Friday, January 9, 2015

Matt's Top 100 Beers Of 2014

Call me...IshMatt
2014, simply put, was one of the greatest years of my life. It was a year filled with challenges and accomplishments--goals set and achieved--as well as personal growth on a monumental scale. I endured and enjoyed a humbling variety of changes as I sought both to simplify and to downsize my life, focusing on the things and the people that mattered the most to me. I also tackled lifelong dreams by training for and completing not just my first century bike ride (110.26 miles) but a century run of sorts as well (10.69 miles in 102 minutes--my first time going over the 80 minute mark). I finished writing my third novel drawing ever closer to the pursuit of my dream of publication. Most important of all though is the fact that I lost more than forty pounds by finally getting my shit together and recognizing that I was making not just lazy and unhealthy decisions when it came to food and drinking but selfish and self-destructive ones.

Amid all of this change though there were a few constants not the least of which was the purpose of this blog and its entries: beer. Despite cutting back on drinking and managing to lose the weight of a four year old human being, I still notched 427 new beers--my third most prolific beer year. Truth be told, the amount of beer that I consumed might have been second only to 2011 when I tried 725 different brews given the duplicate beers that I enjoyed revisiting in 2014 as well as the size of each entry (there were more full glasses this year than possibly any other year).

Though the quantity of beers failed to awe the quality of the beers I enjoyed in 2014 certainly did; I doubt I will ever have a year filled with so many beers of such a high caliber. Nearly all of these beers were enjoyed because of the generosity and camaraderie of a truly great group of guys. Without my good friend DS none of that would have been possible so a big thank you goes out to him for his magnanimity, both in terms of beer and social networking.

2014 was certainly the Year of the Whale given the sheer volume of epic brews I took down (again, mostly courtesy of DS) but in the end my white whale (and the best beer I have ever had) wound up being black. I could argue that the theme of the year was big beers but I don't feel like that captures the most important element of 2014. Given that 92 out of the 427 new beers that I had in 2014 (almost one in every four!) were aged in some type of wood cask, it could certainly be considered the year of the barrel aged beer...but that still would overlook the most enjoyable aspect (though those barrel aged beers were undeniably decadent!).

No, the theme of the 2014 beer year was this: Kindred Spirits. I drank more amazing beer because of and with other people (fellow whisperers in their own rights!) there's just no way I could look back on the year with anything other than awed appreciation for the generous folks that I got to share some drinks with. DS was at the heart of it all but Joe was the host and provider of an insane amount of truly unforgettable beer. Simply put, I was humbled by Joe's generosity; it was truly a transforming experience for me. For the first time I stopped thinking selfishly about the beer I had and how I went about enjoying it. I got caught up in his spirit of sharing and am grateful for the opportunities that I had to drink with him and everyone else who was there (including Matt who contributed not only some great beer on his own but my first taste of Pappy Van Winkle! Thanks dude!).

With regards to the beer itself, I added only a handful of new breweries and brewpubs visited--the consequence of nearly exhausting the most local options! The most notable aspects (aside from surpassing the 2,500 mark) really were the variety of barrel aged brews and the overall quantity of high abv beers. While the overwhelming majority of the barrel aged beers were aged in bourbon barrels, this year featured brews that spent time in brandy, cognac, rum, rye, tequila, and whiskey casks as well as wines like pinot noir. An impressive 242 out of the 427 beers--56.67%--were 7.00% abv or higher with an absurd 111 being above 10.00%! I still can't believe that I managed to find let alone drink 28 beers that fell between 13.00% and 27.00% abv...but I did and they were AWESOME.

There were a number of interesting encounters during 2014 as well. I had my first Brett IPA (which was incredible) and my second weakest alcoholic beer at 2.70%. I also explored a number of previously unfamiliar styles finding a new favorite in the Gose. I deepened my appreciation for sours and fear that I will fall as hard for them as I have bourbon barrel aged beers (though it's a fear filled with excited anticipation as well!). I added a few new counties, states, and styles leaving me at the time of this writing only one New York City local county to go (Nassau), six states shy of a full 50, and, based upon Beer Advocate's list of beer styles, only TWO styles to go (English Pale Mild Ale and Happoshu though obviously BA isn't the authority on beer styles, there are numerous old styles that are no longer made, and new ones being created frequently. I'm just a completist when it comes to lists and, well, that's the list I've been going by!). I also enjoyed a newfound respect for coffee as an ingredient particularly in terms of the styles it can be featured in (Carton Brewing Company produced a cream ale and an IPA that both featured local coffee; both were phenomenal.)

I expect to experience another seismic shift in my drinking in 2015. As I pursue loftier goals both professionally and personal fitness-wise, I see my consumption reducing considerably. I also intend to revisit some of the truly great beer that I've enjoyed in the past few years while still seeking out new and exciting brews. Consequently, this will slow down my pursuit of the 3,000 different beers threshold but if I'm drinking less and enjoying what I drink more then that seems like a win to me.

A quick note before I get to the list. I faced a quandary in paring down my selections: so many of the top 100 beers based upon score were variations on a theme--tweaked versions of other base beers (many of which, too, were represented in their standard iterations) or adaptations of beers that I had tried in previous years. It didn't seem fair or logical to rehash previously trod-upon ground--not with so many new and different beers and breweries vying for a spot in the century--so I have decided to expand the Honorable Mentions section to include the beers and breweries that were without question among the best I encountered in 2014 but that needed also not to be included so as to make way for other, equally worthy brews.

