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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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!


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 has 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 really enjoy (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. 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.

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 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.


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.


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-serve 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.



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, 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.


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!


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.



Monday, May 18, 2015

Modern Times City Of The Dead

One of the best beers I've ever had

I rarely write reviews about individual beers on The Beer Whisperers electing instead to focus on the breweries that make them and, preferably, ones that I have personally visited. After trying Modern Times' City Of The Dead though I decided to make an exception. Simply put, this is one of the most amazing beers that I have ever had.

Prior to pouring, I took a peek at the back label to see what this beer was all about. After a perfunctory perusal, I saw the words "Guatemalan Coffee" and "Bourbon Barrels" and I stopped reading. It doesn't take much to please me when it comes to beer and few things achieve that more quickly than a coffee/bourbon combination.

With that said--I've been incredibly disappointed by a number of seemingly incredible beers lately. I will never buy another Clown Shoes beer after a string of drain pours (I'm not knocking them because a few of the beers have World Class ratings on Beer Advocate, which says to me that it's likely just my palette and not anything they're doing on their end). These were barrel aged beers that should have bowled me over and instead just left me shaking my head in disgust.

Back to the beer at hand! As soon as I poured it into my glass I knew that I was in for something special. The rich coffee aroma caught me by surprise not in its composition but in its intensity; rarely are coffee stouts so imbued with such redolent roastiness. There was a hint of bourbon too but it wasn't as prominent as I was anticipating. Having had over 150 bourbon-kissed beers, I've found that my nose has become particularly attuned to picking out the sweet vanilla and oaky notes that often accompany the spirit's presence in my glass. This time though something was different.

I took my first sip and my eyes widened. The commingling of coffee flavors and aromas titillated my taste buds and left me in awe. Rarely does a beer manage to combine the smooth, luxurious elements of cold brewed coffee with the rich, roasted burst of dark, hot brewed. City Of The Dead held the perfect blend of both but bore also deeper complexities; these I needed to sort out through additional sips. The bourbon came through mostly towards the end of the swallow but in a way I had never experienced before. I have had beers that proffered only a hint of bourbon sweetness and others that were utterly drenched in it (you can guess which ones I prefer!). Usually the former is a result of a) not enough time in the barrel and/or b) a lack of mastery when it comes to barrel aging beers.

The bourbon in City Of The Dead left me confounded: it didn't smack me across the face like some of my favorite barrel aged beers nor was it faded or muted. With each sip, it felt like it was waiting in the wings--playing coy as it slipped between the roast, the chocolate, and the oak layers that were growing ever more varied. With each sip, it was like it whispered to me but when I turned around there was no one there; it was driving me nuts.

I decided finally to read the back label fully and there I found the missing piece of knowledge and understanding. I had skimmed the label and misread it making assumptions based on my experience with scores of other similar beers, mistakenly grouping in City Of The Dead with the familiar. My excitement only grew as I read the label and reread the beginning that said, in full, "GUATEMALAN COFFEE AGED IN BOURBON BARRELS."

Yeah. I'll let that sink in for a minute.

I pieced it together myself just before reading it further along the label: the beer never touched a bourbon barrel; it was the coffee beans that were imbued with magical bourbon superpowers.

Needless to say, I was flipping out. As the beer warmed, it got only better and I grew ever more impressed with what I was drinking. The ONLY negative about the brew was that the mouthfeel was a little thin but I couldn't give less of a shit about that given the flavor explosion occurring with each sip. Seriously--from the first to the very last, it got continually more awesome.

Bourbon barrel aged coffee stouts are phenomenal but this? A beer brewed with barrel-aged coffee beans? It's barrel aging par excellence.

