Founders Azacca IPA: A Spoonful of Sugar (But not sweet. Well, a bit. Malt sweet. Shut up.)

Suggested listening: A bit on-the-nose, but absolutely my favorite version of the song. Dirtnasty. 

 

Coming out of my wife and I’s traditional observance of Stoutmas in December, I’ve been craving more hop-driven beers than usual. To boot, I’ve been seeking beers that are either single-hop or focus on one hop in particular; I’m working out some IPA recipes for homebrewing and trying to pin down varieties I want to use. This is how I came to snag a sixer of Founders Brewing Company’s Azacca IPA.

From revamped and repackaged flagship Pale Ales and IPAs to triple dry-hopped egg drop soup-looking NEIPAs, we’ve seen a changing of the guard in terms of favored hops among beer geeks. Resinous, grassy, but still citrusy varieties have given way to hops that produce super-punchy aromas and flavors that show juicy, candied, and tropical characteristics. I’m not here to judge; while I prefer my IPAs with some bite, I would bathe in Galaxy hop flowers if I thought the results would leave me socially acceptable. In my homebrewing “research,” I’ve been looking for the right modern-era hops to work into my recipes; mostly I’ve come away thinking “Gee, there really isn’t anything wrong with Centennial…” but since I’m in a phase of open-mindedness I’m trying some more.

This is where Azacca comes in. More than a couple brewers who I respect have been touting the qualities of Azacca as a substitute for some citrusy dual-purpose varieties whose pricing has gone a little loopy over the past couple of years (coughCitracough). I like a good fruity dual-purpose hop as much as the next guy and was a fan of Founders’ Mosaic Promise Pale Ale (review-within-the-review: I thought the Mosaic overshadowed the Golden Promise a bit, but admittedly I love Golden Promise enough to use it as my base malt and have a very fine palate line where Mosaic goes from pleasant to obnoxious, so YMMV. None of it stopped me from killing a sixer with the quickness. Carry on.) so this seemed like a no-brainer.

I’m not sure what I expected. I’d seen Founders Azacca around, and rolled my eyes a bit at the 15-packs of cans as they started hitting shelves. I mean, of course they did 15-packs–gotta take advantage of those gluttonous hop nerds, right? Shame on me; this is Founders I’m talking about. They almost always know what they’re doing, and Azacca IPA could low-key become a new standard for hopheads.

The first tell was when I poured the beer. Founders Azacca isn’t some two-row blank canvas for flavors rarely seen outside of smoothie stands; the burnt orange and gold colors let you know there’s some by-god Crystal malt being used here. Not only that, but the malt comes through on the palate! Yes, the mango and floral aromatics pop, but Founders takes advantage of Azacca’s dual-purpose abilities brilliantly. There’s a good amount of bite up front, with the advertised fruit notes blooming through the finish, which carries with a touch of malt sweetness that ties the room together better than Jeff Lebowski’s rug.

The beer made me think of “a spoonful of sugar.” Not the Mary Poppins song–well, not only the Mary Poppins song–but where that phrase came from: the sugar cubes dosed with polio vaccine to make it easier to administer to needle-averse children. A little sweetness in the name of giving the people what they need. Note: I’m not calling all beer geeks children. Not today, anyway.

What I’m saying is that in today’s beer environment, the clarity, malt character, and consideration of hop usage in Founders Azacca is all in the name of bringing something to “craft beer” drinkers that they don’t know they’ve been missing, something they don’t even know they need: an honest-to-gods IPA. I may have LOL’d in my kitchen trying that first sip. It almost seems brash.

I don’t know what the future holds for Founders Azacca IPA, but this is a supremely well-thought beer. This recipe is smart. Two-Hearted smart. Come to think of it, there’s another single (dual-purpose) hopped IPA that showcases the breadth of said hop while retaining the malt characteristics of the classic IPA. There are few levels of praise I can think of higher than a Two-Hearted comparison.

In a sane, just world, Azacca IPA takes its place among the “go-to” IPAs that traders and tickers scoff at but still occasionally drink lustily at bars or when they snag a 15-pack for the cookout at their buddies’ house and others discover and swear by. But this is 2017 and if we know anything we know that this is not a sane, just world, so who knows?

Oh, and will I be using any Azacca in my IPAs this spring/summer? Undecided. I know, I don’t like me either.

*Not beer related* A Message for my Friends

I should’ve known there was something wrong when she gave up on getting the fish out of the disposal.

I think it was around 2007-2008: Jo and I had been dating for a couple years, and living together for about half that time. I would stop by my mom’s building to say hi and use the gym; it was a good excuse to keep in touch a couple times a week when she was home.

There were a couple plants she kept around–more than a couple, really, but a couple that I remember well. One was a poinsettia that had to be at least ten years old; it’d been part of her office’s Christmas decorations one year, and she’d brought it home rather than let it be thrown away. Over the years it had grown large enough to require regular pruning, and I swear it was so robust it had bark. The other was a grapefruit tree that reached nearly up to the ceiling. When I was in high school, part of her morning routine was to grab her breakfast after her post-morning run shower; typically a cup of coffee and some toast and/or fruit. She went on a grapefruit kick for a while, and would take a few minutes to read the morning paper or watch the news while enjoying her grapefruit, collecting the seeds in a paper towel to throw away after. One morning as I came out ready to head off to school she was excited about something. It turned out she had put one of these paper towels in the pocket of her robe and forgotten about it, and now about a week later one of the seeds had just barely started to sprout. She was excited to save this thing that anyone else would’ve thrown away without a second’s thought and nurture it, let it grow. And that’s exactly what she did; it grew and thrived and got to where we’d have to trim it to keep it off the ceiling.

So on this particular day, I walked in to find her in the kitchen, staring into the sink. She’d just gotten a small fish (a little tetra or something) and would remove it from it’s little ‘tank’ to clean it out. Usually this involved placing the fish in a small bowl or glass of water temporarily. This time, something had happened and the fish took a tumble down into the sink. I saw it laying atop one of the blades of her garbage disposal, gasping and weakly wriggling its tail.

Pets–even a fish no bigger than an inch and a half–were something new for my mom. Her family had had dogs while she was growing up, but we’d never had any. Looking back, I suspect she had grown a little bored and lonely without me in the house anymore, but we never really got to talk about it. She told me what had happened with the fish and I heard a tone I wasn’t used to from her, one I was starting to hear more often–resignation. She had given up, seeing no options for saving the fish, and left the room.

I tried scooping the tiny fish out with a spoon, not wanting to risk shoving my hand into the disposal–no dice. There wasn’t enough room to get an angle with any of her utensils that would lift it out. Then I remembered she probably had some chopsticks in the house (from when I would bring home sushi–not that she’d ever use them, but better to have them and not need them). Sure enough, she had some and I managed to carefully grab the little fish, draw it out from the sink, and place it in a glass of water. It had obviously been through a trauma, but it was alive, and mom was overjoyed. She got the tiny little tank cleaned up and put the fish back in. I don’t know how much longer it lasted after that. The next time I remember visiting, the tank was gone and she muttered something about the fish never really recovering from it’s adventure. Things happen, but it wasn’t like her to just let something die. It felt wrong, but didn’t really register with me at the time.