Honorable Mentions

The Belgians

I greatly expanded my palette for Belgian beers in 2014 and among the best that I tried--ones that likely would have made the cut in any other year--helped me to grow and to learn. The best of these were:

Brasserie d'Achouffe's La Chouffe
Brasserie de Rochefort's Trappistes Rochefort 6 and Trappistes Rochefort 10
Brouwerij Westmalle's Westmalle Trappist Tripel 

The Americans

It's great to have so many reliable breweries that constantly innovate while staying true to what they do best. Among these are the following:

Finch's Beer Co. Secret Stache Stout
Long Trail Brewing Co. Culimation Chocolate Porter (Brush & Barrel Series)
Shmaltz Brewing Company Coney Island Freaktoberfest Big Ol' Pumpkin Ale W/ Espresso Beans
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Narwhal Imperial Stout - Barrel Aged
Stone Brewing Company Go To IPA
Thirsty Dog Brewing Company Siberian Night Imperial Stout

New Zealand!

I had the pleasure of enjoying the Moa Brewing Company's delicious Moa Imperial Stout aged in Pinot Noir barrels. If you come across it in the store don't sleep on it!

Vintages

Some things get better with age, particularly certain higher abv beers. Others are just as good fresh and are worth looking forward to throughout the beer year. The following are beers that I have had previous vintages of and/or ones that I enjoyed older versions of this year:

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Parabola (2014)
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Velvet Merkin (2014)
Goose Island Beer Co. Bourbon County Brand Stout (2013)
The Bruery White Oak (2013)
The Lost Abbey The Angel's Share (2013)
The Lost Abbey Deliverance Ale (2013)


Specialty Variants/Revisited Favorites In New Forms


Some of the cream of this year's crop were variations brewed either for specific events or locations. They were all mind blowing but given their ephemeral nature and, in some cases, their similarity to their base beer, I was unable to include them all fairly on the list.

The Bruery Chocolate Rain (2011)
Carton Brewing Company 077xx-47 (07747) (Dry Hopped Galaxy)
Dogfish Head Craft Beer
120 Minute IPA, Olde School Barleywine, Raison d'Extra
Kane Brewing Company
A Night To End All Dawns (2014)
A Night To End All Dawns (Nitro)
A Night To End All Dawns (Vanilla)
A Night To End All Dawns Cacao (2014)
A Night To End All Dawns Coffee (2014)
A Night To End All Dawns Vanilla (2014)
Barrel Aged Port Omna
Bourbon Barrel Aged 365 (2014)
Bourbon Barrel Aged Seven Hundred Thirty (2014)
Creamsicle Port Omna
Double Dry-Hopped Head High (Citra & Columbus)
Drift Line Mole
Pineapple Mango Head High
Silent Nights (Nitro)
Vengeful Heart

(Clearly I enjoyed A LOT of incredible Kane beers this year!)

Now, without further ado, I'd like to present my Top 100 Beers of 2014:


#100-91

100 Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. Seeking Alpha
99 Avery Brewing Company Maharaja
98 Maine Beer Company Another One
97 New Belgium Brewing Lips Of Faith - La Folie (2014)
96 Abbey Brewing Co. Father Theodore's Imperial Stout
95 Unibroue Don De Dieu
94 Unibroue La Terrible
93 Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Punkless Dunkel (2014)
92 Tired Hands Brewing Company HopHands
91 Maine Beer Company Red Wheelbarrow



#90-81

90 Founders Brewing Company Founders Harvest Ale (2014)
89 Westbrook Brewing Co. Gose
88 Kane Brewing Company DDH Hop Lab
87 Mill House Brewing Company Kilt Spinner
86 Evil Twin Brewing Evil Twin Yang
85 Victory Brewing Company Old Horizontal
84 Evil Twin Brewing Evil Twin Bikini Beer
83 Kane Brewing Company Simplicity
82 Founders Brewing Company Founders Dissenter Imperial India Pale Lager
81 Kane Brewing Company White Cooper (Bourbon)



#80-71

80 The Brew Kettle Taproom & Smokehouse / Production Works White Rajah
79 Smuttynose Brewing Company Smuttynose Wheat Wine (Big Beer Series)
78 Southern Tier Brewing Company Rum Barrel Aged Pumking (2014)
77 Founders Brewing Company Smoked Porter (Backstage Series)
76 Peekskill Brewery Soft Pour Corn
75 Peekskill Brewery Tiger Mom
74 Peekskill Brewery Maltballs
73 Peekskill Brewery Simple Sour
72 Green Flash Brewing Co. Green Flash Palate Wrecker
71 Fat Heads Brewery & Saloon Texas Brown Ale



#70-61

70 Brooklyn Brewery Brooklyn Black OPS (2012)
69 Kane Brewing Company Nom De Plume
68 Prairie Artisan Ales Prairie Puncheon (2014)
67 Fanø Bryghus Fanø / Hoppin' Frog Natasha Rocks Denmark
66 Heavy Seas Beer The Great'er Pumpkin (2013) Bourbon Barrel Aged
65 Bolero Snort Brewery Happy Buck'n Anniversary
64 Lervig Aktiebryggeri AS Konrads Stout Russian Imperial Stout
63 Evil Twin Brewing Aviary One - Plantation Rum
62 Avery Brewing Company Mephistopheles' Stout (2013)
61 Prairie Artisan Ales Prairie Bomb!



