Up All Night: A Blind Tasting of Coffee Stouts and Porters

•March 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

wpid-20150316_143133.jpgThank goodness for the coffee stout.  (Or coffee porter, if you prefer.) Before laying the groundwork for more outside the box ingredients such as maple syrup, ghost chilies, and raspberries, fusing the absurdly complementary aromas and flavors of coffee to those found in beers created from more roasted malts made a ton of sense, and it still does today.  The very malts used in beers such as stouts and porters can often mimic the roasted aromas and flavors in coffee, so adding a little joe to the mix to create beers such as Founders Breakfast Stout, Bell’s Java Stout, and Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea have long meant that some of the best of these beers have made for some of the slickest, velvety, most aromatic, more complex beers that one can easily attain.  But with such success, coffee beers have long become a crowded field, and each winter brings new chance to revisit old favorites and try new releases in this “category”.

With so many options available, the coffee stout/porter also lends itself to plenty of easy going debate over personal favorites.  Now, we’re not talking about IPAs here.  When it comes to giving your opinion of one heavy hitting IPA over another, escalation seems to sometimes occur quickly, and all of a sudden you can find yourself at the ‘them’s fightin’ words’ level before you know it.  Nevertheless, one night over a couple of beers (of course), and a light discussion over coffee beer favorites, my wife – the house’s resident stout fanatic, by the way – and I decided lining up a few coffee beers for a blind tasting sounded like a darn good idea, albeit one that might keep us awake all night.

A few disclaimers:  In deciding what beers would be included in the blind tasting, we both realized that while there are many, highly sought after ‘Imperial’ level coffee stouts (Perennial’s Sump, Bourbon County’s Coffee BCBS come to mind), that it would be far easier (and perhaps more interesting overall) to line up several more easier to find, more ‘household’ coffee stouts/porters.  Let’s face it, beers such as Sump and Bourbon County Coffee are all world class beers, and although such a tasting would be a world of fun, it would also be pretty difficult to put together to say the least, and in addition, a possible waste of those beers once the palate began to suffer.  To this end, we attempted to keep the relative abv% and limiting it to (mostly) lower alcohol level, non “Imperial” selections.  I readily admit, as you’ll see, that we failed to do this on a couple beers, to which we both told ourselves “oh well”, and didn’t give it another thought.  This whole tasting was put together with a sense of fun in mind.  And of course, given the number of coffee stouts and porters out there, we could’ve just kept selecting beers until the end of time.  So we also decided to cap the beers at ten selections.

We also realized that such a tasting is a snapshot in time, and of course, based on our own opinions.  One year’s release of a particular coffee beer can be different from the next, but then again, that can be true for most any craft beer.  It’s also interesting to take a moment and consider the number of additional variables coffee beers can bring to the table, most of them being fairly obvious, such as, when exactly was the coffee added during the brewing process, or what type of coffee was added, or what form of coffee was used – whole bean, brewed coffee, or something in between?  The combinations seem endless, so it was decided early on that this would be a wholly informal, somewhat un-scientific tasting.

wpid-20150316_143033.jpgEach beer was given an overall score based upon aroma, mouthfeel, and of course flavor.  The results, as they can be with blind tastings, were a bit surprising.  Below, the beers are listed in ranking from our lowest rated (#10) to highest (#1), with a little bit of information about each one and comments that we wrote down during the tasting if applicable.

So away we went, sleep be darned.

#10:  Troeg’s JavaHead Stout, 7.5% abv.  No joke, one of the comments written was “…where’s the coffee?”.  While I’m sure that tasting this beer alone would reveal plenty of coffee notes in the aroma and taste, amidst its brethren, it produced other comments such as “low coffee” and “not much coffee in the aroma”.  There was one quick “roasty” written down.  On Troeg’s webpage for the beer, there is reference to a fair amount of hop influence, perhaps mirrored in one comment “..grassy, way more hop forward”.  The beer is apparently run through a hop back loaded with both coffee and hops (Cluster, Chinook, Cascade), so if you are looking for something more leveled out with hop character, this could be your coffee beer.

#9:  Flying Dog’s Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout, 8.9%.  I’ve had this before and it’s been to my liking, so this was a bit of a surprise.  We both noted that we liked the beer though not as a “true coffee stout”, whatever that meant at the time.  This beer was clearly an abv% fail, easily touching at least the bottom end of the big boy spectrum, and that might have had something to do with us both noting some faint dark fruit flavors. Among other notes was a semi present dark caramel sweetness.  Other comments were “earthy roast”, “light coffee aroma”.  Made with a secret blend coffee from Black Dog Coffee in West Virginia.

