Monday, March 21, 2016

Terrapin Single Origin Coffee Stout Review


Recently I castigated craft beer for promoting the prevalence of gimmicks in lieu of progressive creativity. Dire as the state of affairs might be, there are a number of breweries who are driving craft beer forward with ingenious, elucidative exploration. These noble vanguards of the next wave of innovation are breathing new life into what has recently become a realm choked with farcical inanity. Among them are The Bruery and the Terrapin Beer Company--both of which are taking novel approaches to often overlooked adjuncts and brewing process elements.

With regards to Terrapin's offering, they have released a line of brews called the Terrapin Single Origin Coffee Stouts. As with any good experiment, this one has both a control and a variable...and therein lies the elegant beauty of the beer. The stout in each of the four variants is exactly the same--the only difference between them is the type of coffee that is used. It's a brilliant approach that enables brewers to highlight a particular ingredient or aspect--something that's been done with hops for years but is only recently beginning to expand to other areas.

As for the beers themselves, they feature coffee from around the world. The first one that I sampled was the Hawaii Kona followed by the Guatemala Huehuetenango, the Ethiopia Hambela, and finally the Sumatra Wahana Natural. The beers all clock in at a quaffable 5.70% and forgiving 30 IBUs, which is important because that means neither the potency nor the bitterness interfere with the adjunct's ability to shine through. Each bottle features notes about the coffee as does the four pack holder.

For my tasting I decided to sample all four beers concurrently as that would provide for greater understanding about their differentiating qualities and would allow me to form a stronger opinion about each in relation to the others. I eschewed the coffee notes at first electing instead to do a blind nosing and tasting. I chose to nose the beers in the bottle first right after I removed the cap so that I could explore that first fresh burst of java-laden goodness. I jotted down my notes, poured the beers, then nosed them again in the glasses. There was a subtle if not significant change in discernible characteristics and a reduction in aromatic intensity in nearly all of the beers. Following the bouquet exploration, I took my first sips and continued my note-taking; at THAT point I finally glanced at the coffee notes for each.

While craft beer is my favorite drink to explore, coffee is certainly on the list as well. I've had Kona coffee at the source on the Big Island of Hawai'i and have had several iterations of hot Guatemalan, Ethiopian, and Sumatran brews. I would hardly consider myself an amateur coffee critic but I am able to pick up on some of the nuances between the beans as it were. With that said, I still had two clear favorites among the quartet.

I should note that my personal tasting notes hardly overlapped with the notes offered by Terrapin--something that I again chalk up to my limited coffee palate. I was surprised to find that of the four I liked the Guatemala Huehuetenango and Hawaii Kona the least but I was impressed by the fact that my opinion was consistent across the board: each beer maintained the same ranking across each of my three tests (bottle bouquet, glass bouquet, and taste). In the bottle, the Guatemala bore a roasty, nutty, almond-like character that remained relatively the same once poured; if anything the aroma grew sweeter and more mild. The taste was disappointing as the mouthfeel was remarkably thin and the coffee aspect was far less prominent than the nose alleged. There was a faint peppery aspect to it that was pleasant but not powerful enough to muster any real excitement on my part.

The Hawaii Kona came in third with more roasty sweetness in the nose, this time conjuring up macadamia nut memories in the bottle. In the glass I found the bouquet to be exceedingly malty and lacking the exotic coffee aromas that I expected; instead, it smelled like a stout with cold brewed coffee dumped in. Once again the mouthfeel was thin with the roast of the coffee battling the roast of the beer for dominance. Evanescent honey sweetness hung in the background with nothing truly of note rising to the surface.

Then came the other two. What a difference between the Ethiopian and Sumatran coffees and their American (both North and South) counterparts! The Ethiopia Hambela was my second favorite of the bunch with a bouquet redolent with almost bourbon-like roast in the bottle and then rich, dark fruits in the glass. The body itself seemed to thicken upon first taste as compared with its previous brethren with dark toffee-like nuances and light vanilla coating the tongue. It was decadent but not overwhelmingly so.

The Sumatra Wahana edged out the Ethiopia Hambela as my favorite because it took the best aspects of the Ethiopian and elevated them. The nose was richer, deeper, but also brighter and the bourbon was far more pronounced. The body was more moderate and the roast fainter with elements of pineapple, sweet sugar, and barely-there cinnamon clinging to the palate. Regardless of which one I preferred, the Sumatra and Ethiopia were far superior than the Hawaii and Guatemala in my opinion.

I loved the experience of sampling four distinctly different coffees that used beer as their vessel. I'm hoping to get my hands on The Bruery's Arbre series so that I can learn more about the influence of the wood on a stout but for now I'm content to have tried Terrapin's offering. I give the Hawaii and Guatemala iterations grades of A- (91) and the Ethopia and Sumatra grades of A+ (96). Kudos to Terrapin for the interesting take on the tried-and-true coffee stout!

Cheers!

Matt

Monday, March 14, 2016

Craft Beer Innovation Versus Idiocy


Part of what sets craft beer apart from its corporate competition is its adherence to combining quality and innovation in equal parts. Some breweries focus more on the former producing classic styles with little variation but of the highest caliber while others go out of their way to dive into the deep end of creativity. A decade ago, this spirit of exploration was endemic to only a small group of larger-scale microbreweries with Dogfish Head, Rogue, and Stone helming the ship of off-centered brews. Since then, the torch has been passed on to countless newcomers each offering its own eclectic spin.

At present though it feels like we are dealing more with mad scientists who are more enamored with "keeping craft beer weird" than they are with producing worthwhile beers. I'm all for experimentation especially when it comes to adjuncts but I fear that we're getting to the point of borderline lunacy. It's no longer creativity for the art of brewing's sake but something that's more akin to "let's find the craziest shit we can throw into a beer." In short, the marriage of creativity and quality seems to be on rocky footing.

There was a time when adding fruit or aging a beer in spirits casks was considered taboo. Now, though, we found ourselves facing a deluge of gimmicks. When it was confined to a handful of breweries who were known for their extraordinary inclusions it was one thing but now it appears to have landed amid the craft beer mainstream; in essence, we're facing too much of a good thing. It makes me think of Cam Newton's Dab celebration: it was one thing to watch him do it in a game but then all of a sudden you saw everyone doing it. It ruined whatever special quality it had (if any) and cheapened the celebration to a point of irrelevance; it lost its panache.