If you love this style of beer then you absolutely have to seek this one out. And if you're interested in their coffee (Modern Times is the first combination brewery/roastery in the world according to their label) you can purchase bags individually of the regular beans or sign up for a monthly subscription that includes barrel aged versions. Here's the link:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Extreme Beer Fest 2015 Review

Back and front covers of the official pamphlet

I had high hopes and low expectations going into this year's Extreme Beer Fest. My only true festival experience came a few years back and suffice to say it turned me off to the idea of going to another big event. It had started off smoothly enough with manageable lines and a lively environment but within an hour it had turned into an intolerable shit-show filled with beer bros and the requisite Affliction/Tap Out attired crews basically turning a craft beer event into something better suited for the "down for whatever" crowd. Then again, I had attended numerous smaller Dogfish Head events at their brewery in Milton and they were the polar opposite of that god-awful brewfest on Governor's Island: each event was expertly run, the crowds never got out of hand (or too large, for that matter thanks to responsible attendance limits), and the focus was always on the beer and local food; the Extreme Beer Fest, in turn, proved to be exactly the same as the latter.

I purchased tickets for the first session that would run from 6-9:30 pm on Friday. I had loose plans to meet up with a friend of mine who was going to the event as well albeit with a separate group of people. They planned on hitting up some of the local breweries before heading over while I was concerned about the line. I had spent a few nights during the week geeking out as I highlighted my printout of the beer list and plotted out my order of operations based upon the map furnished by BeerAdvocate; as nerdtastic as it seemed, it proved to be a smart move on my end.

Based upon the aforementioned time concern, I showed up at 4:40 on Friday afternoon; I wound up being forty-first in line. With 2,250 tickets sold for each session, I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten there when I did...especially when it started snowing about a half an hour into the wait. My buddy arrived nearly an hour after I did but I never saw him outside: the line had extended so far beyond me that it wrapped around the building completely to the other side.

Sample page from the pamphlet
I had a good deal of time to kill outside so I was thrilled to be given the pamphlet pictured above. It was filled with a ton of information about the fest and the participants along with countless ads for beer-related things. I enjoyed reading about the collaboration beer that Dogfish Head was bringing to the fest--one that they made with BeerAdvocate founders Jason & Todd Alström--as well as scoping out the finalized beer list and map. One of the coolest aspects of the pamphlet though is pictured at right--a breakdown of the number of beers featuring a given set of ingredients. It definitely implies the directional variety many craft brewers are exploring nowadays.

Now, admittedly, I was a little disappointed when I saw the beer list for the 2015 event. I remember poring over a previous year's list with saliva-soaked envy, perusing a seemingly never-ending sequence of monstrously high abv brews as well as others with remarkably innovative or exotic ingredients. That one had featured a handful of beers north of 20% in abv as well as some of the most sought after brews from craft breweries across the country; this year's focus seemed to be more on barrel aged beers and sours. Fortunately for me, these are the two exact styles that I am presently enamored with and thoroughly enjoy exploring.

Before diving into my experience at the event, I want to reiterate how well-run the Extreme Beer Fest was. I waited on line for almost an hour and a half but it was because I elected to get there nearly an hour and a half early! It wasn't long after 6 pm that the line started moving indoors. Aside from that, a swarm of well-prepared volunteers would sporadically make their way down the line first checking IDs and then checking people in and issuing wristbands. This made for a much smoother entry into the event and undoubtedly sped the entire process up exponentially.

Once inside, we were each given a disposable sample cup to use for the fest. I had seen people complaining online about this in reference to previous events but it just straight up works better this way. Giving out glass samplers would be disastrous and distributing souvenir ones to 2,250 attendees wouldn't be cost effective when people would wind up losing them or possibly breaking them depending upon their makeup. As it was, the pours were slated to be limited to two ounces, which rendered this little guy the perfect receptacle at a little over four ounces (plenty of space for the beer and the head to rest nicely).

What ensued following my entrance was far less than the frenetic pandemonium that I was expecting and more just an excited, thrilling drinking atmosphere: no one was running around, making mad dashes for coveted breweries nor were people shouting and arguing. Simply put, it was a civilized, utterly enjoyable event right from the start. Then again, my liver might beg to differ.

