Of High Lifes And Two Hearteds…Some Thoughts On The “Go-To” Beer

•March 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

My father wasn’t a huge beer drinker.  All the same, it wasn’t too terribly uncommon for there to be a few Miller High Life bottles in the fridge either, and if memory serves, we’re talking about those little ‘pony’ bottles too.  Seven ounces of the Champagne of Beer, ice cold and drunk straight from the bottle – clear glass and all.

Now, the grocery store beer aisle as we know it today is a vastly different world than when I was growing up. We won’t go into any specifics of year or age – I assure you it was a while ago.  And while the choices might have been a bit limited to my father back in the day, I’m pretty sure dad was perfectly happy with what came in those clear glass bottles.  They were a “go-to” beer for him.  Now, I may be losing my way just a bit inside of some odd, nostalgic haze, but I often begin to wonder…

does the idea of a “go-to beer” exist at all inside the world of craft beer drinkers?

At first, the idea of a “go-to” for a “craft” drinker seems relatively ludicrous.  With so much diversity lurking within every craft drinkers’ fridge, the idea of a regularly imbibed beer seems about as foreign as finding something actually foreign among all the beer in there.  Consider all the various ways we seek out all those different beers.  Between the travelers and heavy traders, the purveyors of online beer stores, and the folks who will still try just about everything, the possibilities can be endless (even a beer with horseradish added).  And even if you prefer your Porter without the addition of something which should be acceptable only on a roast beef sandwich, your local beer bars and stores will likely keep you entertained enough.  Likeliest of all, most “craft” drinkers are a hybrid of all of the above.

So after all that, what would possibly constitute a go-to within the craft world?  And why might you even want one?  First, a shot at a definition.  Obviously, a “go-to” beer is one that has to be easily found.  After all, it has a particular standard of availability to live up to.  But I’d like to think such a beer is not just the convenient selection at the moment. It is not the one tap handle among the twenty five others at the concert venue which did not end with the word “Light”  that at the least, you can put up with.  No, I believe any go-to beer is something much more.  It’s something you might seek out not just because it’s the only thing going.  No, it aspires to be something much, much more than being simply convenient.  

When I think back Dad’s High Lifes, I believe that he picked them up with certain times in mind – while he was grilling burgers for the family, or even for a time as simple – but enjoyable for dad – as after mowing the lawn.  I’m especially sure that I saw one being cracked open when the Braves game was just minutes away from coming on tv.  When I think of the times that I saw those little clear bottles, I don’t think my dad was not only reaching for something good, I think he was going for a beer because the times were good.  On the Fourth of July.  Taking in a summer’s night on the porch.  When the neighbors who we did like came over for a cookout.  I think a “go-to” beer is part of a larger formula, some wonderful combination of individual preference for a beer and just as, or likely much more importantly, one that will fit a particular state of mind.  There’s a certain relevant-to-the-moment charm in such a drink.  

Now, I’ll admit, this all does sound remarkably like the premise for every macro beer ad that’s been produced – well, ever.  You know the ones, where a group of buds are sipping on their freshly poured, overly frothy mugs of Buds, and from the looks on their faces, the apparent fun being had, and hell, even the music that is playing in the background, life is just about as peachy as it can possibly ever get.  Of course, no such cheesiness really exists.  Not even for Bud drinkers.  (I think.) Nevertheless, there are certain times when the times are quite good, and that is true for both the macro and the craft drinker.  

Now, perhaps the typical craft fan can truly enjoy themselves and the company of others while simultaneously brooding over whether the beer at hand is a 3.5 or  a 3.25 check-in on Untappd.  However, I think (and hope) that if a go-to beer truly exists for most craft drinkers, it is a beer that can be consumed without much discussion or break down over grades or scores, and as a bonus, is one that can be enjoyed without feeling as if any standards have been sacrificed.  Of course, for the Bud drinker, it’s unlikely that their thumb is quivering uncontrollably over a quarter cap difference in rating. 

