the ‘traditional’ mold—around half of the production at Stone’s Escondido brewery is dedicated to their IPA, which is their flagship beer. Not only does The Bruery not have a flagship beer, but when one of their recipes began to show signs of becoming a flagship, they stopped making it—such is their dedication to an ever-changing lineup with an emphasis on trying new things and being on the experimental edge of the beer industry (there’s a reason I called The Bruery “fearless” when I wrote a short profile on them back in 2012).

Even as someone who works in the business with an appreciation for what The Bruery does, it can be jarring to hear a business plan that so diverges from the norm. The thing is, it’s working: when I visited, The Bruery was working on yet another expansion, gobbling up even more of the warehouse-like storefronts its complex occupies. In six short years, The Bruery has become a name known to beer lovers worldwide—one synonymous with boldly-flavored, cutting-edge Belgian-style, Sour, and barrel-aged beers. A special treat during our tour of The Bruery was a stop in its barrel-aging warehouse. We were led to a nondescript office building a block away from the main facility, and upon entering the combined aromas of oak, bourbon, and other assorted barrel varieties smacked us in the face. Walking into the warehouse itself was like entering a real-life treasure trove: somewhere between 10-12,000 square feet of space with rack upon rack of wooden barrels. It was like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—except for beer.

Can't lie; it moved.

Can’t lie; it moved.

Mind you, none of these contain The Bruery’s vaunted Sour Ales—those are created and aged in a different facility about three miles away. Part of The Bruery’s evolution involved moving Sour/Wild Ale production; fresh wort is even trucked over to the ‘Sour house’ (my phrase, not theirs) so all fermentation involving Brettanomyces and The Bruery’s souring bacteria can take place away from the regular production line, all part of an effort that should help avoid some of the cross-contamination issues that have occurred with a handful of beers in the past.

I recommend going in a small group like I did (my wife and best friend came with me); The Bruery’s approach is one that involves a lot of styles that aren’t for everyone, occasionally delving into ‘extreme’ beer territory. Unlike other breweries that forge their own path however, The Bruery’s wide-ranging lineup is welcoming to all palates, truly offering something for everyone to enjoy. My best friend is not a Sour Ale fan, and my wife is not into aggressively hoppy beers; all three of us found brews that we enjoyed at the tasting room. Because of the spectrum of beers The Bruery offers, telling your server that you’re not a fan of a particular beer won’t elicit any of the exasperated sighing or beer geeksplaining from the crew there that you might in other places; just suggestions on what you might enjoy trying next.

Much taps; many tastings; wow.

Much taps; many tastings; wow.

And there’s almost always something to try next. A visit to The Bruery’s tasting room involves grabbing a piece of paper and selecting a handful of beers to try (in two-ounce sampler glasses) for a flight—kind of like a sushi place. Once again, thanks to the kindness of Jonas and the crew at The Bruery, we were allowed more than the five samples that come with the typical flight, and we allowed access to beers typically reserved for members of their Preservation Society and Reserve Society.

What I took away from both of my brewery visits was a renewed sense of optimism for the future of beer: as different as Stone and The Bruery are from each other, there is no sense of competition there—no accusations of one or the other doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Both breweries are striving to elevate the standards of the art; both want to use the best ingredients possible to make the best beer possible. Both approaches work for both breweries, as well as their fans. If you can, I highly encourage visiting both.

Now, the tasting notes!!!!!!

Loakal Red: This was the lone unanimously loved beer among the three of us. A nod to the mostly hop-driven SoCal beer scene, Loakal Red is a hoppy Amber Ale that wisely sees a quarter of the beer aged in oak before being blended into the final beer. That oak-aged bit is enough to take some edge off the bitterness of the hops, allowing anyone with a taste for beer to get into it. I think there’s a chance we may see this on the East Coast at some point, but The Bruery wouldn’t clue me into that one way or the other.

Shegoat: A riff on German Weizenbock done in a manner only Bruery head Patrick Rue could come up with. Nothing insane happening here; just loads of sweet caramel malts and a ton of old-school banana-like Hefe yeast notes. The result is more Doppelbock than Weizenbock in feel, and is kinda banana bready. Delicious.

Sour In The Rye (w/Pineapple & Coconut): SITR is one of my favorite beers, period–so I jump at any opportunity to try a variant. Predictably, I loved the pineapple and was ‘meh’ on the coconut–but then, I love pineapple and am kinda ‘meh’ on coconut so that makes sense. Still, and overall excellent beer that I’d punch your mom in the face for a bottle of.

Tart Of Darkness (w/Vanilla Bean & Cacao): The combination of being from the 2013 batch of TOD along with the boldness of the vanilla and cacao made this version come off a lot rounder, less intensely acidic than others I’ve had in the past. The bourbon barrel felt a bit more prominent here too, but the vanilla may draw that out more. Very nice.

Atomic Kangarue: This is an insane Reserve Society offering that my wife and I both fell in love with. What’s so insane, you ask? Well, here’s a rundown of what Atomic Kangarue is: “A Belgian-style golden ale, brewed with Semillon and Viognier grapes plus three types of hops, fermented with Brettanomyces Trois as well as our house yeast strain, then blended with a sour blonde ale and finally dry-hopped with Amarillo hops (credit).” I mean, who does that? Madness. IN any event, this was so damn good  and basically steeled my resolve to get into the Reserve (and eventually the Hoarders) Society. Amazing, complex, floral, fruity, acidic yet fleshy on the palate–seriously, track this down.