#60-51

60 Lakefront Brewery, Inc. Brandy Barrel-Aged Imperial Pumpkin Ale (2014)
59 Rogue Ales New Crustacean (2014)
58 Kane Brewing Company Verger de Pechers
57 Carton Brewing Company SS 2014 Yirgacheffe (Coffee IPA)
56 The Lost Abbey Box Set Track #8 - Number Of The Beast
55 Avery Brewing Company Samael's Ale (2014)
54 Carton Brewing Company Ship Wreck Porter (2014)
53 The Bruery 7 Swans-A-Swimming
52 Avery Brewing Company The Beast Grand Cru (2014)
51 Peekskill Brewery Vaporizer



#50-41

50 Crux Fermentation Project Tough Love (Banished Series)
49 Three Floyds Brewing Co. / Brewery & Pub Zombie Dust
48 Cigar City Brewing Big Sound Scotch Ale - Bourbon Barrel Aged (2014)
47 Bell's Brewery, Inc. Bell's Hopslam Ale
46 Kane Brewing Company Vengeful Heart Rum Oak
45 Evil Twin Brewing Evil Twin Lil' B
44 Three Floyds Brewing Co. / Brewery & Pub Suebi Doo
43 Thirsty Dog Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Aged Siberian Night Imperial Stout (2014)
42 Otter Creek Brewing / Wolaver's Otter Creek Brewing / Lawson's Double Dose IPA
41 Fat Heads Brewery & Saloon Hop JuJu Imperial IPA



#40-31

40 Terrapin Beer Company White Chocolate Moo-Hoo Milk Stout (2013)
39 Carton Brewing Company Regular Coffee
38 The Bruery Mash (2014)
37 Kane Brewing Company Drift Wood
36 Stone Brewing Co. Stone / Beachwood / Heretic - Unapologetic IPA
35 LoverBeer Beerbera (Barbera Grape Wild Ale)
34 Hoppin' Frog Brewery Barrel Aged B.O.R.I.S. Oatmeal Imperial Stout
33 Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Opal - Proprietor's Reserve (2014)
32 Kane Brewing Company Fall Saints
31 Avery Brewing Company Rumpkin (2014)



#30-21

30 Avery Brewing Company Pump[KY]n (2014)
29 Ballast Point Brewing Company Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
28 The Lost Abbey Agave Maria (2014)
27 Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest Anbai Ale With Sour Plum
26 Cigar City Brewing Hunahpu's Imperial Stout (2014)
25 Stone Brewing Co. Stone / Farking / Wheaton W00tstout (2013)
24 Great South Bay Brewery Lethal Cupcake Imperial Chocolate Porter
23 Deschutes Brewery Black Butte XXVI (26th Birthday Reserve) (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
22 Tröegs Brewing Company Tröegs Troegenator Double Bock (Bourbon Barrel Aged) (2014)
21 Sixpoint Brewery Otis (Nitro)



#20-11

20 The Bruery Smokey And The Bois (Rare Beer Collaboration) (2014)
19 Three Floyds Brewing Co. / Brewery & Pub Arctic Panzer Wolf
18 Thirsty Dog Brewing Company Wulver (2013)
17 Almanac Beer Co. Golden Gate Gose
16 Almanac Beer Co. Tequila Barrel Noir
15 Evil Twin Brewing Evil Twin Even More Jesus (2014)
14 The Bruery Sucré (2014)
13 Other Half Brewing Co. Hop'deded
12 Stone Brewing Co. Chris Banker / Insurgente / Stone Xocoveza Mocha Stout (2014)
11 Evil Twin Brewing Imperial Doughnut Break (2014)



#10-1

10 Founders Brewing Company Founders Sweet Repute (2013)
9 Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Stickee Monkee (2014)
8 The Bruery White Chocolate (2012)
7 Kane Brewing Company Sunday Brunch
6 Brouwerij Westvleteren (Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren) Trappist Westvleteren 12 (XII) (2013)
5 Evil Twin Brewing Imperial Biscotti Break Bourbon Barrel Aged (2014)
4 Olde Hickory Brewery The Event Horizon (2014)
3 Kane Brewing Company Third Anniversary -One Thousand Ninety-Five (2014)
2 Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Firestone 17 - Anniversary Ale
1 The Bruery Black Tuesday (2013)


This year featured a whopping 52 different breweries with Kane Brewing Company in Ocean, New Jersey leading the pack with 10 of the 100 entries including 2 of the Top 10 and 5 of the Top 50. Evil Twin had 7 entries while Avery and The Bruery had 6 apiece. There were 22 IPAs/Pale Ales in the Top 100 and 29 Stouts/Porters. Of the Top 20 beers 12 were barrel aged with bourbon representing the most frequent spirit cask featured. Hands down the best quality beer I've ever had in 2014 especially including the repeat beers that topped previous years' lists!

Cheers!

--Matt






Monday, November 10, 2014

The Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery Review

Some restaurants and brewpubs strive to attain an antique feel to their decor--an air of history; few manage to exist in a place of actual historical significance. The Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery in Flossmoor, Illinois, is located in an actual station built by the Illinois Central Railroad more than one hundred years ago. The station served to develop the surrounding area (then barely a burgeoning 'burb in Chicagoland) and to transform it into a truly lovely environ. There is also a renovated authentic caboose that houses seasonal fare.

