Tag Archives: Amber Waves Rally

Our Interview at Abita – Brewmaster Mark Wilson

Pittsburgh Part Two : Churches, Lagers, Ales, and More

We had sampled nearly everything that East End Brewing had to offer over the course of a few hours, and decided it was time for dinner. After some basic Yelping and being unable to find anything that excited us food-wise we decided to  head straight to our next brewery for some grub.

Sometimes I do my drinking in church... well most times.

Church Brew Works is exactly what it sounds like – a former church that has been renovated and converted to a brewery. The building is a bit intimidating when you approach from the front, a large brick building that maintains all of the Christian iconography and decor. Little adjustments have been made here and there, and I have to have respect for a crew that took this place and turned it into my kind of house of worship.

It's the little things.

We made it inside and checked out the main room – it’s expansive as you would expect from a former church, and the layout points all eyes straight toward the brewhouse where the altar used to be. We asked if there was a table for two, but they weren’t sure when one would be available so we grabbed two seats at the bar instead. One wall consists of a long bar and stools, almost from the entrance to the pulpit so we grabbed a seat directly in front of the beer menu and one of the taps.

The handles are appropriately ornate and shiny.

We started off with a plate of fries and asked what the server would recommend we try on the beer list. He told us he liked the Hefeweizen but didn’t really drink much beer, and so would send someone else our way. After a few minutes the other server came by and let us know she would try one of the year-round beers to get an idea of what they usually have on offer. That seemed like a solid idea, and so I went with the Dunkel on tap and our trusty co-pilot ordered their Celestial Gold.

The Church Dunkel was a medium brown color with lots of carbonation and a tremendously sweet nose. The smell hit me from a few feet away and consisted of caramel and sugar. The flavor was pretty cloying, and it was hard for me to finish the pint so we traded halfway through our respective drinks as co-pilot was struggling with hers. Celestial Gold is listed as a pilsener and hits the notes you would expect a noble pils to hit. It’s light and bubbly with maybe a finger of head and a faint aroma of hop. There was a bit of a papery flavor, which I think is what put off my partner, as that is one of her pet peeves we’ve found with lighter beers. I noticed it less, but it did have a metallic aftertaste that I thought was prominent. All in all a solid B- but not something I would seek out on their menu.

There was a layer of glass between us and the tanks, explaining the aliens in the bottom right corner.

For whatever reason the seasonal menu didn’t sound appealing to us, so we decided to go ahead and finish off the year-round menu posted on the wall. I went with their Pipe Organ Pale and she opted for the Millenium Tripel.

Our food arrived a few minutes after our second pint, and so I had a burger to pair with my Pale and she had Pulled Pork with her Tripel. The Pale was a light red, almost copper color with a mild smell of piney hops and a hint of malt sweetness. It was a bit thin on the first sip, though not as thin as other Pales I tried recently so maybe that’s a thing in this area, and I’m overly used to West Coast style full body. Smooth and drinkable through the whole pint, but far from my favorite Pale Ale because of the missing hop flavor and thin body. Living in San Francisco has undoubtedly spoiled me.

Coolest brewery ceiling?

The Tripel was a different story altogether, and unfortunately our least favorite of the night. It’s main discernible smell was acidic and green apple/lemony while the first sip was dominated by a sweetness that overpowered most everything with a still very present acidic quality. Not sure if acetaldehyde was created by overused yeast or we got a strange keg, but something was off. Would like to try this one again if I’m back in Pittsburgh to compare/contrast.

After our meal and pints we were ready to call it a day  of tasting and make our way home to save strength for the following day’s drive. But then we were invited to Penn Brewery by our hosts to grab a beer and chat for a while at their outdoor tables. I have a confession here – Penn Brewery was the only place we had been warned away from in all of Pittsburgh. We were told the beer was awful, the brewery unattractive, and it was located on the wrong side of the tracks. On the other hand, we knew a group of folks who would be drinking there and it was likely we were going to be able to sit outdoors which sounded good considering it was still about 80 degrees at 8 or 9 o’clock at night.

So over a bridge, almost into the wrong lane, around a few corners, and to Penn Brewery we went. I left the camera behind but I’ll break down the brews here.

Kaiser Pils - The first beer on the list was a solid pils, and I preferred it to the one I had at Church Brew Works earlier in the day. Well filtered and with a big noble hop smell I got excited after the first sniff. The flavor was solid and paired nicely with our fried appetizers by being clean and crisp. With no off flavors present I was optimistic moving forward after what I had heard before.

Penn Gold – An awesome Helles-style lager this one would have been my favorite if it weren’t for the next beer we drank. A mildly sweet smell that has a pleasing background hop scent is complimented by a smooth German malt profile and golden straw color. Perfectly balanced and easy drinking.

St. Nikolaus Bock - Somehow there were a few left-over kegs of this elixir at the brewery, and I wasn’t complaining. An excellent doppelbock that pours a medium brown with amber edges and smells divinely of roasty and toasty malts. The main flavors are sweet and malty with a moderate ABV and clean finish that keep it drinkable. I imagine this to be amazing in the winter, and it was damn good in the summer.

Penn Dark – Last but not least the eponymous offering from Penn Brewery is a solid dunkel lager that deliver roasty flavor, smooth mouthfeel, and a clean finish that add up to a quality lager. Easy to drink and fun to drink make for a not to be missed pint, and though I finished here I would recommend it or the Gold as a great jumping off point for the brewery’s other offerings.

As we were packing up we were talking about the brewery, and apparently within the last year they’ve had some shake-ups within the brewing crew, and it seems to have worked out in their favor. The beers coming out of this lager brewery were all solid, and as a fan of the art of lager brewing this was a fantastic stop on our trip. Similarly to L’amere a Boire in Montreal this was a lager brewery our host recommended that stood out immediately because of the brew quality.

So what’s the takeaway? First, go to Pittsburgh – the beer is good and the beer is cheap which makes for fun exploring. Second, no matter what you hear go try things for yourself – allow yourself to be surprised and don’t get cynical. Third, if you’re traveling and you have to sacrifice a few hours of sleep for a few hours of fun you damn well better. There’s no point in taking a once in a lifetime trip and avoiding the once in a lifetime experiences.

Cheers!

Pittsburgh – The city that can’t be punned – Part One

Pittsburgh was a damn good time. We stayed for two days and visited three breweries without missing out on the city or the other bars in the area. One might say we had finally hit our stride on the trip, and were moving quickly enough to make it to each city we wanted and still hit all of the beer spots as well.