In total, I partook in thirty-three different samples to varying degrees. I had a game plan going in and that was simply not to repeat the night of and morning after the 2013 Beer Bloggers Conference where I had thirty samples, twenty-one of which came in a brutal fifteen minute span before heading over to the Boston Beer Company. THIS time, I swore, I would slow-play it and not exceed a total amount of ounces consumed; I was tested almost immediately and am proud to say that I succeeded in my mission.

The biggest challenge with attending an event like this is restraint. You're talking about almost a hundred of the best breweries around bringing some of their most coveted brews and, naturally, you'll want to try them all...but it's impossible to do so. With that said, I had come to the Extreme Beer Fest (nerd alert!) with a color-coded list of the beers and breweries. I highlighted my most desired samples in one color and a secondary collection in another thereby putting an upper limit on what I would feasibly go after. I knew that, once the lines began forming, it would be difficult to adhere to that plan perfectly and so I allowed for the requisite amount of wiggle room. Basically, I wanted to be able to enjoy myself while still ensuring that I wouldn't have an awful night. My wife and kids were waiting for me back at the hotel and the last thing that I wanted was to be a sick, vomiting mess upon returning to them.

Going into EBF, the two things that I dreaded the most were the lines and the potential assholes who would be populating them. I have a misanthropic streak and an aversion for waiting in excessively long queues--quite possibly the worst combination of traits for someone attending an event such as this. To my utter surprise and delight though neither the lines nor my fellow attendees proved to be problematic. The lines were often long in terms of people but not in terms of time; they moved quickly almost universally. The crowd at large seemed to be far more educated in terms of craft beer than the one at the other festival I had attended--a fact that likely created the fun, lighthearted environment. For the most part, the only clowns I encountered were later in the evening and were, oddly enough, almost exclusively of an older crowd (most were silver-haired folks at least in their fifties who you would think would have known how to handle themselves better!). I did have one asshole make an asinine comment about air conditioning that went over my head at the time. He interrupted a conversation that I was having with a nice couple from D.C. to make his quip and immediately I felt the Brooklyn rising up in me. You would think that people would know better than to antagonize strangers at an alcohol-themed event but fortunately good sense prevailed and I kept my mouth shut. It was only after the fact that I realized that he was probably making some forced attempt at humor about the dual sample glasses I was wielding at the time--a point I will explore shortly.

And here we are: it's not a good idea to walk around with more than one sample glass in your hand. My buddy had wanted to take a picture with a brewer while I wanted to get on another line so I took his sample for him and headed over to wait. It never dawned on me that this could be construed as double-fisting drinks and I was lucky not to get chastised for it; as it turned out, he had gotten reprimanded earlier in the evening as did other attendees. While some would bristle at such admonishment, I think it speaks to how seriously the event hosts take responsible drinking at the fest and it lends itself to reducing the opportunity for people to get out of hand.

Me with Patrick Rue, founder of The Bruery
Overall, I had a total blast at the Extreme Beer Fest and I managed to uphold my promise to myself by sticking mostly to my plan going in. Of the seven beers that I marked as extremely desired, I managed to try four there and found a bottle of another on the way home; the other two, as it turned out, weren't being poured on the first night. I enjoyed two samples of my all-time favorite beer--the 2013 vintage of The Bruery's Black Tuesday, AND I completed my photo-op trifecta thanks to Patrick Rue's generosity and affability. I now have photos with Jim Koch, Sam Calagione, and Patrick Rue--the three men who have arguably shaped my craft beer identity: Jim's Sam Adams line was my gateway into craft beer, Sam's Dogfish Head culture helped me to fall in love with craft beer and the scene as a whole, and Patrick Rue makes what are without question my all-time, top beers (again with Black Tuesday at the pinnacle).