#8:  Wolaver’s Alta Gracia Coffee Porter, 5.0%.  This one made it into the mix by being perhaps one of the first coffee beers we ever tasted, some years ago.  We both however dinged it a bit on what seemed to be an over active amount of carbonation and a light to light medium-ish body that detracted from any character the coffee gave to the beer, which I did note as being “earthy”.

#7:  Starr Hill’s Red RooStarr Coffee Cream Stout, 5.8%.  From here on for the next few beers, the ratings pulled a good bit closer together, kicked off by the first of two cream stouts in the mix.  Not surprisingly, we wrote down notes regarding a little bit of sweetness in the aroma and flavor.  We also wrote down straight ahead comments such as “tons of coffee”, and “rich coffee aroma”.  We’ve of course both had this before, and it definitely tries to achieve a balance between its sweetness and a bold coffee aroma and flavor.  We both wished the body had been a touch heavier though, which was a bit surprising for the style. An overall good beer.  Brewed with a special blend of coffee from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters in Floyd, Va.

#6:  Williamsburg AleWerks Coffeehouse Stout, 5.4%.  Ok, so this was a touch of a surprise as well.  Don’t get us wrong, we both love this beer, but we expected it to be a little higher in our blind tasting.  My wife guessed the style correctly by noting “more like a milk stout…”, also writing “..taste mild coffee, creamy, solid mouthfeel”.  Among my own notes were “healthy coffee aroma and taste, but not overly so, like coffee with the right amount of cream added to it”, and “sweet-ish finish”.  Brewed with Guatemala Antigua style coffee.

#5:  Bell’s Java Stout, 7.5%.  My own personal favorite landed squarely in the middle, and we both noted it for something that I have always loved about this beer, the body, which one of the notes mentioned was “heavier than the others”.  I remember later immediately writing down my note of “…coffee pot full of rich…espresso like rich coffee…pours heavy…” and then wrote “like the taste of coffee grounds with the slightest bit of water mixed in”.  The denser nature of the beer along with the full on, deep roasted but not bitter coffee taste continues to make this a favorite of mine.  Made with a blend of coffee from Water Street Coffee Joint, a coffee roaster local to Bells.

#4:  Founders Breakfast Stout, 6.5%.  I remember when finding FBS on draft or in bottles was a huge event.  Nowadays, expansion and success has made it relatively easy to find in many places, and competition from other coffee stouts has perhaps taken a little of the uniqueness of this beer away.  We wondered where this legend would fall in our tasting, it still wasn’t far from the top.  Aided by the addition of bitter chocolates, our notes mentioned such things as “heavy…slick mouthfeel…low carbonation..dark chocolate…super coffee heavy notes…”, “wonderful, dense coffee aroma”, “dry, almost tannic like finish” were among the notes…”Editor’s” note:  after I posted this, my wife reminded me that this was one of two beers she guessed perfectly, (in addition to Red Roostarr) a fact that I assure you that I did not leave out on purpose.  That’s what I get for not asking her to help proofread.

wpid-20150316_143650.jpg#3:  Pisgah Brewing Valdez Coffee Stout, 6.2%.  The surprise of the evening was Pisgah’s Valdez, with my notes remarking “straight up cup o’coffee, no cream…kick in your pants cup of joe” and my wife’s comments of double underlined “bitter coffee”.  It barely edged out FBS at the last spot, and although we both thought the body could’ve been a little better, the intense, straight ahead dark coffee flavor and aroma was a winner for us.  Made with coffee from Dynamite Roasting Co., in Pisgah’s own town of Black Mountain, NC.


#2:  Schlafly Coffee Stout, 5.7%.  The second surprise of the tasting came from a beer neither one of us had too much experience with at all, but our notes put it well above the rest.  With “the best so far” underlined in one set of notes, with “[caramel like] sweet butwpid-20150316_143358.jpg coffee forward” and “perfect mouthfeel”, Schlafly’s coffee stout was, in essence, the best of the entire bunch had a dead ringer not been included (see no.1, below).  The description on the brewery’s website mentions a story in which a local coffee roaster and the brewery worked together to find a solid combination between the brewery’s popular oatmeal stout and the roaster’s own espresso.  The match is a delicious mix of the two, with the strength and bitterness of the coffee balanced well against the sweetness and body of the stout.