 

I should’ve really known something was wrong when she quit her job and moved out of her apartment.

Over 20 years she’d worked at a life/accident insurer, starting as a secretary and slowly learning more, proving herself every day, taking on more responsibilities. She’d moved on to another company in the same field only a few years before, where she finally took the tests and became a full-on agent. My mom came from a modern tradition: she believed not only in the meritocracy, that hard work would be rewarded, but in hard work for it’s own sake. Hard work was the obligation you had to your employer and your family; it was redemptive in her view. This woman, who’d come into this industry as a high school graduate and single mother qualified to be little more than a gopher, busted her ass, stayed in the game, and had achieved her goal.

Not even two years later, she was quitting the job she’d worked so hard to get and wouldn’t tell me why. I pressed her for answers–something I’d never had to do with her before–and all I could get out of her were mumbled near-whispers about people “being mean” to her and that she was claiming disability, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.

What’s more, she was moving out of her apartment and back into my grandmother’s home, where she’d taken me after my parents split and worked so hard to rebuild her life. The apartment was a symbol; it was her having made it on her own terms, defining success in her own life. Now, with no prospects and no forward planning, she was giving it all up. She was giving in. To what, I didn’t know.

So the days came where I’d stop in to help get rid of the things she wasn’t taking with her. Once everything was out, she called to let me know she’d left some stuff in the apartment that I could take or leave, but she was getting rid of regardless. Plants; some of the antiques she used to love going out and hunting; the ceramic tiger cub that was a Christmas gift the year before I was born, and the pictures. Boxes of pictures. Pictures of me, my childhood, us, our family, our vacations, our holidays together. I picked out only so many, and thought to myself “if they don’t mean anything to her, I’m not going to let them mean anything to me.” I’m a fucking idiot.

 

During this time is when we genuinely started drifting apart. Where once we’d see each other or talk a couple times per week, now weeks would pass between phone calls. Then months. She found a new job; a nothingburger of a job that was years below her talent or experience, but it was something. She only came over to visit Jo and I once, and even then she had to be brought along by one of my Aunts. As the space between our interactions grew longer, I had to remind her where we were living, where my friends were living, whose babies had been born.

The night Jo and I became engaged, I called her and I swear I could’ve told her I’d just gotten the dishes done for the excitement level she displayed. I ended up having to all but beg her to help in any way with the wedding. This wasn’t my mom. My mom was my best friend. She did a near-impossible thing in raising me, and I’d always had her confidence, as she did mine. Every thought of her set off a crisis inside me trying to figure out why we’d drifted apart the way we obviously had.

My first thought was that moving in with Jo and getting married had something to do with it, but for as close as we were I have a hard time seeing her as the type to be so possessive. I started trying to find ways to accept this new phase of our relationship: If we were best friends, well, friends drift apart, no? Then I’d remind myself of what she always told me as I was growing up, that her job as a mother was to get me to the point where I didn’t need her anymore. Maybe that meant she was “done” being a parent? I could at least respect that–she did a hell of a thing, and deserved as much space and quiet as she wanted. Who was I to deny her that? In the most “me” theory possible, and of course the one I had the easiest time believing, I figured she just plain didn’t like me all that much anymore. And while that broke my heart, I’ll be damned if I didn’t understand that, too.

Reminder: I’m a fucking idiot.

By the time the holidays came around in 2012, things were coming to a head. I expected not to hear about Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, but I did genuinely want to have her come over for the ‘traditional’ Christmas Eve dinner that Jo and I have every year. Surprisingly, she agreed and I emailed her directions to the apartment we were in at the time–ones that included as few turns as possible, since I was well aware by then of her aversion to driving and claims of unfamiliarity with an area she’d lived in for the vast majority of her life. If I remember correctly, counting the turn she’d take to leave her neighborhood I’d get her to our place in 5 turns.

Christmas Eve came and Arrowine was slammed as it always was during the holidays. Jo and I were texting about dinner; I hadn’t heard from my mom in a while, so I reached out during a quick break to make sure she was coming. She stammered and said something about being uncomfortable making the drive, but it all sounded like excuses to cover the total lack of interest in her voice. I was pissed, and I let her know it. We had dinner that night with Jo’s sister and her fella and watched the Pope’s Christmas Mass with a pot of coffee and a bottle of Bailey’s like my mom and I used to do (and I still do), and at the end of the night I managed to not give her the satisfaction of breaking down over my disappointment. Because I’m a fucking idiot.

This was a new phase: I assumed she just inherently disliked me so I went out of my way not to put myself out there with her. I’d call mostly to get updates on my Grandfather, who at this point had been sick for several years with the Wegener’s Disease that would eventually kill him. She and her sisters would sometimes take a weekend to visit, and as I worked at least half of every weekend, I had a very hard time clearing the schedule to make the journey myself. I came to rely on her updates after visits, which never had much detail but generally told me he was hanging in there, not doing great but holding on, or some variation. I took these to mean that I didn’t have to go out of my way to go see him; that I had time.

2013 began with a message from one of my Aunts, who was starting to worry about my mom. She said she’d just been over at my Grandmother’s, and that my mom seemed despondent, uninterested in looking for a job or in life in general. There’s some history of mental illness in my family (hell, in me if I’m honest), and she was worried that my mom might be falling into a depression. We talked, and I told her about some of what had been going on between my mom and I, and we both agreed it’d be good for me to take her out and try to get to the heart of the matter.

I took her out to get coffee, partially because we both liked coffee and I missed the conversations we used to have over a cup of coffee or green tea and partially because I knew it’d be near impossible to have a conversation with her with my Grandmother and/or my Aunt in the room. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety issues nearly every day of my waking life, so I have some experience with these things. I started easy, trying to get a read on her state of mind. She seemed uncaring, numb. I asked her about job plans–she’d lost the job she started after leaving the insurance business during a round of layoffs. She talked in quiet, uncertain half-sentences about not finding anything and just came off as directionless. She was the opposite of the woman who’d raised me.

I asked questions, trying to pry some clues out of her to tell me what was going on. When that didn’t work, I got angry. I got a specific kind of angry: the kind I remember her getting when I’d fucked up at a job, or been out too late drinking, or just generally been a lazy garbage fire of a human being. I didn’t yell. The voice that came out was that of the woman who raised me; the one who would’ve been physically sickened by this pathetic, shrinking husk of a person she’d become.

I told her how much she’d disappointed me during my engagement and wedding; how much it hurt when she no-showed me during the holidays; how much she’d hurt me by becoming so distant after us having been so close for so long. I told her how much I missed her. I told her I was going to need her because Jo and I had been talking about trying to start a family. I told her what I said was what she would have told me (and did) were the roles reversed: get off your ass and do something–anything would be better than nothing. She barely mustered a meek nod and some platitudes about knowing she had to do something, and I knew I’d done everything I could do.

Nothing changed. If anything she got worse. July was coming to an end, and one night my phone rang. Late. It was her. No way it was going to be good news, and sure enough it wasn’t. My Grandpa was in the hospital; her and her siblings were there. They weren’t sure if he was going to make it. It was a 3-hour drive away. I was getting ready to go and I made my last mistake with her, asking how dire it was. Would he make it to the morning? Did I absolutely have to leave right now? I was planning on leaving right then but if they thought he had some time it would be safer to hold off. She said she thought I would have time to make it down in the morning, and I listened to her. No matter what, this was my mom; regardless of the last few years, her record was one of usually being right and she had my trust.

