Next Session Challenges You To Drink Differently

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For our 84th Session, our host is Oliver Gray from Literature & Libation. During the day he works as a technical writer and studies the non-technical type by night at John Hopkins, and in his spare time blogs about both lit and getting lit. For his topic, he’s chosen Alternative Reviews, asking you to drink differently, or at least think about the beer differently, perhaps it’s more correct to say review the beer differently. Anyway, here’s how Oliver put it:

We, as beer bloggers, tend to get caught up in this beer appreciation thing, forever chasing an invisible dragon of taste, doing our best to catalog our experiences on the page or in a database. We get obsessed with the idea of quantifying our experience – either so we can remember specifics ad infinitum or use the data as a point of comparison for other beers – and often forget that beer is just as much art and entertainment as it is critic-worthy foodstuff.

So for my turn hosting The Session, I ask all of you to review a beer. Any beer. Of your choosing even! There’s a catch though, just one eentsy, tiny rule that you have to adhere to: you cannot review the beer.

I know it sounds like the yeast finally got to my brain, but hear me out: I mean that you can’t write about SRM color, or mouthfeel, or head retention. Absolutely no discussion of malt backbones or hop profiles allowed. Lacing and aroma descriptions are right out. Don’t even think about rating the beer out of ten possible points.

But, to balance that, you can literally do anything else you want. I mean it. Go beernuts. Uncap your muse and let the beer guide your creativity.

I want to see something that lets me know what you thought of the beer (good or bad!) without explicitly telling me. Write a short story that incorporates the name, an essay based on an experience you had drinking it, or a silly set of pastoral sonnets expressing your undying love for a certain beer. If you don’t feel like writing, that’s fine; plug into your inner Springsteen and play us a song, or throw your budding Van Gogh against the canvas and paint us a bubbly masterpiece. Go Spielberg, go Seinfeld, go (if you must) Lady Gaga. Show me the beer and how it made you feel, in whatever way strikes you most appropriate.

Was there something you always want to try or write, but were afraid of the reception it might receive? This is your chance. A no judgement zone. I encourage everyone who sees this to join in, even if you don’t normally participate in The Session, or aren’t even a beer blogger. This is an Equal Creation Opportunity. All I ask is that you not be vulgar or offensive, since this blog is officially rated PG-13.

My goal is to push you out of your default mode, to send you off to explore realms outside of the usual and obvious. I want you to create something inspired by beer without having to worry about the minutiae of the beer itself. Don’t obsess over the details of the recipe, just revel in the fact that you live in a place where you have the luxury of indulging in such beautiful decadence.

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So crack open a beer, and take a sip. After you’re done tasting it in the usual way, start thinking about it differently. What else can you say about it? How else can you talk about it? In what other way can you describe it or write about it? Let everybody know what your take on that beer is on Friday, February 7. Post your response on Oliver’s announcement post or tweet him with your antidote to the boring beer review.

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Session #83: Against The Grain

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Our 83rd Session is hosted by Rebecca Patrick, who writes online at The Bake and Brew. Her topic for this session is decidedly against the grain, so much so that it is specifically Against the Grain.

How much is our taste or opinion of a craft beer affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks? What beer do you love that no one else seems to get? Or what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?

I can find myself wondering sometimes when I’ve had an extremely popular beer, but haven’t been all that “wowed”…is it me? Am I missing something here? Was there too much hype? Could there be such a thing as taste inflation? If we really want to dive further into this, is it really only “good” if a large portion of the craft beer community says it is or is our own opinion and taste enough?

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You only have to watch the lines at GABF at the beginning of each session to know that hype and brand perception do play a role in a brewery’s success. There are a handful of breweries whose lines are suddenly longer than most of the others, seemingly immediately after the doors open and the people rush inside. Many make a beeline to a select number of brewer’s booths. Many of these remain more crowded throughout the session. Are they better than other breweries? Perhaps, but probably not. They certainly make good beer, and beer which has, for whatever reason, captured the public imagination. That intangible popularity, whether manufactured or developed organically, is at least a part of the company’s success. Any business needs to have customers want to buy their products or they won’t survive. I know that sounds obvious, like the sports announcer who says the team has to score more points in order to win, but I think we sometimes forget that.