And the winner… #1:  Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea, 10%.  Better suited for an Imperial Coffee beer tasting, its inclusion came about from the wider availability the beer seems to be enjoying this year.  A heavy hitter that can take on much bigger game, this beer got notes from us like “most complex so far”, and “most coffee forward yet”, “fresh brewed coffee aroma”, “not heavy but great, milky body”, and “light sweetness”.  The inclusion of vanilla beans also gives the beer an advantage, along with its rich but not over the top, completely dialed in coffee flavor and aroma.  Brewed with coffee beans from San Diego’s Caffe Calabria.

wpid-20150316_143611.jpgAmong the takeaways from the tasting was the fact that two beers we didn’t expect at all to be near the top of the list were: Schlafly’s and Pisgah’s, and the fact that nowadays, FBS still competes, at least for us, among some good competition.  One fun fact was that during the tasting, if we felt we strongly knew exactly what beer we were tasting, we’d write it down.  I somehow managed to nail down my favorite Java Stout from Bells, while we both wrote down Williamsburg AleWerks’ Coffeehouse Stout while tasting a beer we felt was one of the best of the whole lot.  The catch was that while we whole heartedly agree Coffeehouse Stout is certainly a fine beer, the beer we thought it was turned out not to be Coffeehouse at all – a swing and a miss on our part.  But this is the sort of thing that comes up in blind tastings and tends to get you thinking.  We were sure the best of the bunch, according to this particular tasting, was our personal favorite, but were solidly proven wrong.  So I began wondering about how an affinity for certain beers affect our view of that beer unfairly, giving it too high of a mark, perhaps to the point of not remaining open to trying similar beers (Schlaflys, for example), or at least giving others their fair due.  Contrarily, I wondered how having a disdain for a certain beer might keep one from trying it again down the road, or worse, how that negative opinion might spread to other beers from the same brewery.  If we’re honest with ourselves, I think most of us can admit to basing such an opinion of a particular brewery after relying on too small a sample size, only to find out later on they make some darn good beers after all.

In the end, our only downfall was including a couple of heavyweights such as Victory at Sea in our lesser alcohol content tasting, but then again, it was all  for fun – something blind tastings always are.  In addition, the matter of brewery perception based on singular beers was brought into full light, a lesson we can probably all remind ourselves of from time to time.


The Ugly Side of Craft Beer

•February 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Note:  In my previous post, I wrote about the now well known, recently debuted Budweiser television ad which took some shots at craft beer and its drinkers.  I’m sure you’ve seen the ad by now, and likely remember those three very serious looking men sitting around a table contemplating their craft beer in a very studious fashion.  In my opinion, their actions make them look more like beer judges than anyone I’ve ever shared a beer with, craft or otherwise.  Nevertheless, the idea was to paint with a broad stroke, depicting craft beer folks as too serious for their own good, and certainly not as fun to hang with as the average ‘Bud’.  Of course, craft folks are not all like that, not even close.  But there are a few among us who take things a bit too seriously at times, so at the risk of eliciting some blowback from craft beer fans themselves, I’ll just say it – that shot in the Bud ad?  A few of us – few, mind you – just might have had it coming.  Read on if you’d like.

The New Yorker Magazine’s October ’14 issue was looked upon by some as a truly notable moment in the overall growth of craft beer.  Part of the issue was dedicated to the growth of craft beer in New York City, as apparently some of the Big Apple’s trendiest of restaurants were beginning to embrace craft either on its own or in regularly featured food pairings on their menus.  Yes, craft beer was finally getting some overdue recognition among the food and beverage elite.  But before any reader would be able to truly dig into to the meat of the coverage within the magazine’s pages, there was that cover.  It depicted a waiter at a busy New York eatery delivering a bottle of craft beer to a seated patron, wine bottle presentation style.  A towel is draped over the waiter’s forearm as he awaits tableside for the patron’s acceptance of the beer, who is busy swishing a first sip around in his mouth, head tilted to one side and nose in the air in intense contemplation.  The classic references to the stereotypical image of a boorish, aloof wine connoisseur and his behavior are impossible to miss.  Sure, it’s important to note that the artist behind the drawing is well known for his satirical style, as many who design the magazine’s covers are – again, it’s the New Yorker.  But as the magazine clearly states at the end of the artwork’s description of the artwork:  “It’s an unprecedentedly excellent time to drink beer in Brooklyn, as the cover suggests”, but then concludes, “Just don’t become a snob about it.”