This, I fear, is what's happening in craft beer at the moment. Attention to detail and a degree of restraint are seeming to be replaced with a fuck-it-all mentality that had me first scratching my head and now simply shaking it in resigned disbelief. Don't get me wrong--I'm always excited to try something new and innovative but when it comes across as a cheap marketing ploy it renders the beer an utter turn off.

More than half a decade ago, BrewDog released End of History--what was briefly the world's strongest beer. The beer itself wasn't necessarily unique but its price point (almost $1,000) and its packaging (each bottle came in a taxidermied stoat) were. BrewDog has built its reputation by rattling the cage a bit so that latest iteration came as no surprise. Since that moment though it feels as if things have gone steadily downhill.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are undoubtedly some beers brewed based upon crazy concepts. Ten years even before End of History there were beers being brewed with glacier water and beers brewed on Mt. Everest. As recently as last year, we've seen beers brewed in space and beers designed to be consumed specifically in space.

Gimmicks abound amid Sriracha beers (which sounds appealing) and beers brewed with beard yeast (which sounds appalling). Both of those, in their defense, have good ratings on BeerAdvocate but that hardly scratches the surface of what's out there. I've had Wynkoop's Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, which is brewed with bull's testicles, but I draw the line at beers brewed with semen. As a fan of The Walking Dead I'd consider a TWD-themed beer brewed with brains but would have to pass on a beer brewed with coffee beans harvested from elephant dung.

No comment on the Icelandic beer brewed with whale testicles that are smoked with sheep dung.

As recently as last week I saw an Apple Cinnamon Breakfast Stout with actual pieces of cereal adhered to the wax on the bottle as well as a beer brewed with freeze dried ice cream. I'm not saying that there's anything inherently wrong with these beers but rather the trend that they implicate. I'd like to see as much attention paid to the principle as the premise of a beer. If the beer is good then there's some level of redemption but how long will it be before we have beer brewed with rocks and dirt from outside of the brewery or a New York City Marathon beer made with sweat-soaked sneakers and socks?

Shelf space remains relatively unchanged despite the sudden surfeit of craft beer offerings. With so many incredible beers vying for that coveted space I'm concerned that some truly awesome brews will never make it to our glasses because the aisles are becoming overrun with self-indulgent novelties. When there's more of an emphasis on marketability over drinkability then there's a problem.

I can't help but wonder if ten years from now we will look back and wish for simpler times when our choices weren't choked with too much of a good thing.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Dark City Brewing Review


In just the last five years the state of New Jersey has seen an explosion in quality craft beer breweries. Revered mainstays like Flying Fish, Climax Brewing, and Cricket Hill have had to make room at the table for powerhouses like Atlantic Highlands' Carton Brewing and Ocean's Kane Brewing each of whom are enjoying cult followings that span from coast to coast despite their limited geographic distribution. Newcomers like Belford Brewing, Rinn Duin, Spellbound Brewing, and Forgotten Boardwalk are making names for themselves as well with innovative beers and clearly established identities.

Dark City Brewing, which opened in January of 2016, is the latest brewery to make a splash in the ever-crowding craft beer pool. Located on a nondescript street corner in the heart of Asbury Park, New Jersey, the brewery's exterior belies a hip, modern interior with an open, welcoming vibe. A perfect medley of metal, wood, and glass--Dark City's decor offers a secretive elegance to the brewery--one that would feel otherwise out of place amid an area victimized by economic downturn. Indeed, the sense that Dark City would be equally at home somewhere near Union Square or as a chic rooftop bar in Midtown speaks to the loyalty and pride that its founders have in their New Jersey roots.

As pictured above, the beer menu is hosted upon a screen that also features a real-time Untappd feed offering patrons the opportunity to read others' thoughts about the beers they are about to enjoy. I was thrilled finally to get to visit the brewery--one that came highly recommended from a trusted friend. I took the chance to sample nearly everything they had to offer and was impressed instantly with the consistency of the beers despite the eclectic cross-section of styles. The Bond Street Brownie is a delicious brown ale whose coconut variant served only to enhance the sweet malty backbone. The Charrette stood out as a solid Belgian IPA with an interesting Strawberry Banana variant that is certainly among the more unique beers that I've tasted. A string of American Pale Ales, American Porters, and an American Double / Imperial Stout rounded out the menu--all of which were delicious.

Also on draft was cold brew coffee from the Asbury Park Roastery next door. It was wild to have coffee served from the tap...and it was phenomenal. I loved the camaraderie that was evident in such an offering and the local loyalty that Dark City is already embodying even in its nascent days. I'm sure that, as summer approaches, their business and their reputation will boom as the shore draws its requisite people traffic amid sun-soaked afternoons and warm, windy nights.

GRADING

Dark City Brewing reminds me a lot of Belford Brewing in that they both hit the ground running with a stellar lineup of brews amid a family-friendly, welcoming environment. I believe that the upcoming shore season will push Dark City to new heights--ones that I am sure they will meet with aplomb. I give Dark City Brewing an A and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the New Jersey craft beer scene. It's an absolute must for anyone visiting the Jersey Shore as well!

And in the spirit of promoting other local ventures, I'd recommend starting out at Dark City for a flight or two and some cold brewed coffee and then making your way over to Maurizio's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant in Neptune City before finishing up at Kane Brewing in Ocean--both of which are less than 3 miles from Dark City!

BEERS SAMPLED

Bond Street Brownie
Populous
City Limits
Charrette
One Way Street (El Dorado)
Bond Street Brownie (Coconut)
Urban Decay
Charrette (Strawberry Banana)

For more information about Dark City Brewing please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

Matt

Monday, January 11, 2016

Matt's Top 100 Beers of 2015

2015 was a year filled with more personal growth for me than perhaps any other. With the rigor of my physical transformation of 2014 behind me, I began to focus more on maintenance than on constantly one-upping myself; moderation and balance proved to be the two hallmarks of the year for me both in my personal life and my beer drinking. I was fortunate to have wrapped up my two remaining fitness goals in 2015 by completing a half-marathon distance run and dipping under my arbitrary weight benchmark of 183 pounds; I accomplished both things by finishing the year in the same way as I began it: with a pair of 100+ minute runs. The day after New Year's Day 2015 I ran almost 13 miles in 120 minutes and then a few days before New Year's Eve 2015 I covered almost 11 miles in 110 minutes, which helped me to dip down to 181.2 pounds--my lowest weight since college.