I hit the beltway first thing in the morning, and even before I could pick up 66 the call came; he’d passed a couple hours beforehand. I loved my Grandfather. More times than I can count he’d stood in for me as a kind of father figure. I could always count on him. And I hadn’t been there during his last years, and even now at the end, because I’d blindly trusted my mom’s judgment. I believe I told Joanna at some point during the following few days that I would “never listen to a thing that woman has to say ever again.” I’m a fucking idiot; of course I wouldn’t.

My Grandpa’s passing brought me and my mom’s siblings all together for the first time in years, despite us all living in the same general part of the world. The stories started getting swapped and my concern grew. My mom had been in a minor car accident just before losing her job that I’d never heard about; she wouldn’t drive anywhere. She’d quit the insurance agent job because they’d changed some of the calculations they used, and she couldn’t adjust to the new math. One of my Aunts told me she’d gone out with my mom and she couldn’t even fill out a check, and that’s when I finally knew. This was a woman who balanced her checkbook by hand every night–I know this because I grew up watching her do it. I told them we had to get her to a doctor immediately, and we did.

In the fall of 2013, not long after her 54th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. None of us even knew there was such a thing as early-onset. I felt so helpless and stupid. I still do.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much in the way of family history. Everyone has a theory, and one is worth as much as any other. I can’t help but think of the car accident when I was 6; the one that left a piece of her windshield embedded in her forehead (which is still there to this day) but she never went to the hospital following despite the obvious head trauma. I remember her hitting her head so hard getting into the car when I was 9 that she shouted and cried for minute after minute as we sat outside my Grandmother’s house growing ever more late for work and school. In the face of studies suggesting malnutrition could play a role in Alz, I remember years of sparse salads for dinner; air-popped popcorn with maybe a trace of salt for a snack; toast, coffee, maybe a fruit for breakfast. Her running on the treadmill before and after work, up to ~10 miles per day while on this ‘diet,’ to the point where this woman in her early/mid 30s stopped having her period for months and had to be ordered by her doctor to work more meat and iron into her diet. (She conceded with cans of tuna and sliced turkey breast, always in ‘moderation.’) I remember showing up to Thanksgiving one year with everyone asking how she was doing, which was how I found out she’d fallen leaving her building and had cracked or broken a couple of her ribs–though with a fall like that, who knows what other damage she did.

I started reading up about Alz, and recognized symptoms reaching into stage 4 (of 7) at the time of her diagnosis. Alz affects everyone in different, unpredictable ways. My mom’s manifested first in a loss of cognitive abilities (inability to do math at work/filling out checks) and what I can only describe as a loss of her emotional response. She got through conversations by mirroring the people she was talking to: if I laughed at something, so did she. If someone was upset, she’d get upset. The previous near-decade of my relationship with her snapped into focus in that moment. It all made sense now. Horrible, unavoidable sense.

Alzheimer’s isn’t The Notebook–that’s dementia. She doesn’t have lucid moments; when something goes, it’s gone. She lives in a home now, a good facility where she has her own room and space and is well taken care of by people who are goddamn heroes in my book. Some of my family had been harboring hopes that she would progress slowly, but early-onset actually tends to move more quickly. Every few months or so she presents new symptoms, new signs of decline. She just turned 57 and I’d be hesitant to put money on her making it past 60.

It’s difficult to grieve for someone who isn’t dead yet, but time and experience let you accomplish damn near anything. I think about her constantly. I can’t talk to her anymore, but I have a version of her in my head, and I still somehow get some of my best advice from her. It’s not the same, but you take what you can get. I miss her all the time. I visit as often as I can, but she doesn’t recognize me anymore. It makes it harder, and I didn’t think it could get harder.

The only saving grace I can think of is that I adjusted to her downturns in time to sit her down over the holidays this past year (2015) while she was still able to comprehend what I was saying for the most part. I told her she did a great job, an impossible job, as well as anyone could do it. I told her I was ok, and that I would be ok, and that what I have in my life and what I’ve been able to do with my life to this point has been all thanks to her, and how she raised me and supported me through years of a hellscape of self-harm and depression I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I told her that I was happy, and would be happy, and that she should be happy too. My mom’s ultimate ambition, what she really wanted to do with her life, was be a mom. I told her I would try to live up to the person she is and wanted me to be.

At this point we were both crying. This was the last conversation we were ever going to have. The last time she was going to be there. I told her when I had a child I’d try to be half the parent she was and if I could do that, it’d be a hell of an accomplishment. I thanked her for being such a great mom, and a good friend, and the smartest, bravest person I knew. I told her it’d be ok. It was only then that she spoke; softly, shakily, through tears and a terror I don’t even want to imagine:

“No…it won’t.”

We held each other and cried for a while, and somehow one of us got around to lightening the mood. I had to go. I hugged her and we told each other we loved each other, and I went home. A few months later she was growing increasingly angry and paranoid; a couple months after that I stopped by to say happy birthday and she looked over at me for a second then back to the TV. That was it. I was gone to her. As I type this, she’s a couple weeks from becoming a Grandmother. The only thing that still tears me up about her situation, and always will, is the sheer unfairness of her never getting to be someone’s Grandma. She would’ve been the best. She would’ve been so good. I cry for what my daughter’s going to miss out on. I cry because I’ll never get to see it. I cry because I realize now that this is the job she raised me to do–to be a parent to my daughter, and while I feel confident about it, more than ever I wish she were here to give me advice.

My situation is not unique, and I don’t want to come off sounding like I think it is. It’s believed that up to 5% of Alzheimer’s cases in the U.S. are early-onset (defined as those occurring in people under 65 years old); that’s hundreds of thousands of people, of families dealing with this nightmare.

I’m “coming out” now because since she’s gone in the ways that matter, I don’t feel like I’m sharing business that isn’t mine. A number of my friends know already, but I’m a little weary of telling the story, so this is where it goes. She touched so many of y’all’s lives: I guess I just want ask you to keep those memories as alive as you can. She was really something, and I know a little girl who’s going to benefit from as much of her wisdom as we can gather over the coming years. I could really use some help with that.

Spare a thought for June Anderson when you can. Take care of each other, and love each other the best you can. Realize that you can do everything right, be as prepared and as capable as possible, and still lose (or whatever that speech of Picard’s says). But objectively understanding life is unfair is no excuse for letting that knowledge run your life. You work, and you goddamn fight this unfair world as much as you can. Nothing and no one is beyond reproach. Question everything, as long as you start with yourself. Use your common sense. There are things that are right and wrong in the world, and it’s not hard to tell the difference. Treat others how you want to be treated. This is what my mother taught me. Taught all of us.

June Anderson is my mother. She’s something special. And I miss her.

 

So I’m in the Beer Business–What do I do now?

 

I’m not sure what to say.