White Chocolate: I tried White Chocolate for the first time in 2013, at a bottle share. I never would’ve guessed that I’d love a cacao-infused Wheat Wine this much, but it really is something special. Yes, it’s sweet, but there’s a hint of balance in White Chocolate (not to mention enough alcoholic heat) to keep it from going too far.

Oude Tart (w/Plums): I’ll put Oude Tart up against just about any Flemish Red made in the U.S. right now, and the fruit-addition versions (there’s also an Oude Tart with cherries) are really special. Oude Tart spends 18 months in wine barrels, so there’s already a vinous, fruity character in it that plays wonderfully with the plums.

Dad’s Infidelity: A wine barrel-fermented Saison with two Brett strains and blackberries. Delightfully floral wild yeast notes; just enough berry flavor–I want more of this in my life.

BeRazzled: The Bruery does Framboise. BeRazzled pours a color you’d expect from cough syrup, but if you’ve ever had their Gueuze-style Rueuze, you’d know that the sharp acidity of that base beer would cut well through a big fruit addition–and it does just that.

Soroboruo: A Sour Wee Heavy (!) with heather tips. The sour is mild in this one, which is as it should be–with the heather involved and considering the Wee Heavy style, any more sour would’ve been too much. It was a bit much for my friend, who is admittedly not a Sour fan, but it was a nice experience for him nonetheless.

Smoking Wood (Bourbon Barrel-Aged): I LOVE Smoking Wood; a 13% ABV smoked Rye malt Imperial Porter usually aged on Rye Whiskey barrels. This Bourbon barrel version struck me a bit more approachable than the Rye–less Islay Scotch-y. You can find some bottles in the NoVA are right now; recommended.

Sucre (Tawny Port Barrel-Aged): I had this one at the Stone Anniversary Party. The Tawny Port barrels bump ABV to 15.1% in this version of The Bruery’s 6th Anniversary Ale. Essentially an Old Ale done through a Solera system (with previous year’s versions blended into the next year’s), Sucre is a natural fit for fortified wine barrel-aging. Nutty, with a bit of extra sweetness and a subtle raisiny note. Delightful.   

Next week: wrapping up with an East Coast perspective of the California beer scene—the good, the bad, and the hoppy (which can alternately be good and bad). See you then!

We Are All Beer Geeks Now

Squirrel In Cider

There will never be a greater image on this blog. Never.

I’ve had a thought festering in my head for some time now, but hadn’t been able to crystallize it until a conversation I had with my wife recently. We were talking about Vintage Ads; a livejournal that makes for a great addition to your RSS feed (if you use a reader). Vintage Ads is exactly what you think it is: a repository for images and videos of classic advertisements from yesteryear. My favorite posts on Vintage Ads are often the food-related ones; they tell the tale of American food appreciation from the earnestness (and casual racism) of the early 20th Century to the “Science is improving all of our lives!” spirit (and casual racism) of the 1930s (“Tingling Buoyancy!“; “Sunshine Vitamin D!…mellowed to ripe perfection under PRECISE ENZYME CONTROL; “The acid of the orange aids digestion…the fruit to eat with rich repasts“; “Lively flavor and goodness“), to the war effort/rationing (and overt racism) of the WWII-era and beyond.

My wife was pointing out how in the span of a few decades, Americans went from Hot Buttered Cheerios, Squirrel-in-Cider, gelatin-molded veg-all ‘pie-plate salads’, Impossible Cheeseburger Pie (pies are generally a source of nightmare fuel on Vintage Ads, btw), and frosted ham to a nation of organic, biodynamic, locavore, gluten-free, non-GMO, traditionally-styled/fusion/niche cuisine-craving foodies. That’s when the thought finally came together in my head, as we both realized that beer has taken a very similar path–

We are all Beer Geeks now.

Follow me for a moment: A media star rises, suddenly opening the eyes of an American audience to the history, culture and possibility of their consumables. Most importantly, Americans learn that doing it themselves is easier than they think–and it sparks a revolution. Other celebrities follow, and within a couple of decades an entire industry comes alive, spurred on by those who were inspired by that first exposure, and an American public newly awakened and curious about what it’s been missing out on.

Of course I’m thinking of Julia Child, but I could just as easily be writing about the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson. In the wake of The French Chef, America discovered more culinary guides: Jacques Pepin, Graham Kerr, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain…hell, throw in Rachel Ray, Paula Deen, and Martha Stewart–it’s a big tent, after all, with room for all tastes and interests. Millions were inspired to start cooking for themselves at home; a small percentage of those went on to careers in the restaurant/food industry. Just like that, you have a revolution in food culture in the United States.

Jackson brought history, context, and a nobility to beer that largely had not been considered by America before him. With President Carter’s passage of H.R. 1337 in 1978, Americans began making their own beer in greater numbers than ever before; within a few short years many of the pioneering craft breweries were already up-and-running. People like Fritz Maytag (Anchor), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Larry Bell (Bell’s), and Jim Koch (Boston Beer) began to stake out territory for a fledgling industry still seen as a curiosity by much of the country.

(Note: I realize this is an unbelieveably truncated version of the beginnings of the craft beer movement in America, but I only have so much time. Don’t be pedantic, and don’t be a dick. Don’t be a pedandick.)

