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!


Thursday Tasting Notes; 12.1.11

Every now and then, I get to try a bunch of stuff out at once. I don’t take notes nearly as often as I used to (or should, for that matter) so it felt like a good enough excuse to post some thoughts as I tried things out tonight. Let’s get going, eh?

Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale (BrownShugga’ Replacement)

We all by now have heard the story of how the gang in Petaluma just plain ran out of capacity to brew the ever-popular BrownShugga’ seasonal this year. In its stead we get this IPA that I swear to Flying Spaghetti Monster is a repackaged version of their Kill Ugly Radio release from a few years ago. Not a compliant, mind you; I loved that beer and I love this one too. Aromas are sharp and spicy–black pepper spicy rather than coriander spicy. The palate is a quick rush of tropical fruits with a firm hop backbone establishing itself and carrying through the finish. I got a feeling we’re going to sell through a ton of this (in fact, we went through about 1/2 the 5 cases we got just today).

Le Bilboquet Mackroken Flower Scotch Ale

Now this is some serious cool. The nose alone, with with its sweet toffee malts and hint of honey, is worth the price of admission. The palate is a real treat, though; amid the sweetness of the honey and malt there’s a restrained roastyness that too many breweries tend to dismiss these days. It’s a beautiful thing when done right, and it’s done way right here. Imagine a richer, more robust Scotch de Silly and you’re starting to get the level of craftsmanship and enjoyment Mackroken Flower brings to bear.

Le Bilboquet La Corriveau Oat Stout

These guys in Quebec know what they’re doing: the La Corriveau is a complex, subtle Stout. With some of the nutty notes that I usually associate with aged Barleywines, Corriveau starts off on the palate a bit confusing. A few revisits reveals a mix of grains, chocolate (with a hint of dark chocolate ‘tang’ contributing to the feel–nice touch), and super-subtle hoppiness building to a rich finish. Between the two, I much prefer the Mackroken personally but I think La Corriveau may end up proving the more popular of the two.

Sierra Nevada Ovila Quad

Before I get to the beer itself: good lord I’ve never fought so hard with a cork in my life. No lie; not in a still wine, sparkling, dessert–nothing was like trying to pry the cork from this monster. Something to keep an eye out for if you pick one of these up.

But should you pick one of these up? I…don’t know. There are many different way too look at this beer, and almost all of them lead to different conclusions about it. As a Belgian Quad, Ovila’s a bit tame and thin; the aroma has a fair amount of the medicinal sweetness expected in the style but on the palate it feels lacking, and that medicinal quality goes almost vegetal on the back palate. The finish dissipates all too quickly. As a beer it’s enjoyable enough, but doesn’t stand out among the vast array of great Belgian options out there. Even as a Sierra Nevada beer, it doesn’t offer anything to the drinker that Life & Limb hasn’t already done (and done much better at that).

It’s not bad. It’s just not outstanding, and to make a mark for itself the Ovila beers need to kick the living hell out of expectations. My advice? Wait for the Brandy barrel aged version coming in 2012. That should be interesting.

Avery Rumpkin

*cracks knuckles*

Ok, let’s do this. How do I start to explain this thing? Let’s try…

Hmm. Good, but not quite it. How about…

Yeah; going with that. It’s got funk, dirt, sweet spice. Boozy as all hell. Will get you completely twisted if you aren’t careful. Rumpkin is freakin’ Go-Go made into a beer.

On the first sniff of Rumpkin, I wondered if something was wrong with it. Where was the spice, the gourd, the Rum? All I got off it was dirt-dog earthiness and nose-twitching heat. So I gave it a couple minutes.

(If you don’t think this isn’t turning into an excuse to post random Go-Go classics, just walk away now ’cause it is on over here.)

So, with a few minutes to air out and warm up a bit Rumpkin lets a bit more of the spice and pumpkin loose. The first taste is where Rumpkin gets you loose; it’s sweet without cloying and the rum barrel makes all kinds of sense in all the right/wrong ways. Beware: Rumpkin doesn’t feel 15.9% ABV and that only encourages you to roll with it. The lack of sweetness and overwhelming alcohol feel lets you enjoy Rumpkin for the great Pumpkin Ale it is. If you can snag some of this, do it.

I’m genuinely stunned at how much I dig this beer. I was expecting an over-the-top booze/sugar bomb with some pumpkin and spice thrown in to justify its existence–and I would’ve been down with that, if not totally enamored. But this is a legit creation with nuance and soul.

And it’ll make you want to get up and shake your ass. Can I just say, in summation: Goddamn I love the Northeast Groovers. ‘Til next time.



Hype and Hope

(The Biggie video is unrelated except I originally was going to start this post asking: “What Is Hype?” and this got stuck in my head).

With the debacle that was the release of Founder’s Canadian Breakfast Stout back in October the long-running debates over allocations to retailers, the doling out to customers of rare beers and the pricing of said beers flamed up once again. One aspect of these debates that I believe never gets enough attention is the idea of Hype; that a breweries’ excitement over a product, along with the public’s rabid want of said product, creates an environment where the ideal is impossible and even the reasonable is less than likely. Here then, is one retailer’s take on Limited Beer Hype, and in a better world, where that hype would direct itself.

I should start by saying I don’t mean to pound Founder’s or their distributors by using CBS as the example of Beer Hype gone amok. It’s just that the CBS release is the latest and in many ways the best example of issues within the Craft Beer community and business when it comes to releases like these. In my area (DC Metro; Northern VA, NoVA, the DMV) there were just under 60 cases of CBS to be doled out among hundreds of retailers and restaurants. From what intel I could gather, no one in the area got more than one case of CBS. Speaking only for myself this is a tough spot to be put in; my stores’ newsletter goes to thousands of customers every week, and here I am with 12 bottles to sell. It’s inherently going to be unfair to most people who want the beer. Some guys I know went to a lottery system to create a random chance for customers to get the beer. I like that idea; it’s a great way to not only be able to take a customer’s name (which gives them a tangible feeling that they may get their hands on something) but it eliminates the assumption many have that we as retailers hand out rarities to specific customers–a Beer Illuminati, if you will. Everyone thinks we do this, but the truth is not nearly as sinister. Speaking for myself, I can tell you that with quantities as low as they were with CBS and other beers of its type there is no Secret Society that just gets whatever comes in. It doesn’t hurt to know your beer guy, though–I did pull and hold one bottle of CBS, for a good customer who was out of town. Even then, I only did because he was coming back to town the day after the beer arrived, and I wanted to do him a solid. My solution, rather than a lottery (which I may go to in the future) was and usually is to simply say “First Come, First Served”. It’s fair but also proactive; how much do you really want that beer? Also, it brings people into the store and creates an environment where Beer Geeks get a chance to hang out and get to know their own kind. The day CBS arrived I had nearly a dozen guys hanging out in the store, having great conversations about beer that we frankly don’t get to have as often as we should. A lot of folks hate my use of First Come First Served, but I enjoy the environment it creates when a group of Beer Geeks come by to hang out so please forgive my little bit of social engineering.

