What do I think about drinking Russian beer? I suppose, having lived in Poland on the Baltic, I really should accept that whatever could have been done likely was done some time ago. Whatever is in the water, however, the rest of it is pretty tasty. A thick cream head resolves to a rim of beige surrounds a thin froth over deep mocha ale. Rich dark chocolate and date with nuts tempered by a slight if rough twig hopping with a cream finish.
Bello Vino is a purveyor of plenty of the good stuff. As the name suggests there is a huge fine wine selection as well as general groceries (fresh, organic, ethnic, imports - the whole thing) but what I was there for was the beer. When I asked for MI shopping hints, I got some great suggestions in the comments but when I asked Ron at Jolly Pumpkin he said only one thing - Bello Vino.
Why is this shop so great for beer? Well, they certainly treat beer like beer. The space is built into a corner of the whole store, a bit recessed into the wall. The effect of this is the whole space is chilled to ten or more degrees colder than the rest of the place. The steel racks are cool to the hand. Plus the selection is great - especially for someone used to the New England and mid-Atlantic shops. Michigan has something like 70 craft brewers and this place has many of their brews: Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Bell's, Arbor, Dark Horse, Dragonmead and a bunch others. Plus, it has a massive selection of Belgians. I picked up a number of new-to-me abbey ales and lambics that I hadn't seen before. Additionally, there is a good selection of UK brews, US craft bombers and sixes as well as even a short row of fine meads.
But I think the real reason the place works so well is the guy up there in the smock, beer manager Jeremy McClelland who gave me an hour of his time, amongst helping other shoppers, to talk about the shop, Michigan beers as well as how proud they are of having the best selection in the state. I was quite surprised to see the mini-kegs and especially the mini-keg of Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Prices to my eye were fair. $10.99 for a six of Bell's Double Cream Stout, $3.99 for Harviestoun Engine Oil Reserve and a whack of craft singles for $1.49 to $1.69. Jeremy was happy to break sixes and there was a supply of boxes there to let you mix your own.
From my house this shop is a ten hour drive, about the same as the coast of Maine if I go the other way. Like with the seashore, there is enough in Ann Arbor to justify making a long weekend with the family. Like with the beers of the north half of New England, there is enough happening in Michigan craft brewing to justify planning a family vacation around the beer - and Bello Vino should definitely be part of that plan. And to help you plan, you may want to follow the newly launched blog Michigan Beer Buzz. Also pick up Michigan Breweries by Ruschmann and Nasiatka - it's worth it just for the maps which got us where we wanted to go in plenty of time.
Just a few days after saying that I could not find copies of Celebrator magazine - I find one at Jolly Pumpkin's store in Dexter, Michigan. I also found this Bam Noir labeled as Batch #246 even though the brewery does not list that one as a Bam Noir batch. No never mind. Numbers can have that quality.
This beer is a great introduction to the style of this brewer. The drying planks of oak are there in the glass with the tang picked up from whatever was in the pores of the wood. I find that there are hazelnut, fig and brown sugar notes with twig hops. At 4.3% it's a great candidate for the CAMWA brew of the year. Soft water. But be warned - a full 15% of BAers reject this one. Conversely, Bam Noir makes me want to roast a chunk of fatty salmon as it would cut through that richness well.
I am still on the road hoping to make one more beer stop at Grand River to cash in some growlers...and spend that cash on more great value beer. Cashing in growlers seems like free beer but really it is only realizing a past investment in beer futures. Beervestment.
You see, you can't get away from it. Beer and especially craft beer is a value transaction. And others see that too as in Joe Sixpack's column last Friday, entitled "That 'expensive beer' is REALLY, REALLY expensive". Go read what Joe wrote. He picks up on themes that were being discussed here just a wee while ago and doing something that is very good of him - he goes one step further and names names. Today, we don't need to focus on the question of overpricing but I would encourage you to follow up on Joe's idea of setting down what are the real bargains you come across in your beer shopping. Here is Joe's top value sixpack:
- Sly Fox Rt. 113 IPA (Royersford), $5 for 22 oz. (23 cents per ounce).