Their work found an audience thirsty for world-class American beer, and as they say, nothing succeeds like success. The beers of one generation of craft brewers inspired the next to not only push the envelope in terms of flavor, but in the ambitions they had for the reach of their breweries and their corporate philosophies. Sam Calagione spreads the gospel of beer while encouraging beer drinkers to explore the history of the beverage and to try new and different (sometimes very different) things; Greg Koch has built a national brand while adhering to an overtly political stance regarding Big Beer, corporations, etc., and Lagunitas’ Tony Magee brings a musician’s perspective to the beer business, simultaneously attempting to achieve a purity of expression in his beers while constantly fighting to preserve the ‘artisan’ aspect of brewing as the industry grows. The similarities between the evolution of the food and beer industries are stunning when you start noticing them, and it’s hard to avoid a simple truth–this has all happened before, and it will happen again.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin' toasters.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin’ toasters.

For all of the talk of various trends and fads, the overall arc of American interest in food has been a continually rising one. The ‘foodie’ phenomenon has grown to the point where now fast food restaurants are offering ‘healthy’ alternatives and are racing to out-do each other with artisanal-sounding ingredients. Neighborhood grocery stores now stock organic, sustainable, gluten-free items–stuff you had to search far and wide for 10-15 years ago. You can buy organic eggs at the 711 on Washington Boulevard in Arlington now. The foodies have won. There’s no going back; this is the new normal.

The same thing is happening with beer right now. Blue Moon was the first sign that the tide had turned; Shock Top, the brewery buyouts, Budweiser Select, Budweiser Black Crown, Miller Fortune and the like all followed–the big guys chasing an audience that was suddenly demanding more. What’s most important here, however, isn’t how BMC has handled the rise of the ‘craft beer movement'; it’s how ‘craft beer’ has grown its audience to the point where it’s no longer a niche product. ‘Craft beer’ is in our grocery stores, our 711s, gas stations, neighborhood bars–like I said last week:

“I don’t get pissed off because Stone, Dogfish, Bell’s, Lagunitas and the like are available at the Giant across the street from me–them being there means we’re winning”

We are all Beer Geeks now.

The debate over craft beer being a trend, or ‘craft’ versus ‘crafty’, is done. All that’s really left to argue over are personal preferences and philosophies, which is great because those are all friendly arguments; those are fun. We should be vigilant and keep an eye out for BMC taking over more smaller breweries in an attempt to co-opt the movement of course, but once upon a time ‘craft beer’ was the rallying cry for those who wanted options; now there are more choices available to consumers in more places than I would’ve imagined possible even just ten years ago.

So let’s stop talking about whether Goose Island is ‘craft’ or not anymore, or Ommegang or Boulevard for that matter. There are immensely talented brewers working with pride at breweries of all sizes all over the world–it’s all ‘craft’. Let’s be open and frank about our preferences and let’s be specific about them, too. I’ll start: Back before the ABI buyout I got to try a couple Goose Island beers and thought they were good, but nothing to rave about. Since the buyout, I’ve tried some very good Goose Island beers (Honker’s, Harvest Ale, their new  The Ogden Tripel which is nice but finishes a bit hot for my taste; Pepe Nero), but I still see the takeover as ABI trying to buy itself some ‘street cred’. Between those factors and the only Goose Island beer I get requests for on a regular basis being Bourbon County Stout (which I’m also not crazy about personally), it’s an easy decision for me not to carry it. But you won’t hear me say the brewers of Goose Island aren’t good at what they do; nor will I say that they lack passion for beer or are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of beer drinkers, because they’re not. Everyone is trying to make the best beer possible; everything else is a matter of preference.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

There is still work to be done; still whole swaths of the country where smaller breweries aren’t available. But the tide has turned and it’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The day will come when we start reading people bitching about the dominance of ‘big breweries’ like Dogfish Head, Stone, Lagunitas, New Belgium, and the like–a day I think is coming relatively soon, actually. When it does, I’ll just smile and be happy that these upstarts managed to grow at all–let alone become national names–in the face of an industry that wanted nothing less than to kill a consumer movement before it ever had a chance to grow. Welcome to the club, everybody.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

 

 

 

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.

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

Uruguay

Quick note: I finished this in Early April; about a month after we got back. I’ve since changed jobs, computers and all kinds of stuff, hence the delay getting this out. My bad. Enjoy! -Nick

I recently took a vacation with my wife to visit her family in Uruguay. This was my first trip outside the U.S. (we never had much money to travel when I was a kid, and I’m not one for taking vacation time away from work) so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. More than anything else I was simply hoping to relax and get away from my life here in the DC area for a while. What I got was that and so much more. While we were there I started keeping a ‘journal’ of Facebook notes for our friends to read, chronicling the events of our days thousands of miles from home. Here is an essay, for lack of a better word, cobbled together from those notes.

Day 1:

Day 1 involved getting into Montevideo and settled in at my wife’s aunt’s apartment, where we were going to crash as she was out of town. The flight from DC (well, Dulles if you know the area) left very early in the morning. Our trip took us nearly 6,000 miles: From DC to Panama to Lima to Montevideo. The airport in Panama City seems to be very well planned-out in anticipation of the anarchy its people would loose upon it. The highlight of that stop was being given a sample of some kind of Panamanian liquor at the duty-free by an extremely tall, very attractive shop girl whose English was at about the same level as my Spanish. If you put $100 in front of me right now I couldn’t tell you what kind of booze that was supposed to be; it seemed to be some kind of upscale version of Tuaca, but really it just seemed like a cloying brown syrup. But I at least got my first drink in me and that would have to be enough until we got to Peru.