The sign outside welcomes you to the premises, along with a small keg on the sidewalk. Easy to miss but worth the search.

Pittsburgh is known for its hard-nosed attitude and strong working class folks. East End Brewing epitomizes that solid working class attitude, churning out quality brews at a rapid pace from Pittsburgh’s self-described micro-est brewhouse. We made it to growler hours to sample their wares and were not disappointed – the list included 8 beers on tap and a few sodas as well. I’ll break them down here along with some photos of the brewery.

The day's pours along with growler prices.

 

Let’s go in list order, since I lack creative spark.

Big Hop IPA – This is a good beer. The shortness of the previous sentence is intentional because I’m not sure there’s much to say about a solid IPA that hasn’t been said. It’s a nice orange color, smells and tastes strongly of hop, and hits all the notes you want it to. If you like IPAs you’ll like Big Hop – plus the frog is awesome.

Bam! Handle Porn.

Monkey Boy Hefeweizen - This was my favorite East End beer of the tasting, and I drank it first. In all honesty it probably was the combination of a hot day outside and the beer being quite tasty that put it at the top. It was moderately hazy and smelled tremendously of fruit – banana in particular but just very estery. The first sip was immediately refreshing, and the rest of my 6 oz. (guessing) made me forget the long hot drive through PA. That’s the sign of a good brew to me.

Fat Gary’s Brown - The name isn’t necessarily a selling point, but this nut brown ale was mild and smooth with a little extra malt flavor that leaned toward caramel flavor. Reminded me a lot of Downtown Brown from Lost Coast which was a go-to beer when I first moved to San Francisco. Solid B+.

Lots of beer from a little space - it can be done.

Black Strap Stout - Roast. Malt. Black. Coffee. Surprisingly thin. Those were my thoughts in order drinking this one. Second favorite on the list, which surprised me considering the temperature outside. A solid stout taste does it for me and ignores the time or weather apparently. The thinness was actually nice, though I usually like more body, and was surprising considering how dark the beer was in the glass.

Joining the rush of breweries working with wood - me likey.

Best Dressed Chicken - Billed as a bitter this one was a bit hoppy for my expectations. An enjoyable pint though, and and interesting color on the pour. Somewhere between orange and brown but almost red held in front of my phone’s flash. Probably what I would go for if sitting at a bar wanting a middle of the road beer that wasn’t too hoppy, wasn’t too malty, but had good flavors. Unfortunately it’s a rare release under their session label.

Brewery wide angle - From left to right : keg storage, brewhouse, fermenters/brite tanks, pallet storage

Pedal Pale Ale - I’m a whore for anything bike-related, and Pedal Pale fits the bill. A dry, single-hopped pale ale that smells sweet and tastes floral it hit the spot nicely. I still prefer pale ales that toy with the interplay of hops, especially since the malt bills are usually bland, but I would dig one of these after a long ride.

Tartanic 60 Shilling - A mild, low alcohol, brown ale that tastes significant for how little alcohol there is. The malt comes through, though not strongly, and the body is light and crisp for a dark beer. My personal preference in dark beer is for something pushing toward the 4.5% range at minimum for body, but this is a nice sessionable ale (and is brewed under their session label) that would make for a nice 6-pack to watch the game.

Kegs are re-usable, and now the beer filling this one has probably improved.

BlueberRye Ale – I’ve gone ahead and linked to BlackberRye Ale as I couldn’t find the blueberry version. This drank like a light rye ale with a bright pink color. The blueberry is definitely there but more as an accent than a strong flavor. I think using fresh fruit is a great approach, and I’m generally not pleased with syrup beers so this was a pleasant pint in that respect. However, the berry flavor and rye seemed a bit at odds, and I only tried one taster glass worth. That being said, my co-pilot dug it and had a few pours so to each their own.

As we finished our tasting at East End a local guy came in looking to pawn off some chicken wings form a stand he had set up a few blocks away. That kept us in the tasting room even longer, gnawing on wings and drinking an extra pour of our personal choice from the list (Hef for me, Blueberry for her) It was just another little taste of the community in Pittsburgh that supported the local craft scene and it was awesome.

We stood at the counter and drank with a few local business people getting refreshed after a bad day, a local delivery driver, the chicken wing salesman (soda only) and the man behind the bar keeping everyone in good spirits and handling growler fills often. We we energized and ready to make it to our next Pittsburgh stops, Church Brew Works and Penn Brewing. One was old school quality beer, and one was upscale mediocre, but that’s a story for another day.

Heading South to North Country

After an overland journey through the lesser traveled parts of NY state and Pennsylvania we arrived at North Country Brewing, a smallish local pub in the downtown area of Slippery Rock. We sat down at the bar early enough to meet a few regulars and bartenders, who immediately proved to be familial and fun. The vibe of the entire place was country, but with less of a Cracker Barrel interior and more authentically interesting history and décor.

Told you so

The building started life as the county morgue and the staff swear you can see and hear the spirits late at night, particularly in the restrooms that used to house the bodies for preparation. A certificate of haunting lends further credence to the claims, though I’m not completely sold on a group that certifies hauntings. The brewery itself is visible through a plate glass partition in the main entrance hallway, and is of a significant size for the pub. However, in fairness, there are a large number of tables in the restaurant compared to the bar area, and the restaurant was a fixture of the downtown area.

It's a small town, so property is at a premium.

In a small downtown with little to nothing happening while school was out of session, we fit right in at the bar full of folks searching for good beer.  I started slowly enough with Northern Lite, a golden beer with light body and flavor that was recommended for folks who aren’t tremendously adventurous with their beer selection. While it might not have been up my alley, the wisdom behind brewing this kind of ale in an isolated pub like this one is undeniable. If people want to drink something that is light and crisp and you don’t have this type of beer on tap they’ll go across the street where they can find a cheap macro. The right thing to do is brew this type of light beer with proper quality and hope to sway them toward the solid local beers available.

Hopefully one isn't enough, and they gain an adventurous streak after a beer or two!