Such a suggestion might seem only cautionary for those who are still easing into craft beer.  But for those of us who have been following craft beer for a bit longer, we know that for many who troll in the craft beer world, it is already too late.  All one needs to do is to spend a few minutes occasionally perusing discussion boards on otherwise informative beer websites such as BeerAdvocate.com to see a fair share of verbal beat downs, born out of one person disagreeing with another over the quality of a particular beer, brewery, or even beer producing region of the country.  It’s a discussion that often devolves quickly into childish, “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t wash my car with that beer” sorts of statements.

In their most wobbly of defenses, some might say that the most elitist of craft beer fans have a right to such opinions.  After all, tasting beer is a subjective endeavor.  We’re not solving math equations.  As each of us moves from one IPA to another, one milk stout to another, and from one Pappy Van Winkle barrel aged Vietnamese coffee infused imperial stout to another, favorites will develop.  One (or two or three) will stand out over the others.  Our opinions are going to be ever changing, and this is all a very natural experience – for everyone.  But while some choose to champion a personal favorite and intelligently and respectfully debate it with others, for others, the idea of the personal tasting experience is forgotten.  Their opinions on certain beers seem to become absolute facts, points to be argued across the virtual craft beer world as well as across the bar, and here is where the problem begins.  Though there are those beers (and breweries) which the great majority of us seem to agree on, the idea that any beer should be accepted by all is, by nature, impossible.  Never encountered such negative discussions?  Here were just a couple titles of BeerAdvocate.com discussion boards that were occurring when the New Yorker issue was released:  “Most Overrated Brewery” and “What Beer Are You Drain Pouring Now?”.

So what’s the danger in such behavior?  Just look the other way, right?  At the very least, such behavior can cast one heck of a black cloud over everyone’s otherwise positive enjoyment of craft beer.  But at its worst, such elitist behavior can be exclusionary.  It can divide people who might otherwise have leaned on each other for information at the least, or at the worst, just might have shared a beer together one day.  Need any evidence of how dangerous an aloof beer drinker, or even just the image of one, can be?  Just take another look at that Bud commercial again.  Those craft beer guys in the Budweiser commercial are not far off from the seated patron on the New Yorker Magazine cover.  The ad is banking on keeping its loyal customer from straying too far and becoming too curious about craft beer.  I mean, who would want to hang out with those guys anyway…right?

And while it’s important to note that those “types” are just a small percentage of the craft community, unfortunately, they often seem to be the most vocal.  Or perhaps they stick out because they are more than willing to do what the rest of us are at least respectful enough not to, even if we do harbor similarly unwavering opinions – keep them to ourselves.  I suppose the same internal struggle that causes one to form such wholly negative opinions about typically beloved beers and breweries is the same problem that would cause one to want to blast it all over the internet.  Nevertheless, while it’s difficult to imagine someone thinking that breweries such as Bells, Founders, and Cigar City are overrated – in the end, to each his or her own – unfortunately, it’s all too easy to find those opinions in the most common of craft beer forums.

Some may remember such a thread from early 2012, which gained notoriety after it received a terse online response from none other than Dogfish Head owner Sam Caligione.  In his rebuttal, he noted how “pretty depressing it is to visit this site [referring to the discussion threads on BeerAdvocate.com] and see the most negative threads among the most popular”, referring partially to those who claim a particular brewery is overrated, but then go on to list several of that brewery’s beers which they care for.  But towards the end of the response, he got even more to the point of calling out those who forget just how subjective tasting beer is, and then broadcast negativity to the craft beer scene through their opinions.  Referring to two beers his brewery would be providing samples of at an upcoming event, he noted how different the two would be from each other.  “Each of your palettes is unique, [so] you will probably prefer one over the other,” before appropriately adding, “that doesn’t mean the one you didn’t prefer sucked.  Respect beer.”  As many others noted at the time, I couldn’t have said it better, but if I may add – let’s respect each other too.



The Hard Work of Respecting Beer These Days

•February 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Generally speaking, I’ve tried not to get too involved in the macro beer versus craft beer argument over the years.  Case in point?  I have long held onto a quote by Devils Backbone brewer Jason Oliver that apparently represents his take on the division between craft beer and macro brewery beer, and the name calling and vitriol between some – not all – but some of the fans of each.  In the interview he was giving, he drew a hard and fast line between what he calls “quality of flavor” versus the “intensity of flavor”, and how a beer that is low in “intensity” does not make it necessarily a bad beer.  Specifically, he calls out “militant” beer geeks for slamming macro brewery beer such as Coors, Miller, or Budweiser.  Now, I freely admit that it is all too easy for some of us, including myself, to come to enjoy craft beer so much for all of its endless variety of aromas, flavors, and styles that it is all too easy to take sides, and then defend that side too far, even when there’s not a battle nearby to be waged.  Yet, Oliver’s opinion has stuck with me and all these years, making more and more sense as time passes, and I believe that it somewhat resonates within the “drink what you like” line that I wrote for the ‘about’ section of this blog some time ago.  Basically, hidden in between those very lines:  I won’t disrespect you, if you’ll do the same for me.