Now, Lima. Lima is a hell of an airport. The duty-free shops aren’t the best, I’ll say that. But what they lack in crap to shamelessly markup they make up for in abundant seating at the gates and some cool places to eat and drink while you wait. My personal favorite was the smoking lounge/bar we found. Before anyone out there gives me hell over this: Yes, it’s a filthy habit. I’m not a pack a day guy, I’m not a 1 or 2 a day guy. I smoke as much or as little as I feel like. I completely understand the aversion to smoking and the people who smoke, I really do. But when I get to an airport with a smoking lounge, a bus station with an area by the platforms, even a smoking car on a train–it feels like finding civilization to me. Even if I don’t feel like having a smoke, it’s just nice to see a place realistic enough to know that people smoke and gives those people a place to go.

So about the smoking lounge. I can’t recommend it enough. Cleverly, they attached the smoking lounge itself to a bar, so you can kick back with a beer and some food and kill the time you have to kill. We got some little fried appetizers stuffed with beef, a couple beers and enjoyed the mountain view (another nice touch).

By this point, we’d been in the air for a while and still had a few hours layover and one more flight to Uruguay. We were in that place where you just need a beer. The selection wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. That’s how it came to pass that on that day, February 24th of the year 2011,  I finally came to name the ‘any beer is a good beer right now’ phenomenon.  Henceforth I shall refer anyone who brings this state up to the Brahma Law of Beer Truth: That even bad beer, during or after a long day, can touch greatness and refresh like no other beverage on planet Earth.

With plenty of time to kill before the next flight, my wife promptly fell asleep by the gate while I worked on reading the excellent World War Z (highly recommended, by the way). After her 2-3 hour nap, my wife felt hungry again (as did I) so we went back to the lounge. This time we decided to go for sandwiches. Actually, looking back on it now, the theme for Day 1 was ‘sandwiches’ (more on that later). My wife got something with like 3 different types of ham on it; I had a sandwich with turkey, ham, bacon, mayo and bleu cheese on it. Now, I’ve known about pollo a la brasa for years being from the DC area, but this was the work of a truly great culture indeed. Finally it was time for the last flight to Montevideo.

Upon landing, I quickly discovered a couple things about Uruguay–1: Our taxi ride from the airport basically let it be known that if it’s not impossible to get pulled over in Uruguay, it’s at least extremely rare and exceedingly difficult. 2: Every building had those cool old-school elevators where you opened the door, pulled the gate open and shut, etc. It was fantastic. I felt like I was in an old-school detective flick everywhere I went.

"It was a dark night; dark like a bar though the bottom of an empty whiskey glass..."

After spending that first day in Montevideo among the Uruguayans and in particular my wife’s relatives, my wife made much more sense to me. The people  (especially my wife’s family) and the city itself are very Italian. Hanging out with my wife’s cousins, having beers, busting balls; the conversation went by at a great pace and volume. My Spanish is choppy at best but I could pick up enough of the conversation to pretty well follow what people were saying, and whatever I missed my wife would fill me in on. Everyone was really warm and welcoming, taking me in almost immediately and going out of their way to include me. I’m not sure if I ever really found the words to let them know how much that meant to me. It would have been very easy to just let me sit there while they caught up with my wife. It’s something about this place that I can’t quite put my finger on. At once it’s a place that moves at a breakneck pace where you feel you could get lost at any moment but seems to lightly grab you and pull you in. Montevideo wants you to step in and go on the ride with it. It’s a great vibe; people were laid back, casually friendly. No one asked anyone what they did for a living. No one would for the duration of my stay; at least not until getting to a natural part of conversation where you’d ask someone such a thing. It’s obvious I’m not home and that, friends, is a very good thing for Uruguay to be.

The food to that point had been great but I could only speak for the pizza and an outrageously large milaneses sandwich I ended up with at the mall we’d walked through earlier that day. The place we ate at was one of a chain of restaurants down there called La Pasiva. My wife told me they got famous offering good cheap hot dogs and have since expanded their menu. Now you can easily find a La Pasiva when you’re out and about and stop in for some grub and a beer, or wine, or whiskey or Coke out of a glass bottle.  So about that sandwich: This thing had a breaded and fried steak, peppers, cheese, lettuce, mayo and probably about 2-3 eggs on it. I finished half and grudgingly took the rest back to the apartment,  waiting for my first drunken-night-munchie craving of the trip to polish off the rest. I’m shocked at how late I stayed up that first night considering the travel we’d just did, but all the same I laid down and read myself to sleep after a great day feeling like I already belonged here somehow.

Day 2:

The beginning of Day 2 was dedicated to the ‘Vacation’ portion of our stay, involving a lot of catching up on sleep and doing little while awake. I was still not 100% with it sleep-wise (in fact, I’ve been home three weeks at this point and am still not all the way back–springing forward helped a bit as we were three hours ahead of DC), but I’m getting there.

As a bit of a car dork, I had an eye on what people drove  there and fell even more in love. Uruguay is the Land of the Hatchback, specifically the VW Golf. Seriously, if a Golf was made between the late 80’s-early 00’s and you don’t know where it is, it ended up there,  still running and still kicking ass. This country loves a handful of cars in particular, all of which endear it to me more:

1. The aforementioned VW Golf. Specifically the late 80’s-early 90’s 1.6 2-door hatch.

2. Hatchbacks of all makes and number of doors. Citroens,  Renaults, Peugeots…

3. The VW Bus. Not the crappy, blocky 80’s one, either; I mean the full-on Dharma Initiative-style hippie bus. I must have seen at least a couple dozen during our stay.