I want to digress for a minute to rant about why small pubs like this need to invest in their atmosphere and why it matters to me. As a proponent of craft beer in almost every situation I think it helps me make a good case for craft beer when the presentation in a place is spot on. Here at North Country it was obvious that the pub had ceased to be the local spot to drink and had become the go-to for entertainment in this small college town. By offering live music and a solid menu it grew beyond the confines of a local brewery and embodied the town’s spirit. The outside area hosted college age kids who wanted to relax in the sun, and the indoor tables were filled with families celebrating birthdays and a night on the town. The bar held regulars clamoring for specialty brews, and the front door led you directly into the path of the evening’s musical entertainment. This is good for craft beer. This is good for communities. This is good for the business. This is good for people like me who want to prove that craft beer is an awesome influence around North America. /end rant

The aforementioned outdoor area

Back to the beers – I moved down the list with a fair amount of haste and landed on their Firehouse Red. A malty treat after the light beer before it mellowed nicely as it warmed and had just enough balance from hop to dry out the sweet malts. Solidly tasty and gone before I could think about my next drink I asked for a bit of advice. Which beer would they recommend if I wanted to keep it malty? The Breakfast Blend Mild was on offer and hit the spot nicely, another balanced beer with a low enough ABV that it didn’t put me on my ass. The brew poured very light brown, almost the color of light malt syrup, and had that faint waft of candy sweetness that I admire in malty beer. (My milds tend to come out a bit heavy, probably because I let them ferment too long) While my favorite might still be the Ruby Mild from Magnolia on cask this was a tremendous beer to find as I love good milds. I took a few sips of my Co-Pilots pints as well, all tasty but not what I was after at the moment. 

Satisfied with my tasting and ready for a quick nap after a 2 hour drive and only McDonald’s available for lunch we headed over to the local parking lot for a quick snooze. It wouldn’t be long before I would be back on the road again and headed into our next stop… But that’s a story for another day. Good drinking until then.

There’s an upstate New York and they have rad beer – Pt. III – Southern Tier

After a dip in the Finger Lakes in Ithaca and some time recovering from welts that must have been caused by the weird kelp-like junk found in said lakes we made our way toward Southern Tier in Lakewood, NY. A brewery pushing ten years in business we quickly learned that Southern Tier is named for the road that takes you there, and driving along the Southern Tier Expressway only made me thirsty.

I hadn't had much Southern Tier beer prior, but I knew the logo well.

I was excited to visit Southern Tier out on the far edge of NY state, and though in Jamestown they’ll tell you my title is wrong (because they’re actually Western NY state) I was just stoked to arrive. I had spoken to Nathan on the phone earlier in the morning, and had found his number by searching the website until I found someone with Media in their title, and promptly calling up and making an idiot of myself. Once I finished stumbling through the explanation of why the hell someone was driving 17,000 miles to visit breweries (cuz I’m awesome) he agreed to meet that afternoon and show us around.

The brewery has an arts and crafts theme and the architecture and building accents are all appealingly designed.

Badass Achievement Unlocked - having your logo burned into the wooden entrance wall of your brewery.

Once you enter and have gotten over the shock of standing in front of a 6 foot tall Southern Tier logo (that’s the bathroom door on the left for reference) you notice that the placed is locked up like a WWII bunker. The secretary is your only way in, so you have to be charming and kind. I, of course, blurted out something along the lines of,” I’m here to see Nathan, and to look at, um, the beer stuff.” Mission Accomplished. Nathan came out and greeted us in the lobby and we chatted for a few minutes about the building, Southern Tier artwork, and coffee. Then we took a turn to the right and headed toward The Empty Pint, their on-site taproom.

Over the handles you can see the taproom and outdoor seating on-site at the brewery.

The indoor space probably has room for about 60 people comfortably, and maybe upwards of 150 in a reception type setting. There are tons of tap handles, each brandishing a different weapon to swing at your tastebuds.

We didn't try the Farmer's Tan but i had a wicked Driver's Tan

There are also a few choices in bottles from other breweries, and some snacks and a sandwich choice to nosh on. The taps are a bit overwhelming, but we forged ahead and tried a few of the offerings so I could give you folks a good honest opinion on what to drink. Not all of the beers I list here we tried at the brewery, since the taproom was technically closed, but I did have all of them within a day of visiting the place.

422 Pale Wheat Ale – I’ve started adding links to BA in these lists because I think getting a variety of opinion is a good thing. This beer lists as worthy on there, and I would agree – it has light hop notes though they’re not especially notable and a medium malt presence that didn’t do much for me at first. I must admit however, I enjoyed it much more in a bottle that evening outside in the heat. It strikes me as a gateway beer that might need the right setting to be truly enjoyed by a nerd, what it lacks in complexity it makes up for by being a quality beer you can hand anyone without worry.

Hop Sun Summer Wheat – This is the beer 422 wishes it was – solid grainy wheat on the tongue accompanied by great estery smells that help it go down without fading away. Only a little more hop than 422 but enough to bring out the citrus and even a mild honey note in the mix. A great summer beer that again I really enjoyed in the evening heat.

A few classics on tap and a few locals-only brews as well.

2xIPA – Ok, so this is a bit of a jump from the last pour but that didn’t affect my tasting thanks to a coffee in hand – at least I hope not. I really enjoyed 2x and it reminded me a bit of home with more fruit, particularly citrus, in the nose than the pine I had grown used to on the East Coast. Oddly enough though the malty sweetness overpowered the hop to my taste. Still a hell of a pour and something I would order regularly if I lived on the East Coast I was surprised that the hop wasn’t the dominant flavor considering how much the beer smelled of punchy hop oils.

Creme Brulee Stout – This brew we had from a bottle so comparisons to the tap beers are off. This is one of the beers I knew Southern Tier for, and I wasn’t disappointed. Strong chocolate stout overtones were quickly overtaken by that familiar mix of burnt sugar and cream I love so well. I was surprised how on the head they hit this one, and even without the bottle my immediate first thought would be creme brulee. Probably a bottle best to be shared between several people (at least that’s how we did it) I do understand why it comes in a 6-10 oz. glass most places – much more than that and it starts to become extremely heavy.

When you found the brewery you get a beer named after you - rules are rules.

Choklat – A pure black liquid poured into another tiny glass this brew filled the room with the aroma of melting baker’s chocolate. A complete lack of head and intense syrupy pour give way to a smell that is equally intense up close. Very little hint of the 11% ABV makes its way past the intense cocoa flavor and mild bitter finish. A really enjoyable sipper that lives up to its name in every way.