Amid all of this exercise came an equally active year in beer. I added 640 new beers to my list and eclipsed the 3,000 mark finishing the year with a cumulative total of 3,204 different beers. Though I plan on scaling things back a bit in 2016 and perhaps beyond I do intend and expect to eclipse 4,000 and possibly even 5,000 at some point down the road. Of course a lifetime goal of surpassing Michael Jackson's legendary 10,000 still remains but I think it would be foolhardy to pursue that actively; instead, I'll take each beer as it comes and if at the end of the day I accrue more than 10k then so be it. At this stage, I'm more interested in enjoying the beers than merely accumulating them.

The drive to consume with a focus on variety was dampened a bit in 2015 as I encountered truly phenomenal beers at a record clip along with a comparable cache of forgettable ones. The experience made me question my mindset and approach and left me focusing more on quality than quantity arguably for the first time. My goal remains as it always has been: to try as many beers of the highest quality as possible--but now I'm finding that I'm less inclined to spend my money blindly plucking bottles off of the shelves. Thus the moderation aspect.

The adjustment in beer purview and philosophy also helped me to overcome the single most nagging and detrimental aspect of my passion: FOMO. I had long been tired of that incessant panic that accompanied the news of every rare beer arrival at my local bottle shops or release at my favorite breweries. I hated the notion that I was hoarding beer and waiting for a so-called special occasion rather than doing what I should have been doing all along: enjoying it. I finally accepted that it's impossible to get every great beer all of the time every year. In 2016, I'll focus my energy on pursuing old favorites rather than whatever people are clamoring for en masse.

In my Top 100 Beers of 2014 entry, I had commented on how I never thought I would surpass the sheer number of quality beers that I enjoyed that year. I gave 295 beers a grade of 90 or higher that year out of a total of 427 meaning that 69% the beers I tried earned an A- or better. I couldn't have imagined having a better year and yet 2015 absolutely eradicated 2014 in terms of sheer awesomeness. Not only did I manage to knock off some of the biggest whales around, I seemed to do so at a record pace. In 2015, I gave 440 beers a grade of 90 or better meaning that not only did I surpass the total of comparably scored beers from a year before--I drank more world class beer than ALL of the suds I downed in 2014 COMBINED! Plus I covered a greater variety of breweries in 2015 (170) than in 2014 (134).

Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, balance was a central theme and despite all of the amazing beer that I had, it amounted to a nearly identical total percentage of the whole at 68.75% from the year before. While I had only 15 beers that merited a grade of 79 or lower there were a ton of grades in the low 80s. Thankfully, for every shelf turd I choked down I was enjoying two phenomenal beers. Still, it had me reconsidering my consumer habits and so in 2016 I intend to scale down on my spending in terms of quantity and put more money into better beer.

The beer landscape failed to awe with little variation or standouts in terms of geography and age (620 of the 640 beers were brewed in the United States (36 different states in total) and only 49 beers were aged a year or more with 9 being aged between 3 and 5 years) but it was undeniably impressive in terms of barrel aged beers. I had called 2014 the year of barrel aged brews with 92 out of 427 beers spending time in casks but 2015 was almost exactly on par percentage-wise (in 2014 barrel aged beers accounted for 21.54% of the total--in 2015 they represented 21.09%) but exceeded the total with 135 different entries for an increase of nearly 50%. Not bad considering I never actively sought out barrel aged beers over any other types!

The variety of barrels increased considerably as well. Bourbon still dominated the scene with 73 of the 135 beers or more than 54%. I had 5 different tequila aged beers, a few other whiskey types including rye and Tennessee whiskey, and several rum aged beers including a spiced rum barrel aged one. The number of wine barrel aged beers also increased with 3 Chardonnays, a Madeira, and a Pinot Noir along with two other red wines and a white wine-aged beer.

Though moderation and consistency were at the forefront of both my personal life and my beer drinking one I still managed to have some truly transcendent experiences. I attended the Extreme Beer Fest in Boston and got to try a ridiculous array of mind-blowingly awesome beers; I knocked off my two biggest white whales  in Founders' CBS and Russian River's Pliny the Younger and then added my first Cantillon beer to my list. I was awed and humbled by the generosity and camaraderie that I experienced at a number of bottle shares and special beer events with special notice being deserved by Craig Andrews, owner of the Chubby Pickle in Highlands, New Jersey whose kind heart, charitable spirit, and overall great nature makes me glad to have met him.

I also fell in love with a new brewery (The Bruery) and got to meet its founder (Patrick Rue) while getting to watch the reputation and production of an old favorite (Kane Brewing) expand exponentially. It should come as no surprise then that The Bruery and Kane finished number 1 and 2 with the most beers on my Top 100 list. I'm looking forward to experiencing even more of what both breweries have to offer in 2016 along with my oldest, most cherished favorite Dogfish Head. A special note of thanks and congratulations goes out to Mike Kane for all of the love and attention Kane has gained since opening its doors more than four years ago; it's 100% deserved and I wish him and his crew down in Ocean nothing but continued success moving forward.

Now, on to the Top 100 Beers of 2015!

This was without a doubt the single most difficult year that I have ever had in terms of creating a list of just 100 beers. There were simplyt too many worthy entries--so many, in fact, that for the first time I had to alter my approach. In the past, certain beers with variations would have been limited only to either the base beer or the best variant; in 2015 though there were a number of instances where each individual entry deserved to be included and so in a few key places I had to condense the variants and make special mention of each one in a given entry. It was the only way that I would be able a) to keep the list at 100 and b) to make room for other equally worthy entrants.

Given how difficult it was and how many incredible beers I had to choose from I decided to expand the honorable mentions section. In any other year these beers would have been shoo-ins for the top 100 but they faced an unrivaled collection of competition and just missed the cut.