The point I was going to get to is that, using CBS as an example, Hype can and usually does create an environment where virtually no one is going to be left happy. Founder’s was justifiably excited over their beer–hell, they had a whole day-long event at their brewery the day it was released. On forums all over the internet, there was chatter and building excitement over the release–I had customers asking me about CBS back in July; well before I’d even gotten a tentative release date from Founder’s. Beer Advocate and RateBeer (even Untappd, which I enjoy thoroughly) ratings and reviews hold beers such as CBS out as Geek Bait, creating a myth and cultivating the idea of Craft Beer as Status Symbol.

Founder’s reportedly made ~10,000 bottles of CBS. Mass disappointment was inevitable. So was retailers in some states gouging customers with the knowledge of CBS’s rarity (for the record, no one in VA that I know of did anything like that–there’s so little to go around that there was no point in gouging). The only thing Founder’s could have done, in my opinion, is release more to the greater U.S. rather than keep so much in Michigan. Then again, I’ve heard wildly varying accounts of how much CBS stayed in Founder’s home state, and even if they sent more out it would never be enough to even fractionally satisfy demand. A better example of this might be Bell’s HopSlam. Bell’s has admirably made more HopSlam available to us with every passing year, but the beer simply flies off of shelves. I appreciate the recognition of NoVA as a important market for HopSlam, but every year I hear about stores in Michigan buying huge quantities of it and even hoarding it to sell throughout the year–which goes against the entire idea of the beer as a “drink now while the hop is fresh” IPA. The bottom line is, while many limited releases will never be made in enough quantity to get into all of the hands that want them, a little extra would go a long way toward establishing faith in a brewery’s commitment to a market. Especially one as important as ours (shameless lobbying, I know–get over it; it’s my blog after all…).

As a quick aside: Before you start to blame distributors (and Spaghetti Monster knows I do often and deservedly so), try to appreciate the position they’re in just a tiny bit. These limited run beers are often extremely pricy compared to regular stock; many distributors are still wine-oriented and relatively unfamiliar with Craft Beer so sometimes they shy away from bringing in as much of an item as they maybe should. Also, when they do it’s not unusual to see them selling more than they should to Big Box stores–again, these are businesses and they need to make their money where they can. All you can do, as a customer, is to encourage your local Independent Retailer to kick and scream and fight for every bottle they can get. Trust me, we’re trying: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard of seasonals and limited beers being stacked in chains stores and telling distributors “I could have sold a palette or two of this, if only you’d let me”. Squeaky wheels get greased, folks.

That brings me to us. The Beer Geeks. The people. What can we do about Hype? Well, what we can do is among the most difficult things to do in life; keep perspective. Understand that there are a great many things that are inherently unfair in this world and that being unfair does not necessarily make those things evil. I will use myself as an example: I’ve read about CBS for years. I’m a huge Founder’s fan and in particular the Breakfast Stout and its KBS variant. As a BeerAdvocate member since 2004, I’ve seen the Top 10 list evolve while only having opportunity to try maybe 10-20% of the beers that have made it over the past 7-8 years. I got 12 bottles of CBS into the store that I buy beers for, that I ordered for said store.

And I didn’t get to try it.

I didn’t sneak a bottle for myself. I didn’t get to catch it on tap in the area, or snag a bottle with dinner at one of the bars that had it. The thing is, though; I’m not in any way upset about that. I expected demand to be through the roof and supply to be microscopic. I accepted that I would likely not get enough to justify pulling a bottle for myself and decided it would have to wait for another day. News and rumors are flying about now about Westveleteren finally coming to the States in 2012. While yes, this may indeed signal the End Of Times, it is once again a beer that thousands will want deeply but only a handful will actually end up with. I’ve wanted to try Westy XII for years; to find out if it’s really The Best Beer In The World or just unobtainium in a bottle. But I know and accept that I likely won’t even see it. It’s ok, folks: As a rule, I encourage everyone not to get upset over anything that hasn’t been promised to them.

So what of Hype? Well, I try to focus it on beers that I happen to fall for that I can also reliably stock for my customers. There’s nothing wrong with Hype as a concept: it’s the expression of an excitement for and belief in a beer and the desire for others to enjoy it as you do. I’ve Hyped the hell out of Schlafly since they arrived in the DC area about four years ago; finally this year we’ve seen a flood of new brews from them here and the public response has been excellent. My current obsession is with Sixpoint: I’d heard many things about this brewery from Brooklyn over the past few years and was immediately excited when I heard they’d be arriving in VA this October. I went through the roof, however, when I got to try the beers out. They’re so focused and accessible, I saw a star in the making. Beyond that–tallboys! Who doesn’t like a tallboy can? Even their Cream Ale is outstanding! Sixpoint makes well-priced, complex, yet everyday-drinker-worthy Craft Beer of varying styles; that’s the kind of beer I want to Hype up. That’s the kind of beer that lets me know the Craft Beer Revolution is spreading, and will only gain more support over time as Macro drinkers find more realistic alternatives. Anyone can be excited by CBS, or Westy XII, or Dark Lord. In my world, if you can’t get excited over Sixpoint’s Bengali Tiger or Righteous Ale, or Schlafly’s Kolsch, you’re just looking to show off.