I did not know what to expect upon entering the establishment but the aesthetic was both unexpected and appealing. We were seated in a dining area away from the bar in a separate room that was not quite as nice but was still a great place to have a bite to eat and a few beers. It was early in the afternoon and we were on our way to a White Sox game--the last baseball stadium of our road trip. The thing that surprised us most was the number of kids eating there after school. I'm used to seeing kids at breweries and brewpubs being toted along with their parents but this was the first time that it was a slew of unattended teens and tweens enjoying a post-school snack. Definitely gave the place a more homely, local vibe to it rendering it more restaurant than brewpub.

The food we ordered was really good but the beer absolutely blew it out of the water. We had already been to a number of really great places so far on the trip so the bar was set pretty high; Flossmoor's lineup of stellar brews managed to raise it even higher. Out of the eleven beers that I sampled, I gave only one B-, two Bs, and two B+s; everything else was an A or A+ save for a lone A-. I'm happy to encounter one A beer at a given location but I came away with six A- or better. You can't ask for more than that!

The selection was fairly varied but not remarkably exotic. Most of the brews would appeal to the average palette ranging from the ubiquitous American Blonde Ale, American Pale Wheat Ale, and American Amber / Red Ale along with the requisite Fruit Beer and hoppier brews. I found most of these to be serviceable but not transcendent; only the Panama Limited Red Ale really struck me as being spectacular. It was honey sweet in its malt profile without becoming cloying and it was deceptively smooth.

The beers that truly wowed me included their FSBC IPA, Iron Horse Stout, and Saison and Garfunkel Farmhouse Ale. Each was solid respective to its style and should easily be considered as examples of well-made IPAs, stouts, and saisons. The two best beers that I had though were the Dean's Beans Coffee Stout and the Pullman Brown Ale--quite possibly the best brown ale I've ever had. The Coffee Stout was ideal: smooth, cool, rich coffee blanketed within the rich, creamy decadence of a drinkable, low-abv stout. The Pullman embodied everything that a brown ale should be: sweet, malty, nutty, light toffee characteristics. It's one of those beers that calls for multiple rounds--something I do not say lightly as I often tire quickly of the same beer or style during a given drinking session.

GRADING

Any place that offers eleven beers none of which was below average is a home run in my book. The locale is interesting and a great place to eat and knock back some beers either at a table with your family or the bar with your buddies. The beers are all top notch and are worth exploring throughout the year--something that I wish I was able to do more readily. Based on these factors and the fact that one of their brews still remains exemplar of its style, I give the Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery a grade of A and highly, highly recommend checking it out.

BEERS SAMPLED

Beer List
Beer Name Beer Type City State Country ABV BA Grade My Grade
Zephyr Golden Ale American Blonde Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States
B- B
Station Master Wheat Ale American Pale Wheat Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States 4.60% B- B
Gandy Dancer Honey Ale American Pale Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States 5.80% B+ B+
Roundhouse Raspberry Wheat Ale Fruit / Vegetable Beer Flossmoor Illinois United States 4.50% C+ B-
Panama Limited Red Ale American Amber / Red Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States
B+ A
Pullman Brown Ale American Brown Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States 6.00% A- A+
FSBC IPA American India Pale Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States 7.50%
A
Iron Horse Stout American Stout Flossmoor Illinois United States 5.00% B A
Saison and Garfunkel Saison / Farmhouse Ale Flossmoor Illinois United States 8.50% A- A-
Stammitsch Altbier Altbier Flossmoor Illinois United States 5.00%
B+
Dean's Beans Coffee Stout American Stout Flossmoor Illinois United States 5.30% B A

For more information about Flossmoor Station please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

Matt

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Milwaukee Ale House Review


My last Wisconsin stop on my multi-state beer and baseball road trip was the Milwaukee Ale House. Located right along the water, it served as the perfect summertime spot to enjoy a few delectable brews. It also happened to solidify the fact that the Midwest is rife with unforgettable malty beers.

I loved that the menu came with the newsletter pictured above. I always find it enjoyable to learn about the local craft beer scene when I'm visiting a new city and something like this makes it all the more easy and accessible to do so. This particular publication featured information about the beers on tap, on deck, on flights, and an olio of general beer information that really contributed to the local feel and flavor of the place.

If the aforementioned flier wasn't enough, the beer menu itself was also finely crafted and fully detailed, as pictured at right. I appreciated the little tidbits about each beer and was amused by the HOPT O'METER, which I initially mistook for a spiciness indicator (my brain interpreted the little graphic as a flame and attributed it to heat-level as is often done at places with varying degrees of hot food such as Buffalo Wild Wings).  The reason that I found it funny though was the hoppiest beer came in at a paltry 41 IBUs--a number so low for me that I almost couldn't fathom a pale ale that bereft of lupulin goodness!  Hell, I've had stouts that have had more than double the IBUs of that pale ale!  (Founders' Imperial Stout weighs in at a hefty 90 IBUs for comparison).