As we finished our tastes and looked through the glass windows that made up the wall of the taproom toward the 200 barrel fermenters beyond our host beckoned us into the brewery. We started by slapping on a pair of safety glasses each and making our way through the offices to the brewery entryway. First on the agenda was the large bottling line, running when we arrived but slowing to a halt by the time I snapped a few photos.

How many bottles a minute? Like, you know, a fuckin lot.

The summer beers were being packaged for shipping sooner rather than later, and a crew of about five worked the line at max efficiency. The majority of breweries regularly experience bottlenecks in production, whether not enough fermenters, too slow a bottling line, or too few interns to sacrifice to Ninkasi. I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any bottlenecks here, but was quickly corrected when I learned that more fermenters were on their way soon. Luckily because of my computer crashing I’ve taken long enough to write this that you can see the new fermenters here (a bit down with the comparison photos)! We also checked out the filling station of the bottling line, which is behind glass doors on this particular unit.

Welcome to the bottling zoo - hands and legs inside the cart at all times.

We then turned our attention to the brewhouse itself, which consisted of a sweet platform and a number of vessels designed to keep the wort flowing almost non-stop.

More brewery pron you say - Bam!

Short and stout, just the way I like my vessels, Aww Yeah.

A healthy staff of brewers keeps your favorite beer flowing out of these bad boys regularly enough that you should be sending them thank you cards at Christmas. Just across the room were rows of fermenters and a few operations folks making sure everything was being shifted between tanks at max efficiency. Sanitizer and beer were both flowing in opposite directions to different tanks and the whole operation was surprisingly smooth.

The row of fermenters you can see from the taproom, they're basically the strippers on stage of the operation.

Caution tape and electronic controls - these are a few of my favorite things.

That concluded our time at Southern Tier, and as we made our way back out to the entrance we passed the employee chalkboard. I couldn’t help but grab a photo since I too appreciate a solid South Park joke.

Does every brewery have a chalkboard? I report, you decide, no one cares.

As is tradition – Cheers!

There’s an upstate New York, and they have rad beer – Pt. II – Ithaca Beer

After leaving Cooperstown and zoning out for 150 miles of country roads we pulled into an unassuming parking lot in Ithaca, NY. A modest building built into a small strip mall had an easy-to-miss sign out front reading Ithaca Beer.

Tastings - that's all I needed to hear.

I thought it was about time I got in the spirit of the Finger Lakes, and so I did. Ithaca Beer maintains a small but diverse inventory of homebrew equipment and ingredients alongside a sizable brewing operation behind the scenes. The tasting room offers a number of Ithaca beers (8 on the day we visited) that include both year-round offerings and a few seasonal choices to wet your whistle. If that wasn’t enough, the tasting room is full of friendly folks working to answer questions and fill growlers in spare moments.

They've got a few medals on their shelf, but in fairness one is from the 1984 Olympics when the beer was juicing.

The tasting room also has a couple still life dioramas that are begging to be photographed.

The tasting we went through was from lightest to darkest, as many breweries are wont to do. The summer line-up was on tap and it looked something like this:

Partly Sunny – A nearly 5% witbier that was on tap as the summer seasonal. I have to admit this was probably my favorite beer on the chalkboard, though it’s almost entirely because of the weather. We had spent two hours in the car in 90 degree heat, and as our first beer this was so damn refreshing I had to smile. Light, straw-colored, dry, and a bit tart this hit the spot and would be a great lawnmower beer.

Apricot Wheat – For all my praise of Partly Sunny, I thought Apricot Wheat fell short of the mark. A bit too sweet overall and overwhelmingly apricot flavored this beer is simply not up my alley. While I enjoy fruit beer, I prefer it to be the underlying flavor to the beer, and here it takes over the show.

Rough Draft – This wheat ale poured a hazy yellow and had a mild citrus nose that dissipates quickly, at least on a taster glass sized serving. There’s a bit of banana in the nose as well, though it also goes too soon. I enjoyed the small serving, but in a larger serving I don’t know that I would go for more than a pint.

Rough Draft in its native state

Pale Ale – Proof that Ithaca has been around a while, their Pale Ale is called simply Pale. A strong fruity aroma emanates from the amber brew and this is the first brew with a hop presence. A solid pale that strikes me as an East Coast version of Sierra Nevada’s classic green bottled offering.

Flower Power – My second favorite of Ithaca’s taps this pours a dark straw color with a ton of haze and strong hop aromas from a few feet away. Surprisingly balanced for how strong the aroma is, the beer finishes dry on the palate after a powerful starting line blast of hop flavor and background malt. A great summer beer again, and extremely tasty.

Flower Power is a damn fine East Coast IPA, and has a sweet handle to boot.

Cascazilla – A dark red ale with a direct Cascade punch (thus the name) the brew has metallic tints and an almost harsh hop presence. Not as balanced as Flower Power, though I think that the intention with this beer is a hop bomb in the truest sense. Smooth and tasty, but I don’t think I would be able to finish a full pint of this hoppy monster.

Smoked Porter – No link on this one as the only listed porter on BA was named differently, though it might just have been a name change. We had this last and it was tremendously smoky and smooth, and a nice change in pace from the previous brews. We also had a chance to try a soured version of the beer that I preferred to the smoked version slightly. It tasted more like a beer made with acidulated malt, and had a mild tartness I enjoyed.

After our tasting we went on a tour through the brewery’s back hallways and equipment, checking out where the magic happens. As we made our way back through the break room and into the brewery we passed a pile of casks for Ithaca’s special events.

We heard about upcoming Ithaca brews, including a repeat of a sour beer that should be hitting the market soon if it hasn’t already. We passed a pallet of acidulated malt waiting to make its way into the tun and bring you another round of tasty sour beer in 750 ml bottles.

Damn their beer is Hot Hot Hot!

Oh, and there's a damn cute pilot system for cranking out small batches too!

After the brewhouse we wound around past the mill room and saw the packaging and bottling line. A bottling system that puts out a good portion of Ithaca’s nearly 10,000 barrels per year was sitting silent while a brewer moved beer and sanitizer around the fermenters.

A brew schedule leaning against the insulated fermenters

And yet more fermentation - brite tanks with flat bottoms lined up for, you know, brite beer.

After a few questions we made our way back out to the front room. On the way I spotted an oddity and snapped a shot – not entirely sure but it might be the cork and cage setup.

