Friday Beer Blogging – Again With The Hops

Once again I’m buying local and loving it. Made over in the state capitol of Harrisburg midway between Steelers and Eagles country, Troeg’s is a relatively new beer to me but nonetheless a popular favorite around these parts. Judging by the label alone I figured that their Hopback would fall in that category of semi-big American ales that I like the best (see also: Hop Devil, 90 Minute IPA).

Troeg\'s Hopback

This beer hit me just right. You can see its amberish hue befitting a proper amber ale, topped by a respectable head with notes of floral malt and (duh) hops. After the head a decent coat of lacing remains. Like many of my favorite beers they certainly don’t skimp on the hops but at the same time at 6% ABV there is enough malt to take the edge off and add layers of caramel and, to my taste anyway, a hint of cassis. To me this beer seemed just un-big enough to think about having another after dinner, which was great for my enjoyment of the evening news but bad for my waistline. Fortunately I can always blame that part on my wife’s French cooking. BAers strongly approve.

Coming later tonight: two good reasons to visit Chambly. Three if you count being snubbed by Quebecois!


The best laid plans of mice and men…I learned tonight that Unibroue’s excellent Blanche de Chambly is not available in the US so I headed over to the Sharp Edge and discovered Southern Tier’s entry in the imperial IPA wars, Unearthly. Wow. The first sign of trouble is the deep, dark cream head which simply has no right sitting on top of an 11% ABV beer. Underneath you find an amber, almost mahogany liquid giving off a nose of HOPS. This beer tastes big, almost impossibly big. Southern Tier did not screw around when it came to staking their place in the big-hops arms race, but they somehow squash in enough leftover malt to make the beer very near to balanced. Think about that, they stuff enough malt in this beer to reach 11% ABV naturally and then throw in enough hops to easily reach the top five that this reviewer has ever tried and the residual sugar still manages to hold its own in the flavor profile. I would love to be their barley vendor.

Southern Tier stops well short of overmalting like the crazy insane people at Dogfish Head do it, but rather strike a decent balance that reflects the ideal mix of an American ale, only more so to the nth degree. When would you have something like this? Forget about a meal, unless you plan on chasing habanero peppers with Thai fish sauce. A session? Laughable. Even one is almost too much. The wife and I agreed that pretty much the only place for this beer is after dinner when you would usually uncork a neat tumbler of Laphroaig, Highland Park or Talisker. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you probably won’t like the beer.

BAers approve, of course.

Friday Sunday Beer Blogging – Kiss The Ring

Time was that America had a thriving beer culture that rivaled anything in the world. Sadly, what pride American brewing had was wiped out by thirteen years of prohibition, when quality took a distant backseat to the expediencies of producing, smuggling, distributing and vending something that could earn you a jail sentence at any step of the way. By the time beer production started up again Americans had practically forgotten what good beer tastes like. Even today any of us can step back in time and experience the cheaply-produced swill sold in the wake of prohibition; just walk to the corner bar and order a Coors. For a brief time local breweries supplied beer worth its name, but as mass marketing and the romance of industrial progress grew through the 1950’s Americans’ beer experience became increasingly limited to five or six mega-breweries.

In 1965 Frederick Maytag III, an heir to the appliance fortune, bought a controlling stake in the local Anchor brewery for a few thousand dollars. He liked their signature brew, an unusual Steam beer that involves brewing lager yeast at ale temperatures, and preferred to make the beer himself rather than let it go out away entirely. Over the next fifteen years the demand for Maytag’s beer reached the point that his quality-focused brewing strategy could not possibly keep up. Thoudands of homebrewers gladly filled the gap and founded local breweries and brewpubs across the country. Following Maytag’s example the idea of commercial microbrewing became a fixture of the American brew scene. If American microbrewing has a Godfather Anchor’s Steam beer would be it.

We don’t get Anchor Steam much here in Pittsburgh (ergo the ‘micro’ in microbrewing) so I jumped at the chance to pick up a sixpack at Kazansky’s. Plenty of carbonation there, if you’re used to the usual high-ABV American micro you will find yourself burying your nose in foam to keep the overflow from spilling onto the table. The nose advertises malt with a hint of fruit (citrus to me, although some BAers say peach) and just enough hops to know you’re in America.