Low hop tolerance aside, the beers all sounded great and I couldn't wait to try them all.  I had eleven different offerings in total and was essentially bowled over by their quality. I gave only one B-, one B, and two B+s to their Doppelbock, Downtown Lites, Flaming Damsel, and Pull Chain Pail Ale, respectively; everything else earned a solid A except for the Block Head Brown, which I gave an A++ (my highest rating).  It remains the single greatest English Brown Ale I've ever had and is still among the best brown ales I've enjoyed, period.  It's referenced as the Milwaukee Ale House's best kept secret and I couldn't agree more although I'm sure that the word will get out eventually!

Yet again, I was not let down by the variety of beers offered--something that East Coast brewpubs should take note of! The only duplicate style was the American Pale Ale, which wouldn't have even been an issue if the hop quality and character of the brews in question was in line with that of the other styles.  The Belgian Pale Ale would measure up with many of the best as would the Devil's Advocate--a Belgian Strong Ale that surprisingly came in at only 7.00%.  Louie's Demise is an interesting brew and a relatively uncommon style (a Scottish Ale) that I would recommend to anyone who is seeking to expand their palettes.  I loved the Sheepshead Oatmeal Stout, the Pressing 78 Porter, and even the Godzilla Belgian Wit, which, as a Witbier, represents one of my least preferred styles.

The food served as an excellent complement to the beer and was both reasonably priced and delicious.  Honestly, there was nothing negative that I could say about my experience here. Couple that with the fact that there is some kind of boat tour that literally docks outside of the brewpub...I mean, what more could you ask for?

GRADING

The Milwaukee Ale House isn't just one of the best places to grab a pint and some grub in Milwaukee--it ranks among the best brewpubs I've ever been to anywhere. I give it a grade of A+, my highest rating for a brewery or brewpub, and declare it an absolute must visit location.  The beer is exceptional and the food is right on par; simply put, you won't find a better combination in many places.  Top notch.

BEERS SAMPLED

Glenview Belgian Pale Ale    (Belgian Pale Ale)
Flaming Damsel    (Munich Helles Lager)
Downtown Lites    (American Pale Ale)
Devil's Advocate    (Belgian Strong Ale)
Pull Chain Pail Ale    (American Pale Ale)
Dopplebock    (Doppelbock)
Louie's Demise    (Scottish Ale)
Block Head Brown    (English Brown Ale)
Sheepshead Stout    (Oatmeal Stout)
Godzilla Belgian Wit    (Witbier)
Pressing 78 Porter    (American Porter)



For more information about the Milwaukee Ale House please visit their official webpage here.

Cheers!

--Matt

Monday, June 16, 2014

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (Minneapolis) Review


The final Minnesotan brewery I visited during my time in and around Minneapolis was another iteration of an old favorite.  Having enjoyed myself thoroughly at the Indianapolis and Chicago locations previously, I had relatively high expectations for this spot.  Fortunately, the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery continued the trend of its sister locations of providing solid beers, good grub, and a great drinking environment. 


Part of what I love about this chain of brewpubs is the fact that they are at once consistent and unique; each place features the familiar level of quality while standing as its own individual entity.  As would be expected, the beer list of the Minneapolis location had a uniquely northern tilt to it, featuring beers that suit the Minnesotan spring and summer to a T.

I found the beers to be hit or miss but on a higher level than most places.  Of the seven beers I tried, I gave two B-s and one B with the rest earning A-s and As; that's a pretty solid batting average by my standards.  The ones that missed didn't miss by much and were graded as such mostly because of their styles.  The two B-s were the White Ale (I'm not a huge witbier fan so it has to impress me considerably for me to give it anything over a B or B+) and one of the Rotator IPA series (with IPAs being my second favorite style of beer I have much higher expectations and am thusly harsher in my grading when something doesn't quite measure up or agree with my palette).

Of all the beers that I sampled, I enjoyed the North Star Premium Lager the most, which surprised me.  The way that it was marketed on site made me think that it was going to be a higher quality Bud or Coors-type lager but it wasn't.  It was far more complex and delicious, at least in my estimation.  I enjoyed the great hop balance of the Itasca Extra Pale Ale, the faint, inviting maltiness of the Big Horn Brown Ale, and the easy-drinking Extra Special Bitter.  I could see any one of those beers being a mainstay in local craft beer drinkers' repertoires and all of them collectively comprised a really delicious assortment.

The food was average to above average but to be fair that's never why I go to a Rock Bottom location.  If anything, the beer is enhanced by serving as a complement to the beer and I've never had anything I didn't enjoy thoroughly.  Still, this isn't a gastropub by any means and it shouldn't be viewed as such.  Basically, if you're hungry and you're looking to try some really good beer then you would be all but assured to have a great time at a Rock Bottom, the Minneapolis iteration in particular.

GRADING

For a chain brewpub, the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery more than holds its own offering a slew of great brews alongside delicious food that's sure to appeal to a broad spectrum of patrons.  The beer is solid enough in its own right, as is the food, but neither necessarily ascends into the next level; if anything, their combination works to improve the enjoyability of each individually.  As such, I give the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery a hybrid grade of B+/A- with the food falling somewhere in the middle and the beer leaning more towards the upper end.  If you're in Minneapolis for business, are going to a Twins or T'Wolves game, or are simply passing through, then make it a point to stop in at Rock Bottom.  You won't be disappointed.