4. Old VW Beetles and Fiat 500’s (!!!!) everywhere. Plus one SWEET old Mini in racing red with rally lamps I saw driving by our apartment on Day 1.

5. There was an Alfa dealership two blocks from where we were staying. I wanted to kick the door down, test drive a Giulietta and beg them to come back to the States (turns out they just may be–joy).

(You can look at some of the cooler cars I found here.)

Night 2 started with dinner at a neighborhood restaurant with many of my wife’s relatives (and there are many). We all shared various meats, including the best blood sausage I’d ever had (there would be a new ‘best ever’ before the trip was done). There was great steak, chorizo and sweetbreads going around the table as well. After dinner we headed out with a couple of the cousins and their friends in search of a bar. We found one called Utopia a few blocks from our place. Not much by way of beer selection (while what they did have worked like a charm) but a very cool whiskey list, which apparently is very common here. It turns out the beverage of choice for most men in Uruguay at the end of the day isn’t necessarily beer, but whiskey or scotch.

I know, I thought it too: These were my people, and I had at long last found them.

The bar was decorated like it didn’t know if it wanted to be an upscale club or a cocktail bar. The big screen playing a mix of crappy late-90’s/early 00’s pop (with some Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure) didn’t help anything, but like I said the beers were enjoyed in good spirits and to their credit they sent out a plate of the most interesting looking potato skins I’ve ever seen. It looked like a Top Chef Challenge. Overall, a good experience.

Day 3:

Not the worst place to spend your day

For the first time since arriving we woke up at a human hour and caught a ride just outside town to visit cousins on the dad’s side of my wife’s family (like I said, a lot of relatives). They were a  beautiful, charming family who really could not have been more kind or generous to us. Most of the day was spent eating BBQ pizza (a full 10/10) and drinking whiskey. My first confrontation with the Uruguayan sun left my neck a bit red (make your own jokes here) but the rest of me unscathed. We passed around some mate and got an eyeful of the southern stars as the sun set. They dropped us back at the apartment in time to catch some of the Oscar pre-shows. It seemed odd to see the show starting around 11PM local time, but I hit the fridge for a soda and my leftover sandwich and settled in to watch. The broadcast was in English with a live translator who apparently was providing something like color-commentary on the nominees and winners when they were announced. I’m not sure if there was a moment where I wished my Spanish was better more the whole trip than during that broadcast.

Days 4-7:

Not much to report from Day 4 of our trip. We walked around Pocitos, the neighborhood in Montevideo we were staying in. The ‘highlight’ of our day was the arrival of our ‘roommates’–a pair of curly white-haired dogs of indeterminate pedigree belonging to the Aunt whose place we’re staying in. Their names went right through my head, so I took to calling them Thing 1 and Thing 2. My wife thought Thing 2 was cuter; this is probably true but that’s grading on such a sad curve it’s almost not worth mentioning.

Thing 1

Thing 2

The morning of Day 5 saw us setting off for Punta del Este. For those unfamiliar, Punta del Este is the big getaway in Uruguay. Relatively unknown in America, it’s a haven for tourists from Argentina, Brazil and all over Europe. My wife says it’s very much like being in the south of France. I’m taking her word for that, but there was what I could only imagine was a very Euro vibe about the place.

Punta del Este

After being there about 3 days there were some things I could report about Punta del Este, the foremost being:

1. It’s an obscenely beautiful place. Everything is achingly perfect and everyone just walks around like it’s no big deal.

See? This was the other view from the balcony

2. The sun is INTENSE. I got really sick of repeatedly re-applying sunscreen.

Everything else is happenings and occurrences. It seems odd that it’s so hot near the bottom of the world. The sky during the day is a burst of all shades of blue from the brightest softest Baby to a rich Navy so dark you find yourself searching for stars while lying on the beach. Oh, and when the stars do come out–incredible. Like I said, everything just seems to be effortlessly perfect there.

It’s a port town, a beach town and a resort city all in one. We were eating like royalty thanks to my wife’s Aunt who we stayed with. Being able to walk down to the Marina to do your seafood shopping just puts it all over the top when you get to have homemade mussels Provencal, or the unbelievable-smelling paella we were getting ready to sit down to as I originally wrote this.

Nightlife is just that: Folks don’t seem to sit down to dinner until about 10PM before heading out for the night. One night, for example, my wife and I went out to grab hot dogs at La Pasiva (where we got the epic milanesas sandwiches from Day 1) around 10 and found the place empty. Afterward we walked until we hit the street where most of the bars and clubs are, stopping at the Moby Dick Pub for beers (I picked the Moby Dick because it had the word ‘Pub’ in its name and they were playing George Harrison at the time). We stayed until about 1AM when the night’s band started playing, leading off with an energetic and inspired ‘Message in a Bottle'; as we left the place had just about filled up. It’s all very cool, but there is something that can get in the way of your enjoyment: There’s something about Punta del Este that just makes you want to sleep all the damn time. I swear, I could fall asleep just about any time of day there, for god knows how long, on cue.

Pancetta-wrapped hot dog? Glass-bottle Coke? Why am I back in the States, again?