Indeed, many people complain mightily about hyped and over-hyped beers, forgetting that hype is the engine that drives awareness and, ultimately, sales. Honestly, if you don’t want to wait in a line all day for some rare (or even artificially rare) beer, I think I see a way out. Don’t go. But what I don’t understand is the need to piss on everybody else’s enjoyment of the event. The many release parties and events that numerous breweries create are generally well-attended, despite the complaining, so what’s the problem? It sometimes feels like we’re entering a phase in craft beer akin to the music world where as soon as a band becomes popular, their fans who were with them in the beginning accuse them of “selling out” or say they’re no good anymore, moving on to the next unknown. It was ridiculous when I was in the music business, and it’s no less absurd when it comes to beer.

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But that brings us back to Rebecca’s question about whether or not “our own opinion and taste [is] enough?” Yes. Yes, it is. If you’re a longtime reader of the Bulletin, you’ve probably noticed that I rarely post “reviews” of beers. Unless it’s part of a specific assignment, I generally don’t. I’ve been writing about beer over twenty years, and been judging at competitions for around fifteen years, and been drinking critically far longer than that, and still I don’t really understand why anyone would take my advice on how good a beer is. Whenever anyone writes a review, it’s personal. By design and definition, what I say about a beer is just how it tastes to me — what I like or don’t like about it — on that particular day and under the specific circumstances it was sampled (time and place). But your experience will vary. Your palate isn’t the same as mine. If I’ve learned anything from tasting with the same people for many years (on tasting panels and commercial judging) it’s that tastes vary. Different people have tolerances and sensitivities to certain flavors and those vary from person to person. It’s not a problem in most instances; spaghetti tastes like spaghetti to almost everybody. But when you examine anything more closely, the minute differences become more important when you’re paying close attention and looking for them. With so much variation, you’d think that beer judging would be little better than a crapshoot, and yet many beers that as a community we agree are at least good, tend to rise to the top and win awards multiple times. By careful selection of judges with different backgrounds and experience, and by making the standards for judging as unambiguous and detailed as possible, these differences seem to work themselves out. That’s been my experience, as least.

But having worked retail a lot when I was younger, I’ve also witnessed that many people do honestly want to be told what to try. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You ask someone who knows more than you for advice about what’s good, what’s worth trying. In theory, they should know more, and in practice that is often the case. At BevMo, though, I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed people walking the wine aisles with a Wine Spectator open to their ratings pages, shopping the scores. That seems less effective, to me because you don’t know how your own palate matches up to the reviewer (or how honest the review was).

One nice thing about beer, at least, is taking a bad recommendation won’t break the bank. If you try a pint or even a six-pack of something you end up not enjoying, you’re not out too much money. You may not take that person’s advice again, especially if happens several times, but that’s about it. If I start doing more reviews, which is always a possibility, my only goal would be to suggest beers to try, and perhaps why you’d want to, not why I like them, or why you must, too. I know there’s wide disagreement among writers on this issue, but I prefer to talk about what’s good, and not write bad reviews, in effect telling people what to avoid or what’s unappetizing. There’s just too much beer out there, with much of it quite good, to waste ink (or bytes) on tearing down a beer I didn’t happen to enjoy. I understand the counter-arguments, and realize bad reviews have their place, it’s just not for me.

I’m not quite sure that answers the question, or even does go against the grain, though it does ramble around in the vicinity of the topic. I don’t mind the hype surrounding many popular beers, mostly because I don’t get caught up in it. I think it’s a necessary part of there being so many breweries all trying to gain the attention of consumers. Each brewery has to find some way to stand out. Some of their attempts work better than others, naturally, but that’s to be expected. I’m probably not the typical beer consumer, and so am not swayed too much by opinion or popularity. On the other hand, I’ll try almost anything, and in fact am interested in doing just that, all the time. I rarely say “no thanks” to trying anything. I find these days it’s harder to be “wowed,” but I think that’s more about having tried so many beers in my lifetime. There’s certainly no shortage of great beers being made these days, and I’m still just as excited to try each new one I can. And as much as I’m happy to have a job talking about what beers I like and love, you should trust your own palate about what you enjoy most. I hope I can help steer you to something new or worthwhile from time to time, but if you love a beer than that alone makes it a great beer.