Honorable Mentions
Oskar Blues Death By Coconut
Sixpoint 4Beans
Neshaminy Creek Concrete Coffee Imperial Coffee Vanilla Porter
Neshaminy Creek Bourbon Barrel Aged Punkless Dunkle
Green Man La Mas Negra
SingleCut Beersmiths Billy Full Stack Double IPA
Bell's Expedition Stout
Stone Stochasticity Project - Master of Disguise Imperial Golden Stout
Small Town Brewing Not Your Father's Root Beer
Small Town Brewing Not Your Father's Ginger Ale


Matt's Top 100 Beers of 2015

 
#100-91

100 Terrapin Beer Company Terrapin Tiramisu-Hoo (2015)
99 Cigar City Brewing Blueberry Muffin Brown Ale
98 Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Biere De Creek
97 Great South Bay Brewery Hog Cabin Maple Bacon Porter
96 Central Waters Brewing Co. Brewer's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Barleywine (2014)
95 Ormond Brewing Company Big Daddy Love's Red Wheat Wine
94 Cigar City Brewing Cervezas Frescas: Horchata Ale (Nitro)
93 Terrapin Beer Company French Toasted W-n-B Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout (2014)
92 Lagunitas Brewing Company ScareCity #3: High West-ified Imperial Coffee Stout
91 Country Boy Brewing Country Western Vol. III



#90-81

90 Bolero Snort Brewery Bergen County Bull Stout
89 Country Boy Brewing Barrel Aged Jalapeño Smoked Porter
88 Tired Hands Brewing Company Saison Hands
87 Spellbound Brewing Spellbound Fruit Beers (Mango Pale Ale & Peach IPA)
86 Ballast Point Brewing Company Victory At Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial Porter
85 The Lost Abbey Veritas 015
84 Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing What The Butler Saw (Lady #6 with Fresh Cucumber and Ginger)
83 Tampa Bay Brewing Co. Reef Donkey APA
82 Founders Brewing Company ReDANKulous Imperial Red IPA (Backstage Series)
81 Founders Brewing Company Founders Blushing Monk (Backstage Series)



#80-71

80 New England Brewing Co. Gandhi-Bot Double IPA
79 Toppling Goliath Brewing Company PseudoSue
78 Alpine Beer Company Duet IPA
77 Boulevard Brewing Co. Bourbon Barrel Quad (BBQ) (2014)
76 Prohibition Pig Multi-Grain IPA with Galaxy Hops
75 Boulevard Brewing Co. Imperial Stout X: Coffee (2014)
74 The Rare Barrel Soliloquy
73 The Bruery 4 Calling Birds (2011)
72 The Lost Abbey Box Set Track #10 - Bat Out Of Hell (2015)
71 Tomoka Brewing Co. 9 to 5 Brown Porter



#70-61

70 Brasserie Cantillon Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus (2012)
69 Angry Chair Brewing German Chocolate Cupcake Stout
68 Spellbound Brewing Spellbound Gingerbread Brown
67 Hill Farmstead Brewery Society & Solitude #5
66 Avery Brewing Company Raspberry Sour
65 Toppling Goliath Brewing Company Pompeii
64 Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Helldorado (2015)
63 The Bruery Levud's Batch No. 1 (2015)
62 Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Beer For Breakfast
61 Kane Brewing Company Apiary Mead



#60-51

60 The Bruery Atomic Kangarue
59 The Bruery Humulus Terreux (2015)
58 Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Sunday Morning Stout
57 Tomoka Brewing Co. Black Drink Coffee
56 Trillium Brewing Company Melcher Street IPA
55 Newburgh Brewing Company Newburgh C.A.F.E. Sour
54 Alpine Beer Company Hoppy Birthday
53 The Bruery Beret (2015)
52 Knee Deep Brewing Company Simtra
51 The Bruery Humulus Lager



#50-41

50 The Bruery 3 French Hens (2010)
49 The Bruery Tart Of Darkness with Cherries & Vanilla
48 The Bruery Arrrggghhh! (2015) Preservation Series
47 The Bruery 6 Geese-A-Laying
46 Tomoka Brewing Co. Tom Yum Thai Gose
45 The Bruery Or Xata (2015)
44 Ormond Brewing Company Breakfast Brown
43 The Alchemist Focal Banger
42 Smog City Brewing Steamfunk 100% Brett IPA
41 Tomoka Brewing Co. Bangin Blonde



#40-31

40 The Bruery Cinnamonk
39 Hill Farmstead Brewery Edward
38 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale - Barrel Aged (2015)
37 Kane Brewing Company Tequila Barrel Aged Cortijo
36 Kane Brewing Company Evening Bell / Vanilla Evening Bell
35 Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company The Shape Of Hops To Come
34 Brouwerij Het Anker Cuvée Van De Keizer Blauw (Blue) (2014)
33 Bugnutty Brewing Molly Brown
32 Avery Brewing Company Black Eye (2014)
31 The Hop Concept Brewing Dank & Sticky IPA (The Hop Freshener Series)



#30-21

30 Funky Buddha Brewery Sweet Potato Casserole
29 Hill Farmstead Brewery Table Dorothy
28 Westbrook Brewing Co. Mexican Cake (2015)
27 Russian River Brewing Company Blind Pig IPA
26 Surly Brewing Company Darkness
25 Surly Brewing Company Abrasive Ale
24 Avery Brewing Company Uncle Jacob's Stout (2014)
23 Lawson's Finest Liquids Sip Of Sunshine
22 The Bruery 5 Golden Rings (2012)
21 The Bruery Blue BBLS (2014)



#20-11

20 Kane Brewing Company Hop Lab: Triple IPA
19 New England Brewing Co. Coriolis
18 Pelican Pub & Brewery Mother Of All Storms (2012) BBA
17 Kane Brewing Company One Thousand Four Hundred Sixty
16 Great South Bay Brewery Hoppocratic Oath
15 Hill Farmstead Brewery Everett Porter
14 Kane Brewing Company Port Omna Buffalo Trace, Blood Orange, Mole Coffee Et. Al
13 The Bruery Sour In The Rye (2015)
12 Other Half Brewing Co. Green Diamonds Double IPA
11 New Glarus Brewing Company Raspberry Tart



#10-1

10 Avery Brewing Company Tweak (2014)
9 Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Buffalo Trace Aged Leon (2015)
8 Modern Times Beer City Of The Dead (2014)
7 Kane Brewing Company Mexican Brunch
6 Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Firestone Anniversary Ales 18 & 19
5 Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Jack Daniels & Glenfiddich Barrel Aged Concrete Pillow
4 Other Half Brewing Co. All Green Everything
3 Founders Brewing Company Founders CBS Imperial Stout (Backstage Series)
2 Russian River Brewing Company Pliny The Younger
1 The Bruery Black Tuesday - Reserve (2015), Grey Monday, Mocha Wednesday


The top ten of this list doesn't represent merely the best beers that I've had in 2015 but arguably the best that I have ever had. No coffee beer has stupefied me the way City of the Dead did and no breakfast beers will ever approach Kane's Mexican Brunch and Founders' CBS. The quality of the barrel aging that went into Neshaminy Creek's and Firestone Walker's entries here is exceptional and I think that it's safe to say that All Green Everything and Pliny the Younger are the absolute best IPAs I have ever had.

