Giving Sam Adams (and Boston) their due

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It’s Halloween! I hope all of you are out enjoying a well-deserved dose of weirdness for the night, whether you’re dressed as a ghoul, historical figure or slutty pumpkin. 

But I don’t want to focus on the day’s festivities, (or – on a side note – this excellent video from Odell that’s worth checking out). I want to instead give credit to the recent World Series winners: The mighty Boston Red Sox. They might not have been one of my top five picks to win it, but you’ve got to have respect for what their win represents for the town of Boston and, more importantly, for excellent beards all over the world.

While there are several excellent breweries in the northeast, I had to pick up a batch from their flagship brewery: Samuel Adams. Okay, I know the mega-craft brewer sometimes gets a bad rap, and many think they’re just a notch below the stuff from Coors and Budweiser. But I think they have some pluses:Their bigness gives them room to try dozens of different beer styles; they can distribute those styles all across the country; AND some of them are pretty good. 

No, seriously.

It’s still possible to grab a “sampler” pack for their fall offerings, but I opted to sample their winter batch while it was at its freshest. The five new beers I tried – plus their signature Boston Lager – all claim to be good until at least March, which means they should be in peak form. And fortunately I found them all at least worth a try, with the exception of one (see below).

I’ve decided to rank them from my favorite to least favorite below, with a handful of notes to go with them:

Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale: 3.75

I don’t usually like “winter warmer” beers, but this one snuck up on me. It’s black, lumpy-headed appearance gave off some good whiffs of roasty chocolate malt, sweet cranberries and ginger. But the taste is what got me more and more as it warmed: roasty, spicy and warm despite its sessionable 5.9% ABV. It’s kind of like drinking the comfort of sitting by the fire with your family during the holidays, and I like it.

Samuel Adams Juniper IPA: 3.75

This more English-style IPA was the only IPA included in the batch, but I think it was fitting, unique and festive addition. This 5.8% ABV, mandarin amber beer kept a fluffy egg-white head for longer than I expected. Its smell of juniper berries and piney hop oils was a bit stronger than the similar flavors that followed. But it was a full, fresh-tasting beer that would be fit to store under a Christmas tree. 

Samuel Adams Winter Lager: 3.5

This beer had plenty of good flavors (and reviews) to make it worth a try. I might even get it again if I see it on tap. But it wasn’t anything fancy. It had a bready malt smell with some cinnamon and a nutty, musty malt flavor to back it up. Think a Boston Lager with stronger, darker malt notes. The best part of this beer is the way it looks: Crystal clear ruby with a steady stream of carbonation, which makes it very enticing. 

Samuel Adams White Christmas: 3.5

By far the lightest beer in color and taste in the bunch. The faint scents of wheat, nutmeg and cinnamon come through in the taste of this hazy golden witbier. But only faintly. It has a light body, light taste and light finish that begs for an orange slice. Take from that what you want. At least it’s refreshing.

Samuel Adams Chocolate Cherry Bock: 3.25

Don’t let the name of this beer fool you. It’s a trap. This bock may look great (totally black with a tan, long-lasting head), but the smell should be a dead giveaway: Cherry Icees and dusty chocolate covered cherries all the way. It stings it’s so sweet. Unfortunately, that comes through on the taste as well. It’s sickly, candy sweet, which smacks you with some cherry candy first, then milk chocolate and finishes with roast and some kind of cherry liqueur. This brew has some great reviews online, so I’m sure its layered, “complex” taste impresses some people. But not me. I felt like I ate my whole bag of Halloween candy at once.

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Fresh hops and weissbiers: Goodness from both sides of the pond

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I never really liked October. Yeah, the leaves turn colors other than green. Halloween’s fun, I guess. But it’s the beginning of fall, and who really enjoys watching the days get shorter, colder and sadder? 

But if there’s any silver lining to watching Mother Nature slowly lose her temper, it’s the beers that come out while it’s happening: Succulent fresh hop ales, Oktoberfests, fall and pumpkin brews. It’s all delicious.

It’s a little late in the Oktoberfest season – usually it starts in September to celebrate the start of fall – but I decided to celebrate regardless by making a Monday night trip to Denver’s Prost Brewing, which focuses on German-themed beers.  True to theme, the inside is bedecked with German flags and paraphernalia. Dozens of wooden picnic-style tables coax you into drinking with brand new friends. A jolly bearded man passed out samples of boar brats from the sausage truck outside.