That’s an odd way to start, but it’s true. I’ve been plenty busy thanks to the position I’ve taken with Port City, but it’s not like I haven’t had time to sit down and write something for the blog. A funny thing happened when I got into the beer business, though; I’ve had a hard time figuring out what this blog is now, or what I want to/can/should write about.

Working at retail, it was pretty easy; I’d try beers and talk about them, be openly curious about industry workings/trends, and pretty much just think out loud. Now, though, I don’t know if I have the luxury of that freedom. Do I write at length about beers I’m trying and liking, many of which are from breweries that are ostensibly competitors to the brewery I work for (the “every ‘craft’ brewery gets along” thing is simultaneously as real and not real as you think at the same time, which is kinda weird)? If I try something I don’t like and want to get into it a bit, am I accidentally starting a thing between the brewery I work for and the one who made the beer I’m discussing? On one level, I’m finding that I have to be very measured and have something very specific to write about, and I’m trying to pin down what those subject are going to be.

On another level, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t have it to do the “deep dive” right now. Without going full-on open-to-the-world Blogger, I’ve had some really serious Real Life Adult Shit going on the past couple of years. Hell, part of me getting out of retail and taking a job like the one I have now has to do with some of what’s happening in the rest of my life, and being able to have a bit more flexibility. Also, there’s just a lot of bitching, sniping, petty in-fighting these days in beer writing; I’ve never been a “major” name or voice in the conversation, and I’d rather stay silent than add to the din. The point is, beer is my business now more than ever–not only am I working for a brewery, I’m also getting more into homebrewing–but for as immersed as I am, it just doesn’t mean what it used to to me.

Which doesn’t mean I’m not interested in beer, per se–just that there are different aspects of beer that I’m learning, that I’d love to be open-book about. The passion and skill of the folks in the brewhouse; the decisions being made on a daily basis; how a growing business deals with the challenges of demand and competition in an increasingly crowded market.Working for/at a brewery is fascinating. But I’m not sure it’s my place, and I know those aren’t my stories to tell even if it were–any account would be colored by my own feelings, biases, etc. That leaves the option of basically writing marketing material under the guise of my personal blog, and I want to write that even less than anyone wants to read it.

So I’m not sure what to say. Maybe I can find a format to “review” or feature beers that doesn’t feel weird for me. Maybe I can start to drift a little bit from writing about beer exclusively; I’ve got a multitude of interests after all (for a distilled version of what this would look like, I do have a Tumblr now). I’ve been playing around with writing short fiction, and have written poetry all my life (some of it occasionally getting dangerously close to “acceptable”); maybe I start floating some of that out there. I might start writing more personally, about some of the things I’ve been dealing with. Whatever the case, to any of you out there who choose to follow along, I thank you and apologize in advance.

Hope to see you soon.

 

 

The Asshole in the Room: Revisiting BCBS, and Being a Better Beer Enthusiast

 

The disconnect

Something has been bothering me for a very long time.

Wait, let’s try that again–many things have been bothering me for a very long time, and I have no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon. What I mean to say is that something has bothered me for a long time that I recently decided to to something about. It has a little to do with the “micro vs. macro” debate, a little to do with the concept of “beer snobbery,” and a lot to do with making sure I’m not just being an asshole.

You see, I have a lot of friends who are very into beer, and follow many great beer industry folks on various social media platforms. I know and respect their palates; I know they’re not prone to hype, and have a breadth of experience that allows them to convey their impressions clearly. In short, these are people who know what the fuck they’re talking about.

What’s been bugging me is that I keep finding myself not ‘getting’ what many of them see in a specific beer. I’ll tell you what beer that is, but I want to warn some of you ‘fussier’ types that I may or may not be committing some kind of ‘craft beer’ blasphemy here, so you’ve been warned.

I just don’t like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout all that much.

There, I said it. Publicly. I don’t hate it mind you; I just don’t get it. I don’t get what the big f’ing deal is. I don’t get the raves, the scores, the madness every year when it’s released. But every year, I hear from friends and see beer industry folks whose opinions I respect talk about how great BCBS is. So where’s the disconnect?

I don’t know who the phrase might be credited to, but one of my favorite sayings is “if you look around the room and don’t know who the asshole is–it’s you.” When it comes to BCBS, was I simply the asshole in the room? I decided to try an experiment to find out.

The importance of calling yourself out, and acknowledging your personal biases 

I have a hard time talking about Goose Island. No matter what opinion I express I sound like a ‘craft’ zealot/douchebag–but the simple truth is this:

1. I only ever got to try 312 and Matilda before the buyout, and liked but didn’t fall in love with either. This is a valid enough opinion, but now it sounds like I’m the ultimate Beer Hipster, in that “I didn’t like that brewery before you ever did/didn’t.”

Me, basically. Photo via Jaime Posadas at Deviant Art

2. The Goose Island lineup hasn’t won me over as I’ve gotten to try more of it. As AB/InBev (ABI) rolled out Goose Island in Virginia, I tasted through the lineup a couple times to see if I wanted to work with their beers. Frankly, I didn’t find anything overly compelling, and what I would have bought I would have only been buying to give myself access to BCBS later, as BCBS is the only GI beer I get asked about at work with any regularity.

3. When I talk about GI beers I do like, they’re always the ‘wrong’ ones. I think Honker’s Bitter is a perfectly good go-to beer–in fact, I kinda dig it. I really enjoyed the GI Harvest Ale, and if I hadn’t been carrying the (fairly similar to me) Southern Tier Harvest at the time I first tried it, I might’ve brought it in. Visiting the Better Beer Authority crew for a blind tasting, I found The Ogden tasty, if a bit hot on the finish. But it seems like anytime I say this, the person I’m talking to looks at me like I’m malfunctioning. I can’t win when it comes to Goose Island.

So here’s the deal: in light of ABI’s recent purchases of 10 Barrel and Elysian, there’s been a renewed discussion of “craft vs. crafty,” and whether it should matter to us at all who owns how much of the breweries we love, as long as the product is produced at a high quality and is, for lack of a better term, good. Since the Goose Island buyout, I’ve worried that my opinion of their beers has been clouded by my feelings about their ownership. I worry about being that guy, doing a disservice to the breweries I enjoy and want to see succeed.

When I came across a bottle of 2014 BCBS during a visit to Norm’s a few weeks back, I decided to put together a blind tasting to settle in my head once and for all whether I just wasn’t a fan of the beer, or if I was being that asshole who ABI is getting one over on with that dumbass Super Bowl ad of theirs.

Gather ye Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, while ye may

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c'mon everybody let's--/passes out drunk

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c’mon everybody let’s–/passes out drunk

I wanted a lineup of similarly ‘big’ Bourbon barrel-aged Stouts, which I thought would be tough to put together. But after buying my bottle of 2014 BCBS, things just kinda fell into place: my friend Mike Sollom from Sly Fox had previously given me a bottle of their Barrel-Aged Nihilist Imperial Stout (which they had hoped to have gotten Virginia label approval for in time for its release last year, but unfortunately could not); and I had recently bought a bottle of Schlafly’s 2013 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout as I hadn’t tried it in some time. I also wanted to include the Schlafly because of it’s fairly regular availability. To that end, I originally planned on including a bottle of the excellent Blue Mountain Dark Hollow, as it’s available year-round and also a personal favorite–but fate stepped in when Mike Kraus generously gifted me a bottle of Concealed Darkness; a 10.6% ABV version of Dark Hollow using twice the oats and Chocolate malt, and aged in Bourbon barrels for a full 12 months. I was dying to try this beer, and figured this would be as good an occasion as any.