Other highlights included Surly Brewing's Darkness and Abrasive--possibly the best Russian Imperial Stout and easily one of the best DIPAs I've ever had, Avery Brewing's Uncle Jacob's Stout--another absolute beast of a beer at nearly 17% abv, Firestone Walker's Agrestic and Bretta Rosé, everything from The Rare Barrel, Other Half Brewing's Green Diamonds--potentially the best DIPA I've had, and most of the Dogfish Head entries with ExtRemus, ExtRomulus, and Beer For Breakfast standing out as the best among them. I'm bummed that I didn't read more carefully that the 120 Minute IPA being offered was from 2011 but in retrospect it was probably a good thing since most of the 33 samples that I had were already well over 10% abv. I missed out on a number of other great beers and breweries but it was as much a result of the personal limits that I set upon myself as it was the lines. Ironically, the longest queue that I waited on was actually for food--the delectable delicacy called the Green Muenster by Roxy's Grilled Cheese. It really hit the spot as I took a much needed break from the bacchanal.

Ultimately, I felt like this was the best run event of its size that I've ever been to--beer-related or not. Dogfish Head and the Beer Advocate team really had everything well-thought out and created not just a festival filled with great beer but rather an opportunity to savor craft beer in a relaxed, responsible way. The pours really were limited to two ounces or less (at the discretion of the individual pourers for each brewery), there was a solid variety of food available for purchase at a reasonable price (reasonable at least in terms of my expectations for food of similar quality at chic craft beer locations), there was a seemingly unlimited supply of water available at a ridiculously reasonable price (ONE dollar a bottle! More on that in a minute), and there were a slew of cleaning stations that subconsciously discouraged overconsumption as well as the frivolous waste of sample cups (the stations had buckets in which to dump unwanted beer as well as Gatorade tanks filled with water used to rinse out the sampling cups). 

Nothing demonstrated the sponsors' collective respect of beer and their adherence to fostering responsible drinking more to me than those one dollar bottles of water. Given the importance of staying hydrated while drinking, it would have been easy as hell for them to price gouge us but not only didn't they do that--they instead charged essentially a nominal fee leaving little excuse for revelers not to be responsible. Props to Dogfish and Beer Advocate for handling things in such a fashion. That alone makes me trust them with future events and leads me to believe that they truly stand behind the things they say about respecting craft beer.

With all of that said, I'd like to conclude with a few suggestions for having a successful, enjoyable experience at a festival like this. Many of these items are common sense and are covered by Beer Advocate in their survival guide but all of them are worth considering seriously:


Some people are blessed with the inherent ability to pace themselves unconsciously; I am not one of those people. I have a collector's mentality and the thrill of knocking beers off of my list can potentially derail my efforts to take it slowly. As it was, I had almost a third of my samples in the first twenty minutes or so even though I planned to space them out. What really helped was sticking to my "thirty samples or forty ounces" limit. I might've gone slightly over but without that guideline in place I can only imagine how much I would've had.


Knowing what you want to sample before you go in will make for a smoother, far more enjoyable experience than simply winging it. Even still, it'll likely be impossible for things to go exactly as you'd like so be sure to build in some flexibility. Select your half-dozen or so most desired beers and seek those out early; you never know what beers might kick thereby robbing you of an opportunity to try something amazing.


I was lucky enough to have tried Founders' CBS in February and thus had the luxury of not having to wait on the line at EBF for it. It would've been my number one beer though and I would've gone to Founders immediately because I knew that CBS, KBS, and the other Founders entries would all likely draw a monster crowd. Though I wanted to try things from certain breweries, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to do so simply because of their reputation. I didn't want to spend most of the night waiting in lines and so I sacrificed some of the most popular ones for other, less pined-for breweries. The result? A stress-free night filled with exactly the amount of amazing beer I had hoped to enjoy.


Though this and the preceding point are essentially just aspects of having a game plan, there's something to be said for visualizing the space you'll be in and planning out a route. In my case, I saw that the Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head would be at one central spot while Surly Brewing was all the way in the back near the corner. I made a quick pit stop to try the Kosmic Mother Funk and then made a beeline for Surly. From there it was off to Avery, back over to the Lost Abbey, then Shmaltz and the Rare Barrel. I didn't stick to the exact route I had laid out initially but my preparation paid off because I didn't waste much time if any wandering around looking for breweries (something that could become potentially time-consuming as the lines started to fill up making it more difficult to look around).