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Anchor Brewing Announces Zymaster #5: Harvest One American Pale Ale

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Anchor Brewing announced today the 5th beer in their Zymaster series. This latest offering — Harvest One American Pale Ale — is a beer made with a new, experimental hop variety. I had a chance to try it during GABF last week, and the nose has amazing peach aromas, with soft, fruit flavors.
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Here’s the full story, from the press release:

It’s hard to imagine that the Cascade hop, today one of craft brewing’s most popular hop varieties, was ever new. Yet this distinctively aromatic hop, developed in Oregon by the USDA’s breeding program, was first released in the early 1970s. In 1975, Anchor Brewing featured Cascade hops with the debut of Liberty Ale®, America’s first craft-brewed, dry-hopped ale. Anchor Brewing has been using it in Liberty Ale® ever since.

Over the years, Anchor Brewing experimented with many different hops—both old and new—from around the world. For Zymaster Series No. 5: Harvest One American Pale Ale, Anchor Brewing decided to feature an experimental new hop variety. This yet unnamed, pre-commercial, aroma hop provides a uniquely Anchor twist to Zymaster 5.

Zymaster Series No. 5 (7.2% ABV) is made with a special blend of pale, caramel, and Munich malts, which contribute a distinctively complex maltiness and deep golden color. Nugget hops give it a tangy bitterness. But the hallmark of Zymaster 5: Harvest One American Pale Ale is the intriguingly novel aroma of an experimental new hop, which was used liberally in both the brewhouse and the cellar. A late addition to the boil plus dry hopping provides Harvest One with an incredibly lively hop aroma reminiscent of tree-ripened peaches, with just a hint of fresh melon. The result is a uniquely exciting new beer unlike anything brewed or tasted before.

“We have a fantastic and long-lasting relationship with the hop growers we work with,” said Mark Carpenter, Brewmaster at Anchor Brewing. “When we had the opportunity to sample and test a small set of experimental hops that were being grown, we were excited at the opportunity to work with something new and different. Out of about a dozen or so samples, there was one that really stood out to us. Right away, we knew this was a new hop variety we wanted to brew on a large scale. We were after something unique and aromatic, and this hop was one we hadn’t seen or smelled before and decided it would fit well in our Zymaster Series. Similar to how Anchor introduced the world to the Cascade hop in 1975 with Liberty Ale, we are proud and excited to share our take on this new, experimental hop in this beer.”

It’s being released today in California, though not all markets within the state, on draft and in 22 oz. bottles, and will be rolled out nationally in the next few months.

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The Difference Between Novice And Expert Beer Drinkers Infographic

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Today’s infographic is an interesting look at the Difference Between Novice And Expert Beer Drinkers, created by Business Insider, using a paper from earlier this year by Stanford University computer science post-doc Julian McAuley and assistant professor Jure Leskovec. The paper outlined “how our tastes change as we consume more products and gain more expertise,” but they then took it a step father, and applied their model to the beer reviews on RateBeer.

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Click here to see the graph full size.

According to the Business Insider article, here’s what else they discovered.

The figure above shows the relationship between user experience and beer preference. McAuley and Leskovec broke down the beers into lagers, mild ales, and strong ales, and then calculated each beer’s individual ranking by experience level.

The x-axis shows the average rating of products on the site (out of 5 stars), while the y-axis shows the difference between expert and novice ratings.

According to their study, while beginners and experts have similar top beers, experts tend to have stronger opinions than novice users. They explain in the study:

While a lager such as Bud Light is disliked by everybody, it is most disliked by experts; one of the most popular beers in the entire corpus, Firestone XV, is liked by everybody, but is most liked by experts.

They also found that more-experienced users gave higher ratings to almost all strong ales, illustrating that these types of beer are more of an acquired taste than traditional lagers.

New Albion Vintage Beer Tasting

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Today I had a great experience that’s been a few months in the making. Last October, one of my newspaper columns was about the 35th anniversary of the date in 1976 when New Albion Brewery, the first modern microbrewery built from scratch, was incorporated by Jack McAuliffe. A homebrewer and beer collector in San Jose, Ed Davis, read my piece in the San Jose Mercury News and contacted me with an intriguing proposal. He had some full bottles of New Albion beer — Ale, Porter and Stout — and did I know anyone who might be interested in them? Obviously, I knew at least one person — me! — and I suggested that it might be fun to open them with Don Barkley, who would been involved in their creation, since he had been the assistant brewer there. Finding a day we were all available took some time, but today Ed and I traveled to Napa to Napa Smith Brewery and met with Don Barkley, who’s now the brewmaster there. But in addition to working at New Albion, Don also founded Mendocino Brewing during his illustrious career, before building and running the new Napa brewery.