Anchor Steam

Expectations might have influenced my judgment somewhat but this beer could easily pass as the godfather and progenitor of the American microbrewing style. Citrus malt comes forward first alongside the carbonated bite, followed by a lingering hoppy aftertaste. You find only moderately more hops here than in, say, your average English ale but one can imagine how that slight imbalance could set off a growing demand for hoppy beers that has reached its climax in today’s Godzilla-big show dogs (I’m looking at you, Lagunitas). As for whether this makes a good summer beer for pairing with any sort of food, suffice to say that this is another beer that I had a hard time reviewing because my wife kept getting to it first.

Friday Beer Blogging – On The Town

Recently I passed through Mad Mex in Oakland, a funky little bar with a reliably impressive beer rotation, to see what was new. Everything was served chilled and on tap.

First on the menu, you can hardly resist picking up a pint with a name like Hoppus Maximus (Thirsty Dog in Independence, OH). By the name I expected another fierce entry in the American hop wars, but in fact the beer went down fairly smooth with none of the hoppy pyrotechnics you find in the Maximus IPA from Lagunitas or the bombastic, orchestral hops arrangement in Hop Devil. You could argue that those super-hopped thoroughbreds have become the show dogs of the beer world, exquisite and pure of purpose but not practical for your day-to-day drinking needs. Hoppus Maximus leaves a pleasant mix of citrus and malt on the palate, not sweet like an unfiltered trippel but without any of the bitterness that its name seems to advertise. Just about perfect for a happy hour beer that you don’t plan on nursing for two hours. BAers approve.

Back to those show dogs. The Double IPA from Stoudt’s jumps up on the table and demands attention – after the intensely hoppy nose, two things hit your palate: generous servings of malt transformed almost entirely into alcohol (10% ABV, with little to no sweetness left over), and the prodigious, bitter hopping needed to balance it. It seemed completely out of place in the middle of a happy-hour session, leaving me practically sated (boo) and thinking seriously that if I had a big (spicy) meal and just one beer to go with it this would make a great choice.


This beer is yet another example of why I am so big on the Stoudt’s brand. I can get along with brewers who make a reputation warping familiar recipes, blending traditions and striking off in directions that appear practically insane (Dogfish Head), but brewers like Stoudt’s deserve equal credit for making definitive exemplars of familiar styles. I have already made the case that the Stoudt’s trippel is one of the most faithful examples of the Belgian style on this American continent and I had similar things to say about their bock. Now the Double IPA delivers just what the title promises: a superlative entry in American microbrewing’s headlong race to make the hoppiest IPA like, evah. BAers prefer the 90 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head but they’re still pretty big on the Stoudt’s.

Finally the Summer Beer from the godfather of American microbrweing, Anchor in San Francisco, delivers the season-appropriate denouement to a hot afternoon. Maybe it’s unfair to judge every wheat beer against the incomparable Hoegaarten, but as much as I enjoyed the airy, slightly sweet confection with pleasant hints of citrus I missed the unfiltered chewy haze that characterizes most Belgian beers. Nonetheless one of the better summer ales that I have tried and definitely an improvement over poseurs like Blue Moon.

Friday Beer Blogging – Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

Looking into my fridge, this week’s case is a trio of lighter beers from the Church Brew Works. The CBW helped start the Pittsburgh beer renaissance and along with the Penn Brewery offers some of the most enjoyable and atmospheric pairings of food and house-brwed beer available in any city. I am not sure when they started offering their beer for wider consumption but this was the first sampler that I have seen from them.

Going from the lightest to darkest, I didn’t have much chance to sample the Celestial Gold German-style pilsner because my wife kept getting to it first. The beer pours like sunshine in a glass, clear pale gold with an enthusiastic head, and the taste doesn’t disappoint. Carbonation offers a peppy mouthfeel that balances the subtle grassy notes and a faintly toasted malt. This would make a great Hoegaarten replacement if you do a lot of hot patio dining but don’t like wheat beer.