Funny enough, in that same interview, Oliver mentioned that despite his respect for larger brewery beer, he doesn’t always agree with the marketing techniques those larger breweries use.  Whatever advertising messages Oliver was referring to then, it is doubtful that he, along with everyone else in the overall craft beer community, could’ve seen coming the now infamous television commercial that Budweiser unleashed during the third quarter of this year’s Super Bowl.  You know the one.  Debuted to goodness knows how many folks during the game, it has now gone into (very) regular rotation.  Proclaiming that Budweiser is for “drinking” and not “dissecting”, the commercial whips back and forth between a bunch of obviously fun loving ‘buds’ enjoying their Budweiser beer at their local bar and three hip-ster looking fellas concentrating intensely on tulip glasses of dark, craft brewed beers in some vague, slightly stuffy brewpub setting, attempting to draw out the differences between those who obviously know how to drink beer and have a good time and those who take their beer far too seriously.  “Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale”, it exclaims, not only drawing the line deeper in the sand between craft and macro beer drinkers, but filling it with water, creating a moat, and then erecting a walled fortress built of stone boulders behind it, with a Bud flag flying high above.  The commercial caught many a craft beer fan and brewer off guard, as it didn’t just attempt to defend Budweiser on its own merits, but went on to seemingly attack the craft beer community by reinforcing the already existing stereotypes of the mustached and overly manicured, dapperly dressed, opinion packing, way to serious for their own good craft beer fan.

Now, I’m not sure what the ad execs behind the commercial think we craft beer fans ultimately do with the beer in our glasses.  As for myself, I drink them.   And, as many pointed out at the time, I’d recommend Budweiser perhaps not slam the very styles of beers which the breweries they own actually create (as you already know, recent AB-Inbev acquisition Elysian Brewing does in fact make a pecan pumpkin peach ale).  At first, I was willing to look past the stereotyping.  I’d like to think that even the most regular Budweiser drinker might be able to admit that not all craft beer fans look like an updated version of a circus ringmaster.  Should they need an example to the contrary, I’ll gladly give myself up as evidence.  My usual craft beer bartenders don’t even recognize me if I don’t show up with some old brewery t-shirt and/or baseball cap on, and I’m far from alone.  I can’t even tell you the last time I was in a craft beer establishment and saw a whisper thin mustache paired with a tweed jacket and overstyled hair.  I know we exist, but I can assure you, they are just a portion of our population.  But of course, that’s not really the point of the ad, is it?

Where I truly began to feel a little hot under the collar – of my old, craft beer t-shirt of course – was when the folks at Bud proudly exclaimed their beer is brewed “the hard way”, whatever that exactly means.  Here’s a little thing I can assure you after running this blog for four years.  Although I cannot truly vouch for the brewing staff at any Budweiser facility, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that being a brewer at a small, craft brewery requires plenty of hard work, as many of the teams at those breweries can be quite small, and have to handle every portion of the business.

In the days that have followed the commercial’s debut, Budweiser has responded to the criticisms by saying the company wasn’t attacking craft beer, only pointing out what their own product is known for – for simple “drinking” and not to be “fussed over”.  Paste magazine news editor Jim Vorel, in his response to the commercial, gathered that this must mean that Bud’s product is essentially for pouring “straight down your stomach in one fell swoop while bypassing the taste buds altogether”.  And I suppose that “fussy” beer must be a beverage created so well, on so many various levels, that even Bud admits it inspires taking a moment to fully appreciate it.  Budweiser ad execs continue to defend the commercial to this day – and I’m sure for many to come – by saying it was intended to be about what the beer is and not about what it isn’t, but that is clearly just a talking point for the media, and not even a well thought out one.  Even the most non argumentative beer lover must admit the tv spot included plenty of stinging jabs towards the craft community by unfortunately reinforcing, underlining, and showcasing the existing stereotype of the too serious craft beer snob, before attempting a knock out with that “brewed the hard way” roundhouse, which was really just a sucker punch thrown well after the bell had already sounded.