Ed told me he’d bought the beers originally at Beltramo’s around 1979 and they’ve been stored in his garage ever since. While they were stored at a slightly higher than cellar temperature, the temperature was relatively consistent and they hadn’t been moved in all that time.

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Ed brought one bottle each of Stout, Ale and Porter.

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Don Barkley, me and Ed Davis each with a 1979 bottle of New Albion beer, that Ed was kind enough to donate to the cause.

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Each of the three beers and their bottles.

Below is a short video (about 14 minutes) of the three of us opening and tasting the three beers.

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After the tasting, Don, Napa Smith lead brewer Michael Payne, me and Ed.

In addition to the New Albion beers, Ed also brought a few additional treats, too.

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A bottle of DeBakker Porter. DeBakker was a short-lived brewery (1980-82, I believe) that was located in my hometown of Novato, California and was started by a fireman, Tom DeBakker, who had been a homebrewer for about a decade before he opened the brewery.

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Ed also brought a run of old Anchor Christmas Ale, 1978, 1980 through 1985, 1991 and 1996.

What a great way to spend a Friday afternoon! I wish all my Fridays could be as enjoyable. The DeBakker porter also held up quite well, it still had a fair amount of carbonation with chocolate notes. The Anchor beers were a mixed bag, some were still terrific, others were past their prime though none were strictly speaking undrinkable. Some of the spicier ones were still showing those spices, though a few of the earlier ones were oxidized, at least a little. The real surprise, of course, was how well the New Albion beers had held up after 33 years. They were bottle-conditioned, which probably helped, but still I expected them to be in worse shape than they were. I think we all thought that, but we were pleasantly surprised. I could stand to be surprised like that more often. Thanks, Ed, for being able to not open those beers for over thirty years and for sharing them with us today. It was like opening and tasting a piece of history.

Pliny the Younger Day 2012

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Now fixed as the first Friday in February, today was Pliny the Elder Day for 2012 at Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California.

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When I arrived around 10:30, the line stretched from the entrance of the brewpub to the end of the block. I’m told the first fans arrived at around 6:00 a.m. this morning to wait for a taste of this year’s triple IPA.

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Owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo now set limits on the number of people that can be in the pub at any give time, unlike two years ago, when it devolved into a madhouse. Between that, and the elimination of growler sales, it remained blissfully civilized inside throughout the morning.

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I found a table with some friends, and Natalie brought over a copy of today’s Press Democrat, which featured a story about Russian River’s big day — Credit the Hops — which I read as I enjoyed my first Pliny the Younger of the year.

This year’s version seemed smoother than previous years, and the hops, while monstrously omnipresent, were nonetheless very well balanced and never harsh. This may be my favorite batch yet, particularly because of the smoothness. Plus, it never seemed like a 10.7% beer. The strength was relatively muted behind a rich, thick mouthfeel of full flavors, so that the alcohol never dominated. It seems almost counter-intuitive to use the word delicate for such a big beer, but that why it’s so great, because despite its heft, it’s also complex and elegant; quite recherché.

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Meanwhile the patio outside filled up, too. Here Dan DelGrande (co-owner of Bison Brewing), Steve Shapiro (of Beer By BART) and Stephen Johnson (from New Brew Thursday) enjoy some sunshine and Pliny.

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While back inside, the bar was full, but not overcrowded.

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Eventually, it was time to leave, and hosts Vinnie and Natalie said so long as they toasted another successful Pliny the Younger Day.

Look for Pliny the Younger at select accounts throughout the Bay Area and at their Santa Rosa brewpub for at least the next two weeks. Around 30% more was brewed this year, but you can still expect it to sell out fast, so don’t wait around too long if you’re hoping to get a taste of this year’s triple IPA.