(Note: If you’re into that sort of thing, look for a separate post with full tasting notes later this week. Today, we’re waxing philosophical.)

The tasting itself: surprises and self-doubt

With my Stouts in place, I asked my wife to help by setting an order for the beers (referring to them as “#1, #2, etc…) and pouring them for me one at a time, a little bit at a time, over the course of about an hour so each would have a chance to warm up and display different characteristics. After running through the lineup a couple times and revisiting some for the sake of clarifying notes/for the hell of it, my wife asked me to guess which beers were which before the big reveal.

“#1 is the Sly Fox.” I knew that immediately, and was right. I’ll get into this more in the post with my notes, but I don’t know if that bottle of BA Nihilist was right. I got zero Bourbon note off of it, and there were aromas and flavors I’d have expected from an older beer from the cellar. I’d suspect oxidation, but the carbonation was lively to the point of distraction. I’ve had (and greatly enjoyed) the standard Nihilist, so this was a surprise. That said, it was my wife’s favorite of the bunch but she’s not much of a Bourbon drinker, so that’s understandable.

“#4 is Blue Mountain?” Right again. There was a sense of balance in Concealed Darkness, contributed by the right amount of roasty flavor and astringency from the malts, that was unmistakeable. Not only was it my favorite beer of the evening, it’s already on my short list for favorite beers of 2015.

So it was down to two–2014 BCBS and 2013 Schlafly BBA Imperial Stout. I thought I had them pegged: there were similarities, but the rich feel and lack of distinction in the flavors of #3 screamed “BCBS” to me, while #2 was much more boozy than I remember Schlafly being, but it had admittedly been some time since I’d tried it.

At the last minute I forgot the advice of my junior high/high school German teacher Mr. Henry, who always told us “Your first guess is your best guess; your second guess is your worst guess; your third guess is better than your second, but worse than your first.” I knew the answer, doubted myself anyway, and went with my second guess.

“Is #2 BCBS and #3 the Schlafly?” Nope. Of course not; I had it the first time. The Bourbony goodness was the 2013 Schlafly Imperial Stout, while #3 was the 2014 BCBS. Throwing out the Sly Fox for any possible issues that might have been going on in the bottle, the BCBS came up last with me.

So what? 

While my palate may be contrarian when it comes to BCBS, at least I’m not an asshole. At least in this regard. There are so many other ways I’m an asshole, but let me feel good eliminating this one, ok?

At least I know now that my impressions of BCBS aren’t just “because ABI” as I’d wondered/feared. To me, it genuinely lacks for something. The two times I’d tried BCBS previously were a pair of 2012 bottles I got when it first came to Virginia. I drank one soon after release and another near the end of 2013. Both times I found the beer ‘milkshakey’–a term I use analogous to ‘jammy’ in wine: feeling rich to the point of caricature, lacking the necessary acidity and tannin (or in the case of beer, alcoholic heat, hop bitterness, malt acidity, or all three) to give it balance. Drinking that second, slightly older BCBS, I found myself dropping a shot of High West Son of Bourye in the glass to give it some bite. The Blue Mountain had that balance, which is something I personally look for, but maybe you don’t care about balance. That’s fair enough; we all like different things, and have tastes that veer in different directions. I’m just trying to convey where I’m coming from.

The best comparison I found was between the BCBS and the Schlafly. The Schlafly threw me by being the booziest of the bunch–seriously, this thing smelled eerily similar to that glass I’d dropped the High West into once upon a time, and on the palate there were moments where it seemed like the beer was playing second fiddle to the booze. But what Schlafly Imperial Stout lacked in subtlety, it made up for with its distinctive flavors that interplayed as the beer warmed. For me, with the Bourbon set to ‘stun’ rather than ‘obliterate’ this would’ve been the beer of the night. As it is, it’s still impressive as all hell, and I highly recommend it.

The BCBS came across boozy on the nose like Schlafly. However, where you could pick out the Bourbon, malt, and chocolatey tones in the Schlafly, the BCBS was just…there. At first I wrote “more coalesced (integrated?)” but that’s not what I was experiencing. What it was was a “mish-mash,” the note I took a few minutes later. Make no mistake, BCBS is a tasty beer, but for me (again, my personal perspective) the problem is that with its massive, lush feel and “there-and-then-gone” finish, it’s a Guy Fieri-style trip to FlavorTown, rather than a full and developed experience.

First image that pops up when you GIS “Guy Fieri.” It’s goddamn perfect.

This actually jives with the one BCBS variant I’ve tried, which was also the one version that’s legit knocked me on my ass–the 2012 BCBS Cherry Rye that I got to sample during a bottle share with friends early in 2014. Rye malt, Rye Whiskey barrel, tart Michigan cherries…everything in Cherry Rye works to give it the backbone I feel BCBS so desperately needs. I’m going to try to hunt down some Coffee BCBS, as I imagine it too would have more of the acidity/bite I’m looking for.

TIL

What did I learn, if anything?

Between multi-million dollar ads and the slew of brewery buyouts to come, it’s going to become more important to separate “I don’t like that brewery’s beers” from “I don’t like who owns that brewery.” Even if you’re the kind of dumbassed idealist who feels that every purchase is a small political statement, especially when it comes to things you’re passionate about…

…/looks in mirror…

…it’s important to create the distinction and keep it in mind, because no one loves a zealot, and it’s nigh impossible to make an ownership-based argument without sounding like a snob. In the end, decisions about what you like and what’s “good” to you are about your palate, not ‘the business’. I can like Goose Island’s beers or anyone else’s, but choose not to buy them because their corporate ownership wants to put my favorite breweries (and yours, by the way) out of business. I can not be a fan of Goose Island or anyone else and still acknowledge the ability and quality found in their beers, despite the conventional wisdom that says ‘macro’ ownership immediately and necessarily means cutting corners in the brewing process, or shoddy quality. I‘ve written about this at length in the recent past, actually.

There’s a lot of talk about ABI’s “war” on “craft beer,” as if AB or InBev ever wasn’t–but that’s a conversation for another day. The response to Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad has contained a lot of exactly what the beer industry doesn’t need–judgement of the buying decisions, palates, and motivations of others. Think whatever you want about a company’s business practices, but when it comes to the beer itself:

-Trust your palate, and yours alone.

-Having made any judgements about beers you do/don’t like, never stop challenging yourself. No one is infallible, and our palates change dramatically over the course of our lives.

-Learn to ‘not like’ things without ‘hating’ them. Please.

-Don’t be the asshole in the room.

Tasting notes in a couple days. Until next time.

 

 

‘The Kerning…ing’: An Amateur’s Look at the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada Complaint

So are you saying all IPAs look alike?

Updated 1/14/15: Late in the evening of 1/13, Tony Magee took to Twitter to announce that Lagunitas would not continue its legal proceedings against Sierra Nevada. For whatever I thought of Magee’s tone in public statements related to the suit, I am a fan of his and Lagunitas (as well as a longtime Sierra Nevada fan) and I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness to read his statement that 1/13 was “the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery.” 