Well known for ads featuring Clydesdales and slow motion pours of their beers to inspire their existing fans, this time, they attempted to bolster pride by including a shot or two at the competition.  It was bound to come, I guess.  Craft beer has been stealing the headlines away from them for quite a while, not to mention plenty of sales too.  But as many have noted already, continued marketing such as this may not only keep the Bud drinker drinking Bud, but may also drive off any developing curiosity among them for craft beer.  I still see those curious souls in the grocery store on weekends, on Friday and Saturday nights, walking back and forth between the more familiar macro beer aisle and the craft aisle, plenty unsure of the latter.  Many still leave with the old standby tucked under the arm, and perhaps even more will now.  But if you’re listening, and still remain curious about craft beer – and don’t believe that all craft beer folks are uppity snobs as some would try to lead you to believe – a respectful hand from this side of the growing divide is still extended, if only to the macro drinkers themselves and not to the company still trying so desperately to hang onto them.


Sources:  Interview with Jason Oliver, published March 17, 2011 on the popular beer blog “Drink With The Wench”; Paste Magazine article posted online, written by Jim Vorel on February 2, 2015

Come “Fall In Love With Local Craft Beer” At Blue 5 Tonight

•October 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Taps at Blue 5Roanoke’s Blue 5 kicks off the weekend tonight with a spotlight on Virginia’s craft beer community, featuring a line up of beer from specifically chosen from within the state, including several from breweries in Roanoke.  The restaurant’s “Fall In Love With Local Craft Beer” event should feature more than ten beers, half of which coming from the Star City.

Perhaps just as notable, if not more so, than the fact that these beers are from within the state’s boundaries is that the ones from Roanoke represent a step outside those brewery’s regular line up of beer.  Of course, if you pay any attention at all to the choices at your local beer store on a regular basis, you already know that new releases, whether they be one offs, seasonal, or otherwise, are constantly hitting the shelves, something that seems to be almost entirely consumer driven.  Though it might be impossible to truly gauge, basically, not only are more folks trying craft beer, but those who have taken a more than extremely casual liking to craft want to try something different – constantly.  Not that you can really blame them.  (Or should I say, “us”, since I’m as much a part of this desire to search out the newest as anyone.)  After all, “different” is what got most of us into craft beer to begin with.  This trend to put out something truly new – especially beyond the brewery’s walls – has been, arguably, somewhat slow to catch on among Roanoke’s breweries.  Lately, however, that seems to be changing – and it’s a good sign indeed.

So that brings us back to the line up at Blue 5 tonight.  Parkway Brewing Company’s new Double IPA Four Damn Fights To A Pint, if you haven’t yet tried it, is a must to seek out.  But consider the brewery’s newer fall seasonal, Seeing Colors – instantly among some of the better fall, spiced beers I’ve tasted.  Chaos Mountain’s relatively new smoked vanilla porter seasonal sold well at the brewery on its first go round.  It is just the latest in several smaller batch beers the Callaway based brewery has produced, but one of the few to make it outside the brewery’s walls.  Not so oddly enough, it is also one that was produced after local restaurant owners had heard about it and wanted to put it on draft, no doubt prodded on by customers who simply wanted to try something different.


Is Stone Brewing Officially Coming To Richmond?

•October 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Stone Brewing 1Sure, so it wasn’t Roanoke.

But according to all reports, the Star City did well in the running for Stone Brewing’s east coast brewery expansion project, making it well into the final rounds of the decision making process.  And after Roanoke was dropped from consideration, for many craft curious in the area, the question then became something along the lines of… wouldn’t it be something if those Stone IPAs were being brewed just a few hours away?  Because a few hour drive to Richmond – a city that has been actively named in the rumors also since the beginning – seems well worth it to land (very) freshly brewed batches of some of the most sought after craft beers in the country.  Still, it seemed as if there were still at least a couple of other, non Virginia cities in the running, at least up until yesterday afternoon.

But just after 4pm Wednesday, the Richmond Times Dispatch posted a story on their website stating that Richmond city officials and Governor Terry McAuliffe were planning to make some sort of economic development statement on Thursday, and “sources” were saying that it involved the Escondido, California based company.

If you believe the action on Facebook and Twitter, Richmond has already landed the deal.  Regardless of its exact nature, however, the announcement will hopefully shed some light on the rumors that began circulating on social media after those news reports came out.

With any luck, it’ll let us know that in the not so far off future, a relatively short, three hour drive to Richmond will not only mean we can visit the city’s own existing and eclectic mix of breweries in order to taste their beer, but also to perhaps taste some incredibly fresh Stone IPA that’s being brewed right just down the street from them as well.