The Pipe Organ Pale Ale filled in the designated role of the variety pack’s weak link. The carbonation, signaled by a fading head and bland mouthfeel, seemed unusually low and the weak hops definitely runs contrary to the escalating hoppy arms race that is consuming American ale makers these days. In fact, let me just hijack this review of a not-very-interesting beer and recommend strongly that you go read that link. Now you won’t feel like a complete n00b when your local brewpub unveils its shiny new Organoleptic Hops Transducer. No that name is not a joke, at least not mine. The general idea is that if you need more hops to reach your beer nirvana you can ask your bartender to pressure it through an industrial-grade water filter packed with a pound of fresh hops. Completely insane? Maybe, but it could do wonders for mild ales like the Pipe Organ.

Back to my CBW sampler case, the sublime Pious Monk Dunkel brought me back to happyland with aggressive hymns of toasted malt, phenolics and a hint of caramel. I admit that the dunkel style, which is basically a lager incorporating toasted malt, was new to me. Kostritzer introduced me to schwazbier, which you get when you toast dunkel malt to its rational limit, but rather than pitch black the dunkel pours a clear mahogany with a finer-grained head that lasted longer than the other two offerings from CBW. This brew more than made up for the limp pale ale. I enjoyed it with several dinners and found it to go perfectly well with each.

As always, read about the whole CBW line at BA. Prost!

Friday Beer Blogging – A Brew For All Occasions

Through the ages beer has lubricated social functions ranging from the thick, heavy ploughman’s lunch of the middle ages to the ethereal champagne-like product served at royal funerals and re-created in Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch. Today ploughmen and the rest of us will more likely take a tuna salad on rye than a bucket of warm beer, but the principle lives on in cheap easy-drinking “session” lagers that you pick up in mass quantities at quitting time, during the game or to fill the cooler beside the barbecue grill. There’s nothing wrong with this variety of beer but at the very least you have a right to demand that they don’t sell you even less than you’re paying for, which is why I’m so big on macrocheap-but-drinkable varieties like Yuengling.

The Pittsburgh Brewing Company’s flagship brand, Iron City, competes weakly with other rice-based carb water such as Bud and Coors. Skip it. For not much more you can enjoy a bottle of their European lager, Augustiner.

Immort and Stiner

This is pretty much the definition of a session beer. The thin amber color and receding head will look familiar to Am-lager fans and the carbonation makes more of an impression than the whiff of hops that balances the mild ABV and thin mouthfeel. You have to concentrate to notice the slight grassiness and the slight whiff of cheap beer, but at the end of a long day or sessioned with chips and a football game you won’t notice either. It isn’t insultingly bad like most of the stuff one step down but it also lacks the character of Yuengling, my personal favorite at this price level.

Now about Dogfish Head’s bizarre, extraordinary Immort Ale. Let’s say that you have volunteered to host a dinner welcoming your new boss to town. He/she has a beer cellar, writes a monthly beer column for the local paper and spends money on gastronomic travel rather than kids. I have no idea what kind of food you might want to serve but the beer will look something like this.

Immort pours a remarkable hue somewhere between mahogany and cherry wood and leaves a lingering sandalwood-colored head. Pay attention to where the label advertises ‘maple, vanilla and a bit of oak’ because oh yeah, that’s what you get. The first sip practically assaults you with a maple nose, like lightly carbonated maple syrup. Dogfish Head presumably used hops somewhere in making this beer but here the malt, and the extra sugar from juniper berries and Massachussetts maple syrup, win out big time. Fruit beers aren’t this sweet, in fact a good frambozen is usually relatively dry, with most of the fruit sugar converted to alcohol. Even my gold standard for sweet beers, Delirium Tremens, cannot really compare. Clearly the Boston Brewing Co. didn’t feel like loaning out their “ninja yeast” because the yeast in Immort could have gone a lot further than 11%. Next you will notice the phenolic nose from the juniper berries and a pleasant toastiness that helps out the overpowered hops in balancing the brew’s sweetness.

On the whole, kudos to Dogfish Head for blazing yet another completely untraveled path in the world of beer and doing it with characteristic elan. You probably won’t put this on your regular rotation, not unless you’re the kind of person who follows dinner with a cigar and two fingers of Laphroaig, but on the rare occasion when you want to completely flummox and/or impress a beer-philic guest this would make a great choice.