Discussing the merits of the case seems moot now that it’s not going forward, but there’s a very good analysis offered here. Regardless, I think the precedent set may have been a dangerous one: as fans and enthusiasts, we simply don’t see the business aspects of the industry in rational terms. I respect Magee’s decision to drop the case (and thank him for the nice note he dropped in my Twitter account’s DM box that I can’t reply to), but hope the decision doesn’t come back to bite him later on. 

For now, we’re left to take away whatever conclusions we see fit and move on to the next thing. I wish all the best for both breweries, and encourage everyone to listen to this podcast interview with Magee from December–with his perspective on the state of the industry, and how he sees the role of breweries like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada going forward as the industry grows. It’s worth a listen.

Now, the original post from 1/13/15/. –Nick 

————————————————

So, this happened. A quick heads up: those looking for HOT TAEKS just move along now, as this post is basically going to take many words to say what Hipster Brewfus said here (albeit in a slightly less contentious manner).

It’s easy to be cynical about the Lagunitas complaint filed against Sierra Nevada over the labeling of its new Hop Hunter IPA; there are times when it seems there is nothing beer fans enjoy more than getting pissed off at brewers/breweries/retailers/distributors/each other. Lines are drawn; sides are taken. Nothing is accomplished save for online chest-puffery and desperate attempts at getting the last word.

I’m not going to take sides; I don’t think there’s any real basis for doing so here outside of one’s own personal biases/opinions. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts, no one will likely ever hear much about this no matter the outcome; at heart, this is an ‘inside baseball’ story that is only interesting in that it represents a look into the future of a growing industry. So let’s break it down:

What We Know

For good, more in-depth analysis of the complaint, check out Brendan Palfreyman’s Twitter timeline.  I’ve had the chance to read through the complaint myself; I’m not even close to a lawyer so I’m not going to make any declarations to that end, but it is an interesting document nonetheless. Here are some takeaways:

-“When Lagunitas began selling its now iconic IPA beer in 1995, there existed only a handful of other brewers who produced an India Pale Ale, and, on information and belief, no other company had marketed or sold its India Pale Ale using the acronym ‘IPA.'” Forgetting the first half of that statement, it’s the second part that is interesting here. I was a high school freshman/sophomore in 1995, so I missed a lot of the establishment of what today are the ‘bigger’ names in so-called ‘craft’ beer. The idea of Lagunitas specifically staking a claim to something like “the acronym IPA” had never even entered my mind until this morning.

-“…Lagunitas IPA has become the Company’s flagship beer. It is available year-round and has been the top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade—and one of the best-selling India Pale Ales in the nation.” Not a lawyer alert: I don’t know what kind of legal threshold a document like this has to clear, but I’d love to see the numbers on that “top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade” claim. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d just never heard any similar claim and wonder what that list looks like.

-“While other brewers have adopted the shorthand parlance of “IPA” to market their India Pale Ales, only Lagunitas is identified with the large, bold, black, centralized “IPA” lettering…In addition to its distinguishable IPA beer, much of the success of the Lagunitas IPA can be attributed to its iconic “IPA” family of trademarks.” Again, something I guess I’ve just always taken for granted given the ubiquity and history of Lagunitas in my home market, but when I think about it…I can’t argue with that.

-“Lagunitas is well-known for using its distinctive “IPA” lettering in a manner that it is the center and focal point of the overall design. The unique “IPA” lettering used in the Lagunitas “IPA” Family of Trademarks has a distinctive serif font, distinctive kerning (or letter spacing), between the “P” and the “A”, slightly aged or weathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and the elimination of any periods between the letters. These elements together are unique to the iconic design of the Lagunitas IPA.” Here we have the beating heart of Lagunitas’ argument. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

-This isn’t the first time Lagunitas has shut down someone’s “IPA” label: In November 2012, Tony Magee of Lagunitas took issue with Knee Deep’s IPA label, saying it was a little too close to his own. The Knee Deep case was a little more cut-and-dry perhaps, but still–we know Lagunitas will go to bat for what it perceives as its most important symbol.

-Intellectual Property (IP) law is insane and needs reforming–Not a lawyer alert (again): As I understand it, the way things are now, if you have a trademark and there’s any chance of another company infringing upon it, you have to make a case out of it. If you don’t protect your trademarks, you leave yourself open to abuse by any number of competitors. We’ll get back to this later in terms of public perception.

What We Can Infer (aka What We’ll be Arguing About Online)

-Tony takes this stuff personally: If you’re into beer at all, you know either from hanging out on forums or by following him on Twitter just how personally Tony Magee takes his business. That bleeds into the complaint in passages like these:

“The founder and current Chief Executive Officer of Lagunitas, Tony Magee, followed a different path for the Company’s flagship beer and designed the labels to prominently feature the acronym ‘IPA.'”

“Indeed, Lagunitas has invested substantial amounts of time and millions of dollars in promoting the Lagunitas IPA with the Lagunitas “IPA” family of trademarks. Lagunitas is unique among many of its competitors in that the Company’s founder, Tony Magee, still designs the beer labels and strives to instill personality into each of the beer recipes and the corresponding labels and packaging the Company makes.” 

Magee’s been very vocal in the past about breweries encroaching on what he sees as ‘his’ turf–the American IPA. Whether he’s right to see it that way or not is, of course, a matter of perspective.

-The Hop Hunter label is a departure from the regular Sierra Nevada branding: I’d only taken a passing notice of Hop Hunter’s label when I first read about it a couple weeks ago. I was more excited by the prospect of a potentially game-changing year-round ‘Wet Hop’ IPA–I think all of us were. In Lagunitas’ complaint, however, it is noted just how much different Hop Hunter’s packaging looks compared to other Sierra Nevada IPAs:

One of these things is definitely not like the others, but does that mean anything?

In and of itself, that drew a big “who cares?” from many–myself included. What I hadn’t thought of was the similarity between Hop Hunter’s label and the Sierra Nevada ‘Beer Camp’ collaboration labels:

hmmm…

“Particularly given this reputation for collaboration with other brewers, and based upon the obvious similarities to the Lagunitas ‘IPA’ Family of Trademarks, there exists a great likelihood that consumers mistakenly will believe that the ‘Hop Hunter IPA’ is a collaboration with Lagunitas, and, thereby, sponsored or approved by Lagunitas. This creates a consumer-perceived connection between the two breweries, thus providing Sierra Nevada with a shortcut to consumer acceptance of their India Pale Ale offering.”  I’m not sure I ever would’ve seen it if they didn’t call it out, but now that you mention it…

So What Does this Mean, if Anything? 

Like I said earlier, I’m not here to take sides or blast anyone. I will say for those out there who dismiss the complaint out-of-hand because ‘they don’t look that much alike’ to look at the image up top again and bear this in mind from a retailer with over 10 years in this business: people don’t read.