Virginia Brewery Snapshot: Williamsburg’s The Virginia Beer Company

•October 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Virginia Beer Company logoEven as archeologists were unearthing the remains of what’s thought to be a colonial era brew house on the grounds of Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary, two friends – alumni of that very school, no less – were busy unearthing ideas for the foundation of their own brewery just a few miles away.  And even while the most casual of beer geek would probably have a difficult time not day dreaming about what the beer from the former might have been like, no such contemplation will be needed about the beer from the latter.  When Williamsburg’s The Virginia Beer Company opens their doors mid 2015, founders Chris Smith and Robby Willey, along with Brewmaster Jonathan Newman, will be more than happy to pour you a glass or two to satisfy any such curiosities.

Smith and Willey met while attending William and Mary, honing not only the skills that would serve them in careers in finance but also developing a shared interest in craft beer.  Although Smith and Willey’s post college paths would take them in different directions and well away from Williamsburg as they landed jobs in New York, Boston, and Northern Virginia, the two kept well in touch, and often took trips together, visiting craft breweries as their mutual interest in craft beer continued to grow.  During this time, the two began home brewing, and eventually began discussing merging their business lives with their passion for craft beer to open their own brewery.  It was during these conversations that Willey and Smith felt a call to return to Williamsburg, the city where they had met and began their craft beer curiosities, and by 2012, had done so.  However, apart from “some volunteer work at local breweries” and their own home brewing experience, the two lacked experience in larger scale brewing.  So in 2013, Jonathan Newman, formerly of SweetWater Brewing in Georgia, was recruited as a consultant to the brewery.  Roughly a year later, as Willey proudly states, Newman “became the brewery’s first full-time hire in Summer 2014”.

With Newman’s guidance and experience, the brewery plans on first focusing on “a small, high quality core lineup of year-round products”, Smith continues, and then building upon those three to four year round offerings to include “a boundary-pushing rotation of limited edition beers”.  The brewery has already begun to create test batches of possible year round offerings, understanding that “while we have ambitious plans to offer a sizable variety of beers and flavors, we also realize that we want to make our name in the quality of our early recipes”.  The early test batches include a citrusy American Wheat Ale, an IPA hopped with Azacca (a relatively new variety), an Oatmeal Stout, and an Amarillo/Simcoe Rye ESB.  The series of more limited releases has already taken on a name, “Burg Beer”, and along with the core beers, will be the products brewed on the brewery’s primary 30 bbl brewhouse.  The brewery also plans to fully utilize a smaller 3bbl pilot system.  “Using the two, we aim to offer three to four year-round offerings as well as a multitude of one-offs in the taproom.”  Depending upon the season and how those one are received, those may be moved to the primary brewing equipment.  Willey continues, “We also plan to get creative with cask ales, so we are really stoked to take advantage of our planned brewing capacity and taproom to have some truly invigorating styles while at the same time offering something for everyone.  In addition, the use of pins and firkins will allow us to be exceptionally creative and get feedback from customers, fans, and retailers to drive new [recipes].”  Between the year round offerings and the more limited seasonal and taproom only beers, The Virginia Beer Company seems well aware of the wide variety of craft beer drinkers, as well as being cognizant of their wide ranging and often shifting tastes.  “We’re focused on bridging the gap between those who don’t know much about craft to the people working in the industry who live, breathe, and drink it every day, so quality and variety are integral to Virginia Beer Co.’s future success.”

Central to the vision Willey and his partners have for The Virginia Beer Company will be the site at which the beers will be primarily available, the brewery’s taproom.  The team well understands that the visitors to the brewery will span a wide variety of craft beer fan, from the locally based Williamsburg native to the tourist looking to check out a new brewery while on vacation.  But regardless of each visitor’s level of craft beer experience or reason for stopping by, The Virginia Beer Company wants the taproom to feel inviting to all.  “First and foremost, we want people who visit our brewery to feel welcome. All types of people, be they tourists, locals, students, or families, should sense the community atmosphere we will try to create.  We’re [aware] that in a place like Williamsburg we  need to cater to groups coming in to check out a band on a Thursday evening as well as families coming through for the weekend who may enjoy a Sunday afternoon on the patio.”  Hosting various community events is but one way the brewery hopes to build such a comfortable atmosphere.  The brewery also plans to have a green area near the patio where during the warmer months, patrons can bring a picnic or participate in lawn games.  Without a doubt, it sounds as if Willey and Smith have learned – likely through their many travels to breweries over the years – that the more successful breweries are ones which become a social destination for families and friends to gather, instead of simply being a tasting room with a bar.  “We want our customers to walk away feeling inspired by the experience they received by enjoying something created with so much thought, effort, and love.”