I know I’m thinking a bit too Utopian. I know the Craft Beer scene is not going to suddenly go Zen and accept that which is unchangeable and unfair. I don’t even expect myself to be that way all the time: Who among us doesn’t love trying new things; rare things? There’s a place for all of it is what I’m saying. And what a brewery like Sixpoint can give you with their everyday brilliance is hope–hope for a coming day where all shelves are fresh and local and true. Where there is no longer any misconception about Craft Beer being a luxury. The CBS’s of the world get lots of attention, but they’re not the front line in spreading the word. The Crisp, however, is.

Think it over, and remember: I and every retailer out there (I hope) am here to do everything I can to get my customers what they want. I stand to gain nothing but resentment and loss of business by screwing anyone out of anything. Most often, I’m in the same boat you are as far as wanting something we can’t get or can’t get enough of. Only together can we raise our voices loud enough to be heard, and for us all to someday, finally, be happy.

Good day, and good hunting, everyone.


The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer

The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA

Also; the Great Hop Debate, and the pitfalls of Fashion

I don’t often write reviews on Beer Advocate anymore. It’s a fantastic resource and community for novice and old-hand beer drinkers alike, but between writing the Arrowine newsletter every week and getting around to the blog now and then, I just don’t feel the need like I did 6-7 years ago.

I say this because back in July I got my first taste of Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA. There seems to have been a great amount of discussion amongst Beer Geeks this summer over hoppy beers; how hoppy was too hoppy? Was there a point to extreme IBU beers? Stuff like that. When Devil Dancer arrived I snagged one for myself to see what the fuss was about. Later I found myself on BA and decided I’d post a review; after typing for a couple minutes though, I stopped and saved part of what I’d written for future use. Here’s what I kept from that abandoned review:

“…this is an exceptional, uniquely flavored beer. The thing is on some level I feel brews like Devil Dancer may be part of the problem rather than a legitimate effort at producing a truly wonderful super-hoppy beer. The aromas are pungent and tropical, promising a world of BIG. The palate is where Devil Dancer both amazed and slightly annoyed me: in some ways it’s an ultimate expression of the hop in modern American beer. The explicitness of the resiny, earthy hop character is a marvel, while the super rich pineapple and melon notes provide a contrast (note I didn’t say balance)…”

I imagine that sentence ended (if it ever did) with something like: “…that astounds but doesn’t save Devil Dancer from being a one-note-wonder.” I think I was going to write a review using terms like “pissing contest” and “style over substance”, possibly while invoking comparisons to a Kardashian or two (flamboyant, pretty but empty and meaningless in all ways that matter). But I didn’t. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I’d soon find out.

I’ve been watching the most recent series of the BBC’s Top Gear. At the start of the second episode, James May reviewed the new Aston Martin Virage and took the opportunity to air a grievance he had with car builders today (relevant bit begins at :52). For those who can’t or don’t have time to access the video, here’s a brief synopsis of what May had to say (from a blog post no longer to be found on the Top Gear site):

“I may be alone in this, but I reckon that a lot of performance cars I drive lack proper feel. I blame the Nürburgring. Being able to claim that your daily driver holds a production car lap record somewhere in Germany is a good boast down the pub for the feeble minded, and the map of the place that Aston Martin embroidered on the center console of the N400 might make its owners feel superior, but it’s all nonsense.”

James essentially saw a culture of track-ready hypercars made to lap the ‘Ring trickling down, making even road-going ‘everyday’ sports cars into harsh-riding, unlivable (to him) absurdities. I realized I thought the same of Devil Dancer when I’d tried it–that I was fed up with the ‘flop it on the table’ contest that IPAs and DIPAs and now TIPAs  had wrought among the everyday Pale Ales and hoppy beers that so many are either just not used to or don’t prefer.

I also thought May should blow it out his ass: the Nurburgring is a temple to all of the things that make driving fast cars dangerously great, and to damn the ‘Ring is to damn us all to a Camry-riddled hell where no one exceeds 55 (intentionally, anyway).

I then realized was wrong as well.

Not long after trying that first Devil Dancer we featured it on the tasting table at Arrowine. The second time around I thought it was a triumph; I wanted to grab a handful and drink them over the next couple of years (it has the potential to go longer, but the hop character may be too well-missed by then) but didn’t–I have customers to sell them too, after all. Or should I say had–our stock sold out well before the tasting ended that evening. That the madmen at Founder’s could craft a brew this hoppy–that they could use the heroic amount of malt necessary to give it any kind of balance and not lose the earthy, rich, juicy mind-meld that makes you One With The Hop is beyond me. Devil Dancer is a beast; a legitimate and welcome addition to the Hop Pantheon.

You may ask: “So what changed, Nick? Was the second bottle just better? Are you a flip-flopping idiot with no clue of what you’re doing?” And I’d say: No, no, and don’t be a dick.

Seriously, don't be one.

Over the years, I’ve become more enamored of styles of beer that aren’t by nature very hoppy. As a consequence I don’t seek out the latest Hop Bomb when it comes out the way I might have 10 years ago. But, like most currently walking the Craft Beer Path, I began a HopHead and will at heart always be one.

Conversations about styles and trends are worth having, of course. But as I’ve discovered over the years (mostly working with wine, actually), there are some days where your palate may just be ‘off’. There may be days where something just strikes you the wrong way. Remaining objective in the face of something you dislike is probably the most important skill you can have in my line of work. While I am the beer buyer at the shop I work at, I don’t see it as my job to be a Tastemaker; folks ask my advice and I provide it. To be a Tastemaker is to enter the realm of Fashion, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about Fashion from years of forced Project Runway viewing it’s that when you follow the path of Fashion, one day you’re in and the next you’re out. Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m not one for Fashion; why would I succumb to it in the world of beer?

Also learned: Heidi Klum is almost always pregnant. I never said I learned much.

Look at that partial review of mine again–doesn’t it sound awful? Jaded? Devoid of joy or context? If I never thought twice about it, I’d have been doing my customers a great disservice by striking a giant red X through a category of beer that has produced some of the best known and loved brews of the past 20-30 years. Beyond that, I was plain wrong. Skepticism can be a great thing; cynicism kills.

That is to say, Devil Dancer is fantastic and Founder’s keeps churning out some of the best made and well-thought ‘Extreme’ beers in the world. So the next time you try a beer or wine and it doesn’t send you over the moon, think twice before writing that scathing review, or tweet, or Facebook post. Be sure of where your palate’s at, and examine why you didn’t like it. Most of all, never be unwilling to try something again. You never know until you know–you know?