As for #1? I met the triumvirate of beer zeniths. Black Tuesday is still my all-time favorite beer but the indomitable destruction that is the Reserve version left me speechless. The other days of the week iterations in Grey Monday and Mocha Wednesday take the beer to new heights and unimaginable places of delicious decadence. Simply put, I would cry tears of joy and thanks at the end of my days for having been able to try any one of them and yet, in 2015, I tried them all.

I know better now than to say that nothing can top this year but it'll be damn tough even to approximate 2015 for me in terms of beer.

Cheers and may 2016 be as good a beer year for you all as 2015 was for me!

Matt

Monday, November 9, 2015

Line Cutting at Special Releases

Consider this an open letter to any brewery who offers limited release beers at special events:

People nowadays are inherently stupid, selfish, and utterly inconsiderate; craft beer fans rank among the top of this particular shit pile. Case in point: the numerous limited release events over the past few years that resulted in untold instances of douchebaggery by the classiest members of our craft family. The recent Other Half release, another spot's anniversary beer release, and last year's Hunahpu release demonstrate the fact that people simply cannot handle their shit in a mature, adult fashion.

More importantly, it serves as airtight evidence that the breweries themselves need to start policing their own events. The consumers have demonstrated time and again that they simply cannot be trusted to act like normal, decent human beings in what should be a straightforward set of circumstances.

There are numerous points of contention when it comes to these events and what occurs but the only one I really care about is the line skipping. I don't give a rat's ass about what the people around me are doing while they wait nor do I care whether the group of five beer bros in front of me is comprised of five legitimate fans of beer or one fan and his four mules. The only thing that matters to me is that all of the people in front of me when the brewery opens were there before I arrived and that everyone behind me showed up after I did.

Seems simple, right?

It's not because craft beer is filled with a population of degenerates who care about exactly one thing: getting as much of a given beer for themselves regardless of whose expense it comes at as long as it isn't theirs. Go on any of the forums and you'll see threads about people griping about these line cutters and others making asinine comments about how they're too cool to wait on lines for beer, about how it's ONLY beer wondering what the big deal is, and about how everyone feels entitled nowadays. While I disagree with the two former positions, I do agree with the third...but only as it pertains to the jerkoffs who cut ahead.

What's the big deal? It's two-fold. The first part of it is that egregious episodes of line cutting can screw people out of something they are (wait for it) entitled to because of their place on line. Case-in-point: the aforementioned anniversary release. Aside from offering their latest anniversary ale, the brewery was also releasing two hundred bottles of a special vintage of last year's anniversary, one per customer. It seems like simple math, right? The first two hundred people on line, should they wish to purchase a bottle, could do so. If you wanted one you had to show up earlier than others who didn't.

Except it didn't go that way.

I was roughly one hundredth in line by 10:30 that morning; sales began at noon. Common sense and basic mathematics would say then that, when I arrived at the register, there should have been at least roughly one hundred bottles of the limited edition beer; there were fewer than twenty remaining. That means that, between 10:30 and 12:00, an additional EIGHTY PEOPLE showed up and got on line ahead of me and everyone else who was there at that point.

Think about that for a minute. When I got on there were a hundred people ahead of me; by the time I purchased my bottles, almost two hundred people had purchased theirs. All because people simply do not give a shit about anyone else.

It's no secret that I'm vociferous in my misanthropic antipathy and this is precisely why: few people, if any, in 2015 have the social skills necessary to interact in mature, meaningful ways. I've long documented my belief that social media is slowly rotting society so I won't belabor the point any further here but it's important to note its importance in the situation that we face. Simply put, people don't have the social skills to handle these situations on their own.

Here's how it went down at the anniversary release: after seeing fifteen to twenty people jumping ahead of our section, the people behind me began grumbling. In fact, there was a lot of grumbling about how messed up it was and, at first, no one said or did anything. Then, eventually, a few people spoke up and called out the line cutters. Most tried simply to ignore the barrage of epithets hurled at them but others, more brazen, smirked and shrugged their shoulders; these were the more astute among them simply because they understood the situation better than anyone else:

No one was going to do anything because there was nothing to be done.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I can envision someone walking up to a line cutter and physically removing them from the line. I'm no advocate of violence in responses but, short of that, there simply is no other recourse short of yelling and complaining until they finally concede and slink to the back of the line...but therein lies the rub: that will never happen. We've become such a pathetically pacifistic society with such limited communication skills and empathetic capability that absolutely no point of resolution can be reached. If someone were to lay hands on a line cutter they'd have the cops called on them (and rightfully so) but it shouldn't even reach that point. Everyone stands with their faces buried in their goddamn phones, updating Instagram and Untappd and whatever else--they spend so much time doing so, in fact, that they've lost the ability to navigate unpleasant social scenarios such as this.

Doubt me? Peruse the Other Half release threads in the forums. What you'll find there is, in a nutshell, how people handle these types of things nowadays. They do absolutely nothing in the moment, refusing to band together to apply social pressure collectively, electing instead simply to bury their reddened, tear-streaked faces ever further into their phones to bitch about what's happening around them. Then, later, when the moment has passed and it's safe to do so, they'll unleash their unrepentant fury online talking about how unfair it was that it happened and complaining about how nothing happened to the line cutters.

This brings us to the second point: sooner or later, something really bad is going to happen on one of these lines.