I think this is all safe to say because for your strictly macro drinker, the whole thing is mostly about the moment and less about the beer, and for the strictly craft drinker, it’s fair to say that there is more of an expectation for the two to meet in the middle somewhere.  But give all of this too much thought, however, and you’re wearing away the charm of both the beer – and ultimately, what’s worse, the moment.   I’ve always believed that beer is the ultimate social and conversational lubricant, and is certainly one that knows no distinction between types of beer drinkers.  So if you can deal with the revelation that you, the likely craft drinker who’s reading this post, shares a similar beer drinking experience with those who are likely to buy strictly Bud – well, congrats.  Any over introspection, be it about the moment or the beer – be it a Two Hearted or a Miller High Life – should not be given a second thought.  Do so, and you might be missing out on the very act of enjoying beer at one of its most basic, fundamental levels altogether.

 

Hey, Stay Off Of My Lawn, You Damn (Muted, Mundane) Beers!

•February 24, 2017 • 2 Comments

As my wife likes to remind me, I’m not approaching middle age any longer, I’m solidly there.  And as I get a little older, how much I care what other people think of what I do and say, especially here on the blog, is lessening considerably.  My wife has a favorite saying for this, something about not “giving two $%@!s” about someone else’s opinion about any given topic.  (My wife likes to get right to the point, a trait which I’ve grown to appreciate.) 

For example, take a look at the last couple of posts and you’d think that I am very quickly assuming the role of the crotchety old man on his lawn, yelling at the kids as they ride by on their bikes, or in my case, at the beer trucks as they drive by, steadily delivering uninteresting, uninspired beer to the shelves of my local bottle shops.  My only question is this.  I did have a birthday in October, and I’m not sure why no one gave me a cane to violently wave in the air as I complain about the (beer) world at large.  My hopes are still high, though.  St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, right?  It’s a beer related ‘holiday’, anyhow, right?  Hun?

Spurring me to the edge of my rocking chair are the concerns some have about the overall quality of the craft beer around us.  Keeping such a concern afloat are those who seem to readily champion each – and every – release from their local breweries. Skewed by a well intended but soundly misplaced sense of homerism, it’s a train of thought that gives validation to almost every release their local breweries put out. Sliding across the front porch in my slippers, you can hear me grumbling under my breath.  I’m not saying your local brewery doesn’t produce anything good.  I’m saying that all too often, they’re given a pass simply because you can practically see the brewery from your own front porch.  

If you truly cared for how your local breweries will do, especially long term, wouldn’t we do better to place the love squarely on the beers that push the taste boundaries – or at least the ones that nudge the outside edge of them – instead of making blanket statements professing one’s endearment for all, or even most, of the beers made by those breweries?

Not sure which ones might make the cut? Here’s where having some thick skin, and being open to criticism, can be truly beneficial.

Look, I get it.  There will always be personal preferences.  Sometimes a beer will make it into your own regular rotation that no one else seems to think much of.  Subjectivity does come into play.  But like it or not, in the world of restaurants, food, drink – and this includes beer, of course – a general consensus stands for something.  If they didn’t, beers wouldn’t come and go.  There would be no such thing as “overall” ratings on Untappd, BeerAdvocate, and RateBeer, and perhaps no ratings at all.  Some will say that every beer has merit.  But if every beer was perfectly fine on all levels, or even just on most, there would be absolutely no reason for breweries to improve upon, well, anything.

I’m not saying that your local brewery has to put out 4 block long line inducing beers every time out.  This may come as a surprise, but I’m not that naive.  Surprisingly tasty beer that finds its way into a brewery’s regular rotation is possible.  I have posted a few times in the past about these sorts of beers, carefully crafted liquids that can be tasty but also relatively easy to find.  Here in Roanoke, Get Bent comes to mind (providing, of course, that it is fresh), or almost anything ‘stout like’ from Williamsburg Alewerks (which are primarily seasonal).  I’ll even throw in a lager for the folks who have already decided that “this post is complete b.s.” with a Nooner (or two), and here in Virginia, a Shower Beer or two (It is crushable, at the very least).  