Or it's a bottle torturer

Back in the tasting room we wandered the selection for a bit and chatted with the locals grabbing beer. It was nice to see a solid mix of tourists from out of town grabbing some local beer and folks from just around the corner sneaking in for a quick growler fill for the weekend.

I felt at home in Ithaca I think because of its similarity to the Bay Area. Both are known for wine but have incredible beer culture, both are intrinsically gorgeous (or Gorges for locals), and both are full of outdoorsy folks that like to go on long hikes and wash down the dust with a great craft beer.

And finally, before we headed out we took a glance at the expansion plans  hanging on the wall – a plan for impressive growth.

A new facility, brewery, and more - I'll be back :)

If you live in the area head out to Ithaca Beer and have a few tastes before you decide on a growler or bottle to leave with – after all the beer is Finger Lakin’ Good.

Cheers!

There’s an upstate New York, and they make rad beer – Pt. I – Brewery Ommegang

As we left Quebec I think the bittersweet emotions were mutual, and even though I told the border officer I had missed the US the entire time we were gone the reality was a bit less straightforward. While the language barrier is minor thanks to the excellent Canadian English language education, a definitive separation between the cultures and customs in the US and French Canada still exists. In our case, the border crossing meant parting with some amazing French-inspired brews that rarely make it out of French Canada in exchange for the ability to find a bathroom a bit more easily. Luckily as we drove away from the tree-lined road I knew we were heading toward upstate New York and some of the best beer in the states.

This is how you make an entrance!

Our first destination was Cooperstown, where Duvel’s American step-brewery Ommegang operates a brisk business in delicious Belgian-style beers. We arrived in the early afternoon and attached ourselves to the rear of the formation on one of the tours. The guides were informative and fun, explaining most of the equipment in just enough detail to be interesting and fun but not encourage the know-it-alls on the tour. I’m never sure exactly what to expect when an intrepid tour-goer asks a seemingly innocuous question, but more and more I’ve noticed folks asking questions only to answer it themselves, which can be funny when viewed through the right eyes.

Every brewery should have a crest and a coat of arms - then when the brewery wars come I can just pick out the people with Clydesdales and The Rockies on their tabards and stab them first.

The tour begins outdoors, with a view of the silos and fermenters. The fermenters are huge, and you can see what awesomeness having a bit of cash on hand can buy – I can’t say I wasn’t jealous (who doesn’t want to make a 6,500 gallon batch of their favorite homebrew recipe?) I’ve got a Belgian Sweet Stout that’s just begging to be made!

The world's largest Klean Kanteens

After a quick jaunt inside we were introduced to the brewhouse, a sweet system churning out beer almost non-stop. The lab and some smaller fermenters and brite tanks live in the same building, along with another sign of the good times – a centrifuge filtration beast that pulls miniature particulate matter out of your beer so you don’t have to do it with tweezers at home. The brite beer appears to get packaged only in the building next door, though there were a few random containers around that were likely for experiments, special friends, and to make me wish I was a better burglar.

Where the magic meets the road - the brewhouse.

The packaging hall is warm, with a long bottling line that is used for both 12 oz. and 750 ml offerings. The kegger sat lonely in a corner waiting to make out with the next keg that will come it’s way early on Monday morning. Since all the machines were off the hall was deadly silent, but I could imagine the lines humming away and the immense amount of racket that must be kicked up when everything is in full swing.

This keg stack is only 1/6 the size of the warehouse, so there are 6 times as many full kegs inside. This makes me happy.

Following our walkthrough of the buildings we saw the outside of the refrigeration building, where everything is kept in storage waiting for trucks, as well as the kegs-in-waiting piled high on pallets in the parking lot. That led to the obviously best part of the tour – samples poured from 750 ml bottles of each of the year-round Ommegang offerings, which included Witte, Rare Vos, BPA, Hennepin, Abbey, and Three Philosphers. I’m going to take my cue here from the Aleheads and list each beer individually for quick reference.

But before the beer talk - beer porn!

The Liefmans Cuvee is added to Three Philosphers for a little fruity kick, but is on tap a la carte in the taproom - is good!

Witte – A thin straw colored pour from the 750 into a tiny plastic taster glass on the tour still gives off a pretty impressive bouquet of citrus and spicy yeasty smells. The taste doesn’t miss either, truly a head-on interpretation of a classic wit that tastes as it should.

Rare Vos – Intended to be Ommegang’s every day beer, the 6.5% amber ale was so good I went ahead and ordered myself one in the taproom as well. A terrifically balanced amber ale with strong carbonation makes for a happy time for me, a dark ale drinker with a taste for Belgians.

Belgian Pale Ale – The only Ommegang offering I’ve had before on tap was from a bottle at the brewery, the reverse of my normal situation. That having been said, the beer is still excellent and has pronounced Belgian yeast notes that many Belgian pales lack. It seems that you can either make an IPA/PA and ferment it with Belgian yeast (OK results usually) or craft a recipe around the Belgian style and add some additional hops (better results to my tongue) – this is the latter.

Hennepin – My first introduction to saisons a few years back, this farmhouse beer is still among my favorite versions of the style. Yeasty and funky with just the right balance of malt and bitterness you can’t go wrong with Hennepin on a hot day.

Abbey – The original Ommegang offering is dark brown with all the hallmarks of a Belgian Dubbel – sweet, earthy fruits, mellow finish, and the closest you’ll get to wine people admitting beer is amazing.

Three Philosophers – A quad clocking in near 10 percent and with residual sweetness from one of Belgium’s best sour beers, it’s easy to say this beer is fantastic. An enormous amount of sweet aromas and flavors head your way with each sip, from raspberry and vanilla up front to fig and dark cherry in the finish. The beer is like a juggler with something always in the air and something else landing on your taste buds – simply a delight.

And with that we made our way to the tasting room for a Liefmans’ pour and Rare Vos to accompany some Belgian-style frites. The menu in the taproom looked good as well, though we were mostly in it for the brews. The tour tasting also has a nice little array of pretzels and Ommegang-flavored spreads available to go with the beer samples – pretty awesome.

If you’re in Cooperstown for any reason don’t miss Ommegang – a fun, free tour that includes good info along with good beer and good food – what’s not to like?

As we drove away and headed toward Oneonta to stay the night we started to get excited for more of Upstate’s finest, and Ithaca was not a far way away. Until next time – Cheers!