Mental and emotional instability is endemic among the socially uninitiated; the more time people spend interacting online, the less time they spend doing so in person and thus the less capable they become of handling their emotions when faced with actual, face-to-face unpleasant negativity. In the majority of the circumstances, these people simply grumbled to themselves, standing down rather than escalating the situation chiefly because they do not have the self-confidence to stand up to the perpetrators of the shitty behavior nor do they have the faculties and communication skills necessary simply to confront them verbally and constructively.

Remember, folks: we live in the "not my problem" era of society. In the past, people held themselves accountable but nowadays, even when pressed, people will choose to ignore their behavior, simply waiting until the offended give up.

But there's that second thing again. My experience with craft beer fans has been overwhelmingly positive on an individual basis but that doesn't mean that there aren't assholes (of which I've encountered plenty) or complete sociopathic nutcases (of which I've been mercifully spared) out there. You take that propensity for violence, couple it with instability and the modern dearth of social skills, and then poke and prod it repeatedly until it explodes. People are flipping out at in increasing rate over the most inane of things so how long before somebody snaps on one of these lines and does something drastic? I'm sure to some it sounds far-fetched but I'm not so sure--not with the lack of regard people have towards one another and the social neutering that leads people to ever more inappropriate responses to situations.

Ultimately, the solution to preventing this and just to fixing this mess in the first place is a simple one: the breweries themselves need to police these releases.

I understand that these breweries are often small and have a lot on their plates with the logistics of such a release by itself. I also understand and respect the fact that a lot of these places have fewer employees than their larger brewing brethren and thus feel like they cannot afford to relinquish any of their staff to handle something as petty and pathetic as line policing...but it absolutely has to happen because the ire of the craft beer community is clearly increasing with each mishandled event and that can lead only to bad things down the road.

I constantly hear people talking about wristbands or tickets as a viable solution and, while admittedly efficient to an extent, such an avenue would lead inevitably to sales of said wristbands and tickets and could create a whole separate mess unto itself. Instead, I propose this:

Check IDs, take down the names of the people in line onto a clipboard, and then hand out a numbered token.

How difficult and time consuming a process could it really be? And how many people would it take to document, say, the first two or three hundred people on line? If the brewery can't afford to use its own staff to do so, why not make use of volunteers? Guarantee people an allotment, give them some free swag, or offer any kind of incentive and watch how many responses you'll get. Station these people outside and space them out so that they can keep an eye on things.

Think about it: someone comes and takes down information at 10:00 and you're seventieth in line. You're on the list and you get your token. If four assholes suddenly materialize in front of you as the line begins moving then you don't have to worry at all. Their buddy is sixty-ninth and then you're next, plain and simple. The ID checker or salesperson simply has to say, "Sorry--you're not on the list. Please step aside or head to the back of the line."

But that's the thing: it has to be someone from the brewery doing that--no one else. I'm sure that the owners and employees of these often fine establishments a) don't want confrontation or discord among its patrons and b) don't want their brand tarnished by people who will inevitably complain and disparage them...but that's already happening! The only difference is that rather than the inconsiderate assholes being the ones who are getting screwed, it's the rest of us who are doing the right thing.

It takes only a modicum of effort on the breweries' parts to rectify this but they need to do something; it's simply bad business not to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hill Farmstead Brewery Road Trip Review


Hill Farmstead is often listed among craft beer lovers' bucket list breweries to sample beer from. Its reputation has enjoyed a meteoric rise in only a few years based largely upon the quality of its brews and benefiting from a certain aura and lore that have come to accompany its name. Hill Farmstead's beers are revered and highly sought after in part because of their craftsmanship but also the sheer difficulty in obtaining them; the beer is available at the brewery and roughly three dozen bars throughout the state of Vermont with kegs occasionally reaching distributors in New York City and Philadelphia.

In short, if you want to try Hill Farmstead's beers then you'll have to work for them.

Now, ordinarily, I write reviews that focus on the breweries themselves in an effort to broaden the exposure of places that I find to be exceptional (especially the smaller ones that might not enjoy the same national reach as other larger craft brewers). With this entry, though, there is little that I can say about Hill Farmstead that hasn't already been said ad nauseum. Instead, I want to focus on possibly the only thing better than Hill Farmstead's beer: the journey to get it.

I consider myself to be a pretty straightforward guy with simple tastes and ardent passions. I love my family above anything else but in terms of the other things that define me, it's a pretty short list. I don't think that a day has gone by since I was maybe fourteen years old that I didn't listen to or play music so I would have to put that at the top. I have an inherent, insatiable need to create, with writing, music, and photography serving as the requisite outlets for that inborn fire. I also have a voracious love of travel and of taking road trips in particular. And, of course, there is craft beer.

I love these things individually but give me an opportunity to combine them and I'm the happiest guy around. With that said, my wife and I decided to take a road trip on Columbus Day weekend up to Vermont and New Hampshire. The original plan was to make the trek out to Mt. Washington, spend some time at the summit, and then head back into Vermont for some exploration. I had been keeping a nervous eye on the weather at the mountain all week because there was supposed to be some significant precipitation coupled with low temperatures the day before we would be arriving. I was concerned that the road would be frozen over and thus impassable meaning that the auto road would be closed; as it turned out, my prescience ultimately saved us a lot of driving and resulted in an awesome secondary trip. (I checked the weather before we left our hotel and it was a balmy real-feel of -6° with sustained winds of 72 m.p.h.. Needless to say, when we called ahead the road to the summit was indeed closed due to ice accumulation.)


Belford, NJ
Weather was a huge concern literally from the moment we left home (I had picked up my wife from the ferry amid a roiling thunderstorm that unleashed a deluge mere moments after she got into the car). It wound up altering our plans considerably and made the drive up an arduous crawl. Much to our relief, the skies cleared up on Saturday and we found ourselves enjoying one of the most beautiful autumn days we've ever seen.

After audibling out of the drive to Mt. Washington, we found ourselves with a gorgeous day ahead of us and plenty of additional time to kill. Before we headed up to Waterbury, Vermont, we decided to visit two places within driving distance of the town: the Cabot Creamery in Cabot and Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Bend. Since HF didn't open until noon, we decided to take a drive over to Cabot first and then hit up the brewery on the way back to Waterbury. Truth-be-told, I was terrified that we would show up in Greensboro Bend only to find a line of people a few hundred long; thankfully, my fears were unrealized and we wound up having a great time.