Until next time…


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.


The Beermonger Review (Noir Style!): Heavy Seas Smoke on the Water

It was a beautiful night, even to these weathered eyes: The past couple of weeks had seen storms that tossed old oaks about like dice in an alley. Now I stood outside in an evening that wouldn’t have been out of place in the early days of Autumn. The rains and the wind were one thing, but when it wasn’t raining the DC area was being roasted steam-oven style all Summer. Stewing in our own juices, we all took to the roads like sweaty little dumplings ready to pop or simply wither and fall apart at any moment.

Yeah, it’d been a hot summer and tensions were high. So standing there in this blue/black night with its light breeze and sweet, dry air, all I could think was that it was wonderful. It made me full of wonder at what horror could possibly be coming next.

I didn’t have to wait long. I wasn’t planning on being ‘in the office’ that Sunday but I heard a ‘pop’ and suddenly I could see her through the glass: Dark, slightly sweet with a bubbly little head and smelling of cocoa and just a hint of smoke. The kind that always get me in trouble. I like trouble.

She said her name was Smoke on the Water and while I’m more a Highway Star man, I was charmed and intrigued as I am with any dame who rocks the Purple. She said she had a tale to tell. I told her ‘Don’t we all?’.

Her hat flew off almost the moment she entered the room, but her short brown hair seemed effervescent, almost alive. No surprise she was a brunette but it was still a relief; she may be trouble but at least it would be brunette trouble. Brunette trouble I could handle. Blonde trouble? Well, let’s save that story for another day. I’ll just say there are some lessons you can’t say I haven’t learned and leave it at that.

I hesitated to listen. It all seemed like a setup. I could tell what she had to say was heavy, and after roasting in my non-air conditioned sweatbox all over the Beltway this summer I wasn’t in much of a mood for heavy. Especially not on this one temperate night that for whatever reason made me think of childhood or what I could conjure of my childhood at least. I told her as much; that while I was sure I needed to hear what she had to say I wasn’t sure I could listen at that moment. Surely it could wait. I told her to give me time, let me work through some of these other casefiles building up into my own kitchen now.

What can I tell you? Brunette trouble waits for the schedule of no man; it makes the schedule of man. This man, to be specific. Like a child whose eye has locked on an amusement at a fair she led me to my seat to hear her talk.

Perched on my table she told me she sold cigars and cigarettes in one of the big beer halls in Baltimore. I finally took a second to soak in the rich, dark brown of her dress, just a shade or two from black. The color was classic for a smoked porter and made me drift off thinking of the old days. I caught some details here and there: Something about the girls who worked at the Heavy Seas, how a few worked all the time while a handful only popped up once per year, or only worked particular seasons. I’d heard rumors of stuff like this but for the moment I was trying to place her perfume. The smoke came from her job, of course, but it meshed so well into whatever it was she was wearing. It occurred to me that she wasn’t wearing any perfume at all; the slight sweetness, the hints of chocolate and malt were all her. I’m no kid, mind you, but I gotta tell you I was a bit smitten already. Trouble.

Smoke leaned in close and kissed me softly. She tasted like she smelled and if I was smitten before, I was in deep now. The lingering smoke and astringent tang of club sweat only served to frame a soft wave of cocoa and malt that didn’t feel heavy or thick; only rich and fully present. She whispered that she was only brought in to work a couple weeks and that she didn’t know what would happen to her after. She liked where she was and didn’t want to go away. I knew, better than her, how many girls like her come and go through places like the Heavy Seas burning bright like the Zippo of a small-time hood catching the edge of a streetlamps’ gaze and are lucky to last as long. They all seem interesting, but so few really are. Smoke was unique, for sure; A girl with her qualities usually only turns up out West and even they don’t always fit in out there. But here was a real gem of a porter, who wasn’t overwhelmed by the smokyness around her but enhanced by it. I knew what she was going to ask before she asked it and before I knew it, our moment had come and gone.

She wanted me to make them keep her around. She didn’t want to be another flash-in-the-pan to be forgotten. I finally realized how smart this girl was: She managed to find, in the small window where she could, the perfect moment to walk through my door. The perfect night to grab me and make me fall a little bit in love with her. So she was working me? You’re damn right she was. Did it work? You’re damn right it did.

I started babbling like a child trying to talk his parents’ disappointment away. I told her I’m only one man, that I couldn’t just make anyone keep her around. I told her to try and get work in the Autumn, early Winter or even in the Spring. I had to tell her that as smart as it was to catch me during the one perfect night we had this August it only served to show how out of place she actually was.

She seemed so empty then. My heart sank along with what was left of her. I leaned in close enough to catch her scent one more time and told her I’d see what I could do. I told her I thought she had a place around here and that no matter what happened next, she was beautiful and she was appreciated. Her expression didn’t change. I stood up and went back inside looking for a solution, something to make her happy again. I searched the way an infant searching for Easter eggs would; without any concept of what ‘Easter’ or ‘egg’ or ‘search’ are. I walked into a solution hiding in plain sight, like a door my subconscious knew was open but wasn’t.

She was only going to be around for a few weeks right? Well, I said, I’ve got a wide open calendar and you can always find a place to stay in the closet I call home. We’ve got some plans in the works now and I hope to revisit Smoke on the Water over the next couple months. If you see her, give the girl a chance. She’s just the kind of broad we could stand to see around here more.

Of course, she wasn’t happy. She had found her way into my home and my heart but hadn’t gotten what she wanted. It wasn’t difficult to see that she was a little steamed; what was difficult was trying not to find it too endearing. Somehow I managed.

It was time for me to move on until next time. She didn’t feel comfortable not knowing what would happen. She didn’t like the uncertainty of the future. ‘Don’t we all?’ I said and walked away. I’ll tell ya, trouble


The Beermonger Review: Saison du BUFF (Updated w/all 3 versions)

Yeah, I know…where the hell have I been?

Well, it’s been a little bit hectic in ‘Mongerland lately. I recently changed jobs somewhat unexpectedly in June, followed by (1 week later in fact) moving to a new place. So to say I’ve been busy is a way of putting it. Adjusting to the new job has been good and I’m enjoying it a lot but it does take some time, hence the extended absence. Apologies.