BEERS SAMPLED

North Star Premium Lager    American Pale Lager
Itasca Extra Pale Ale    American Pale Ale
Erik The Red Lager    American Amber / Red Lager
Big Horn Brown Ale    English Brown Ale
Extra Special Bitter    Extra Special / Strong Bitter (ESB)
Rotator IPA    American India Pale Ale
White Ale    Witbier

For more information about the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

--Matt

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Herkimer Pub & Brewery Review

How I felt after leaving The Herkimer

As a general rule, I tend not to drink early in the day.  I like to look forward to cracking open a special bottle or two in the early evening and then make them last; I suppose it's about quality over quantity for me.  Occasionally though I will imbibe during the afternoon but usually on days that I'm either hosting or attending special event or party.  The only times I've ever drank anything before noon were extremely rare affairs comprising mostly of beer festivals that started around eleven; my trip to the Herkimer Pub & Brewery in Minneapolis is the only outlier.

I had read a number of phenomenal things about the Herkimer and so it was one of my must-visit spots during my baseball and breweries road trip.  Unfortunately, the only way we could fit it into our schedule was to go right before we attended our first Twins game at Target Field.  Ordinarily, drinking before a baseball game would be the norm...except, in this case, the start time made things a little difficult.  With a 1:13 first pitch local time that meant that we had to get to the Herkimer early enough to eat, drink, and then get to the game.  It also meant that we'd be drinking at eleven o'clock in the morning.

The uncomfortable feeling of having two flights of beer in front of me while other people around me ate breakfast aside, the experience of being at the Herkimer couldn't have been more conducive to drinking.  Outside, people were setting up for some sort of street fair while inside it was clear that beer was the single most important element of the place's identity.  As demonstrated in the photo below, the menu alone was enough to make me feel like I had transcended into a sort of beer nirvana.


So...many...styles...!
To that point in my trip, I had been spoiled by an array of exquisitely exotic beer styles and ingredients.  To my utter delight, I found that that panoply was not only upheld but expanded upon at the Herkimer.  The only disappointment came when the waitress informed me that the menu listed the totality of their offerings--not necessarily what they had available at that time.  Still, it gave me something to look forward to if I ever return to the Twin Cities.

Though I was bummed not to be able to try more of the eighteen varieties, I was content to explore the six that I ultimately enjoyed.  I'm not a terribly huge fan of German beer styles but it's more a result of a lack of exposure than any degree of displeasure with the brews themselves.  With that said, I was stoked to explore some styles that were either completely new to me or were ones that I had had only a cursory drinking experience with.  Among these were a Keller Bier / Zwickel Bier, a Vienna Lager, and a Dunkelweizen.  To date, out of the 2,273 beers I've tried only 2 were of the Keller Bier variety.  It was an interesting drinking experience as the beer seemed perfectly suited as a Spring seasonal.  Generally, this is not my favorite beer season but I enjoyed the Sky Pilot.

I cannot by any means call myself a lager lover but if there is one style I enjoy it's the Vienna.  The Herkimer's Vienna Country Lager was flat out delicious and easily my favorite of their beers.  Vienna Lagers are malt forward but nowhere near as sticky sweet as Amber / Red Ales and their ilk.  Instead, they are quietly balanced by subtle hop qualities that result in a remarkably even beer.  This, in turn, served to complement the darker, yeasty maltiness of the Dunkelweizen--a dark wheat beer that embodies many of the characteristics of its lighter brethren, the Hefeweizen.

The Herkimer's beer menu speaks for itself but what makes it a great place to drink is its ambiance and comfortable layout.  We sat in a cushy booth and felt like we were in our own private tasting room while we sipped our samples.  With plenty of space at the bar along with numerous tables, it's certainly a great place to go with friends for a few rounds or for a filling lunch or dinner.  I wish that I could say that I tried the food but I had just eaten breakfast and the thought of either eating another breakfast with beer or having lunch/dinner food at 11 in the morning just wasn't jiving.  Still, given the overall quality of the place and its beers I would imagine that the food is just as on point.

Located in an aesthetically pleasing part of Minneapolis, the Herkimer is in an ideal spot for locals and tourists alike.  Not far from Interstate 35W but far enough that it feels like it's a part of town (instead of a road stop type of deal), it's an easy place to get to and in an area that I'd want to stroll around in and explore.  A mere 2.7 miles from Target Field and downtown Minneapolis, it's feasible that one could walk there from the Herkimer (or vice versa) or enjoy a short, relatively traffic-free drive.  The bottom line is that you won't spend an undue amount of time seeking it out like other more out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-path brewpubs.

GRADING

Despite the oddly early time of my visit, I was able to enjoy my beers and felt comfortable enough to dive right in.  The awesome artwork and layout of the brewpub coupled with the friendliness of the staff and the quality and diversity of the beers made the Herkimer a great stop on our trip.  I give it a grade of B+ given the sum total of the parts and would recommend it to anyone already in the area or folks who might be traveling to the Twin Cities.  Definitely worth making the effort to get over there!