I’ll say it again: people don’t read. I write a weekly newsletter letting consumers who signed up for it know what new arrivals we’re getting in our shop that week, along with a listing of what beers I’ll be sampling that weekend. With the new arrivals, I include pricing, what day the beer will arrive, and if there are any purchasing limits applicable. I then immediately start getting phone calls or email replies asking how much something costs, or if a beer is coming in that day or the next, or how many bottles they can buy, or what I’m sampling that Saturday. We’re all busy; we all don’t have the time to parse over every newsletter or offering we get in our inboxes. We see what we want to see then move along to the next thing we have to do.

A co-worker saw me looking over a story about the complaint and scoffed “Oh GOD–beer people are so bad.” Then I showed them the picture of the sixers up top and they said “You know, at first glance I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.” Substitute the average consumer at their local grocery store or independent retailer for my co-worker and you see why Tony Magee and Lagunitas filed this complaint; if there’s even a chance that a competitor’s packaging can be seen as infringing upon your trademark, you have to do something.

That said, Magee does Lagunitas no favors when he takes to Twitter to throw stuff like this out (stitched together from his timeline during the day on 1/13/15):

“Trademarks r a big part of what craft brewers do…like a cattle brand or aboriginal peeps tattoo. The 1st TM was Bass Ale’s ‘red triangle’. It represents an awful lot. It’s how u know us as individuals. Maker’s-marks were like that in medieval craft guilds. Identity is subtle biz…We TM’d our IPA as a ‘design mark’. Can’t claim the letters. 1000’s of us make IPAs. Most have found their own cool way t say it w/strength. That work is a genuine tribute to the forces of creativity present in CraftBrewing today. That voice of the individual brewer is very pure. Finding a uniquely individual voice is hard in life&even harder in design: a visual language w/o words. Archetypes. Symbols. Cypheric memes. When doin sumpin new its best to build fr the ground up. It’s time-consuming. Easier to use a sky-hook and lever up on someone else’s works. But there’s a certain cheapness to that & u don’t own the ground you stand on, cuz there is no ground. But it’s easier. And it’s cheaper. Can you imagine what would happen if I used a crown logo or a golden scroll or a red star or a red triangle or a harp on my own label?There would be hell to pay and we’d have it coming…This is a course of action I did not want to take- I tried to work w Ken (Grossman of Sierra Nevada) without succes. Deeply saddened and & I wish it was otherwise.” 

All Magee needed to say was the last sentence of that, along with something to the effect of “If you don’t protect your trademarks against EVERY perceived infringement, they mean nothing. It will be resolved in time.” For its part, Sierra Nevada released a terse statement essentially saying “We’ve been making IPAs since ’81, and put it in big letters on the label so folks know they’re getting an IPA because kidz today like teh IPAs.” (Not a knock; I actually enjoyed the brevity of the statement and suspect brevity was the point.)

These are two of the breweries that got me into beer. I’ve never had anything but great interactions with the folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with from both breweries over the years. I like to think Sierra Nevada designed Hop Hunter’s packaging to stand out in its lineup because as a new year-round beer there’s a lot riding on it (if it’s as good as I’ve heard, they’ve got a winner on their hands) and they wanted to brand it strongly, rather than specifically targeting Lagunitas IPA. I like to think Magee reached out to Grossman early enough that there was a genuine opportunity for Sierra to redo the label if it so chose, rather than spring a complaint against them and their potentially ‘game-changing’ beer at the last-minute.

As usual you’re right, Dwayne.

Fair enough. Here’s what I know: while this case isn’t interesting in-and-of itself, it merits watching because with the growth of ‘craft’, ‘crafty’, ‘artisanal’ beer or whatever you want to call it, this is far from the last time two big players have at each other–and as the business gets bigger, the fights will get uglier.

The future is bright, but it’s far from clean.

Until next time.

 

Beers of the Year 2014, Full Edition

Note: I’d written a last-minute addition for this week’s ArlNow column, but sent it in too late. Here’s the full list. –Nick 

Saving me from finding one more angle for a Christmas-themed column, I realized that the 26th will mark the last “Your Beermonger” of 2014—which means it’s once again time for my little-anticipated, completely unscientific Beers of the Year column. As always, this is a list of seven (the list is seven this year, because reasons) beers that I wouldn’t necessarily say were the “best” of 2014, but those new/new to me that I enjoyed the most and/or made the biggest impression. Ok, onto the fun:

 

  1. Abita Bourbon St. Imperial Stout: A chocolate-toned, boozy bit of decadent fun that over-delivered in every aspect. There were some criticisms that Bourbon St. was a little ‘thin’, but amid a sea of unbalanced, milkshake-y, rich for the sake of richness Imperial Stouts, even if Bourbon St. seemed light by comparison (I personally didn’t find it so) that isn’t necessarily a knock on it. In any event, Bourbon St. was an important shot across the bow of the beer world from Abita: the Louisiana brewery hasn’t been around for over 30 years by accident, and still has some tricks up its sleeve.

 

  1. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin may not be the perfect beer, but it’s certainly a perfect beer—representing the best in West Coast hop-obsession in an IPA that doesn’t overwhelm in terms of bitterness or ABV. Sculpin wants for nothing, and yet the addition of grapefruit rind does something magical to this beer. The grapefruit doesn’t necessarily make Sculpin better; it’s just more wonderful, more fun, more lighthearted. After trying Grapefruit Sculpin at Stone’s Anniversary Party this summer, I worried we’d never see it in Virginia. A late-December shipment barely qualifies as a cameo in terms of sating demand, but here’s hoping it’s just the first of many runs we’ll see of this delightful beer.

 

  1. Sixpoint Sensi Harvest: 2014 was a big year for Sixpoint; a repackaging/rebranding effort saw its core beers move from tallboy can 4-packs to 6-packs of the sleek 12oz cans previously only used for bigger beers like Resin or 3 Beans. The new Sixpoint sixers were arriving much fresher than before, which paid off in a big way when it introduced Sensi Harvest Ale. Back in October I wrote about my love for Fresh Hop and Wet Hop beers, and it didn’t take long for Sensi to become by go-to Harvest Ale. I appreciated its combination of its 4.7% ABV with an intense clarity of hop character. It’s too late to catch Sensi Harvest Ale but the current Sixpoint seasonal, Global Warmer, is highly recommended.

 

  1. Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose: This summer’s release of Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink, And The Holy Gose delivered an unexpected hit from the stalwart California brewery. As the summer ended, I figured that was that and we’d have to wait until next year for more—and then the brewery posted a picture of Gose cans ready to be filled, with the words “Blood Orange” added to the labeling. The Blood Orange variant of Anderson Valley Gose isn’t just a tart, light, addictively easy-drinking Session Ale; it’s become the palate-cleanser beer of choice for bottle-shares all-around. A recently-arrived batch of the standard Gose has ignited hopes that one or both beers may go year-round; we can only hope.

 

  1. Three Brothers Drift: I only had a couple of issues with Drift: one was that it was labeled as a “Session IPA”, and at 5% ABV it was neither. The much bigger issue I had was that it was only produced for a few months—immediately after trying it for the first time back in July, I emailed Adam Shifflett of Three Brothers to shamelessly plead for it to become a year-round offering. There wasn’t a better Pale Ale introduced in our market this year than Drift. Easy-going and balanced, but not with so much malt as to diminish its bright hop character, Drift became a regular tenant in my refrigerator along with many of my customers. The Harrisonburg-based brewery did extent the production run of Drift into early fall, but Drift won’t be year-round just yet. Look for some last (still tasty) 4-packs on shelves now, or when it returns this summer.