I’ve got a bit of a backlog of beers that I’ve had over the past couple of months and some things I’m excited to write about. I’ll be trying to get to these over the next few weeks. For now, I’m kicking back watching the Redskins first preseason game and trying out Dogfish Head’s version of the ‘Mother of all Collaboration’ special beer Saison du BUFF.

A bit of background: Saison du BUFF started with an alliance of three of the baddest beer-brewing mofos in America back in 2003, as Stone Brewing Co boss Greg Koch, Dogfish Head madman Sam Calagione and Victory badass Bill Covaleski formed the Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor (BUFF) alliance. The point was not just to increase promotion of honest, outstanding craft beer to us dirty, unwashed masses yearning to drink free of multimillion dollar bullshit and fizzy yellow beer, but to ensure fair treatment and respect for small craft brewers from distributors and proper placement for those beers in retailers, bars and restaurants everywhere.

Earlier this year, the boys met up at Stone’s North County San Diego brewery to create a special beer as a thanks to all of us unworthy Bastards. The concept is simple: One beer to be brewed at all three breweries, using the same recipe and ingredients. The end product is a Saison clocking in at 6% ABV, brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

I tried a bottle of the Stone version a few weeks back (during my hiatus) and am currently drinking the Dogfish version. I’m going to crack my second bottle of the Stone (forgot it was in there!) to get a fresh impression and compare.

What’s that you say? How can there be a comparison? It’s the same beer, with the same recipe and ingredients! Well, you have a point. But it’s not quite that simple. Let’s get to it:

Saison du BUFF Comparo, Part 1, or: Identical Cousins, Two of a Kind!

Stone Saison du BUFF

We’re gonna call this v.1. Poured with a quick to rise, quick to fall foamy head. The aroma is sharp, with herbal notes and a hint of citrus character that you’d normally see in a Hefeweizen. First impression on the palate is bright herbs and some hoppy acidity. The combination of herbs used almost makes v.1 seem like a Pale Ale with some dry-hopped character. Drinkable but complex; Saison du BUFF takes you for a bit of a ride leading to a finish with lingering ‘hop’ flavor and a subtle building heat, almost like a good red table wine (Chianti, a proper Merlot, Cotes du Rhone). I could see some great seafood pasta dished playing well with this, or a nice shaved turkey on rye or kickass veggie sandwich. Wish I had more.

Dogfish Saison du BUFF

The first impression came from merely opening the bottle. The cap gave way with a decidedly loud POP. As I poured the last of the bottle, it seemed to develop a foaming head that just wanted to run right out of the top of the glass. I described it on Twitter as being ‘active’; it had playful, hyperactive bubbles and a nose that seemed hoppier, hotter and all-around less subtle than the Stone.

The palate is where I really started noticing some differences. To me, the Dogfish version (from here on referred to as v.2) presented itself as more of a traditional Saison with its round feel and slightly grainier, yeastier character. It’s very drinkable, like v.1, but I think more so because of how the herbs seem to be more integrated.

On my palate the difference seems to be almost like using fresh versus dried herbs. The dry stuff is sharp, intense and uncompromising in pureness of its character. Fresh herbs are muted, earthy and easier on the nose and tongue. Try eating a basil leaf sometime, then try eating a pinch of dried basil. You’ll see what I mean.

The point being (I hope) that v.1 is much more the ‘dried herb’ take on Saison du Buff, where v.2 has the lusher, more subtle ‘fresh herb’ notes. Which of course is odd, since they’re the same beer made with the same ingredients. The only difference is where they’re made. It’s fascinating to me that they show like this, but if I paint with some broad strokes it makes some sense: You’d expect a West Coast beer to have a sharper palate and some lingering heat. The herbs in v.1 give a simulation of a lingering lupulin ‘burn’, which is very cool. By the same token, it makes total sense to see something from the East Coast being earthier and rounder.

Where the collaboration comes through for me, then, is in the aromas. The v.2 nose is so intense and hot which you might expect from, say, an intensely hoppy beer from Stone. V.1 more subtle but still complex; something that screamed Dogfish Head to me.

If I had to pick one, I’d go for v.2. I think the Saison character and earthiness play beautifully here. But honestly they’re both amazing beers, more than worth your time and attention. Track them down if you can.

Before anyone points it out: Yes, I know I haven’t mentioned Victory. I’m waiting for their version to come out. When it does, I’ll sit down and we’ll see how v.3 compares to 1 and 2. I can’t wait to pick all three of these apart and see what I find.

Until next time!


Update! Victory Saison du BUFF:

So now that I’ve had the Victory version of the beer (let’s call it V.3), let’s wrap this up and call it a full set.

If I had to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I’d say V.3 is ‘just right’. It’s not as dramatic as the Stone or Dogfish beers but it strikes a great balance that makes it the most drinkable of the bunch. Remarkably the last bottle I had, having been in the fridge for a few days, presented itself as being very Pils-like while still very cold. All that herbal element at a very cold temperature makes for a very focused but subtle hop-like note. As it warmed up a bit the basil-ness of the beer came out like it did on the first two. V.3 is the one of the three I’d give to an uninitiated craft beer drinker if they were curious about the beer; it’s so balanced and easy going that I can see almost anyone enjoying it.

So did I have a favorite? I don’t think I do. I really did dig all three. Each had something that made it stand out, yet they all shared a unique recipe that combined the absurd with the comforting with the sublime. I say if you can get a hold of any Saison du BUFF, get on it.

The Beer Geek’s Manifesto

I need to preface this a bit…

…I’m a dork.

No, it’s ok. You can say it too, if you’ve met me—it’s not as if my dorkiness is something that’s buried deep. I hold Union cards in the orders of the Beer Geeks, the Comic Book Geeks, the TV Geeks, Movie Geeks, Video Game Geeks, Guitar Player Geeks and definitely the Car Geeks.

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past couple of weekends playing Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Yes, I am one of those guys: The faithful long-suffering GT game fans who will give the crew at Polyphony a few more months after waiting five goddamn years for a new game if it means the new SLS AMG will sound a little more life-like or that kickass ’05 Subie WRX rally car hits its apexes just a little more like the real deal. As if I’d know the difference.