Consumer Reports Rates Mainstream Beers

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At the end of December, Consumer Reports sent out a press release regarding a beer tasting they’d conducted by an unnamed panel of “experts.” Curious as I was, especially as similar tastings have gone somewhat badly in the past, I held off any judgment until the full report became available, which happened January 3 (though it will be in the February print edition). Here’s the salient parts of the press release, Coors Outscores Bud in Consumer Reports’ Taste Tests of Beer:

Looking to enjoy the last weeks of football season with the perfect brew? Coors regular topped Consumer Reports’ recent taste test of beers, blowing away nine brews including Budweiser and Bud Light. Name Tag and Big Flats — store brands from Trader Joe’s and Walgreens respectively — beat out top-sellers Corona Extra and Budweiser. The full report and Ratings of beer is featured in the February issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

To determine the best brews, the experts at Consumer Reports conducted blind taste tests of ten lagers — eight top-selling regular and light beers plus two store brands. Although none of the beers were scored a touchdown, Coors, which scored Very Good but not quite high enough to be rated excellent, came close, standing out for balanced flavors with citrus notes and no off-tastes. In addition to earning the highest marks in Consumer Reports’ tests, Coors, available for $6.45 for a six-pack, was deemed a CR Best Buy along with runners-up Name Tag (Trader Joe’s), Big Flats (Walgreens), and Miller High Life.

When it comes to choosing a beer, taste may be the most important factor to consider, but Consumer Reports tests found that consumers should also keep the following in mind:

  • Regular vs. light. Light beer has 20 to 50 less calories per serving due to lower carbs and slightly less alcohol, but no tested light scored high enough to be very good. Miller Lite, which had more flavor and is a little fruiter than most, was best of the bunch; Corona Light, a bitter brew with traces of tinny and sulfury off-notes was the worst.
  • Price vs. taste. Corona Light costs far more than the higher-rated Miller Lite; and Corona Extra costs about twice as much as three better beers – Name Tag, Big Flats and Miller High Life.
  • Cans vs. bottles. Consumer Reports tasted beer from cans which do a better job than bottles in keeping light, beer’s nemesis, from getting inside. Light can react with beer within weeks or even days to create compounds similar to those a skunk uses to defend itself.

The complete beer Ratings are available in the February issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org starting January 3.

So now they’re out, let’s look a little closer.

On the Plus Side:

  • They used cans for their tasting because they “do a better job than bottles in keeping light, beer’s nemesis, from getting inside.”
  • They included private label, contract beers.

To be fair, I had to stretch to find something positive. While there are advantages to cans, a fresh beer in a bottle or can that’s been well-maintained and cared for should be indistinguishable, and since (one hopes) they poured the beer into a glass first it should really make no difference. And then, of course, limiting the tasting to beer in cans arbitrarily leaves out a lot of good beer, though they left out more than enough on their own.

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On the Minus Side:

  • Only 10 Beers (6 regular, 4 low-calorie)? Really, that’s not very representative of the market. Just sticking to the big guys, there’s no MGD or PBR. There’s no Yuengling. And at this point, to ignore the national craft brewers like Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium seems like a big disservice to their readers. Yes, BMC represent the majority of beer sold, but they’re no longer the only game in town. By ignoring other beers, Consumer Reports is in a sense helping to maintain the status quo. In their world, it’s as if the decline of big brands and the rise of craft beer is not even happening.
  • As I said before, this kind of tasting does not help their readers. I don’t know the exact demographics of Consumer Reports subscribers, but it seems fair to say they’re not the sort of people who buy whatever’s cheapest or whatever’s on sale. They care about what they’re buying. They want the best value or the best quality products. Otherwise, why bother reading a publication that’s supposedly dedicated to those principles. So by ignoring quality and choosing beers to rate based purely on popularity, they’re not telling their readers about quality beers that may be more expensive, but given how much more flavorful they are might be the better value. Of anyone, Consumer Reports should know that price is not the primary factor in determining value.
  • Sorry to keep beating a dead horse, but also by not going beyond the three most popular domestic brands and one import, Consumer Reports missed an opportunity to tell their audience looking for guidance why cheaper isn’t always better. That buying full-flavored beers means drinking less, but enjoying it more. Instead, they fell back on what they’ve always done; dumbed it down and went for numbers over intangibles, price over value, the big over the smaller. Pathetic.
  • I don’t know who their so-called “experts” included, but calling Big Flats “very good” in my mind calls into question their credentials or experience. Because Big Flats, when we tried it at one of my Philopotes Society meetings, was all but undrinkable. And not just by me, but by the entire assembled group, who included experienced judges and brewers that I’ve conducted tastings with for years. Swill, to be kind. And my experience with the others makes me wonder by what standards they were judging the beers. At what temperature were they served? Did they discuss the beers and come to a consensus or merely assign them scores and let the numbers speak for themselves. In order to have your results taken seriously, I think at the very least the methodology used has to be disclosed so the rankings can be placed in that context. There’s no key that explains the difference between a “very good” beer and merely a “good” one, or what the others ratings might be, such as below “good” or above “very good.” I could never in good conscience call Corona a “good” beer. And Budweiser may be a well-made beer, but it lacks that key ingredient I look for in my beer: flavor.
  • Indeed, all of the beers on the list are very lightly flavored beers. Most judges, even experienced ones, would have a hard time distinguishing them blind. I realize that sometimes you have to judge such beers, but I think it would be difficult to rate Coors, Name Tag, Big Flats and Miller High Life as being essentially the same, all “very good.” That seems like a stretch. And at any rate, why bother rating beers that are so much alike and whose sales have more to do with advertising and brand loyalty than taste? Is any loyal Bud fan going to be swayed by this tasting and suddenly switch to Coors? Beer just isn’t like a new refrigerator or toaster.
  • I concur that there are no “very good” or above light beers, but I’d have a hard time calling any of these “good,” either. But that’s perhaps a personal preference. I find all low-calorie light beers an abomination, a slap in the face to good beer everywhere. They have no business even existing, let alone being best-sellers. They’re a triumph of advertising and marketing over good sense and taste.