- Southampton Imperial Porter (Long Island), $5 for 22 oz. (23 cents per ounce).
- Rogue Chocolate Stout (Oregon), $5.50 for 22 oz. (25 cents per ounce).
- Ommegang Abbey Ale (New York), $8 for 750 ml (31 cents per ounce).
- Weyerbacher Heresy (Easton), $7 for 22 oz. (32 cents per ounce).
- Stone Vertical Epic (California), $8 for 22 oz. (36 cents per ounce).
Which beers would I add to that list as great value in beer? All of a sudden I would certainly add the entire range of Jolly Pumpkin - at the brewery you can buy a case of twelve 750 ml bottles for under 75 bucks. That is crazy value. Even at an excellent shop soon to be reviewed, Bella Vino in Ann Arbor, they were just $7.99 each. I would also add that in central NY gas station corner stores, you can get the basic Ommegang line for $5.99 or at least you could last time I looked. I would also say that Thomas Hardy ale at the LCBO for under five bucks is another bargoon - although it is in a smaller bottle of around 8 ounces, it is also over 13% and doesn't taste like a cross between marketing and science fair experiments. I would also add Weyerbachers' Insanity, my favorite in that brewer's oaked beer line.
One great way to deal with these pricing issues is to focus on those great beers we love and that challenge us without breaking the bank. Remember: you are also players in the market. So what are your best buys?
Just a quick note to say we had an hour with Ron at Jolly Pumpkin late in the afternoon yesterday which was one of the most interesting hours I have spent in my life with beer. Plenty of photos of wooden casks will follow but on that whole beer pricing thing - picking up a case of 12 750 ml bottles of one of the finest range of beers in North America for seven or eight bucks a bottle is, frankly, insane. Fantastic value. I may have his handwritten receipt framed for the rec room.
Off this morning for a good hearty beer shopping experience and then to explain myself at the border...again.
...apple or pretzel...apple or pretzel...
When you travel by air across Europe, strange ways of organizing airports and puzzling security measures has made this quite an ordeal, even if you turn up well ahead of time, behave politely and have plenty of books to read or work to do. You are sent walking between terminals. You hurry out of the plane just to find yourself waiting in a bus for the other passengers. You get the picture. Most airports seem to love the new security measures. You cannot even bring a bottle of water with you through security, which means at everything has to be bought airside at premium prices. And the bars are usually lousy, at best some fake Irish atmosphere, usually standard lagers at inflated prices.
But there are exceptions. You can do worse than transferring through the airports of Germany and Austria. Of course you have the queues, the buses and the security checks there, too. But at least you can hope for a decent glass of beer. Take Franz-Josef Strauss airport in Munich. It is large, but it is new and built to cope with lots of traffic. And you have a good selections of cafes and bars, all of which serve decent beers. You have probably never heard of some of them, like Schlossbrauerei Stein Heinz vom Stein Hefeweissbier Dunkel. (You think I'm making this up, don't you? They are here.) I found that one in a Ökologische or organic café. Others bars offer draft Helles, Pils and Weissbier. And you can pick up some decent beers in the Duty Free shop! And there is even a brew pub with two outlets at the airport, which is unique in Europe. The airport in Düsseldorf is smaller, but you have some splendid beers to choose from there as well. A pilsner and a wheat beer here, too, but in addition you can have a glass of the local Altbier, a speciality that is hardly available elsewhere. Vienna Airport offers good connections to Central and Eastern Europe. And a handful of good beers, too. If you look hard, you might find a Stella, but the emphasis is on national and even local beers.
I think the key is how you look at beer as a commodity. The marketing men have created global brands which are available just about everywhere. The bland taste hardly offends anyone, to be on the safe side, you replace some of the barley with tasteless grain. You pay premium prices for this, and the consumers see to believe in the hype and think all is well while they sip their Corona. In Germany and Austria (and I assume in surrounding areas like Alsace and Bohemia, although I haven't been there in recent years) beer is a staple food. It is like bread. And you buy bread from a bakery in your village or town; whether you are running a private household or you have a hotel or a restaurant. In the same way, you don't buy beer from a national producer, not even from the next town. The customers expect to find this, even in Terminal 2. And they want freshly baked pretzels, too. And they get it!