I attended EBF basically by myself (I bumped into my buddy twice during the night but was alone for the rest of it) and, for me, it was a very good thing. I didn't realize it until later but if I had gone with a friend (or, worse, a group) I would've been bombarded with multiple samples to try all at once. There's no way I would've been able to resist the temptation to overconsume and would've blown past my limit less than an hour in. If you're going with friends who are willing to share their samples with you then just be aware of how much you're drinking and how quickly.


I can't emphasize this one enough. I was at the event from 6 o'clock until 8:30 and I polished off FIVE 12 ounce bottles of water while I was there. I then downed a 32 ounce Gatorade and another bottle of water back at the hotel before going to sleep. I was basically good this morning but just to be sure I downed a bottle of coconut water. The end result? Absolutely no hangover after a monster night of drinking.


A full stomach will slow the effect of the alcohol and will help your body to process it better in the long run. I ate a big lunch around 3 o'clock and then had a bagel with cream cheese while I was waiting on line at 5. I took advantage of the food stands and rocked a grilled cheese at 7 before finishing the night with some gross, greasy, (but helpful!) fast food at 9 o'clock. This one's more about helping you the next day more so than the night of!


I know that it's sacrilegious to say but at events like this you really have to be comfortable with dumping some beer IF YOU ARE LOOKING TO SAMPLE A WIDE SELECTION. If you're interested in sticking to only a few breweries and beers then by all means drink away BUT if you're going for variety and quantity then it's almost a necessity that you pour some for your homies along the way. I placed a higher value on the number of beers that I tried and thus knew that in order to come nearest to my 30 beers/40 ounces mark that I would have to forgo some of my samples. I asked for small pours and many of the pourers honored my request. Some didn't though and so I was forced to toss the excess when I wasn't a fan of what was in my cup. Thus the cleaning stations/dump buckets! I was able to have 33 samples in total and consumed the maximum amount for only my favorite ones. Simply put, if you drink everything that's put into your cup, you're in for a long night and an even longer day after.


This final point might just be commonsense but it goes a long way to ensuring that you have the best night and next day possible. Just because the event lasts three and a half hours doesn't mean you have to be there drinking throughout that entire time. I left voluntarily an hour early because I had people I wanted to get back to and a weekend ahead that I wanted to enjoy without paying homage to the porcelain god.

Know yourself, your tendencies, your limits, and, most importantly, know when it's time to go home.



Monday, March 9, 2015

Chasing Whales

What is it about whales that makes us chase after them and are we crazy for doing so? I find myself asking this question time and time again without ever really making progress understanding the answer. The first obvious response is that it's about drinking really good, difficult-to-find beer. The next is often that it's the thrill of the chase. Pursuant to that, I suppose, is the unspoken of level of ego involved in being able to drink something that the vast majority of people either haven't or potentially won't ever get to try.

With that said, I've been fortunate over the past few years to have knocked off nearly all of my bucket-list beers. In fact, as the calendar changed to 2015, I found myself really with only two: Founders' CBS and Russian River's Pliny the Younger. The former attained legendary status with its bottle release in 2011 (it had already been the stuff of local lore for awhile by that point). Founders managed to take an already incredible, longed for brew in KBS and transcend it with a similar stout aged with maple syrup. One simple ingredient and limited release later, a whale was born.

I lusted for CBS more for its description and its rating on Beer Advocate than for the hype associated with it. I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I would never try it...until a local spot announced that they would be hosting a Founders event with CBS as the star. Instantly the intensity of that desire grew exponentially and I was filled with that heart-pounding excitement that comes with the chase. In short, I couldn't wait to try this bad boy out.

Pliny the Younger, on the other hand, has intrigued me almost exclusively on the grounds of its hype. This beer is so difficult to try that people often spend not just hours waiting to try it but the better portion of entire days. Folks have flown across the country simply for a California release event only to wait a third of a day and miss out. At one point the Younger was available for growler fills (which mitigated its unattainability) but after the Cilurzos got wind of their resale and subsequent price gouging, they did away with said pours. Now, in order to try the legendary IPA, one would have to attend a release event.