I think my love for Gran Turismo has its roots in my childhood when I didn’t seem to want anything for my adult life but to operate something that went obscenely fast. I had cardboard tubes filled with posters and glossy defense contractor pinups of all the latest and greatest military aircraft. NASA stuff? Man, I got a copy of Alan Shepard’s book handed to me autographed! How hot is that? Then there was the car porn: The framed pic of a C4 Corvette that hung on my wall for years; the model kits of Bill Elliott’s Coors-sponsored Ford and the 80’s Ferrari Testarossa; the little red diecast 250 GTO that sat atop my bookshelf into my 20’s; the bigass ’67 Camaro poster that looked so much like the one my folks used to drive.  As a child of the 80’s I’d watch the Space Shuttle launch and dream of being an astronaut. Growing up near DC and Andrews Air Force Base I’d go to the air show with my dad and spend the next weeks daydreaming of piloting A-10’s, A-4’s, F-15’s, 16’s—and the SR71 Blackbird. Don’t ever get me started on the Blackbird: That thing is the sex even now. Back then, to the 5-6-7-year-old Beermonger that plane was a crack rock rolled in pure sugar dipped in chocolate wrapped in bacon and then deep fried.

But it always came back to cars for me. That ’67 Camaro I mentioned before was the first ‘family car’ I can remember. As a 4 year old boy, not a lot could beat hauling ass out in the country with no soundtrack but the roar of the old Chevy’s dual exhausts, or running errands with my folks around town in the baddest machine I’d ever touched in my young life. I’m an only child and I invested a lot of emotion in that car without ever realizing it: I didn’t feel right after my dad plastered a deer with it and the Camaro had to go into the shop for a while. I remember my dad calling the house my folks used to drop me at (there was a neighbor of my Grandmother’s who watched kids for everyone in the ‘hood) and telling me he had a surprise for me. My thoughts went to toys, sweets—maybe even a trip to that ice cream place with the tabletop Frogger machine! Instead, he pulled up in the fresh-out-of-the-shop Camaro. I couldn’t have hugged that car more if it was my brother; it legitimately made me happier to see that car than any of those other things would have.

That car was the Good Days. Soon enough my folks would split up and I’d end up living with my Mom who was driving the by-now breaking and in need of an engine Camaro. Rather than replace the engine, she traded it in for a silver Subaru wagon with gray interior. Things changed; it’s hard to say for the better or worse but everything worked out in the end. Letting go of that car, though, ended that carefree part of my childhood. The lesson was “Things fall apart. There’s no fixing what you love”.

You get older and you live and learn but damn if some things just never let you go. I still want that car. Not the Camaro, mind you; I mean that car that lets you let loose every once in a while and feel something. That car that makes you feel the ‘simple’ act of driving for the wonder and marvel that it really is. I’ve come to realize that I’ve measured my whole existence by how close I could be to driving a car I truly loved. As of now I can barely afford to keep my beat up Ford Ranger breathing, so when I have a spare hour or so I fire up the PS3 and play GT5 Prologue, because it’s as close to driving any of those cars as I’ll ever get in this life. It’s the only place I’ll punish a Z4 the way I’d want to in real life.

In Prologue you extremely accurate virtual recreations of real cars through various racing challenges earning credits that you get to spend on cars for your ‘garage’. The game is smartly designed so that you start small, hone your driving skills so that by the time you can afford to drive some of the big boys you might have half a thimble’s worth of an idea of what you’re doing. I’m at the point now where my garage is starting to look like a Sheik’s.

It all started with the Nissan GT-R. I’m a bit obsessed with the GT-R, and jumped to buy one the first chance I got. Tackling races with it, I enjoyed it thoroughly except I couldn’t seem to get the lap times I’d expected from it. Frustrated, I decided I needed to up the firepower and bought a Ferrari F430. The Italian Supercar would bring me to the promised land of the speed gods, right? Well, it took some getting used to and is an amazing car no doubt, but now I was out of control. I saved up damn near half a million credits for a Ferrari F40. The F40 was Ferrari’s early 90’s attempt at building a ‘street legal Formula 1 car’.

The F40 didn’t win me any races. The way the car handled, shifted and turned was unlike anything I’d driven so far. I gave the F40 lap after lap and gradually something started happening: I still wasn’t winning, but the way I drove the car became more natural, my racing instincts sharpened and I realized that this car was simply making me better. I hopped back in the F430 for the hell of it and drove the race of my life. Something was still lacking, though; so next time I fire up the game I hopped back in…the GT-R. I’d come full circle and found the right vehicle to take my imaginary joyrides in.

In a room full of Car Geeks I’d have one guy agreeing with me completely, one guy telling me what a fool I was not to stick with the F40, one guy scoffing at all of us with tales of just how much of our asses a Lamborghini Reventon would kick and one guy would prefer an SLR, but see where I was coming from.

Sound familiar? In my years of working retail, writing and generally being a Beer Geek I’ve had hundreds of conversations just like the one in that last paragraph. I’ve had customers I needed to keep away from other customers because of how inflexible their opinions were. I’ve had people coming to me for advice and suggestions scoff at my list of favorite beers, usually because most of them are readily available. I’ve had people make faces at labels, or styles, or places a beer was from. I’m not trying to write a “Beer Geeks are zealots who keep craft beer from expanding” sermon. I’m saying I understand and if you don’t, you need to.

I guess what I’m trying to come around to saying here is that there are styles of beer we don’t prefer, and some beers we just don’t like—which is fine; we all have different tastes and they’re all going to react differently. What I think we all need to do is keep more of an open mind to re-trying beers we previous may not have enjoyed. I couldn’t get into Belgian beers for a long time; every now and then I’d get a draft of Delirium Tremens at Dr. Dremo’s and know that it was good, but think it just wasn’t for me. One night, though, it just clicked. I got it. Same with Flemish Sours and Rauchbier.

I think the moral of the story is: Just like it was with my video game GTR, you gotta crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. If super-hoppy IPA’s turn you off, well, maybe you’re just not there yet. Don’t discount Stouts because someone handed you a Stone IRS once when all you knew of beer was Yeungling or Sam Adams. You never know when somethings going to be your thing.