Are these beers trade bait?  Not even close.  But are they the stuff of sit on the shelf forever, dust collecting lore?  Nope.  Instead, they reside somewhere in between, and are living proof that beers which are worthy of acquiring, but are also not difficult to find, do actually happen.

The problem is, they just don’t happen often enough.

But when they do, I slide back into my chair, all the while enjoying the view from the front porch, and take another sip.  

And when they don’t, I’ll be waving my new cane around. Oh, and I’d appreciate it if whoever gives me one would at least stick a bow on it when they do.

Quality Control, Part 2.

•December 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Standing in a brewery tasting room, a mine friend held his beer at arm’s length, looking about as interested in it as if someone had just cornered him with a thirty minute story of the best turkey sandwich they’d ever had.  After another long, mostly disinterested look at the beer, my friend summarized, wearily:  “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it”, looking in the general direction of his glass.  “It’s a clean fermentation….it just….”, his thought tailed off, ending not with words but with a shrug, a slow tilt of the head, and a look of wholehearted indifference on his face.  The beer, as many can be these days, was instantly forgettable.

My friend’s point was simple.  There was nothing wrong with the beer, really, in that it didn’t suffer from any off flavors from a brewing that didn’t go as planned.  It hadn’t soured, it wasn’t oxidized, and it wasn’t ailing from any other weakness as a result of how it was made.  From an overall standpoint, the beer was simply unremarkable.  Any effort to break it down to specifics, if the beer had inspired such a crusade, would’ve probably boiled down to simply calling it a mess, taste wise.  It is an experience that many would say happens far, far too often these days.  Individual favorites, situational beers, and even the mildest cases of homer-ism aside, the glut of beers out there being created by the multitude of breweries that have jumped on the craft beer bus has resulted in an ocean full of one dimensional beers which have hardly anything to truly hang their hat on.  

There are many who would try to toss this argument out on the technicality of personal preference.  One person’s favorite IPA is another’s too bitter drain pour, live and let live, on and on.  I’d counter by asking for a dose of honesty and a look in the mirror.  Yes, there are beers we all drink but also will readily admit aren’t top shelf because they are easy to acquire, or they remind us of a certain time or place, whatever.  But chances are, these preferential beers are are still solid offerings, in that maybe they do just the one thing, but they do that one thing very well.  So I’m not talking – necessarily – about personal favorites.  I’m talking about beers that offer hardly any redeeming quality, and are less than simple.  Forget nuance, they seem to lack the care or concern to truly champion even one characteristic, and none of it really stands out or much less works all that well together.  All it likely does is make you think about – and want – a better beer.  

Unfortunately, you might not recognize the bar such beers set if you haven’t actually had them.  Experience in tasting some of the better beers out there plays so much of a part in all this, and while at worst that can seem a bit snobbish, and the least simply unfortunate, I can’t think of a better way to put it.  Hopefully, you’ll take the time to seek out beers that set a high standard.  Something better is always out there, truly, either from nationally distributed breweries, or if you’re fortunate, from the breweries located in your own backyard. 

Oh, and about that.  Hopefully, your local breweries really know what they’re doing.  But at least from a standpoint of their overall selection, they may not, so while we’re talking honestly about wholly unremarkable beers, let’s also mention the crime in blindly carrying the flag for the local breweries that may be making them, simply because they’re located down the street.  When I first got into “craft” beer, the “Support Your Local Brewery” idea seemed so incredibly virtuous.  To a degree, it still is.  But if the beers aren’t good, they aren’t good.  No one should be let off the hook for making some aimless mess of an IPA just because they share the same zip code with you.  So ditch the empty homer love for the brewery around the corner if the beer isn’t up to par.