The coveted Founders CBS
And so, a few days before the end of February, there I was heading to my local bar at 4:30 on a Thursday for a 7 o'clock tapping of Founders' CBS. I was meeting a few friends there one of who, like me, had rearranged his entire afternoon and evening solely for the chance to try this beer. We were both afraid of showing up early and finding a line down the block so we sat down and sussed out a game plan that included an inordinate amount of hypothetical scenarios and how they played out. I take the blame for this because I can be obsessive and want to make sure that I cover every angle or possibility when there's a situation with something great at stake--in this case to knock off one of my two remaining whales.

I rolled into the bar and was shocked to find that it was mostly dead. I made eye contact with a few patrons scattered throughout and it was as if we were sizing each other up--attempting to figure out if we were there for the same purpose (in most of the cases, we were). I sat down at the table my buddy had procured for us and the wait began. Twenty minutes later, the bar started filling up; shortly after five it was packed. We watched the hostess' station with pensive, eagle-eyes making sure that they would not begin dispersing the tickets early and ensuring that no one would try to one-up us; the obsession had begun.

The bar's approach was to tap a slew of Founders beers at 5 p.m., to hand out the tickets on a first-come, first-served basis at 6 p.m., and then to tap the CBS at 7 p.m. By 5:30 it was almost impossible to walk into the bar and then, shortly after, someone shouted out that people were lining up for the tickets. That simple utterance created a scene of organized chaos. Within seconds, we were smushed in a thrush of people waiting by the door for absolutely no reason; no one had given the command to get in line nor was anyone preparing to hand out the tickets. Instead, like a group of maniacs on a hair-trigger, we had jumped and were now standing asshole to elbow based on the speculation that the tickets would be handed out any minute.

That's the first part of the whale hunting issue: the fear. All logic and reason disappear in the instant that it seems like we might miss out on the opportunity to try one of these beers. Fortunately, things never got out of hand (Hunahpu day anyone?) but there we were damn near panicked by the fact that we might not be among the 100 folks to get a ticket. About a half an hour later, though, there we were returning to our table with tickets in tow; thus began the second part of the wait.

I realized that, at this point, the nature of the wait has changed. The fear is greatly lessened but the tension still remains. You've managed to get a ticket, which in theory guarantees you a pour but until that beer is in a glass right in front of you, you can take nothing for granted. And so we waited for over an hour for our beloved brew to make its appearance.

Shortly after seven, I finally managed to put my lips to a glass of CBS...and in that moment, all of the intensity, all of the ravenous fury with which I pined for this beer melted away leaving me to feel like a dope for having gotten so worked up in the first place. That's the next part of the issue: the afterglow. It's a great moment filled with a thrilling sense of accomplishment when you finally get to taste the beer. Shortly thereafter though, the euphoria fades and, depending upon how crazed you were or what specifically you did to obtain the beer, you're left feeling either ridiculous or rueful over what just happened.

For me, the CBS euphoria never really dissipated into a cloud of shame. I had gone to a local bar a few hours early, hung out with some great people, enjoyed a few excellent beers and a solid meal, all before even tasting the delicious elixir. No harm, no foul on this one. The CBS lived up to the hype but, for me, it failed to awe me the way I've been wowed by other beers. Part of it is the sheer number of predecessors it had to contend with (nearly 2,700 other different beers). It was amazing but, even though I was accused by others of not allowing it to warm up enough, I found that it was on par with Kane's Sunday Brunch. I liked the CBS better but I found myself wondering if a bourbon barrel aged iteration of the aforementioned SB would stand toe-to-toe with the Founders beer or perhaps even surpass it in quality.

