Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

Given the bucolic holiday setting depicted on the label, I have to wonder if any hasty, unsuspecting beer drinkers ever bought a six-pack of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, thinking they’d be getting some Winter Ale-style approximation of gingerbread and fruitcake.

If so, I can’t imagine too much more of a consumer error, because of course, this is no Christmas cookie beer. The label screams eggnog and plum pudding, but the beer itself is all straight-up American IPA. Every brewery these days features an IPA or two, and hell, Sierra Nevada itself brews about 10 of them (that’s what it seems like, anyway) – but even in the current era of IPA saturation, the venerable Celebration is still one of my favorites. Widely distributed and widely sought, it comes out once a year, before Christmas, and I usually end up buying a six-pack of it to enjoy as a change of pace from all the season’s more dense beers.

Celebration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It pours your standard IPA amber-gold, with a dense crown of foam that leaves some nice lacing. Aroma is that of pine, menthol, and a little grapefruit. Tasting it, I can perhaps see the Christmas aspect in the sense that this is more of a “piney” IPA than one that has citrus as the main hop flavor driver. The malt, for the most part, has the good sense to step aside and get out of the piney hops’ way. Perceived bitterness is at a high level, and lingers long into the aftertaste – this may be one of the older American IPAs, but it’s still pretty bitter. I’d pair it not with traditional holiday meals, but rather with Tex-Mex, Cajun, or Vietnamese.

There is a small cadre of beer geeks who age Celebration just for the hell of it, and claim that it “cellars” well. As with most IPAs, I am extremely skeptical of this, and would not waste valuable beer storage space doing so. Now, as it comes out just once a year, it is vintage-dated, so if you did age a bunch of these, you could end up with a fun little vertical collection in a few years, but I just think you’d be tasting nothing but stale oxidized hops. It’s not a good look for an IPA. Grab some Celebration now, and drink it within a month or two for best results.

Available at Total Wine, most liquor stores, and many supermarkets.

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November 4th Biscayne Brewers Expo – B.R.E.W. FIU

I don’t usually post about beer events, because 1) others already do a far better job of this than I ever could, and 2) I don’t even know about every single beer-related happening in South Florida, anyway.

That said, if you like drinking local beer, and want to support our homegrown beer scene and all B.R.E.W. FIU does to promote it, this weekend’s Biscayne Brewers Expo at FIU’s North campus is worth a look. For $25 advance purchase (http://biscaynebrewersbash.com/) (http://www.voicedailydeals.com/miami/) or $35 at the door, you’ll be tasting 40+ beers with spent grain pretzels and beer mustard.

My guess is that 40 beers will end up having been a conservative estimate. Also, have you been wanting to try beers from the famed Funky Buddha Lounge, and Due South Brewing, but never feel like actually making the drive to the 561 area code? Here’s your chance, as both will be represented. The list of local and semi-local brewers:

Cigar City Brewing
The Abbey
Funky Buddha
Most Wanted
Opus
Schnebly
Due South
Florida Beer Co
Wynwood Brewing
Titanic
B.R.E.W. FIU

Looks to be a quality event, without the huge crowds of some other area beer festivals. I won’t be able to make it, but if you go, definitely tweet it, blog it, let me know how it was.

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Thanksgiving Dinner – What To Drink With It?

In a few weeks, shoppers will see bottles of this invading their local supermarket and liquor store shelves:

This, as many will recognize, is the famed Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, otherwise known as THE Thanksgiving Wine. Every year in mid-November, people buy cases and cases of this stuff, for the purpose of consuming with their turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I don’t know how or why this tradition came into being, but it’s unstoppable. For those who don’t know, it’s an inexpensive, young, and fruity wine with little to no tannin or structure. Not a wine to age for any length of time, it’s for drinking as soon as possible. As one might expect, I’m not crazy about it. Fruit-forward wines are fine with me, but I find this one very thin and one-note. I usually do not like thin, runny red wines of any description, and beyond that, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how this is supposed to be the “killer pairing” for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I can see an affinity with the typical quivering mass of cranberry sauce with the ridges from the can, but that’s about it.