BEERS SAMPLED

Sky Pilot Kellerbeer (Keller Bier / Zwickel Bier)
Kolsch (Kölsch)
Handy's Lager (American Adjunct Lager)
Tooler's Weiss (Hefeweizen)
Vienna Country Lager (Vienna Lager)
Dunkelweiss (Dunkelweizen)

For more information about The Herkimer Pub & Brewery please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

--Matt

Friday, May 16, 2014

Barley John's Brew Pub Review

I've never been as comfortable in bars as one might expect.  As a teenager, I was more of a homebody, eschewing parties in the backweeds and sneaking into local bars for late night basketball games and relatively quiet nights at my buddies' houses.  When I finally did begin going to bars and drinking, it was in places like Applebee's, Chilis, and the like where I did my boozing at a table with friends.  In fact, one of the first nights that I really spent at actual bars was that of my bachelor party when I wound up going to twenty in total (we were engaging in a heated competition of Pub Golf...but that's a story for another day).

I've since accrued plenty of time sitting at bars engaging with bartenders and other patrons (aside from whatever company I met or would be meeting there).  Still, there's s always been something intimidating to me about bar culture in general.  It's a little different in the city (Manhattan in particular) where most of the spots I went to served more as way-stations for the traveling drinker rather than local watering holes particularly those of small towns.  The latter are the ones that I still feel somewhat uncomfortable in--the ones where you walk in and it's instantly obvious that you're an outsider and every pair of eyes in the place turns towards and remains upon you as you make your way to the bar.  Growing up in a city of more than 8 million, you would think that I would be impervious to such leering but...not so much.

All of this was on my mind as I pushed through the doors at Barley John's Brew Pub in New Brighton, Minnesota and stepped inside.  My immediate reaction was that I had just walked into a coveted local spot--one that was absolutely packed with patrons seeking suds and sustenance at the bar and in the restaurant section; fortunately, appearances can be deceiving.  I was able to get a seat at the bar and was greeted by a very busy but extremely engaging bartender. 

I always try to gauge the feel of a place by observing what others are drinking, particularly when it's hectic.  If I see others consuming samplers then I will have no reservations about asking for one myself and then kicking back while I enjoy it; if it appears to be more of a pint crowd and the server looks particularly harried, I might snag one sampler and then play it by ear.  In the case of Barley John's I saw a few people enjoying flights and, more importantly, overheard more than a few conversations about beer; it was clear immediately that I had entered a craft beer haven.

The selection of beers available was both somewhat limited but extremely interesting.  As I've noted in previous posts, brewpub beer lists tend to be of a cookie cutter variety...but not at Barley John's.  Instead of being served a Hefeweizen, American Red / Amber Ale, some type of hoppy brew, and the requisite dark one, I found myself faced with a tantalizingly eclectic assortment.  Of the four beers I got in my flight, only one fell into the typical categories (it was an IPA); the other three were an English Bitter, an American Brown Ale, and a Baltic Porter.  I love American Brown Ales because of their complexity as well as their maltiness.  To me, they have the best of a number of worlds including the sweet stickiness of Amber and Scotch Ales, the body of some lighter stouts, and a more balanced roast reminiscent of American porters.  The Wild Brunette, as it was called, was an exceptional brew.

Baltic Porters are an unusual style to find at a brewpub and, though I've not historically been a terribly huge fan, I was excited nonetheless to be able to try one at Barley John's.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Baltic Porter differs from its American and English (in style name) counterparts by being bolder and stronger both in terms of alcohol content and in flavor.  Generally darker than typical porters, Baltics also offer a more robust, almost smoky palette that takes the prototypical roastiness to a much more intense level.  It's by no means an easy style to enjoy right out of the gate but, again, Barley John's version (the Old Eight Porter) left me duly impressed.

As I was finishing my sampler, I was asked by the bartender for my reactions to the beers.  After praising them all and explaining the nature of my visit, I was afforded the opportunity to try a taster of their seasonal offering--an eponymous Maibock.  Aside from appreciating the generosity of the many bartenders and servers that I've encountered throughout my travels, I love the shared excitement and enthusiasm that so many of them have shown for my beer journeys.  Growing up around people who drink beer that has to "taste like beer" (see: Bud/Coors/Miller), it's refreshing to encounter so many people who champion trying different beers and drinking them for beer's sake--especially when it's in a place far from my own local beer scene.  And as for the Maibock?  I gave it an A+.  You've gotta love those unexpected moments of beer discovery and hospitality!

Unfortunately, due to the time constraint I was under at the time, I was unable to sample any of the food or explore the restaurant section to any great degree.  With that said, I had the sense that it was an extremely unpretentious place that offered a solid variety of food at reasonable prices; apparently the Google reviews concur!  Needless to say, if the food is anywhere near as good as the beer then you'll be hard-pressed to find a better place to eat and drink in the area.

GRADING

I had an excellent drinking experience at Barley John's and was glad to have met the folks there and shared some beers and conversation with them.  With a good assortment of pub-style food available, roughly a half-dozen brews on tap as well as a special rotating cask beer, and an awesome drinking environment, I gladly give Barley John's Brew Pub an A.  If you're in the Twin Cities then make it a point to swing by New Brighton to give Barley John's a visit; you won't be disappointed.

BEERS SAMPLED

Little Barley Bitter (A-)
Stockyard IPA (B+)
Wild Brunette (A)
Old Eight Porter (A)
Maibock (A+)

For more information about Barley John's Brew Pub please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

--Matt

Thursday, May 1, 2014

My Great Waters Brewing Experience

Tim McGraw is one of our nation's most beloved musical talents and yet, for months after visiting the Great Waters Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota, I absolutely despised him.  Detested him!  One might think that it was prompted by jealousy of his fame, his public adoration, or his gorgeous wife but one would be mistaken.  The single, solitary, sole reason that I couldn't even look at an image of him was that he single-handedly ruined my one and only drinking experience in Minnesota's state capital.