Sure, there are many sides to this. It discourages innovation; it makes it difficult to create regional brands to stand up against the multinationals when they move in. But, for the time being, you still can get good local beer, served with local pride, even in international airports. Get it while you can, this will not last long.
The other week, I received a review copy of the Ontario Craft Brewer's Discovery Pack - a six pack that is now becoming available throughout Ontario featuring beers from six separate breweries. I have to point out that this blog is supported by the OCB as their logo to the left confirms. I also have to point out that I am a big fan of mixed sixes. You can make of that what you want but those two things do make me lean towards supporting this marketing move. Why? When else have I seen the products of different brewers in one package and craft brewers anywhere in Canada doing anything to push their product into the minds of uncharted sales territory. Frankly, if you are going to act as a marketing body for craft brewers, this is exactly the sort of thing that just makes sense.
But what about the particular selection: six pale lighter ales and lagers? Well, this is not aimed at unseating the Trappist monks from their role at the height of brewery management or anything, so should we worry? No - the point is to "discover" and for my pals who have not really had beer with, you know, barley in it these beers are entirely good choices. When I opened the box, a cousin-in-law-in-law was over and, knowing what the point of the package was, I passed it around. One got the Wellington SPA which I had reviewed three years ago. His take was much fairer than mine - it's got more taste than what he's used to but the taste was good. I had the Lakes of Muskoka Cream Ale as well as Brick's J.R. Brickman Pilsner and I though both were entirely good, grainy, lightly hoppy and tasty company's over beers - though, having that company over visiting, I didn't get into note taking or anything. Remember that Gary the Potter reviewed the Mill Street Organic Lager back last year and it's one that, other than that tiny bottle, I find that one perfectly good as well. Quality without the volume at eleven.
The point of this pack is not to thrill me or, as the great discussion going on over at the Bar Towel show, to convert any other beer nerds. It is to introduce the Ontario Craft Brewers' quality to people who have not yet made the move to real beer. Best of all, it is their first such joint venture. I hope they move to move interesting browns and stouts and IPAs but I also hope that they keep this mix or one like it on the shelf. I always have people coming over who need to make their first move into good beer. This is a great way to help them take that critical first step.
A terrible problem to have.
Too much beer. Can you have too much beer?
As I’m writing this I hear a resounding NO!!! But it's sort of a predicament that I’m in. When we closed our beer shop at the end of 2005 we had some stock left over. It wasn't much in terms of weekly turn over, but it was a sizable quantity. I gave some away. I've been drinking some, but still I have a shed load left. Why am I complaining I hear you ask? Well one of the problems I have is that I find it hard to justify buying new beer. And oh how I want to buy new beer. Most of what I have is still perfectly drinkable, even though the "sell by" dates are past on a large percentage. There are some beers that we stocked up on on purpose, like Trappist Rochefort 8 & 10, and then there were others that we got lumbered with, like the gluten free beer that has now gone down the drain. I have a goodly supply of beer in the cupboard under the stairs, and the rest in the garage. What a problem to have hey?
Tonight, I have mainly been drinking Ter Doolen Dark. A sultry little number weighing in at 6.6% abv. This dark chewable Belgium ale has a deep foamy cream-laid head and the body of an aged walnut chest of drawers. You take a sip and your mouth becomes full of a mess of flavours. Raisins, leather, beechnuts, toffee and dusty curtains. The after-taste of bitterness kicks in. Thankfully its a hint rather that a slap in the face bitterness.Ter Doolen are unsung heroes in my book. Cheers!
Lew Bryson has threatened to turn a discussion he and I and others are having about the use of the word sour - is it a characteristic or a style. So I thought it was about time to post the question here myself...you know...first.
Lew, ever excellently, has taken the specific (a review of New Holland Moxie Sour Ale) and allowed it to illustrate the universal through moving the conversation into the perception, description and taxonomy of sour tastes. When I started my sour beer studies, I did not expect to come to like so many elements or expressions of sour - the youthful hint, the wink out from greater complexity, the soft reproach, the tang, the tart, the vinegary, the sharp, even the fouled stinking skank. These studies have been practical and interesting but it's time for a mid-term pop quiz.