Tired of the above and looking for a better alternative? I’m here to help. Why not try….beer? Beer has what it takes to elegantly complement the entirety of any harvest-time feast – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, beans, squash, etc. – even the pumpkin pie. Plus, a bottle of world-class beer costs about as much, or even less than, that bottle of decidedly NOT world-class Beaujolais Nouveau. Even better, quite a few beer styles will be up to the task – it’s pretty difficult to screw up. Here are some suggestions and general guidelines:

Pilsner
Yes, plain old pilsner. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it wouldn’t be bad, either, cutting through gravy and heavy stuffing with palate-refreshing carbonation, while not overwhelming delicate white turkey meat. Warsteiner, Victory Prima Pils, Radeberger – these will all work just fine.

Brown Ale
Another choice that isn’t all that sexy, but is highly effective. These feature a caramelized, slight roasty malt character, perfect for tying into crisp turkey skin, gravy, and those browned bits of stuffing. Try to find brown ales that aren’t blatantly hoppy – the “India Brown Ale” substyle is not what you want for this purpose. Again, you don’t want your beer to obliterate this meal with waves of hop bitterness. This pairing is supposed to result in a match, not a rout. Look for beers like Brooklyn Brown, Sierra Nevada Tumbler, Cigar City Maduro Brown, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown, Rogue Hazelnut Brown, Avery Ellie’s Brown…the list goes on and on.

Saison
This would be my first choice. Pairing with a saison means forgoing the caramelized flavors inherent in a brown ale, but introducing more complex fruit/herbal/spice flavors, as well as unparalleled palate-refreshing cutting power. What’s the best part of Thanksgiving dinner? The stuffing! Saison finds affinities with the herbal, salty stuffing, and slices through heavy gravy and mashed potatoes, leaving you ready for the next bite. Perfect. The obvious two to look for are Saison Dupont and Ommegang Hennepin.

Biere de Garde
An indigenous French farmhouse ale, biere de garde isn’t as spicy or fruity as saison, and adds back some toasted malt character. They can also show a yeasty, rustic “cellar” character that really seems to bring out the latent gaminess in that dull old Butterball turkey your mom makes. Biere de garde makes turkey taste better! For what it’s worth (and it’s worth a lot to me, because he is a beer-food pairing grand master), Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery fame thinks biere de garde is the ultimate Thanksgiving beer. I still like saison a little better, but I have enjoyed many a BdG with turkey. The classic is Castelain Blonde Biere de Garde, and St. Amand French Country Ale is very good as well, also from Castelain. If you can find it, Russian River’s “Biere de Sonoma,” Perdition, is an outstanding example of the style, with some American flair.

Dessert – English Barleywine
Be careful here. Note that I said “English” barleywine. American-style barleywines tend to be big, brash, and tongue-scrapingly hoppy. If you decide to pair a fresh Great Divide Old Ruffian or Stone Old Guardian with your pumpkin pie, I can’t be held responsible for the ensuing disaster. I told you, English barleywine. These are big and boozy as well, but they omit the mass quantities of extremely bitter, citric/piney American hops. Sweeter on the whole, with more of a round flavor – earth, tobacco, rum, fruitcake, etc. – they pair quite well with a big slice of pumpkin pie. The best examples come in small bottles and are on the expensive side, but they are worth it for a one-time indulgence. Look for JW Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale. At specialty beer stores, you might find versions of this in varying “vintages,” aged in various wooden vessels that previously held spirits or wine – no matter how old they are, go ahead and buy. Aged, this beer is fantastic. If you can’t find JW Lee’s, no problem, other barleywines will work, as long as they aren’t heavily hopped. Try Horn Dog from Flying Dog, Weyerbacher’s Blithering Idiot, Ridgeway Criminally Bad Elf, or Dogfish Head Immort Ale. These are just a few examples, ask the employees at your local store for more suggestions. 

I am confident that if you follow these general guidelines, you’ll easily outperform Beaujolais Nouveau at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Leftover Oktoberfests, dunkels, porters, Belgian pales, pumpkin ales – these will be pretty good too. As I said – with beer pairings, it’s hard to screw up too badly. Have fun with it!