Total time devoted to trying CBS: three hours--a paltry sum when compared with what others have endured. The sad part though is that one of the guys who showed up had not only tried it before but had had it six times...that week! He had gotten wind of a few local releases and showed up managing to have not simply samples of the beer but full glasses. It didn't matter to me at the time since all I cared about was trying the beer but at the same time I couldn't believe how crazed I had gotten while this guy literally was just walking into the right places at the right time and consuming it to his heart's content.

"Never again!" I said to getting so worked up about a beer.

Not five minutes after uttering that oath, I had already agreed to go to Philly two weeks later for a Pliny the Younger event. Once again I was consumed by the excitement of the chase as well as the potential to knock my last most-sought-after-beer from my list. My buddy and I knew that this one was going to be a little bit more complicated and risky to obtain than the CBS and so we hatched an even more convoluted plot to seek it out.

Thus, there I was, standing outside in the dark at 4:30 in the morning (5:30 thanks to Daylight Savings) asking myself just what the hell was wrong with me as my buddy pulled up. We talked for nearly the entire 90 minutes it took us to get to the spot, mostly out of nerves, and then arrived. We were anticipating insane lines and were terrified of driving all the way down to Philly only to arrive too late. The bar was advertising exactly 65 pours--sixty five--and we wanted to be among that select group. And so there we were bounding up the stairs with bated breath more than four hours ahead of the proposed tapping time only to find a handful of people there; we had made it.

Once again, the wait began. We lucked out big time with this event though because we stood outside for around ninety minutes and were treated to an amazing tap list, great food, and some great company. Still, there we were drinking beer before ten on a Sunday morning with empty stomachs and excited hearts. We wound up being given an amazing artisan doughnut that we each scarfed down and then ate a little bit later all the while biding our time until we could exchange our small raffle ticket for the golden one pictured above.

On my buddy's suggestion, I held onto a sample of the Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder to do a single, double, "triple" IPA vertical. The Younger blew the others out of the water and is among the best IPAs I've ever had if not number one. Was it worth trying? Absolutely, even with the wait. Would I ever do this again for a beer? I say no...but I question how much I mean that.

This time, we drove an hour and a half into another state to stand outside in the cold for almost two hours to drink a slew of brews before noon. At first, I felt like we were lunatics--a pair of guys caught up in whale hunting, throwing good sense to the wayside...but then I took a look around us. We were surrounded by other like-minded folks who, like us, were having an incredibly good time. Sure the wait sucked but you know what? I had a blast being there with my friend, making new friends, and enjoying great beer and food in an awesome environment; that's when my thinking changed.

Looking back, the best part of the CBS and Pliny the Younger events was obviously getting to try the beers but what enhanced the entire experience was getting to share it with friends. I still get nuts about going and picking up a sought-after beer at a local shop but the first thing that I do when I get it is let my beer friends know about it. Craft beer is its own community comprising myriad sub-communities; to me, that's the best part.

I've been fortunate never to feel persecuted for my beer beliefs, mostly because I've surrounded myself with open-minded individuals who either love beer as much as I do or who are at least curious enough to take part in my passion. There are a lot of people who don't drink craft beer who probably think we are insane for doing the things that we do for what we love...but at its core, isn't craft beer essentially a hobby? Why should it be deemed ludicrous or unacceptable to wait eight hours on line to try a beer when people do it all the time in the pursuit of autographs from favorite athletes, musicians, or celebrities? Why are we looked down upon for spending twenty dollars on a single bottle of beer when there are collectors out there shelling out ten times as much for some inane inanimate object?

And therein lies the answer to my initial question. Some of us chase down whales simply for the thrill of it; others do so to enjoy great beer; others still for bragging rights. Whatever the reason though, this is one of the more thrilling elements of our shared interest--the passion that drives us and leaves us filling fulfilled. It's something that is at once personal and social: the arena through which we meet other like-minded folks who share in our fervor, who can teach or be taught about this great world and culture of craft beer, and who just might wind up becoming great friends in the process.

Are we crazy for the things we do to try a single beer? Maybe, but I know that I'm not alone in my pursuit and there's safety in numbers.