My French is as bad as their beer is good

When you venture to a new country you expect things to be different, and while it’s not necessarily a good or bad thing you still brace yourself for changes. Such was the case when I pulled up to the Canadian border between Vermont and Quebec, a beer traveler preparing for a whole new world of malt delights. After an hour long delay spent holding it together with a full bladder while immigration officers inspected my underwear we sped north toward Quebec City at 100 km/h. Our destination was La Barberie a microbrasserie of great renown in Northern Quebec and purveyor of the illustrious Carrousel.

The Carrousel - to accomodate ease of drunkeness.

We met with head brewer Bastien, who was unfortunately headed to another meeting shortly due to our unplanned lateness – thankfully we didn’t smuggle anything into Canada or we would have been face down on the concrete still. He showed me the brewery’s inner workings – tanks, fermenters, brewhouse, and packaging before heading to a yeast meeting with a few specialists. The brewery itself is meticulous, particularly important in a place like La Barberie where there are more than 20 styles in process at any one time.

The brewing schedule is intense, and in French, which makes it more intense.

Each and every vessel is labeled with La Barberie’s logo and numbered for ease of reference – replacing the typical notes attached to each fermenter with a large dry erase board for the ever-rotating brews. It was evident that the staff was moving at a quick pace, and that it was rare the pace behind the scenes ever slowed too much – only enough for a quick slug of water or cigarette on the loading dock. While the back of house is in a constant state of motion, the tap room is a throw back to my visits to Brussels and Paris, a persistent but sluggish drinking pace that enjoys each and every sip and takes pride in the smallest pour.

Craft beer is expanding everywhere and the bubble wrap is still fresh!

Labeling at La Barberie is precise - they make a ton of styles.

So what about those brews? How do they stack up?

Well, for me La Barberie was the introduction to Quebecois beer that I needed – each and every style I tried during my time there was considerably different from beer here in the states and much of it was directly French-inspired. The Blonde au Chardonnay is a heavily alcoholic brew with light, refreshing carbonation that brings pricks of grape flavors forward on the tongue. The Lime et Framboise is an exceptionally light beer with citrus and raspberry immediately up front and reminds more of a cooler than a beer. The Rousse is a deep Russian beer with malty and earthy bite that borders on chewy – in a word – delicious. The final beer on our carousel was a Sangria-inspired brew whose name escapes me, but whose flavor is impossible to forget. A blend of citrus and wine flavors with a malty backbone this beer is intrinsically interesting though I don’t know that I could kill a pint.

Awesome logo, or awesomest logo - you decide.

A distributing brewpub in Quebec - as it turned out that's the norm - pretty awesome.

As we would come to find in Quebec the locals take their beer quite seriously, and have no problem sharing opinions on what is good and bad, let alone what isn’t worth drinking at all. As we left Quebec City for Montreal we took a detour to Shawinigan – our host’s hometown – to visit his main source of local pride – Trou du Diable. While the downtown area of Shawinigan has a number of nice-looking restaurants and bars (be sure to try poutine and a Michigan if you can) we were here solely for Trou du Diable and so we made our way to the pub.

The devil approves of our selection

Literally translated as Devil’s Hole the brewery offered 8 different brews the day we were in town, including a beer brewed entirely with ingredients from Quebec. We were reminded of the local pride in their beer, and definitely appreciated the passion. Each of the beers here was a bit different, though most again played on typical Belgian styles in interesting ways. L’amere Indienne, literally bitter Indian, IPA was an interesting take on an American style IPA with strong bitter flavors and decent malty background. Annedd Ale was the previously mentioned Quebecois beer with malt sourced locally and only tree tips to bitter the brew. While I might not order it again it was an interesting departure from much of the beer we tried in Quebec, and you could tell it was skillfully made. The double IPA on offer might’ve been my favorite of the list, which is unusual for a dark beer nerd like myself. It was subtle and balanced for such a hoppy beer, and not overwhelming even in the extreme heat which was quite impressive.

Each glass has a small devil tail etched and the bubbles follow the pattern on their way up - really cool.

At this point we made our way to Montreal and I decided to leave my camera behind for a day so we could easily travel public transportation and enjoy some of Montreal’s finest beers. Our new host introduced us to L’Amere a Boire mainly a lager brewery in the heart of Montreal. Considering he has a beer room in his apartment dedicated to the drink of choice we felt we were in good hands and trusted the recommendation. I immediately went for Kozak, a Baltic Porter/dark lager that reminded me more of Kostritzer than a deeper Baltic Porter. As it turns out, Kostritzer is among my favorite beers and so it was a hit with me. Deep, dark, and malty the brew was perfect for the evening we enjoyed it and paired wonderfully with my medium-rare burger. I also enjoyed intermittent sips of the beers being enjoyed by the rest of the table, including a pilsener, hefeweizen, and pale ale. Each one was surprisingly light and refreshing, particularly appreciated on a warm summer night that was relentlessly humid.

After overindulging on lager and meat we made our way home and tried a few local offerings our host had on hand, further cementing his reputation with us. We even tried an Ice Cider, similar to Ice Wine in that the apples are allowed to freeze while still on the tree forcing the concentration of sugars and leading to an intense and syrupy sweet concoction that was enjoyed by all.

The next afternoon we made our way to Dieu du Ciel! to see the #1 rated brewpub in the world and the place did not disappoint. I could go through the long list of beers I sampled and bore you to death with intense details of each brew, but instead I’ll generalize and pick out the two beers I thought best exemplified their ethos and creativity. Each and every beer we tried was outstanding, an excellent example of the style and almost always with a small twist on the tradition enhancing the beer and making it more of a statement. The staff are all friendly and accommodating, goofing around as they serve and ensuring that you enjoy yourself too.

The beers that blew me away were Blind Dattes and Route des Epices, the first a Belgian style ale fermented with dates and the second a rye ale fermented on peppercorns. Blind Dattes is unapologetically sweet, intensely and endearingly malty, and somehow manages to finish without drowning your taste buds in syrup. The inherent lack of balance in the beer doesn’t seem to affect its flavor profile the way it should, and the beer finishes cleanly and with only a hint of lingering sweetness. Route des Epices is simply impressive for its masterful juggling of the flavors of rye, malt, hop, and peppercorn blended together to maintain an almost perfectly balanced brew. The pepper does take the lead up front, but it gives way to the spiciness of the rye and the sweetness of the malt. However, once the malt and hop fade away the pepper once again comes to the foreground in the finish, leaving a mellow burn on the tongue that I found extremely pleasant – in fairness I also add sriracha to my eggs in the morning so take that as you will.