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Pumpkin Ales – A Flight of 3

They’re back. Though perhaps I should apologize for making it sound as if the tsunami of pumpkin ales sweeping our local liquor store shelves just arrived, because it all started in late July/early August. Gets earlier and earlier, doesn’t it? I hate the “creep” of these seasonal beers, particularly pumpkin ales. If I start seeing spring beers in February, that’s something I can deal with – this is South Florida, after all, where the average February temperature is 75-80 degrees. That’s perfect spring beer weather – witbiers, saisons, bring ’em on! But pumpkin in August? That’s just wrong.

Still, despite the protests of such curmudgeonly beer geeks, these pumpkin ales hit the shelves when it’s 95 degrees out, and the general public laps them up. They are popular. Now don’t get me wrong, craft beer popularity is a great thing. It’s just that come Thanksgiving-time, when one might actually want a bottle of Cigar City’s excellent Good Gourd to pair with a traditional dinner, forget about finding one on the shelves, because everyone bought them all up way back around Labor Day. It’s ridiculous. Eating pumpkin is so linked to Thanksgiving dinner, it’s a shame to not have the best pumpkin beers around to further tie into that tradition.

But that’s my rant. They’re here, ready or not, so I suppose a brief buyers’ guide based on a flight of 3 pumpkin ales I recently had at Ft. Lauderdale’s Tap 42 is appropriate.

Harpoon UFO Pumpkin

At around 6%, this was the lightest-bodied of the beers I tried. I wasn’t expecting much, because truth be told, I think Harpoon’s regular UnFiltered Offering is a little lame, like a neutered hefeweizen. It was a pleasant surprise, though, with a nice crisp, clean wheaty foundation, and a straightforward but bright-tasting pure pumpkin spice flavor riding above. Easy drinking, and much better in this sessionable-pumpkin ale segment, I think, than Shipyard’s popular Pumpkinhead.

Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale

When I first started getting serious about beer years ago, I’d look forward to this one every fall. It was always fuller-bodied and boasted more flavor complexity than whatever else was available down here at the time. Over the years, though, the color of the beer seems to have become much lighter. I swear I remember this being more of a dark brown ale, way back in ’05-’07 – now it’s more of an amber. I could be wrong, but I don’t think my memory has deceived me. Beyond that, I find that this beer gets worse and worse every year, and I’m a Dogfish Head fan. This year’s edition takes the cake, though – I found the flavor to be downright muddy, with hints of unwelcome diacetyl (buttered-popcorn flavor). The pumpkin in this beer was never overwhelming even during its best years, but it used to taste like a Fall Cornucopia. Now it just tastes cluttered, and not in a “good, complex” way.

Southern Tier Pumking

The undisputed heavyweight champion of this flight of 3. If all that’s desired in a pumpkin ale is a full-bodied beer that tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie, here it is. Or perhaps this could even substitute for the pumpkin pie. Like most, if not all, of the Southern Tier “Imperial” series, the 9% Pumking is entirely lacking in subtlety – and here, I think that’s a good thing. It has “wow factor,” i.e. pumpkin pie right up in your face. Bring this to a Halloween party, and odds are that many fellow partiers will never have tasted a beer quite like it before. Beers like this are great for opening the eyes of people who equate “beer” with Bud Light, and Southern Tier brews a number of them. Even if I find it a bit too over-the-top for regular drinking, the Pumking will have its day.

Cheers everyone….and for god’s sake, save some pumpkin beers for the holidays.

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Olvisholt Brugghus Lava Smoked Imperial Stout

I wasn’t certain I’d ever drink another Icelandic beer. As far as I knew, those samples of Einstok I had a few months back were the extent of my beery forays to the land of Bjork, Mum and Sigur Ros. Speaking of which, if I’m going to drink to Iceland, I’d better put some music on. In goes the debut Sigur Ros CD – music to have a good cry to, or to contemplate a big beer like this…I’m not sure which.

Runes!

Cool label. The volcano kinda makes it look a bit like the cover of “Dianetics,” but then underneath the banner, there’s a depiction of an Icelandic farmhouse, and then “Smoked Imperial Stout” in English, and in runes. Runes! I haven’t seen runes like that since I read the Fellowship of the Ring. Here lies Balin, son of Fundin, Lord of Moria. Oh, and if any of you Scientologists Google “Dianetics” and come across my blog….I advise you to run far, far away from your kooky cult, relax, and have a beer. Come on. You know you want to.