Sort of.

Okay, maybe Tim wasn't to blame as much as the folks at the brewpub itself.  What happened was my wife and I parked the car down the block from the brewpub and boogied through the cold, misty Minnesotan afternoon towards Great Waters Brewing.  It stood out like a beacon in the night--a place of refuge from the dark and dreary weather where we would be warmed without and within by the cozy environs therein and a slew of delectable brews.  We stepped inside and had to wedge our way through the patrons herded into the small foyer--those who were escaping the rain and awaiting a table.

See, as it turned out, there was a wait at the brewpub.  Not typically a big deal...but it was a long wait.  If memory serves me, we were quoted twenty minutes, which turned quickly into thirty, forty-five, and then sixty.  It was one of those conundrums where we had already wasted so much time waiting and we were so certain that we would be called soon that we didn't want to bail.  Since there was no other brewpub we could get to easily, we decided just to stay put until it was time.  And so we waited.  And waited.  And waited.

For those of you who don't know me, I am one of the least patient people in the world when it comes to unnecessary waiting and lines.  I can lie prone on the ground for an hour to snap the perfect photograph and will gladly wait on a line for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try some amazingly rare beer...but if I'm sitting in traffic for absolutely no reason (you know those situations--the ones where you're sure there's been some horrific accident or a convoluted construction project occurring only to find that traffic finally opens up at the point where...nothing happened.  These are the moments that I abhor.)

Getting back on track here, I was starting to lose my cool not because there were a million people ahead of us but rather because there were few if any.  See, the problem with the wait wasn't an issue of quantity in terms of people--it was the fact that people weren't leaving their tables.  I understand the desire just to chill when you've got some prime real estate in a busy spot but usually that desire is stoked by a steady stream of food and drink making its way to and from said table.  No, no--not at Great Waters.  I watched at least three different people receive their checks, pay their checks, and then remain at the table as if glued to their seats!

I know this is the New Yorker in me rearing its ugly impatient head...but come on!  For crying out loud, you have a HUGE line of people waiting for those seats, why not muster up the cajones and politely ask those who have already finished their meals to skedaddle?  I'm not blaming the patrons because the onus really should be on the manager a) to be aware of the situation and b) to handle it accordingly.  Again, I'm sure this is my "Rush, rush, rush city mentality" clashing against the casual, laid-back, Midwestern way...but for over an hour I watched plate after plate of awesome-looking food and pint after pint of even better looking beer make its way past me.  What a tease!

Hungry, thirsty, and aggravated to the extreme, I finally had my name called and we sat down.  I pored over the beer list like an archaeologist examining some recently discovered relic from an ancient civilization.  Each beer sounded awesome and so when the waitress finally arrived (after another interminable wait), I asked for two samplers.

Here's where it got ugly.

"I'm sorry sir--the bartender is overwhelmed and said that he can't do samplers."

My jaw dropped.

"You're kidding me.  I have no problem waiting [ironic, I know] so I don't care how long it takes.  Would you mind telling him that."

She leaves and comes back.

"He says he's really sorry but this is all just too much."

I look around the room and see that it's packed.  And by packed, I mean Wednesday or Thursday night packed at a bar on 3rd Avenue or down on Stone Street.  Busy, certainly, but to the point only that you have to nudge yourself past the other patrons rather than claw your way through a claustrophobia-inducing crowd, fighting not just for every precious square inch of empty space but for the very breath to sustain your inebriated ass through one more shot.

I ask the waitress what's going on and she chuckles nervously.

"Gosh.  It's the Tim McGraw concert!  All these people decided to come here before heading up to the arena.  It's never been this crazy before!"

Again, I look around and shake my head.

Grumbling to myself that I could just as easily pour the damn four ounce samples myself, I order a pint of their oatmeal stout and sit petulantly, hoping silently that the beer would be god-awful and I could feel justified in hating this place (and Tim McGraw) for giving me such a shitty drinking and dining experience.  It arrives, I smell it, I taste it, and then I want to rage.  The beer was awesome.  I tried some of my wife's Maibock / Helles Bock and it too is phenomenal.

All I could think about as I choked down my delicious burger was what could have been.  How many more unforgettable beers could I have tried if not for that prick McGraw and the Great Waters' staff of nervous steed, overwhelmed by the sudden throng of people like a foal facing a violent thunderstorm?  It was like a beer drinker's version of blue balls and to this day I still can't help but think that I missed out on enjoying a great establishment to a much greater degree simply because country done come to town that day.


GRADING

Based upon the quality of the beer and the food, I have to give the Great Waters brewpub in St. Paul, Minnesota an A-.  Everything was stellar and it would have been a great spot to eat and drink at if not for the pandemonium that overtook the place.  So I definitely recommend checking it out...just not when there's a concert going on up the street!

BEERS SAMPLED

Black Watch (Oatmeal Stout)
Myna Bock (Maibock / Helles Bock)

For more information about the Great Waters Brewing Co. please visit their official website here...

...and to make sure you don't have the same experience I did, double-check Tim McGraw's tour schedule here!

Cheers!

--Matt