We half-joked about staying. I know exactly how much I wasn’t joking. Somewhere between beer 4 and 5 at the Moby Dick that night,  my wife tells me I look as happy and relaxed as she’s seen me in years and she’s absolutely right. I was really happy in this country. Then again, I’m happy to be almost anywhere that isn’t home. It’s no secret I hate living in the DC area (well, ‘hate’ is a strong word, but…) and would love to find anywhere else in this world to live. I’m trying not to let myself romanticize Uruguay too much like I do everywhere else I visit. Of course, like everywhere else I visit, I fail miserably.

Day 7’s big happening was bike riding around the town as we picked up ingredients for that paella I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t been on a bike in a VERY long time, but I heard it’s like…well, you know. Anyway, after I’d gotten just a bit used to my huevos bouncing off a very tough bike seat I started seeing the town differently. There’s a difference between walking a place and exploring it with a car, motorcycle or a bike like we did that day. When you walk a place, you get a lay of the land–a sense of what’s where. You browse storefronts and notice flower beds. When you drive or ride a place you become part of it for those moments; you get to be a cell in that city’s bloodstream, careening through arteries and veins and the odd capillary or two. You get inside that place the same way it gets in you. It’s something unique to being in the traffic of a city or town; the confrontation and acceptance, like two dogs passing on the sidewalk. I got to experience it that day in Punta del Este: Riding around the ‘boardwalk’, seeing the different beaches and the different people who frequent them, stopping at the Marina for mussels, shrimp and all kinds of seafood (all of it STUNNING); hitting the grocery store for a couple bottles of wine and just marveling at their meat counters. It all makes you feel like the city’s taken you in, that you’re ok, that you belong in your own weird little way. You can have all of those experiences walking, but they take a hell of a lot longer and don’t give you the same sense of communion that I had riding around town that day. Just something to think about that next time you ‘get lost’ driving around an unfamiliar city or town. Use it as an excuse to explore. You never know when you’ll fall in love with a place, or maybe it with you.

Reppin' w/my Dogfish hat. Ridin' dirty.

Day 8-12, Coming home, Being home:

We hopped the bus back to Montevideo late in the afternoon of Day 8. Arriving back in the city, we couldn’t help but notice how many more buses were in the station than there were when we’d left. We had arrived in the city just in time for the rush of people coming and going to Carnival. My wife and I celebrated by making an effort to have the most quiet, boring Friday night out of anyone in the city. I believe we succeeded. Saturday was all about the evening BBQ with a couple of the cousins. We hit the supermarket (imagine a Target with an ungodly meat counter) and picked out some cuts we wanted and stuff the guys thought I needed to try while I was there. You see, Uruguay is a country of around three million people with about ten million cows. They’ve had time to get creative with the product and find out what really works in a way you don’t see all that often in most parts of the States. Sweetbreads I was familiar with and all too happy to see hitting the grill. What was new to me, however, was chinchulines. If you’ve ever had chitlins, you’re in the ballpark. The difference is that where chitlins are pork intestine, chinchulines are cut from a cow’s small intestine. Also different is that here in the U.S., chitlins in the Soul Food context are usually stewed for many hours with onion and then occasionally (but not always) battered and fried with vinegar and hot sauce on the side. Chinchulines go straight to the grill then to the plate. The only real prep work done is to marinate them in a healthy amount of fresh lemon juice; an occasional squeeze of lemon while grilling is as intense as the cooking gets. They were fantastic, firm, slightly gamey hunks of ‘you don’t know this is fantastic but it is’ goodness. Overall, it was a beautiful, breezy, boozy night and when I finally laid down to sleep, above the whir of the a/c and the music and revelry on the streets below, one thing and one thing alone cut through and kept me staring at the ceiling long past any reasonable hour: The dread in the pit of my gut of going home.

Just another night in heaven

I may be speaking for my wife a bit here, but I think I’m not inaccurate in saying that the last few days in Uruguay were a heady mix of reluctantly preparing for the trip home, finding time to visit family while we could and enjoying what was left of our vacation. Alas, all of these things pulled at each other in a way that was inevitable. That’s not to say those last days weren’t enjoyable: We got to walk the suburb where my wife’s grandmother lived (she passed just after our wedding a couple of years ago) where eucalyptus grew everywhere and stopped for some fantastic ice cream. We got to experience the Uruguayan idea of Mexican cuisine, which while tasty lacked a certain…well, I’ll just say if it says ‘spicy’ on the menu it should make an effort to back that up. We also got to do the ONE thing I knew I wanted to do before we even got to Uruguay.

If you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, you may have seen the episode where he goes to Uruguay. When I saw it, I was blown away by his visit to the Mercado del Puerto, at the port area of Montevideo’s Old City. What he finds there is, well, I’ll let you check it out:

I had to experience it. And so we did. After a fantastic walk through the markets and historic buildings of the Old City with my wife’s cousin and her adorable little girl (who was freaked out by my beard in that cute little-girl way where you’re not insulted) we found our way to a counter at the Mercado. If we’d been there at the same time, you’d have caught me behind Bourdain in those front-on shots in that video. His description is right on: Everything that gets set out in front of you is amazing, the blood sausage took the ‘best ever’ crown and by the end I was certainly sated, but not stuffed. It all just felt right and not like some kind of gluttonous gorging, because it’s not. It’s a lot of meat to be sure, unlike anything you can order at a restaurant here in the U.S. (although if there’s a place you can, please let me know), but everything is of the highest quality and when shared feels like a reasonable if extremely smile-inducing meal.