For some reason, I passed on their Oktoberfest (go figure), but I tried a quartet of deliciously German brews – some that highlighted wholesome, mouth-engulfing malt flavors and others that showcased signature sharp, bitter pils hops.

But the one that I (and Danielle) liked best, as the title suggests, was their weissbier:

What stood out for me most was its freshness, wholesomeness and subdued sweetness. It pours a cidery, hazy gold with a big, fluffy head with good stay and smells like candy bananas and fresh orange juice. The smell is sweeter than the taste, although I got a fair amount of citrus sweetness balanced by a funky, malty mouthfeel. Good on its own, but I would’ve loved it with some food or sunshine.

 

The rest of the week I focused on one of my favorite styles: Fresh-hopped (or wet-hopped) ales. Hops go bad within a few days of being picked, so brewers generally dry them out to prevent them from spoiling and ruining their beers. But some brewers go through the intense – and expensive – process of express shipping their hops so they can add them to their batches unprocessed and “wet,” since they haven’t had time to spoil. 

Why go through the trouble? Because it’s TOTALLY WORTH IT. It makes every aspect of the beer seem fresher. Even the fact that they’re so hard to find makes drinking one all the more “refreshing.”

My favorite? Surprisingly, New Belgium’s “salmon-friendlyHop Kitchen – Fresh Hop IPA.  One of the best IPAs I’ve had from them. And check out that link about the salmon-friendliness, because that’s pretty cool, too:

First of all, the beer has what looks like actual soap suds on top, which stick around forever on top of a clear, champagne gold beer. It smells like fresh grapefruit and a little hemp, picked straight from the field. And it has lots of fresh grapefruit and hoppy taste that sticks in the throat, sans much of the bitterness. But what stands out most is the juiciness of it; the freshness clearly isn’t in name only. It’s a clean looking, fresh smelling beer with a bold – though simple – taste. Muy bien.

Beer awards are a great. They aren’t everything, though.

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This was a great year to be a West Coast brewer, especially in California, Colorado and Oregon. Those three states collected 123 medals combined during this year’s Great American Beer Festival. (Colorado came in second to California with 46 medals this year, and first in Golds with 19… shazam!)

With all of the beer out here I’m not surprised, and it’s good to have something physical to point to when I start getting snooty about the brew culture where I live. But with so many quality breweries here and across the country and with so few medals to go around, I start to see the ceremony as a double-edged sword.

With America’s craft brewing bubble growing each year, I can’t help wondering if these ceremonies do more for breweries by encouraging competition and promoting new ideas, or less by punishing the breweries that don’t win – especially when so many of their neighbors have.

Case in point: Earlier last week I had the chance to visit the three-year-old Denver watering hole Strange Brewing, whose barley wine won big during last year’s GABF. It caught a soft spot with me right away. Nestled in a sketchy part of town, the taproom might be able to sit inside a 7- Eleven. But it was brimming with a loud, friendly crowd, and I had the impression I was the only one there who hadn’t been there every Friday since 2011. Even better, the 10-beer flight I bought (seen in the picture) didn’t have a single dud. Think fresh krieks, wholesome IPAs, a pumpkin porter that didn’t taste like candy and an ale that did taste like a loaf of warm bread from Macaroni Grill. 

They didn’t win anything this year.

One of the brewery’s co-owners, who went by “Jules,” humored me after I ambushed her with questions when she walked by my table. This was the night before the awards were announced, so she was saying that she hoped their brewery would bring home at least one medal from the GABF (they can submit entries in 10 categories). Makes sense.

But when she started talking about the Denver beer scene, it brought a new light to the pursuit. For some reason it hadn’t dawned on me that with so many brewery options in town, there was also more competition for customers. Again, Strange was just about packed when I was there, so they didn’t appear to be suffering too badly. And she said the breweries work with each other, collaborate and give each other free beer (!). But with every new brewery that opens, that’s fewer people around to buy your product, which makes it harder to stay afloat, let alone prosper and expand.

I’m all for letting the market do its thing: Let the best breweries fight for my money and/or loyalty. And people are going to buy good beer no matter what accolades are attached to it. But with some breweries receiving awards – and with it national recognition – it leaves others in the dark… and I wonder if that could spell the kiss of death for a brewery with a good feel and a good product.

That’s taking it to the extreme, but you can at least feel a little bad when all your favorites don’t win. Life is rough.