So onto the real reason I’m writing this:

At the core of Geekdom is an intense interest and joy we find in that which we are a geek for. Notice I say the “core” and not the heart. The heart of a Geek of any type is a damaged thing that we constantly try to patch back together with one more beer we’ve tried, one more track driven, one more bird watched, one higher level in WOW (or in my wife and I’s case, Final Fantasy). Because it’s so personal to us, we lose perspective (that many of us never had to begin with) and alienate those just finding out about our interests. Deep down, we don’t want more members of the club. So we go online or meet up and talk shit about noobs, or kids with flames and rear spoilers on otherwise stock Honda Civics, or Bud drinkers. Too many of us do this, and far too many think it’s ok. But I understand.

It comes down to the mix of ‘sin’ and genuine love that makes us all human. As not to hurt or offend I’ll use myself as the example:

I want a GT-R. Not in the game—I want to step outside tomorrow morning and see a Godzilla in Gun Metallic in the parking lot. I want it with a craven greedy lust that shames me to think about. I want to look at people driving Ford Rangers and feel sorry for them because they’re not having the experience that I am in my GT-R. I also know that most of the reason I feel that way is that I equate a marvel of an automobile like this to regaining something I lost when I was 5 years old. Something I know isn’t coming back because things fall apart and there’s no fixing the things you love. But I’m grown up just enough now not to be bitter that I’ll never own a GT-R, or to lord my opinion over someone who happens to prefer an M6, or even an R8 (which I love almost as much as the GTR).

For all of you out there who love beer the way I do and those just discovering the vast wonderful world of breweries and styles, follow some rules. Dare I say it? Yeah, what the hell:

The Beer Geek’s  Manifesto

1. It’s Not Boy Scouts

Rare beers arent merit badges and just because you’ve had them doesnt make you a better or even a more knowledgeable beer drinker. Don’t get in someone’s face about Westy 12 being the greatest thing on the planet unless you can rationally explain to them why. I’m glad you’ve had a chance to try it. I haven’t. I’m sure I will at some point and look forward to it. But when you run your trap about it being so amazing simply because it’s rare and you want to lord it over everyone that you’ve tried it, we know that’s why you’re doing it. And we all think you’re a dick who doesn’t know jack shit about beer because of it.

2. The More, the Merrier.

Don’t roll your eyes at people who don’t know what IPA stands for yet. All you’re doing is taking money out of the pockets of your favorite breweries, the farmers/suppliers/distributors they work with and the stores and bars you get your super-rare limited-production brews from. No one likes a snob, especially beer drinkers—so cut that shit out.

3. There Is No Such Thing As A Bad Style of Beer.

People have been giving me shit for years because I have the temerity to be a huge fan of Abita’s Strawberry Lager. Most of these people giving me aforementioned shit have never tried this beer, and likely never will because “fruit beers suck” or they “stick to real beer”. Let me tell you asshats something: It’s not a 5,000 IBU Bourbon Barrel aged brett monster with wild yeasts floating around the bottle like sea monkeys, but it’s not a goddamn smoothie either. It’s a well made, exceptionally drinkable and refreshing beer that doesn’t make me feel like I have a brick in my gut when I’ve had 6 or 7 while BBQing. It’s a pleasant thing to have around for the month or so it’s available every year.

What I’m trying to say is that if you don’t like, let’s say, Saisons; there are two and only two reasons why. You either A) Haven’t had the right Saison yet, or B) You’ve decided you’re not going to ever like Saison beers and they can all kick rocks. If the answer is B, you need to find another hobby because being into beer is all about trying new things and keeping an open mind. Oh, and you’re an asshole who just wants to be right all the time. BTW, before anyone says “MacroLager”, we all have one we roll with. Don’t act like you don’t. Mine is Tecate.

4. A Rising Tide Lift All Ships

Don’t get in someone’s business because they don’t like your favorite brewery. Don’t refuse to try something because it doesn’t have a specific label on it. The more we support craft beer the more we’ll see of it. When I go bowling, I get pitchers of Sam Adams. Why? Well, there’s two (or five) more pitchers of Bud or Miller that their not selling. If enough of us did that everywhere, we’d have more options. The Northern VA area is a prime example. We’re seeing four or five new craft beer featuring restaurants and bars opening up this year, if not more. Don’t get pissy ’cause your friends brought you to a bar with Miller Lite, Bud, Bud Light, Heineken and Guinness on tap. Drink the damn Guinness and ask a barback if they’ve ever thought to try something new. Maybe suggest a beer or two. We’re all in the boat together.

5. Never Forget…

Abita Strawberry Lager rules and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know a thing about limited production beer and needs to go back to their Party Ball of Coors Light with Cletus and the boys.

Just kidding: I actually wanted to see if I could encapsulate all of the things we do wrong into one sentence. I think that one works.

Actually, #5 is this: Every pint, bottle or can is not only a chance to spread the word about craft beer and all the good things that come along with it, but a chance to make a friend. What all of us geeks really need in our lives is friendship. It’s the only thing that really helps us salve whatever it was that made us how we are. We all need more friends, and more opportunities to be friendly. Take advantage.

I think we can all figure it out from here. Don’t be a snob, don’t assume others are snobs, keep opinions and tastes in perspective and have a good time. Don’t assume to know where someone’s coming from anymore than you’d have them assume about you. Let’s all have a glass or 10 and rejoice in the growing community of the Beer Geeks.

‘Til All Are One



PS: This is also being published on the 2nd Anniversary of this here Blog. I just want to say thanks to everyone out there who’s taken a moment to swing by and check it out, comment or follow me on Twitter. I am humbled everyday that anyone on the planet might give a damn what I think. So thank you.

The Wedding Stinger

If you need a soundtrack, I’ve got a recommendation I think is fitting:

My cousin got married this past weekend (congrats again!) and the wedding had me thinking about a lot of things. The most pressing of these things being that I am old and I know this because my cousin who is six years younger than me just got married. Freaky.

The ceremony itself was very quiet and loving (until the newly minted bride & groom walked back up the aisle to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” that is) and was very much my cousin. Not only was she henna’d up but she and her fella read from Tolkien during the ceremony. Fitting.