So it seems to me that Consumer Reports, a well-respected publication, really booted this one and did very little, if anything, to educate their readers and give them some truly useful information about what beers to try. From their choices of which beers to rate and the way in which they rated them, there’s very little here to change anyone’s mind about which beer to choose, or indeed how to choose a good beer in the first place.

Session #51: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off

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It’s my great pleasure to host our 51st Session, my second time playing host over the four years we’ve been doing them. I chose a frightfully complicated topic which I’ve taken to calling by an overly grand name: The Great Online Beer & Cheese-Off. You can go back and read the long, original version of what’s going on, or here it is in a nutshell.

  1. Pick up three cheeses:
    1. Maytag Blue, or another blue cheese.
    2. Widmer Cellars 1-yr old aged cheddar, or another aged cheddar.
    3. Humboldt Fog, or another goat cheese.
  2. Pick a few beers you think will pair well with each cheese.
  3. Drink them with the cheese.
  4. Write up your results and post them on or before Friday, May 6.
  5. Leave a comment here, the announcement, or send me an e-mail so I can find your Session post.

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So in addition to the Session Announcement , I also wrote about cheese and beer pairing in my last newspaper column, similarly challenging readers to try some beer with the same three cheeses and send in their best pairings, too.

Wednesday evening, a few friends joined me to try several beers with each of the cheeses. Sean Paxton, the Homebrew Chef, and Pete and Amy Slosberg, who started Pete’s Wicked Ales in the 1980s, each brought a beer for each cheese, I picked a couple for each, and then I included some of the most promising sounding pairings that readers of my newspaper column sent in. Here’s what we discovered.

The Beer & Cheese Pairings

1. Widmer 1-Year Aged Cheddar

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We started with the cheddar. The Widmer is a simple cheddar, but with solid, strong flavors. I love the nuttiness and the way it melts in your mouth. The beers we had for the cheddar were the Belgian sweet gale beer, Gagleer, Bear Republic’s Racer 5 , Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Anderson Valley’s Brother David’s Double, Speakeasy’s Payback Porter, HUB’s Secession Cascadian Dark Ale and Firestone Walker’s Pale 31.

A few of our choices didn’t really work at all, which was immediately apparent. The Gagleer was too sweet, Pale 31 was too mild to stand up to the cheese and the roasted malt in HUB’s Cascadian Dark Ale was accentuated by the cheese, making the pairing too harsh to work well. The vegetal, oniony cattiness of Pliny — delightful on its own — brought out an equal amount of bitterness in the cheese and led to a hash astringency in the combination. While talking through the cheeses, Pete asked if I had another dopplebock we might try, so I opened an older Salvator I had in my beer cellar (a.k.a. “the garage”). Even slightly oxidized, it was our third best pairing with the cheddar. It had only a slight malt sweetness, which complimented the nutty flavors in the cheese nicely. Racer 5, Bear Republic’s IPA, was our second favorite. It seemed to have the right level of bitterness to work with the Widmer Cellars cheddar, the two were a little bit more than the some of their parts. I think it could have been fun to try the cheese with just a variety of IPAs, because it really seemed like the IBUs and the choice of hop varieties make a big difference in whether or not the beer and cheese pairing is a hit or a miss.