These are all points on the continuum that is as blue is to cheese. But how do we place this puckery sensation? Is it an end in itself that ties all examples together under the bright red bow of "style" or is it a characteristic that sits separately in a porter, a Flemish brown, a lambic or one of the new American wild ales that have gone so far down their own path that the trail of crumbs leading back to initial reference point is now lost. What do you think? Do you love them? Are they, as Jeff suggested, the new hops? Or is it a fad or a leftover sign of a failed aspect of civilization like urban life before sensible public health reforms...or is it just that classic argument made for a luxury - that which others dislike must be misunderstood and so therefore be the brass ring our the hunt for exclusivity.
And, by the way, this is beside the point whether our ancestors might be laughing long and hard over us missing the point.
I have a confession to make. I am the proud owner of a man-bag. A man-bag in fine green hemp. But when I toddled off to Norwich Beer Festival with my friend John just over a week ago in a repeat of last year's trip, I forsook the said bag for my trusty haversack. Most people's stereotypical beer festival attendees are old blokes with beards and woolly jumpers. But at St Andrews Hall, home of the quirky Norwich festival the man-bag was very much in evidence sported by trendy young, earnest looking men, supping their ale and probably talking bollocks.
This was the 30th Norwich beer festival, and St Andrews Hall is such a great venue. Pubs have oft' been described as "churches with handles on the prayer books." Norwich Beer Festival goes one better - it is actually held in a redundant church. It adds credence to the saying that "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy". The festival had made the news earlier in the week because of an unusual visitor. A sparrowhawk had gained free access, without CAMRA membership, and it wasn’t keen on leaving. Sadly when we arrived this magnificent bird was not in evidence. Never mind - we were not here for birdwatching. We were here to drink beer.
The festival is split into three areas. The main hall, the local hall and the foreign bottled beer marquee. The local hall can best be described as having a cosy atmosphere. So much so that I gave up venturing in there after sampling one Norfolk ale. Heaving multitudes are not my scene. The bottled beer marquee was spacious and not overpopulated but we don’t go to festivals to drink bottled beer. Thankfully the main hall was just about navigable, so a selection of beers from the rest of the UK was our oyster. Here is what I was mostly drinking:
- St. Peters Mild, 3.7% - not a bad beer, but not exactly a mild due to it’s bitter aftertaste.
- Theakston Mild, 3.5% - a good example of a mild. Smooth, light, velvety, with hop and carob taste.
- Fullers Chiswick, 3.5% - it had to be done, my favourite of last year’s festival, and as good as ever. The best session ale around in my estimation.
- Waveney Brewing Thritig, 4.1% an okay bitter with a noticeably bitter aftertaste. The only Norfolk beer I sampled.
- Olde Swan Entire, 4.4% - tasty dark golden bitter ale. A good mix of maltiness and bitterness.
- Fullers Vintage, 8.5% - I wasn’t aware that this barley wine was available on cask. It was fruity, malty and well rounded. Even nicer than the bottle conditioned version.
We were lucky enough to find a table in the cloisters to sit and taste our ale. How often have you, dear readers, drunk beer in cloisters ? I doubt corn has been exchanged in those hallowed aisles. Norwich festival also produces a really good programme. Well put together and most informative. A good read.
Now the moans. I love music and I love beer, but why oh why do so many beer festivals insist on providing entertainment? The din is usually high decibel, so why add to it with local musicians giving it what for? Our treat for Saturday lunchtime was the Sheringham Shantymen. Okay in their own way, but not really necessary whilst doing a spot of serious imbibing. Last but not least, I must mention the new gent's toilets. I hope that they are still work in progress, unless they have adopted a continental approach. Over the Channel, some of our European cousins have quite a relaxed view of matters lavatorial, not worrying too much about segregation of the sexes. Norwich's take on this was not having installed a door, thus exposing the urinals and goodness knows what else to any inquisitive passer-by. Hopefully I will be there next year when it might well be my local beer festival. And who knows there might even be some privacy in the gents next time.