Oh, yeah. Rejoice, bitches

See this? This is my Happy Meat Face

Here’s a couple notes, should you find yourself at the Mercado del Puerto:

1. It’s not as much meat as it appears. The bulk of the metal ‘bucket’ you see there is for coals off the grill to keep the meat warm during the meal. It’s not a bucket of grilled meat so much as a very deep plate of grilled meat. Don’t let it intimidate you.

2. I can’t stress Bourdain’s rules enough here–no potatoes, no veggies. Not that it’ll come with many; our dish for ‘two’ had a potato sliced in half and some strips of green pepper as a conceit to foods that did not at one time breathe or move of their own accord. Sip your beer, too. A Coke isn’t the worst idea but go with whatever you feel like.

3. They’ll ask if you want sweet or salty blood sausage. The correct answer, of course, is both. This is the one mistake I made at our counter–I thought I had to choose. Don’t listen to those American instincts–get both. It’s not as if they’re running out of cows.

Our last night was spent with one last hang with the cousins, where I got to try my first chivito. I’ll give you a second to let that sink in. Anyway, we got to bed around 2AM and woke up at 5 to head to the airport. The trip back was less than ideal in just about every way. The highlights involved our luggage getting left behind in Peru and a particularly sketchy rain-landing in Dulles. The second we touched down I turned to my wife and said “We should have never left”.

It’s been three weeks now since we returned and my feelings have mellowed a bit. I’d certainly consider going ex-pat someday, but it’s not feasible for us anytime soon. For now I’m trying to hold onto that feeling of happiness and relaxation I had while I was there.

In the final analysis, I think a lot of the reason there are so many interests that I’ve delved so deeply into is a need of mine to find where things fit. From beer to wine to cars and more (music, comics…) I always look at things with a mindset of where its place in the universe is. If I’m having a moment of introspection here (and let’s be honest–this is a blog, everything here is navel-gazing of one form or another) I see everything as a fellow traveler hurtling through space hoping to find a place to fit in. I’m not leaving the DC area anytime soon: My wife’s job has too many potential benefits for ourselves and the child we may decide to have someday. I see everywhere we go as a test of how I feel in a place, if I could see us escaping and setting down roots there. San Francisco/East Bay almost got me, but in the end I just couldn’t see myself staying. We spent a few days in Asheville, NC back in October and that was a winner for sure. Great food, great beer culture, still Mid-Atlantic but in the mountains. I really felt like I could make a home there. Like I could fit in there.

I think what I’m trying to say is that our trip to Uruguay opened my eyes not just to a different country or culture or even a way of life; it made me reconsider and refine what look for in a place. It made me stop and relax without having to slow down or isolate myself. From my American perspective it’s such a beautiful, simple, reasonable place that allows you to live the way you think people should be able to. I found a part of myself I usually only find on drives out to the countryside where my first memories were formed. I also found something new–an adult version of the childhood feeling of home.

I don’t know if I could live so far from everyone I’ve ever known. I don’t know if my Spanish will ever get to the point where I wouldn’t sound like a dumbass to anyone I spoke to. I don’t know if we could make the move work or how we’d get by. All I’m saying is that I would definitely consider trying.

Yup. Definitely considering...

Next time: Something novel like, say, a beer review! ‘Til then.

Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Van Twee, Life & Limb

‘Collaboration’ is the word. It’s a word that honestly bothers the hell out of me, mostly from overuse. Ever since the 90’s, people have been popping up on each others records and calling it collaboration when really it’s just a joint promotional play between two media entities. If Mary J. sings the hook on your record, that’s not a collaboration. She’s just singing the hook on your record. Sting and Dire Straits didn’t ‘collaborate’ on Money for Nothing. He just sang a background part as a favor for a friend.  Let me drive this home before I go on a real rant….

NOT a collaboration: Close, but no. You just had dudes lay down new tracks in the background for a song that was already a hit. Congrats, you made Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke:

Technically collaboration: All bands are collaborations, but these guys (Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones) are well known outside of this project (by the way get this album now!!!):

THE collaboration, also one of the best rock songs ever written:

So, collaboration demands a certain level of recognition and prestige of the parties involved. It’s a rare thing in these days where everyone is an expert in every field (just ask me or any of the thousands of beer and wine bloggers out there). There aren’t many opportunities for true collaboration in an era where most industries and arts are devoid of masters. Except, it seems, for the wonderful world of craft beer. It’s become de rigueur for brewery folks to come together, hang out, talk shop and then release a special beer they thought up together.

Not that this is anything I’m complaining about. Some of the most interesting beers of the past few years have come from this phenomenon. The Brooklyn and Schneider breweries practically rewrote the book on Hefeweizen with their dual efforts. Bel Proximus was the culmination of years of study for the Brett Pack and a signpost of American craft brewing’s coming of age through it’s understanding of Belgian brewing techniques. It’s this Belgian/American link that we’ll be exploring first today.

I hadn’t heard of Dirk Naudts until about a year and a half ago, when the beers of his De Proef (Dirk’s nickname, ‘The Prof) brewery arrived in Northern Virginia. It turns out that Dirk is something of a legend over in Belgium; one of the most renowned brewmasters in the whole country. I’m still trying to find out how many recipes from how many breweries are Dirk’s. If you’re enough into beer to be reading this blog, you’ve probably had something Dirk came up with, even if you don’t know it. Well, Dirk eventually came to open De Proef as his own brewery, a small super-precise computer-monitored place that turns out the magic potions that this sorcerer comes up with. My first experience with De Proef was with their excellent Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, which is just about the most intensely Bretty thing I’ve ever seen. It had great balance and flavor, though, and I knew I’d found a new brewery to be a fan of.