But I digress. This is a beer blog, not a Tolkien fan site or a lampoonery of a cult that believes in evil overlords named Xenu. Hey, when I think of Xenu, I think of the beer from Cigar City. And now, I’m going to drink this fine beverage.

At over 9%, it’s a beer of some size, and it pours like it. It’s viscous, with a lazy head that can nevertheless be roused briefly with a couple vigorous swirls of the snifter. Aroma is a bit like burned chocolate, with an odd lavender note and hint of anise. There is some “campfire,” but it’s not overwhelming in the way a rauchbier would be. I’m kinda digging the floral note; it isn’t too often I smell that in a big imperial stout. Overlaid upon the base of smoky chocolate, caramel and anise, it smells like an expensive chocolate bar.

Now this is how I like my imperial stouts. Sometimes they take on over-roasted ashy flavors, or a little medicinal bitter cherry – neither of which I’m that big a fan. I’m not getting either of those here. It’s bitter chocolate up front with a quick kiss of caramel sweetness and a good cold-brewed coffee. Smoke is there, but only as an accent, not the overarching phenolic Band-Aid-y taste of some other smoked beers. It has a thick, viscous, cordial-esque mouthfeel – perfect for a beer like this, as it can really coat the palate rather than having all the dense flavor washed away by excessive carbonation.

I don’t remember where I got this – it was probably Stop & Shop by UM. That said, I do remember that it was not exactly cheap for a pint bottle…but then again, nothing from or in Iceland is inexpensive. Great for a one-off, though, and an accomplished example of a smoked imperial stout. This would pair extremely well with any number of chocolate or vanilla desserts – it has lots of flavor without being terribly overbearing in any one component. It’s going to complement dessert, not be dessert. Serve a small portion of it to your dinner party guests, and listen to all the raves.

SKAAL!

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Michael’s Genuine Home Brew

With Michael’s Genuine Home Brew, James Beard award-winning Miami chef Michael Schwartz joins the ranks of “Chefs with an Eponymously-Named Beer to their Credit,” a short list including the likes of Iron Chef Morimoto.

Contract brewed by Back Forty of Gadsden, Alabama, “Home Brew” arrived several days ago, accompanied by much social media fanfare (the beer even has its own Twitter handle, @MGHomeBrew). The beer will be served exclusively at Schwartz’s restaurants, Harry’s Pizzeria, and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, both of which require little or no introduction to serious South Florida eaters. But is it a good beer? ChatChowTV invited me over to Harry’s to give it a try.

The Michael’s Genuine team bills “Home Brew” as an American Ale, brewed with rice and cane sugar. I will admit, upon hearing that this was a rice beer, I was a little worried. Beers brewed with rice get a bad rap. This is because the world’s most famous rice beer is…you guessed it, Budweiser. Bud is the antithesis of craft beer, a dire, flavorless product that has more in common with Wonder Bread than real beer. The use of white rice in Budweiser lightens the beer in both color and flavor, making it palatable to those whose culinary sensibilities never progressed past the age of industrial food.

Yet, in the hands of a craft brewer, rice can be fashioned into an excellent, flavorful beer. Look no further than “Red Rice Ale” from Hitachino Nest in Japan, and “Trade Winds Tripel” from California’s The Bruery for proof of that. In the end, rice is just another grain that can be used as a source of fermentable sugar. It will lighten the beer’s body to be sure, and drinkers won’t get that dense bready flavor common in beers using all barley malt, but there’s no reason a quality rice used in conjunction with other high-quality ingredients needs to result in a flavorless beer. I’m hopeful that Michael’s beer will have more in common with Hitachino Nest than with Budweiser. Brewed with local Sem-Chi long grain brown rice and sugarcane, it should have the depth of flavor for which I’d hope.

“Home Brew” pours a very clear golden amber with minimal foam retention. The aroma is floral and lightly citric – a good sign; means that yes, hops have been included here, unlike Budweiser! Tasting the beer, I think I was expecting something like the Red Rice ale I mentioned above, but this was different. I’d say it’s more of a pale ale brewed with rice, in that it was more hop-forward than I was expecting. There’s a quick bite of citric hop bitterness initially, and then a very mild vanilla-tapioca sweetness midway that I’m thinking comes from the brown rice. Some floral/pine pungency carries through the finish and serves to dry out any residual sweetness. Mouthfeel was pleasantly soft, not as spiky as I might have expected, given the presence of such easily-fermentable sugars in the brewing process.