Anyways, here’s a review of a couple of the beers I tried last week: One from Strange and one that I picked up specially from Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits in downtown Denver. It’s from SOUTH AMERICA.

Strange Brewing Zora Rosemary Pale Ale: 4

How there aren’t more beers like this around is beyond me. Zora is refreshing and unusual. It’s a lighter gold with a good head and lacing. And like I said above, it smells like the fresh bread they give you at Macaroni Grill. Think roasted dough and dried rosemary (go figure). Even better, the rosemary comes through in the taste, too. More bread! Add to that a slightly herbal bitterness, some lemon and wheat and you’ve got a meal in a bottle. Or at least the start of one.

Colorado Brewing Vixnu Imperial IPA: 4

What a big, catty, hop-nasty beer from Brazil! Vixnu is a lightly hazy, peachy amber that pours with a huge head and some thick lacing on the sides. It smells like some glorious blend of peaches, pine and fresh grapefruit juice. Not sure how old it is (maybe bottled in July?) but it’s still pungent. The taste stacks up with many imperial IPAs brewed stateside, with a hunk of catty, bitter hops that hits all the way through. It’s also a little boozy. Some sweetness comes from the hops, but it unmistakeably leans more hoppy. It’s bitter and intense, with some great flavors. I wish it had a little more malt, but it’s still delicious. If you can find it, try it!

I don’t have a ticket to the GABF, but I can still drink beer

The Great American Beer Festival is on, and it’s beer time in Colorado! That is, if you could afford the $75 ticket. And buy it in the first 20 minutes that they were on sale. I could do neither.

BUT, I’m not blogging to complain. No way. There are too many ways to find some excellent beers in this part of the country. And now that I live in Denver, I finally have time to check out all those breweries, beer bars and beer (liquor) stores around the Front Range.

Preparations started Tuesday night when I more or less purged myself of my pre-GABF beer selections, which had been sitting in my fridge for the past few weeks. Don’t worry people, I spread them evenly through the day (there were only three). I just wanted to start my adventures with a clean slate.

On Wednesday I made it to Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora – just 15 minutes from where I’m staying – for a shot at their Geeks Who Drink trivia with Danielle. We came in dead last because we were too good for the “visual round,” but the brewery was an excellent surprise. The outside’s strip mall exterior betrays the solid neighborhood brewery feel of the interior, with wooden, popcorn-riddled floors and barrels lining the walls. And most importantly, good beer.

This afternoon I traveled to Rockyard Brewing in northern Castle Rock, which had a similar feel (and name) to the quasi-legit Rock Bottom Brewery. The food was good. The beer was good. It was all good. Check it out if you’re traveling south of Denver.

As for some beer reviews, I’ve picked one of my favorites from each day: an imperial porter, a sour ale and a pumpkin ale.

Tuesday: Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter: 4

First of all, love the artwork on the bottle, which is some kind of skeleton cowboy. It’s weird. But its contents pour more like black sludge with a HUGE tuft of foam placed on top. It smells a bit like milk chocolate, but it tastes like velvety roasted malts and black coffee with a bit a vanilla. The flavor sticks around – you could almost marinade a steak in it – but not enough to make you want to wash out your mouth.

Wednesday: Ambassador Oak Aged Sour Ale: 4

This beer is amazing from start to finish. Its hazy, tawny brown look makes it seem like it was poured right out of the barrel (which it might have been). I only got a 3-ounce sampler, but the scent kicked me back: thick oak, cherries and everything good with a sour that stings the back of your nostrils. And unlike a few Dry Dock beers I’ve tried, the taste matched the smell’s high expectations. It was very sour, with a full mouthfeel and woody tannins that stuck to the roof of my mouth. And of course, there were more ripe, fresh cherries that pulled all the way through. The only complaint was that I didn’t get more of it.

Thursday: Plymouth Rock Pumpkin Ale: 3.75

For me, there are two types of pumpkin beers: The subtle, “fall is coming” kind and the in-your-face “drink your pumpkin pie” kinds. This is a great example of the latter. Plymouth Rock Pumpkin Ale pours a hazy autumn brown that positively reeks of molasses, cinnamon and nutmeg. More nutmeg and brown sugar comes out in the taste, which comes with a full, cider-y mouthfeel. It’s just like liquefied pie. But as a result (or consequence, I think) it also comes off as a sweet beer– even in the pumpkin beer category. Still, the flavors leave plenty to chew on.