I have no problem with taking the Interstates to get to places but I also appreciate the value of the scenic route; fortunately, the directions to Cabot and Hill Farmstead made use of both. The drive to Cabot took us past verdant, bucolic pastures and through quaint, anachronistic towns that seemed at once out-of-place and perfectly at home; driving through them was like taking a journey to beautiful, simpler times with a more casual pace and serene way of life. The trek from Cabot to Hill Farmstead though was even more gorgeous providing vista after stunning fall vista as we wound our way further off the beaten path.





Now, I have driven to and through all 48 contiguous states and have visited Hawai'i as well. With that said, Vermont is among the most beautiful places our country has to offer--especially in the fall. The photos above do not do justice to the aesthetic beauty that surrounded us at every bend. Though obviously more treacherous, I can only imagine what a winter's drive through the same scenery would be like. The silence and solitude of the snow-crusted countryside would likely be as awe-inspiring as the diamond-dust covering it like a crystalline quilt--the hush of the forested valleys broken only by the sound of snow falling from bare branches bereft of their once colorful foliage. The promise of spring would hang in the air like an exhalation of bated breath, carried on the frozen zephyrs of the wintry wind whispering across the snowscape, awaiting its chance to blossom.

Sorry, I got carried away but goddamn New England is beautiful!

Anyway, a few pro tips for making the trip to Hill Farmstead before we continue. First and foremost, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THEIR WEBSITE! Hill Farmstead is notoriously difficult to navigate to via GPS and I failed to hail the warnings that I had seen time and again. Needless to say, Mapquest told us that we had arrived and there was no brewery in sight (funny enough though we were on a dirt and gravel road in the middle of a farmstead on a hill. Smart-ass GPS!).

Second, and arguably even more important: TAKE A SCREENSHOT OR HAVE A PRINTED SET OF SAID DIRECTIONS! We got back into the car at Cabot and were ready to make the trip to Hill Farmstead only to find out that neither of us had any cellular service whatsoever. I was lucky enough to have a general idea of where we were headed but it took almost twenty minutes of driving before we got our first bar and were able to make use of the GPS. You can find the directions here.

Third, be aware of their long-standing policy regarding growler fills. Yes they will fill growlers but only certain kinds and ones in certain conditions of cleanliness. Of course, you can buy growlers there but if you plan to bring your own with you then save yourself the inevitable headache and read the two links referenced above.

The view from the parking lot
Back to business. So we eventually made our way back to the small town of Hardwick and then used the directions on the HF website to find our way to the brewery. We pulled up and I sucked in my breath...but for all the right reasons. First, there was a spot right in front. Second, the place was absolutely breathtaking. And third (and best of all!)--it was not overrun with craft beer folk. That's not to say that it wasn't packed because it was but it wasn't the nightmare scenario that I had envisioned.

Now, this was my first time visiting the brewery so I have a funny feeling that we were the beneficiaries of an extremely propitious event that happened a few days before and thus precipitated the crowdless environ we came upon. As it turned out, the brewery opened a new tasting room area that would be dedicated to filling growlers and pouring samples with bottle sales being moved to a separate location. If the space where bottles were being sold used to be the one place where all three events took place then I can understand why the line would have extended outside and onto the field!

As it was, when I entered the retail sales area, there were thirty or forty people ahead of me at roughly 1:45 PM. I can't attest to how crowded it had been when they opened at noon but there was a sizable crowd outside wandering around and a comparable one in the other building waiting for growler fills. With that said, I waited maybe fifteen or twenty minutes to purchase my bottles and I was able to purchase and enjoy a full pour of Edward, easily the best American Pale Ale I've ever had while I waited for the bottles to be boxed. In total, there were two full-pour samples available in the retail shop, a shareable vintage bottle that had to be opened at the brewery, and then five bottled HF beers and two Crooked Stave bottles available for purchase to-go.

The new Hill Farmstead tasting room
My wife and I split the Edward at the lone picnic table in the retail shop before heading outside to explore the grounds. There was a food truck of sorts selling some amazing smelling grub nearby as well as a slew of places to sit or stand and drink. Over at the new tasting facility, the large porch overlooking the field was packed with people holding a variety of delectable brews. Inside, a long but fast-moving line for growler fills and samples snaked its way through the room while employees perpetually poured some of the most sought after beers in the country; smiles beamed as great craft beer kinship and camaraderie abounded.


GRADING

It goes without saying that Hill Farmstead makes some of the best beer in the country if not the world. For me, the beer lived up to its reputation but the location far exceeded even my highest expectations. Simply put, Hill Farmstead is one of the most beautiful, scenic breweries that I have ever visited; the inimitable brews serve only to enhance the experience. Though visiting the brewery necessitates a long and potentially convoluted trip, it is undoubtedly one that is well worth it any time of year. Based upon the quality of the beer and the pastoral elegance of the location, Hill Farmstead has earned a grade of A+ and is one of the few true absolutely cannot miss craft beer locations in the country.

THINGS TO DO WHILE IN THE AREA

Within only an hour or two of the brewery lies a variety of activities that will suit a slew of tastes and interests. Waterbury, Vermont is another must-visit location that is a craft beer mecca in its own right. The Ben & Jerry's factory is located in Waterbury and features one of the funnest tours I've ever been on. You can visit the Flavor Graveyard to see the final resting places of some of the company's most beloved products and you can purchase a variety of ice cream products. Not far from there is the Cabot Cheese Annex Store where you can sample some of the best cheese around along with other great Vermont staples like maple syrup candy. Also in town and worth the visit is the Green Mountain Coffee Store where you can enjoy some delicious coffee and other specialty drinks.

Of course, if you still haven't had your craft beer fill after visiting Hill Farmstead then you might want to check out Rock Art Brewery, makers of the Vermonster Barleywine; it was on the way from Hill Farmstead into Waterbury so you should definitely stop in and check it out. By far my favorite location though was Prohibition Pig, which coupled well-crafted cuisine with arguably the best beer selection in Vermont. The restaurant area has a more extensive food menu while the brewery area next door features first-come, first-served seating and a truncated food menu. We sat outside and wound up enjoying the food that we had ordered so much that we decided to stuff our faces with more, ultimately trying the burger, burrito, quesadilla, and cuban sandwich; all were among the best I've ever had.