The breweries of Quebec took us to a whole new place on this trip, both literally and figuratively. A wide variety of unexplored flavors and nuances of different philosophies of brewing are on display just north of the border and I for one can’t wait for the collaboration brew to start rolling in.

Until then, Cheers!

Vermont – There’s a reason it’s shaped like a beer

Just do what the sign says and no one gets hurt

As we bore down leaving Maine I realized we wouldn’t make it to Long Trail Brewing in Bridgewater Corners – but it is a great brewery and I did have a few of their beers before we ever made it to VT. There is such a strong Long Trail following outside of VT that it made the top 10 lists of quite a few of the folks I’ve run into on the trip, particularly the IPA – can you guess which beer I tried first? The IPA I first tried in Philly on tap – it’s immediately sweet and smells deeply of citrus and malt – suffice to say it smells damn good and the taste equals the smell. The one thing about Long Trail’s IPA that stands out to me is the body and richness of the beer – it is strikingly bold and both the malt and hop flavors are extremely pronounced and linger long after each swig. Craft beer quite often operates on a mantra with powerful flavor as a core tenet – so much so that it is usually referenced as what makes a “craft” beer – and in the case of Long Trail IPA the brew delivers in spades.

Where once stood a small garage/barn, now there is only beer.

But I digress, back to Vermont and the beer we tried while actually in-state. Our first stop was Hill Farmstead, a brewery off the beaten path and a few miles up a dirt road from the nearest town. If you’ve never been to Vermont, it’s among the more beautiful places to visit in the country. The entirety of the state’s scenery is lush, as though a Bob Ross episode went wrong and all he had to work with were shades of green. The rolling hills and infinite tree lines welcome you to a place that seems at once serene and yet constantly in motion. This scenery gives way to a former family farm in Greensboro Bend with a grundy tank lying on it’s side still on a pallet in the yard and a few pallets of kegs and the old mash tun on the other side of the house.

They have to go somewhere folks.

The farm aspect really appealed to me, and Vermont seems like the perfect place for this kind of authenticity in brewing. Saisons are probably the best known “farmhouse” beers, but in Europe where there used to be distinct lines between beers produced by professionals and those made by farmers the lines are slowly blurring as over the last 20 years farmhouse beers have made their way into the mainstream. This was also the first brewery where we spotted a guest beer we recognized from our trip to Europe two years ago – De La Senne was among our favorite local brewers in Brussels and they were on tap here at Hill Farmstead.

The only place I had seen Taras Boulba since Brussels in 2009!

Tasty taps tantalize thirsty travelers.

We were only able to try two beers during our visit – Double Galaxy, which is an Imperial IPA made with Australian Galaxy hops and Everett, a Porter that is robust in every sense of the word. If you happen to make it up that way, be advised that Hill Farmstead is a cash-only establishment and without that sweet dough you’ll be leaving without their sweet nectar. The beers were both good, or at least I enjoyed the small taste I had of each, but it’s hard to critique a few ounces of beer or really analyze it too deeply. What I can say definitively however, is that Hill Farmstead is a place for innovation and stretching what beer should be – whether using hops rarely seen in the US or expanding on a style near and dear to beer hearts everywhere the brewery simply comes down to two guys working their asses off to bring you innovative brews.

And did I mention it's beautiful there?

We left the farm in good spirits and headed into town, Waterbury specifically, past the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters and to the local pub and brewery. The Alchemist is a brewpub that will be expanding to open a canning line for their flagship brews in the coming months. We took a quick spin past the building after our time at the pub and it looked to be progressing quite nicely if I do say so myself. The beers were quite good, and the brewery is entirely contained down below the seating for the pub so I will now inundate you with brewery glamour shots.

If you don't grain out in time they beat you with the mash paddle, or maybe that's just my homebrew club...

On the set of Alien 7

When I visit a brewery and there are this many side projects in the wings I just smile.

Last Inspected '91, Last Awesomed '11

Oh, and they have barrels too - it's just how they roll.

When we arrived at The Alchemist we were greeted by Jen who would be our tour guide for the brewery and our general purveyor of tastes of delicious beer. She set us up with a thorough tasting of the offerings on tap at the pub and we sat down to work through the list with a plate of fries topped with cheese curds and jalapenos (which by the way, are essentially the food version of magic).

Alchemist Family Portrait '11

The light beers at The Alchemist that we tried often followed a similar theme – well-hopped with a solid malt profile to exhibit relatively aggressive and strong hop flavor for the style. Light Weight is their beer 101 brew of choice, made with pils malt to be refreshingly light in body and hopped with Cascade and Hallertau to bring citrus notes and a clean finish. If you know someone in Vermont who isn’t sold on craft beer yet, send them to Alchemist and witness a conversion. If on the other hand they refuse to be convinced, you might want to order them a nice glass of Shut the Hell Up, a brew concocted to answer the age-old craft beer question of what to give someone who refuses to decide what they want. At only 3% ABV it is infinitely drinkable and though the low ABV means hop oil isn’t as easily extracted the brew is hopped strongly and powerful citrus notes stand out again. Hefty Weizen is a 6.2% wheat beer with tasty banana notes that hit immediately and subtle clove and boozy aftertastes that smooth the sweetness out on your palate. Donovan’s Red is named for an Irish restaurant in town and is exactly what I look for in an Irish style red ale – medium alcohol, medium body, mild hop presence, and malty as hell – this red ale is excellent.

Arty and Tasty - what more do you want?

Next in order were a pair of saisons – one made with yeast borrowed from Hill Farmstead and the other a gluten-free version of the saison style. Both topped 7% alcohol and the booze definitely shows a bit in each. Celia’s Saison is the gluten-free version and while good in my opinion for a gluten-free beer, it just wasn’t quite my style – made with sorghum and curacao orange peel the gluten-free aspect just stood out too much to be as enjoyable for me as barley beer, though the dry-hopping definitely ameliorated some of the difficult sorghum flavors. Sass Mouth was the other offering, and again it wasn’t the style of beer I would be likely to order again. Extremely rustic and with mineral and metallic overtones it leaned more in flavor toward IPA with regard to hopping and had barnyard spicy flavors from the yeast. While certainly an extremely interesting brew, there may have been too much intensity for me to really enjoy the individual flavors going on in the glass.