As the beer is being served at two renowned Miami restaurants, it was created at least in part to pair well with food. I would have preferred that this beer be a saison, 1) because that’s my own personal bias, and 2) because saisons are versatile food-pairing beasts – but this should also complement a wide variety of foods. I tried it with the rock shrimp and pesto pizzas at Harry’s, and both pairings worked, even if I thought it was a more natural, seamless match with the briny rock shrimp, lemongrass and manchego pizza than with the pesto.

The beer is available on draft, and in 22oz bombers for $11 a bottle, which is not terrible for a large format bottle in a restaurant. Go try some today at Harry’s or MGFD and let me know which dishes it did or didn’t work with. Cheers!

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Tart of Darkness, Fruet, and Cucumber Saison

It has occurred to me that the idea of “me drinking at home and doing a long blog post” just doesn’t manifest itself as often as it once did. I think I need to start writing more about some of the beers I drink while I’m “out,” or else I won’t have much of a blog. Maybe one day I’ll break down and buy an iPad, in hopes of blogging on the fly, live from beery dens like Abraxas or the Funky Buddha. In the meantime, though, I’m going to launch a series of short blurbs, specifically related to those times when I want to talk about beer(s), but don’t have enough material or time to sit down and write a lengthy article. So, without further blather:

Tart of Darkness – The Bruery

This is a “soured stout” that I’d been anxious to try. It reminds me a lot of other darker sour beers from the Bruery, like Marron Acidifie and Oude Tart – it’s not just tart, it’s out and out sour. As a sour beer, I think it’s excellent, but in evaluating the overall concept, I can’t help but think that an opportunity was missed. I would have liked to taste more “stout” and less “sour” – I wasn’t getting much of that deep, roasty flavor profile. Instead, it tasted more like a very puckery Flanders Brown.

Fruet – The Bruery

This is the Bruery’s 4th anniversary beer, a massive 15.5% ABV Old Ale aged 100% in bourbon barrels. Previous iterations of their anniversary beer were blends, with some proportion aged in bourbon barrels and some not, so I was curious to taste the impact of the full-on bourbon treatment. It wasn’t as bourbon-addled as I expected it to be. Sure, the calling cards are there – coconut, vanilla, wood – but the bourbon aspect didn’t smack me in the face. It’s a very rich beer with hints of chocolate, raisins and rum in addition. What made it a little tough was the fiery alcohol – going down, it did burn the old gullet somewhat. That’s to be expected with a young 15%’er, though. This one has an excellent future, as the alcohol will calm down in time. I’d like to give it another try in 3-6 years.

Cucumber Saison – Cigar City Brewing

I remember about a year ago, Miami’s now-defunct Sustain (R.I.P.) held a Cigar City beer dinner. I didn’t get to go to that one, but as I recall from reading Twitter, the Cucumber Saison, yet to be bottled at that time, was all the rage. Now it’s bottled, and now I understand what all the fuss is about. In short, it’s a hoppy saison brewed with cucumber. Given that cucumber confers a pretty delicate flavor, I was expecting the hops to completely overwhelm it. To my surprise and delight, the hops didn’t overwhelm at all; they only complemented the cucumber. There’s no mistaking it; you won’t have to search for it. The hop varieties used here are Citra and Sorachi Ace, two of my favorites. Sorachi, developed in Japan, yields a clean lemon-zesty flavor, while Citra, as the name implies, is very fruity, with grapefruit and orange leading the charge, a host of tropical fruits following behind it. You don’t get a lot of the green, dank piney aromas and flavors with these – which is most likely why they lend themselves well to a cucumber saison. Highly recommended. Our unanimous choice for a food pairing with this one was a spicy mango gazpacho we tried at Fairchild’s Mango Festival several hours earlier – but as with all saisons, this will be quite versatile at the table.

That’s it for now. Do I have you all ready to go out and grab a few beers yet? Cheers!

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