Our top choice, a unanimous decision, was Speakeasy’s Payback Porter. The cheese brought out an underlying smokey quality in the beer, accentuating it perfectly, and made the two something more than either could achieve alone. And that, we concluded, was what made a pairing great; when the two elements — the beer and the cheese — combined to become a third thing that was unique in and of itself.

2. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog

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We tasted the Humboldt Fog, a goat cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre, second. It’s a fantastic cheese; with unmistakably strong flavors. It’s creamy, with a zippy tang and sharp bite.

The beers we had for the Humboldt Fog were Aventinus Weizenbock, the Bruery’s Orchard White, Ommegang’s Hennepin, Hoegaarden, Russian River Temptation and Saison Dupont.

The Orchard White was an utter failure, the spices and floral notes really clashed with the cheese, making it too perfumy. We also tried the Pliny from the last flight and found its bitterness stomped on the cheese. Both the Payback Porter and HUB’s Black IPA did likewise, with the beer bringing out too much bitterness in the pairings that overwhelmed the cheese. In “The Brewmaster’s Table,” Garret Oliver singled out Hennepin as a beer to pair with goat cheese, but it didn’t actually work too well with the Humboldt Fog. It wasn’t terrible, but it brought out a bitterness in the beer when combined with the cheese that was less than ideal.

But most actually worked fairly well with this versatile cheese. The Velvet Merkin/Merlin (which we went back and tried; see below) worked better than I expected; the oats in the stout smoothed and rounded out the flavor combinations. And the orange peel and coriander in the Hoegaarden, a last minute impromptu addition, brought all sorts of complexity to the pairing that made it hard to choose the best choice with the goat cheese.

In addition to the new ones we added for each cheese, we also left all of the beers on the table from the previous cheese (and yes, the table filled up quickly) so we could try an even greater variety of combinations. As a result, we might never have discovered how well the Racer 5 went with the Humboldt Fog. It might not have occurred to be pair such a hoppy beer with the goat cheese, but the contrast was delicious, and we gave it an “honorable mention.”

For our third best, we picked Temptation. The two were just heavenly together, as was our second choice: Saison Dupont. Both beers are zesty, spicy and complex and served to bring out a lot of flavor components from the cheese in the process, hitting that sweet spot of being more than the sum of their parts. But the beer that did all that, but better and with far more intangibles, was the Aventinus Weizenbock from Schneider-Weisse. The beer itself has an awful lot going on, and brought out so much more in the cheese that we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. I’d swear we heard choirs of angels faintly ringing in the air.

3. Maytag Blue

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Lastly, we tried the Maytag Blue, a classic blue cheese that crumbles easily and is very spicy and tangy. The runnier it gets, the more I like it.

In addition to the beers we’d opened before it, we also tried it with Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merkin (or Merlin for the feint of heart), Lagunitas Imperial Stout and North Coast’s Old Rasputin.

Most of the lighter styles from the previous flights weren’t up to the challenge of keeping their own against such as strong cheese as Maytag Blue, though the Racer 5 was an exception, and showed itself to be a very versatile beer to pair with a variety of cheese. Both the Velvet Merlin and the Lagunitas stout were strong enough and worked well enough for us to declare a two-way toe for third place. Personally, I thought the Lagunitas had a slight edge because it was stronger and stood up better than the softer oatmeal stout. But I was alone in that, and unable to break the deadlock.

Of the stouts, the already wonderful Old Rasputin became even better with the blue cheese, earning itself second place in our informal contest. Strength against strength, complexity upon complexity, the two were a beautiful match. There’s just something about a big, lip-smackingly good complex imperial stout, with all its roasty goodness, malty sweetness and alcoholic punch, that seeps into the veins of the tangy power of a blue cheese and can match it round after round in the boxing ring inside your mouth. But remember that was our second choice. The best was yet to come.

Hands down, and unanimously so, we liked the Russian River Temptation from the second flight as the best beer to pair with the Maytag Blue. It was simply “otherworldly.” It’s even hard to describe. We all took a sip, looked at each other furtively and knew. It was that good. Everything just worked. The combination of the two was so much more than the either individually, it was if they were made to go together.