So this is what the table looks like when we drink - turns out I'm a freaking nerd.

At this point in the evening we moved on to the Final Four of our tasting and bid farewell to Jen and were handed off to Cory and Joel at the bar. The entire crew at The Alchemist was amazing, and you could tell that the place mattered to them, which always makes an impression on me. We started with Wild Child, an American sour beer that utilizes a sour mash and barrel-aging to attain a Rodenbach-like sourness and malty body. The orange brew harbors a background warmth that gives away its nearly 8% ABV but never overpowers any of the subtle tart and fruity flavors – this beer is absolutely in the top 5 American sours we’ve had on the trip this far. Holy Cow is a session IPA with mild dry-hopping and medium body that make for an easy drinking IPA that would be an instant candidate for deconstruction in my opinion – a tasting of this beer in its current form, and brewed with individual hops side by side would be extremely educational. Rapture ratchets up the flavors of the Cow and brings home the East Coast IPA flavor – earthy, boozy, and hearty the brew finishes with a hint of chocolate and dirt that I’ve now learned to associate with Galaxy hops. I finished the evening with Pappy’s Porter – while not a standout for insane flavors or weird procedure this porter was a great endpoint as a traditional and scrumptious example of the style that was smooth enough to compete with the lingering hop flavors and win. Also a local favorite, try the red and porter 1/2 and 1/2 in a pint glass and thank me later.

Vermont treated us well and we were appreciative of the time we spent drinking before we headed to a campsite to enjoy the night sky. On our way out the door we ran into a craft beer drinker from upstate NY finishing a cigarette on the bench in front of the bar. We chatted for a few minutes about where we should explore once we made it to NY, and what we had seen and done so far before he imparted a bit of wisdom. Walking back into The Alchemist to rejoin his family on vacation he turned while holding open the glass door and looked me in the eye, “Get a fucking job” he said with a sly grin. “Not anytime soon”, I told him.

The Breweries of the Great Northeast

I just finished an article on r/beer that directed my attention to the economic impact of microbreweries on local economies and what it might indicate to be successful business models in other sectors. As we’ve traveled across the country we’ve run into a fair chunk of small brewers living off the local land so to speak. Hess Brewing in San Diego does a large portion of its’ business right out of its’ own doors, pouring pints for locals who come to visit their modest brewing space. Barrier Brewing in Long Island distributes their kegs to the thirsty NYC area themselves and keeps afloat on their own hard work.

In other areas of the country this is impossible because of local laws – the South is notoriously bad, but the Northeast has a few blue law related issues left as well. Difficult liquor boards can put the squeeze on brewers of all shapes and sizes but even through this the Northeast is flourishing and a number of microbreweries are older than the average.

Our tour of the Northeast started in Portsmouth, NH where we intended to visit Smuttynose Brewing but ended up across the street at Portsmouth Brewing Company which had a few Smuttynose beers on tap and is a brewpub in its own right. We arrived later in the evening for a quick round of local brews before we headed back home for the night. The sister brewery of Sumttynose had a ton of beer on offer, so we of course opted for a sampler of their wares and enjoyed a flight that included Dirty Blonde, Black Cat Stout, a Red Ale, Oatmeal Stout, and their Wit, along with Stone’s Ruination and three Smuttynose offerings. The taster was literally every beer on tap, from the pub or not, which was a departure from most places we’ve been. The Portsmouth beers shared some overarching characteristics – all were relatively light in body barring the Oatmeal Stout, and all were lightly hopped for a West Coaster such as myself. None stood out as a blow you away beer, but I don’t think that’s the intention – this is a solid line-up of pub beers that will satisfy for a night of drinking without striking you as bland.

The Smuttynose beers were a bit different, each with a bit more character and a bit less staid. The Star Island Single was noticeably hazy and light, with smells of citrus and spice up front. A solid entry but not a show-stopper this brew would be great on the front porch with a few more bottles waiting in the wings. The Shoals Pale was again quite good but lacking in hop for my taste. It’s an amber medium-bodied ale that delivers a nice malty backbone with a nice earthy hop flavor though, and I would drink another. The best of the bunch in my opinion was Old Brown Dog, not surprisingly an ale right up my alley. A light brown/dark amber depending how you look at it the body of the beer is perfect, lightly roasty with tasty notes of chocolate and burnt sugar. The hop profile is more in line with my expectations, though that makes sense given it’s a brown ale – I’m still a West Coast hop nerd, but damned if I haven’t cozied up to the East Coast style too.

We pushed on from NH and arrived at Allagash in Maine unscathed, but driving a suddenly shiny car that had been power washed by the clouds. Likely among the better known breweries of our tour Allagash are renowned for their Belgian-style ales and one-off interpretations, not to mention their sour program. We prepped for our visit with a healthy lunch to soak up any tasting pours and drove to the brewery post haste.

A view from the front yard of the brewery - also all breweries should have yards.

The White that started it all for me.

The tour began in the tasting room with a few pours of the ‘Gash line-up which were all from their year round list – White, Tripel, Curieux, and Black. The White is just as I remember it, crisp and refreshing, the first American beer that made me realize we could put out brew that competed with international powerhouses. The tripel is as faithful as can be, intricately fruity and yeasty, corked and caged for your pleasure. Curieux is this same brew aged in Jim Beam barrels for a bit of added ABV and a lingering sweetness that exceeds the Tripel. Black is an earthy dark ale that is deep and mellow with a medium body and a complex mix of estery smells. Dark chocolate and coffee are lingering smells in this roasty brew.

The Jim Beam Barrels were being repurposed as furniture during our visit.

The Allagash tour is fun, moving from the tasting room first (which helps on most tours!) to the brewhouse, which was in operation even on the Fourth of July. After the brewhouse it migrates to the fermentation area, with kegging and packaging nearby as well.

More beer for me, and I guess you too.

Keg, Keg, Keg, Keg, Damnit Jim get off the line!

After the meat and potatoes of the tour, you get the dessert – the sour room. A chilly locker denoted with an Allagash barrel end mounted above the door welcoming you to the magic room. There isn’t much I can say about it, just look at the pictures, drool a bit, and enjoy.

Oh.My.God. So sexy.

Sometimes beermaking is just beautiful, and you realize that even though it’s a factory-made product there truly is an artistic bent required to produce some of these artisanal ales. And damn are they tasty.

So go, drink, and be merry – I highly recommend it.