While The Virginia Beer Company’s long term plans include growing beyond the taproom and distributing on a regional basis, Willey, Smith, and Newman realize that success begins, as it should, at home.  “We have been seeking a space with more capacity than we need now so we can grow into that location over the next 10 years, and we’d certainly love to be a regional brewery by that point.”, Willey says.  “[But] we don’t want to expand too quickly – we want to make sure our year-round offerings are constantly available around Williamsburg and the surrounding areas before we move to new cities.”  So while the brewery certainly has plans to distribute draft beer throughout Virginia within the first few years of operation, first on draft and then hopefully in bottle and can formats, “for now we’ll just focus on opening so people can come to us and sample some Burg Beer, but we plan to get out to the people as soon as we can!”

The Virginia Beer Company team certainly seems to have built a solid foundation, beginning with Smith and Willey’s return to Williamsburg, where their interest in craft beer all began.  As the brewery’s founders explain, “A lot of research went into the name of the brewery as well as its final destination but after a lot of due diligence, Williamsburg, Virginia emerged as the perfect place to start the [brewery]. It’s the state where Robby was raised, where Chris & Robby first met, and one with a thriving beer scene. In addition, Williamsburg, beyond being the birthplace of the duo’s interest in brewing, is an incredible city with a rich history and thriving culture that has ample room for more growth in the world of craft brewing.”  So far, the city has been receptive to the venture.  “We’ve received a great deal of support from the City of Williamsburg and the surrounding counties, as well as from local breweries ranging from in town to Richmond to Charlottesville to Washington, DC.”  And while the brewery certainly has a robust plan in terms of brewing a great variety of beers and attracting loyal customers through quality examples of those styles, the VBC team is starting with a time tested and simple recipe for success.  “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a name for yourself – beer drinkers appreciate a well-crafted ale or lager, and if you do it right, you’re more likely to get [return] customers…If you’re willing to be polite, patient, and work hard, [the brewery] will be accepted by the powers that be and the peers around you.”


–Thank you so much to team at The Virginia Beer Company for letting me do this little write up about their brewery.  Please check out their Facebook page here.


Great Beer & Music Always Go Together: Come Out To Parkway Brewing Company This Friday To See The Infamous Stringdusters’ Travis Book

•October 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Parkway Brewing May 12, 2010, Kirk Avenue, downtown Roanoke:  the first time I would have the good fortune to see the contemporary bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters live, and the first time I would see Travis Book, the band’s upright bass player, laying down the backbone for the band and sharing the vocals.  I had only bought a couple of studio produced cds at the time, but they provided more than enough motivation to go.  Somewhere in between the first few songs of the show, and probably about halfway through my first Shooting Creek Buffalo Brown ale (original edition, back then) and definitely before “Booksy” began singing first words of the band’s “It’ll Be Alright”, I knew I was hooked.

Book has returned to perform the occasional solo show here in Roanoke from time to time, and the band and its members are no strangers to visits and performances at breweries.  (The Stringdusters have performed at Michigan’s Bells Brewing, California’s Humbolt Brews, Georgia’s SweetWater Brewing, and have been associated with Colorado’s Oskar Blues’ charitable CAN’d Aid Foundation since at least 2013.)  Their annual multi-day music festival, “The Festy Experience”, held each October, is located on the grounds at Devils Backbone’s “basecamp” brewpub in Nelson County.  This Friday, the talented Book will return to the area for a solo performance at Salem’s Parkway Brewing.

For his solo gigs, Book plays acoustic guitar and usually weaves through set lists of Stringdusters songs as well as other personal favorites, and often covers songs he performed and wrote alongside one of his own personal heroes, a songwriter by the name of Benny “Burle” Galloway.  Many of those songs are available on Book’s recent cd release “Alice”.  Book and Galloway performed a handful of intimate “house shows” in Colorado in early September.

This Friday however, you can come out and see Book solo and of course enjoy Parkway’s beer as well!  The show itself is free, and according to the brewery’s Facebook page, begins around 6pm.  There will be a ticket giveaway during the evening for this year’s “Festy Experience”, which is coming up this year on October 10 -12.

If my memory is correct, Book himself is a fan of fine IPAs, occasionally mentioning having the good luck to come across a few Heady Toppers from time to time.

One of Parkway’s Get Bent Mountain IPAs should be right up his alley.


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