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And that, in essence, was the takeaway, what the exercise taught us. Like “white wine with fish,” any kind of guidelines about what beer styles goes with what cheese is only slightly better than guesswork. There is a very specific component to each beer and each cheese that alone determines if the pairing works or not, and that seems especially true for stronger beers (in both strength and flavors) and stronger cheeses, too. It may well be that milder cheese and beer do more easily fit a framework of guidelines. But in our little experiment, it became clear that guidelines are just a starting point. You have to really get under the hood and try various beers and cheeses together. And what you find is that while one IPA may work with one cheddar, it may not work at all with another. That makes it much harder to predict what will work together, but at least trying endless combinations is not exactly a grueling, miserable task. I’ll gladly try fifty beers with one one cheese to find that perfect pairing. Because when its good, holy moley, is it ever good.

The other thing we noticed is that beers with pronounced flavors, such as very strong bittering or very sweet malt tended to accentuate those when combined with the cheese. As a gross generality, beers that were more balanced tended to work much better with whichever cheese we paired with them. That was interesting, and might require some more research.

Well, that was great fun. Now it’s time to open another bottle of Temptation and cut up some Maytag Blue. Yum. I can’t wait to hear what everybody else tried and what combinations worked best. So that’s my round one. Look for the details on round two, Session #51.5 — which will take place in two weeks on Friday, May 20 — in the round-up, which I’ll likely be posting tomorrow morning.

Brekle’s Brown Released By Anchor

Anchor-brown
This evening at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, the brewery released their newest beer, Brekle’s Brown, named for the very first brewer at the brewery that would eventually become Anchor, Gottlieb Brekle.

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Mark Carpenter, Anchor’s brewmaster showing off his latest creation, Brekle’s Brown.

The beer is a beautiful bright mahogany, with a tan head. The nose is malty sweet, with nutty aromas that continue through to the flavor. With a dry finish, it’s nicely sweet on the palate, and belies its 6% a.b.v. Easily a session brown. Another great complement to the stable of Anchor beers.

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I’ll have more later on the event later, but with just another half hour to go, I’m going to go have another beer before heading on to the next event.

Pliny the Younger 2011

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Yesterday was Pliny the Younger Day at Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California. I arrived a little before eleven, and owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo let me in the back of the brewpub. The difference between last year’s release day and this year’s was immediately apparent. There was relative calm in the place, the bar was not three or four deep, with people pushing against the bar clamoring for attention. Perhaps most importantly, both Vinnie and Natalie seemed relaxed, too.

Last year, you may recall, Russian River sold out of of Pliny the Younger, their Triple IPA that’s released just once each year, in just eight short hours. The brewpub was filled to the gills and the staff was understandably stressed and exhausted. The main reason this happened last year was nobody expected so many people to order growlers, and having placed few restrictions on them, they continued to honor orders until the entire supply of beer ran out.

The line outside to get in was long all day

Having learned from last that experience, this year no Pliny the Younger growlers were permitted. They also managed the door and made sure it was never too crowded inside, which made for a much more enjoyable experience. A line of people that stretched down most of the block outside waited patiently for their turn to come inside. As people left, a new customer took their place so there was a steady stream of new patrons.

Pliny the Younger Day bar scene

I actually thought this year’s Pliny the Younger was even better than last year. It seemed more balanced and the hop wallop wasn’t as vegetal or oniony as I remember it being last year. There is nothing quite like having it fresh from the source on the day it’s released. And this year, they’ve allocated enough beer so it will be available for at least two weeks, giving many more people a chance to try get some.

Pliny the Younger in the sunlight

It will also begin appearing in select accounts around the Bay Area, so keep an eye on your favorite water hole. But act fast, last year kegs of Pliny the Younger kicked at some bars in a matter of hours.

Vinnie, me and Joe Tucker, from Rate Beer
Vinnie Cilurzo, me and Joe Tucker (from Rate Beer) enjoying a day at Russian River Brewing.

Below is a slideshow of Pliny the Younger Day. This Flickr gallery is best viewed in full screen. To view it that way, after clicking on the arrow in the center to start the slideshow, click on the button on the bottom right with the four arrows pointing outward on it, to see the photos in glorious full screen. Once in full screen slideshow mode, click on “Show Info” to identify each photo.