I was giddy as I perused the craft beer menu and wound up having to use the utmost restraint not to try everything they had. Prohibition Pig brews its own line of awesome beers (we had the Jack Be Little--an English Mild Ale with smoked pumpkins and spices--as well as the Galaxy-hopped Multi-Grain IPA and the Back to the Grind coffee-infused oatmeal stout) but also features a who's-who of Vermont beers. I had offerings from Lawson's Finest Liquids as well as Hill Farmstead on draft and then cans of maybe the two most beloved Vermont beers from the Alchemist--Heady Topper and Focal Banger. People go crazy trying to track any of those beers down and all I had to do was ask for them at the bar!

As we sat, ate, and drank, I looked up and saw the Craft Beer Cellar across the street. I stood up, took a deep breath, and headed inside. Needless to say, the shelves were smothered in an embarrassment of craft beer riches. I left without buying anything because I knew that if I picked up one bottle I'd leave with an armful more!


For more information about Hill Farmstead please visit their official website here.

Cheers!

Matt

A panorama shot I took from the road leaving HF

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tomoka Brewery Review


Almost two years ago my family and I took a trip to Ormond Beach, Florida where we first visited the Tomoka Brewing Company. I had searched for nearby breweries and, at the time, it was the only one to come up. As it turned out, the brewery was still awaiting its credentials to sell its own beer and was thusly limited at the time to serving only guest taps. We really enjoyed our experience there and so I wrote a review about Tomoka with the hope that they would get their license and would grow into the excellent place I expected that it would.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when my family and I found ourselves back in Ormond. I knew that Tomoka had flourished and was excited to make a return trip; what I hadn't anticipated was just how much the beer scene in Volusia County had grown--exploded even--since my last visit there. Where Tomoka had been the sole representative of craft beer back in 2013 a veritable army of breweries popped up on my phone as I repeated my search. We visited nearly every one that was local to the area and there was a single common thread among all of the places that we went to: everyone said that we had to visit the new Tomoka brewpub in Port Orange.

We went to the original Tomoka location on our first night in Ormond and were relieved to see that the only thing that changed really was the beer list, which consisted entirely of beers brewed by the owners. The food (the pizza in particular) was as amazing as it had been the last time but we were concerned about the size of our group (now a party of five). Anthony, the man behind the helm that night, was insanely accommodating despite the fact that they were closing within the hour. He even said that he had told the kitchen to stay open since I had called earlier and said that we would be by a little after eight.

We tried all seven beers that were available and enjoyed them all. The hop-heavy list suited the season perfectly and we were impressed with the diversity between the three IPAs that we had. The Hop Quest was the most hop-forward while the Oceanside White IPA (brewed with a wheat base that provides for a unique malt backdrop) and Float On Session IPA (lighter in abv and body but still packed with flavor) were undeniably different. The brew that we enjoyed the most though was the McCarthy's Red--an American Amber / Red Ale that really blew us away with its delectably sweet malt-goodness. It's rare for me to give an amber ale an A or higher but that's precisely what I gave the McCarthy's.

A few days later we had the pleasure of visiting the brewpub in Port Orange (pictured above). All I can say is WOW. I was floored by how enormous the place is in comparison with the smaller original Ormond location. I was elated for the owners and took pride in how much they had grown from our first encounter. This spot was just as family friendly as the first and the menus for both the beer and the food were, well, exponentially larger and more incredible.

I'm not a terribly rabid seafood fan and will likely get one order of fish for every twenty or thirty burgers that I eat. With that said, I couldn't pass up on the Mahi Sandwich and I'm glad I didn't! Until my visit to the Tomoka Brewpub, the best mahi sandwich I had ever had was at Dan Marino's restaurant in Las Vegas. This one though without question was the best. Perfectly blackened with a great dipping sauce one side...man, it was perfect. And the beer? It's not often that the beer will reach the same empyrean heights as food like this but it did serving not just as a perfect complement for the grub but existing in perfect concert with it. It was like harmony for my palette.

The Port Orange location had the same beers as the Ormond Beach one along with a host of others. We tried everything that was available only there and were impressed straight down the line. To put it into perspective, this was one of the few times that I gave nearly a half dozen A+s in a single sitting. The standouts were the 9 to 5 Brown Porter and Black Drink Coffee (the latter being a Black IPA) that were just off the charts. The Bangin' Blonde was the best or tied for the best American Blonde Ale I've ever had. That's usually a filler style for me--one that I hardly ever seek out and will try simply if it's included in a flight. If they all tasted like the Bangin' Blonde though I'd make it a regular addition to my rotation!

The best beer that I had though was the Tom Yum Thai Gose. I'm definitely a fan of the resurrected style but I've never had one like this. The inclusion of four different kinds of hot peppers brought a theretofore unimagined level of complexity to the style--one that leant itself perfectly to my blackened mahi. Though potentially too spicy for some, the Tom Yum was firing on all cylinders for me and made my tastebuds ecstatic.

GRADING

It's not often that you find a gem of a brewery that's founded by great people and then staffed with folks who are just as amazing but that's certainly the case with both Tomoka locations. Rarer still is the brewpub that can pull off both world class cuisine and unique, delicious beers in a craft beer universe that's becoming flooded with pedestrian, forgettable suds. Tomoka Brewing in Ormond Beach and, even more so, their location in Port Orange, Florida are among the best beer spots I've ever visited and are among my sentimental favorites. It would be a disservice to recommend only one so I am giving them both my highest recommendation and am calling them absolute, can't-miss, must-visit locations. It should be less than a half an hour from one to the other so you shouldn't have any trouble whatsoever double-dipping. Both Tomoka locales have earned an A+--my highest grade. Please go and support Tomoka by visiting their excellent brewpubs in Volusia County, Florida!

BEERS SAMPLED

Ormond Beach
HopQuest IPA
Hazy Sunrise
Mutha Fuggle EPA
Lunar Eclipse Stout
Oceanside White IPA
Float On Session IPA
McCarthy's Red

Port Orange
9 to 5 Brown Porter
Black Drink Coffee
Twist of Cane DIPA
The King - Imperial Elvis
Tom Yum Thai Gose
Blueberry FL Weisse
Imperial Picnic Pils
Jen's Gin Saison
Bangin Blonde

For more information about Tomoka Brewery please visit their website here.

Cheers!

--Matt