 

  1. The Bruery Black Tuesday (2014): Here’s where I admit to the arbitrary nature of my Beers of the Year list: Black Tuesday is exactly the kind of over-the-top, ultra-boozy Stout I was talking about when writing about Abita’s Bourbon St. above. Also, were this purely a “Best Beers of the Year” list, Black Tuesday would have been my number one pick in a landslide. The formula is deceptively simple: Black Tuesday is a Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, released on the last Tuesday of October every year. The reality, as it is so often with beers from The Bruery, is something else entirely: varying between 18-19.7% ABV in different vintages, Black Tuesday showcases a depth of flavor rather than overwhelming the palate. It has a balanced structure (as much as a beer can and still hover just beneath 20% ABV, anyway) rather than burdening the tongue with sweetness or alcoholic heat. Every element, from the chocolate and roasty notes in the malts to the spicy Bourbon tones, is layered just so—if the overall impression of the beer weren’t so massive, I’d dare call it harmonious. TL; DR—sometimes the hype is real. This was one of those times.

 

  1. Hardywood Pils: I tried, and greatly enjoyed, the draft-only Bohemian Pilsner Hardywood released this past summer. I was slightly dismayed when word got out that the Richmond brewery would be opting to bottle a German-style Pilsner instead to add to its year-round offerings, but I should have known better. To a beer, Hardywood’s offerings have been impeccably crafted, and Pils is no exception. In fact, I think in some ways Pils may prove to be Hardywood’s most important beer in years to come. The hype surrounding its Gingerbread Stout (and subsequent variants) may have gotten people to line up in droves for limited draft pours and bottle sales, but quietly Pils has become one of my best-selling beers in a very short period of time. Hardywood Pils is everything you want from a German-style Pilsner: refreshingly crisp, flavorful, drier than the Czech-styles on the market, and at 5.2% ABV it’s not overbearing while avoiding coming across as too light. It’s become a go-to beer with a constant presence in my refrigerator; an excellent interpretation of an Old World style that any of my friends can grab a bottle of, understand, and enjoy—distinctly American but with respect for the traditions of the style. Call the segment of the market we work or share an interest in “craft” beer, or “artisan”, or “small” or “independent”—whatever it is, we need more beers like Hardywood Pils to bring more folks into the fold. If you don’t love Lager, you don’t love beer: Hardywood Pils is a great Lager.

 

Honorable Mentions: Hardywood RVA IPA; LoverBeer Nebulin-a; Ninkasi Tricerahops; Stone Enjoy By IPA (all of them, I don’t care if you thought the February batch wasn’t as good as the April but better than July—they’re all good); Parkway Majestic Mullet Kolsch; Port City Ways & Means; Mikkeller Better Half IPA; Devils Backbone Wood-Aged Kilt Flasher; Stillwater/Westbrook Gose Gone Wild; The Alchemist Focal Banger; Stone Coffee Milk Stout; Robinson’s The Trooper; The Bruery Atomic Kangarue, and too many others to list.

 

The joy of being a beer geek is being able to try new things, and discover a new appreciation for the art of brewing. I hope, in some small way, that I’ve been able to contribute to your beer geekery this year, and look forward to better year ahead in 2015. Have a wonderful New Year’s. Until next time.

Changing Tastes: A Quick Reasoning of Why ZZ Top is the Best ‘Band’ Ever

If you’d asked me when I was 10, I’d have said the Stones; at 13 it was Primus (for a long time it was Primus). I can (and probably have) made arguments for Led Zepplin, The Beatles, The Who, Van Halen, Motorhead, Metallica, and many more. But right now, if you asked me who the best band of all time is, I’d say ZZ Top.

What?

Let me put it this way: there are bands that have more artistic merit. There are bands that are more technically talented. But at this point in my life, I’m a full-on boring-ass grown up and I know what a band’s job is–you hire a band as entertainment for your bar/club/roadhouse. You hire a band to get people to dance, and drink, and drink more, and dance, and make questionable ‘relationship’ decisions after a sufficient number of drinks.

Go listen to a few ZZ Top records–go on, just let ’em play through. Is there any other band you’d hire over them? Van Halen gets close; Aerosmith has it’s moments. Mick’s obsession with being taken as an artist dragged the Stones too far away too many times, otherwise they’d be a shoo-in. ZZ Top swings; they’re understated until they’re not (the end of Nationwide is pure badassery). They can provide the soundtrack for a whole evening of stiff drinks and bad decisions. You can’t do that. If  could do that, I’d have never ended up working in wine/beer stores. It’s a gift.

Best band ever. Until I realize someone else is.

 

ArlNow Column 10.17.14. Supplemental

Song of the Week: Born to Hula, Queens of the Stone Age. Just ’cause.

A quick post today, with some additional thoughts related to my ArlNow column as I’ve instituted a word count on myself there…

“What came out was, frankly, depressing; no one here wants to read about me being a sad panda.” I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated the first pass at this week’s column. It wasn’t so much bad as it was unfocused; a total slog to get through reading. Also, by the time I was done I realized what I’d written wasn’t really how I felt about the matter–a valuable lesson for the writers out there: recognize when you’re onto something and when you’re just getting your thoughts sorted out.

“More people with less experience in and knowledge of the industry, and of beer itself are going to be weighing in.” From local morning shows to mainstream websites/magazines, you’ll be seeing lots of “Hey, look–there’s more than just Bud Light out there!” kind of bullshit over the next few years. Set your Hack Filter to ‘Kill’.

“…it’s about good beer made by good people who give a damn.” That’s not to say that there aren’t good beers being made at the ‘macro’ level, or that there aren’t highly-skilled, wonderful people making them. Of course there are. Word count demand cut the qualifier; I just wish I didn’t have to feel like I had to do one at all.

“There’s no point in getting worked up about the opinions and speculation of people who weren’t with beer as it was starting out, and won’t stick around when/if the industry ever hits a slide..”  I do want to expand on this a bit. I didn’t mean this as a dig on Chang–as I say earlier in the column, he’s not ignorant of the ‘craft’ beer scene, only expressing his own personal opinion. That line is more about the coming wave of media coverage the beer industry is going to be caught up in.

As beer geeks, we’re gonna have to be a bit more selective over what we get worked up about. There’s gonna be a lot of misinformed articles, TV features, etc., but it’s important to bear in mind that most of it will be essentially harmless. The fact that we’ve all spent the week going back-and-forth about the personal opinion of one chef rather than refocusing on the inevitable AB/InBev/SABMiller merger with the Times weighing in is troubling to me. Like I said on Twitter, there are real issues that can/will impact the growing ‘craft’/independent beer industry; celebrity chefs liking Bud Light ain’t one of them.

Though if you’re looking for someone to do the ‘takedown’ piece, Garrett Oliver pretty much nails it here. There’s a reason I really like that guy. Also, Jeppe from Evil Twin has a great ‘rebuttal’ on his Tumblr.

Next week: I (most likely) dig into my cellar a bit, and get to try my first batch of homebrew!

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!