Not all of Dirk’s beers are his alone, however. Not long after first carrying his beers, we received the first in a series of collaborations he was doing. This first one was made with Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey/Port Brewing. It was a beer with a Brett level approaching the Reinaert but hopped like an American DIPA. The result was tropical, rich, smooth goodness that found a surprisingly large following. When I finally made it out to Cali earlier this year and visited San Francisco’s world-class Toranado, the first draft I had was the Port/De Proef Ale.

Now we have the release of Van Twee (‘from two’), made with John Mallett of Michigan’s legendary Bell’s brewery. I had heard whispers about this one for about a year, but had no idea it was coming in. I happened to notice it on the shelf where I bought it (no I’m not telling—I want to try to get another bottle or two) and immediately grabbed it. The back label describes it ‘broadly’ as a mix of the Porter and Dubbel styles, using Belgian candi sugar and the dark, sour cherries that Michigan is known for as well as some of that cherry juice. The sugar used for bottle conditioning came from Michigan sugar beets and it was finished with a Brett addition and the Nelson Sauvin hop from New Zealand (!). Even the ingredients are in the spirit of collaboration.

Van Twee pours a dark brown hue; in certain light you can detect a hint of red but I really had to look to find it. It looks like a Belgian Stout more than a Dubbel, but the viscosity is consistent with Porter and Dubbel. The nose was doubly tart with the cherry and Brett. Anyone familiar with Bell’s Cherry Stout knows what I’m talking about when I say that I knew there was a malty beer under the cherry aroma, but it’s almost too much work to get past the intensity of the fruit. I feel like it worked a little better in the context of the Belgian beer; perhaps there’s a familiarity we have with sour Lambic beers that makes it a little easier to handle such a sharp cherry smell. Either way, I couldn’t glean much of the beer’s character from the nose, so I dove in.

The palate is full-bodied and very smooth. It’s a great balance of rich malty flavors and the tartness of the cherries. The sugars and Brett are used more for texture, for evenness of flavor, with neither having a heavy influence on the flavor. What they do, though, is add elements that seem to come from nowhere: The sugar on the front palate makes you think immediately of a Belgian Dubbel or Stout, and the Brett combines with the cherry on the finish in a way that made me think for an instant of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru. I love Rodenbach Grand Cru. All in all, an interesting one-0f-a-kind brew that you should seek out. Highly recommended.

The collaboration everyone was talking about in ’09, though, was Life & Limb, the long-awaited beer from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. Beer Geeks everywhere got all tingly when this was announced, and the speed with which the bottles flew off shelves here in NoVA spoke volumes about how big the craft beer scene has become here. I managed to snag one for myself (only one, unfortunately) for a review.

Life & Limb is a strong dark Ale (10% ABV) made with Chico estate-grown barley and maple syrup from Dogfish boss-guy Sam Calagione’s family’s farm in Massachusetts. The brew is bottle-conditioned and naturally carbonated with Alaskan birch syrup (!). I cracked my bottle and dove in…

The first thing I noticed was the color. Life & Limb pours a deep nutty brown, with a fine but firm head. It looks more like a potion or elixir than a beer, like I should take one of its 24 oz bottles with me into a Legend of Zelda-like dungeon. I got a lot of the maple and birch syrup on the nose, with a hint of that classic unmistakable Sierra Nevada yeast strain (more on this in a second). I lingered on the nose for a bit, because I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was intrigued for sure, but I didn’t quite get it yet.

After the first sip, I got it. Not nearly as heavy as it looked, not very hoppy at all (even though it clocks in around 50 IBU). Sweet maple syrup and birch notes are kept in check by the richness of the grains. The feel, thanks to the birch syrup, is almost soda-like. I’m a HUGE root beer/birch beer fan, and this was a revelation for me. In a master stroke, the house yeast strains of BOTH breweries was used, avoiding a common knock I’ve heard many people throw at Sierra Nevada beers: That their yeast strain is so neutral and easily accessible as to be a bit dull. I agree that the SN yeast is distinctive and very approachable. Personally, I think that’s where its brilliance lies: In the early days of SN, wouldn’t you want to develop a strain that appealed to as many people as possible? It’s the common thread that lets you know no matter what the style, you’re drinking a Sierra Nevada beer. However, for Life & Limb, the SN strain alone would’ve simply been overwhelmed and even if it wasn’t, it would’ve been a shame not to take advantage of the mad science going on in Delaware. The combination makes this unique Ale drinkable to the Beer Geek and novice alike, and adds an edge to the palate that keeps the whole experience from being cloying and too rich. Variety of notes and flavors as well as its uniquely ‘big tent’ feel for such a robust beer lead to food pairings that are almost endless. This beer could be an ambassador for craft beer if it stays in production.

In the end, I found Life & Limb to be maybe the best collaboration I’ve come across yet. It’s a true melding of styles and philosophies yet is more than elements of the different breweries. This is an independent beer with a life of its own. Something new and alive and undeniable. In fact Life & Limb has its own website, as well it should. I don’t know what the situation is as far as bottles are concerned, but I’ve been seeing bars and restaurants in DC having events and putting Life & Limb on tap, so good luck with that.

And good luck to everyone reading for a happy, healthy, beery 2010! Thanks for taking the time to stop by.


Next time: If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

Beermonger