It wasn’t until after the ceremony that my mind started to wander a bit. We were out in Middleburg, VA which for those of you not familiar is about an hour outside of D.C. in what’s best known as Virginia’s horse country. This part of the state is all rolling hills with the Blue Ridge Mountains on every horizon. Imagine a landlocked version of the British or Irish countrysides.

Middleburg is the first place I remember. Not too long after my first birthday, my family went out west to live with my Grandfather at his home there. My first memories are of fields and ponds and learning to fish and whiteout level snows during the winter. Days spent in the tiny town itself, with it’s modest country bakery and toy store. Festivals celebrating local history, wines and farmers. When I got to be school aged, we moved back up to Northern Virginia so I’d be enrolled in the system I’d remain in through high school graduation. But every chance I could, I’d convince my Mom to drive us out to visit Grandpa, or after I got to be of age I’d drive myself to his new place in Upperville (about 15 min. from Middleburg).

I tell you all of this because I’m trying to find the words to establish in your mind the sense of ‘home’ I feel whenever I find myself out Middleburg way. We all have a place that has its own heartstring of ours to tug. A place that makes you feel safe, calm, whole, right, wonderful and sad all at the same time. For me, Middleburg is that place.

While all of this is going on the issues of my family hang in the air like a fog. I find a table with my Grandparents, my Mother and her sisters. This would be HQ for the evening. Through a confluence of things that I don’t even want to get into, my cousin and I find ourselves related to each other on both our mother’s and father’s sides of our families. Sitting here with our mother’s side, I notice a table at the other side of the room: One middle-aged woman, three girls about my cousin’s age. I know for a fact that they are all relatives of mine on my father’s side, but I only know one name for sure. Hell, between my cousin and I we couldn’t get them all. This, mind you is after the chat I had with the father of the bride, who asked not only if I knew if my father had been invited (my cousin is smart enough not to do that) but why he hadn’t gotten an invite to my own wedding last year (honestly I never would have guessed he’d wanted to go).

I explain that I haven’t spoken to my father in a few years and how that’s made my life simpler and better; he tells me how he understands. That’s my dad’s side in a nutshell.

Not that hanging out at HQ with my Mom’s family was carefree. My wife and I can’t help but notice those at the table who were absent from our wedding. In fairness two of them were my Grandparents, neither of whom were doing well this time last year. We completely understood and had an amazing wedding, but it still stings a little as we sit and chat and imagine how much more fun we could’ve had with everyone there.

And suddenly I just want to leave. I don’t feel like having a good time or dancing. I want to hop in the car and find my Grandpa’s old home (he’s since moved further south), let myself in, sit by the bluestone fireplace in the den and go back to a time before family complications. Back when the only people I knew were my parents and my Grandfather, before I even realized I had a family. Back when the whole world was hills and valleys in a spectrum of green framed by blue mountains that were The End of the World. Before other homes, other kids, other lives.

Instead I hop outside to bum a smoke off my wife. I look out over the valley below us. The valley looks damn near the same as it did some 25 years ago at least. Standing there on that hilltop I can feel the same wind, smell the same earth I did as a boy.  My mind wanders: I know the BBQ place has shut down for the day but The Coach Stop might still be open. Then again, it is a Sunday so who knows. I still haven’t tried that new ice cream place that went in a few years back…

This could be any day I spent walking around town with my Mother. Those flowers could be sprouting up around the stone walk that lined my Grandfather’s house. That dog wandering the property could be one of an endless number of boisterous, friendly hounds and labs that neighbors seemed to have no qualms letting walk about.

It would be so easy to stay.

It would be so easy to stay. I keep thinking it to myself. All I have to do is wait everyone out; all those folks inside with their drinks and stories and convoluted messy relations who never existed until I left this place the first time. Then it could be mine again. I could disappear back into these hills I never wanted to leave in the first place and live a good, quiet life.

My wife notices some gear or another turning behind my face: “What is it?”

“I want to die out here someday” I tell her, not sure if I mean today or 50 years from now. At that moment I would have happily accepted either.

I was home.

The Beermonger Review: Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Vol. 1

So here in the DC area we got a bit of a surprise last week: A handful of cases of Sierra Nevada‘s first of what will be four 30th Anniversary beers arrived unexpectedly. I was fortunate enough to have someone pull a bottle aside for me and after a weekend spent working and at my cousin’s wedding (more on that later) I got around to popping the cork last night.

This first 30th Anniversary was brewed along with Anchor Brewing‘s Fritz Maytag. He and Sierra’s Ken Grossman decided to brew a ‘Pioneers Stout’, built to age by two of America’s brewing legends. The label claims the beer is “worthy of your finest snifter”, which is true, but I’d already broken out my trusty Sam Adams glass so I decided to go ahead with it.

The first thing I noticed was the gorgeous packaging. The cork-and-cage bottle is elegant and the back label looks better than about 90% of other beers front labels. Well played, Sierra Nevada. The second thing I noticed is that the 30th has a very active carbonation to it. I poured what I thought was a moderate amount of beer and watched as a milk chocolate colored head quickly rose to the top and over the glass. I gave it a couple minutes to settle and dove in.

Aromas were really exactly what one might expect from 30th‘s appearance; heady notes of mocha and roasty malt greet the nose. Impressions on the first sip are that of a very rich Stout, with the textbook chewy dark grain and sweet cocoa flavors. There was something different, though. The feel. I’ve written before about I believe Sierra’s yeast strain contributes to it’s trademark easy drinkability across all styles. I don’t know if that’s what is being used here, but 30th drinks nothing like the ‘stone in your gut’ Stout it smells and tastes like. It was almost refreshing. I was delighted and frightened at the same time—sure, I loved being able to put down the whole 750mL bottle without feeling weighed down, but the beer is 9.2% ABV. I’m a veteran beer drinker to be sure, but this is not a weak beer. I sometimes want to be protected from myself but that’s just the more liberal part of me that I try not to listen to since it tries to get in the way of beer enjoyment. All in all if this is only the first beer in the series, it’s a hell of a start and I can’t wait to see the others. In the meantime I might go scrounging around for another bottle.

Final verdict: Breaks little new ground but is a beautifully made beer that expresses all of the Stoutiness you can handle without being overbearing on the palate or stomach. If you can only grab one, drink it withing the next 6 months-1 year. If you can grab more than that, pop one now and enjoy.