Is every brewery out there is going to nail every beer in terms of making them memorable?  Of course not.  But out of a handful of beers – whether it’s the brewery’s initial line up, current line up, or what have you, you’d hope for one that you wouldn’t mind having again.  I also get that not every good beer is a monster of flavor, so let’s not go there.  Well made beer ranges from low key sorts of characters that succeed by walking along razor thin edges where one slip would’ve meant being too this or too that, to those complex, palate numbing beasts that many of us know and love.

Either way, we should all expect nothing less than good, memorable beer.

 

Quality Control, Part 1

•November 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I will likely never forget the day I ordered a beer and was served a dry hopped glass of something akin to pool water.  Then again, calling it that might be too much credit for the beer – it didn’t seem to be dry hopped much at all.   And ok, of course the beer hadn’t been sourced from a pool.  But the brewery had indeed served me a beer which featured the interesting yet bracing note of something not unlike chlorine, which was odd since I had asked for the kolsch.  My wife verified the same, purely by the look on her face.  The next day, I asked a couple of friends who home brew what they thought, and the answers generally centered around poorly cleaned brewing equipment, which made sense, I suppose.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t fathom how the brewery had served that beer to begin with.  

While a ho hum, average tasting beer is often instantly forgettable, you may forever remember the beers with which something was defective, as with my “kolsch”.  We’re not talking about beer that simply wasn’t very “good”, as in muddled, too bitter IPAs or tasteless, thin as water “stouts”.  We’re talking about the double IPA that tasted like it had been fermented on a bushel of green apples, or the lager that tasted like it had been randalled through a bag of movie popcorn with extra butter.  What we’re talking about is truly flawed beer, or beer that exhibits one of the many “off flavors” – like ripe, green apple or straight butter – that can occur when brewing, often stemming from a fermentation that didn’t go well.  Luckily, such flavors in beer don’t occur too often in commercially produced beer.  These days, a run in with what’s generally called an “infected” beer seems to be much more likely.

First, a shot at clarification.  It seems the term “infected” gets thrown around a little carelessly these days to describe a beer with less than desirable aromas and/or flavors.  Just because someone opens up a year old pale lager that tastes like it was filtered through a cardboard box doesn’t make it infected.  There are some shared attributes and causes between “off flavors” and what is generally referred to as an “infected” beer.  But I think it’s fair to say that when folks refer to an “infected” beer these days we’re probably talking about some bacteria which has caused it to go south in some unintended fashion, typically resulting in a souring effect on the beer.  The key word here is unintended.  And no one seems to be completely immune of the wide range of possible pitfalls when brewing beer.

For those not residing on an island or under a rock, you are likely well aware of Goose Island’s troubles with batches of their vaunted Bourbon County line last year.  Soon after its release, customers began finding unexpected, sour flavors in the Bourbon County Barleywine and the Bourbon County Coffee Stout, and some have reported similar off flavors in the standard Bourbon County Stout as well.  Despite the complaints, the beer was apparently testing fine at first, at the brewery’s own microbiology lab.  When complaints began rolling in, Goose Island reached out to an independent lab which eventually did identify a bacteria that was indeed affecting some bottles of the Barleywine and the Coffee variant.  In addition, in a podcast interview with Goose Island’s Brewmaster Jared Jankoski, there was more than a slight mention of off flavors in the Stout as well, possibly due to altogether different circumstances.  Beyond the identification of the issues, as well as the admittance of the same which so many had been waiting for, the interview serves to prove how some of the most sought after beers in the country can go sideways despite the brewery’s best intentions.  The moral of the story is that if it can happen to Goose Island, and especially to the beers they are most known for, it can certainly happen to most anyone.  

First off, an approving nod to breweries who own up to a beer which didn’t go as planned.  It shouldn’t be surprising that some beer just doesn’t come out the way the batch was drawn up to, but it should be surprising that you ended up with it in your hand.  But consequences go well beyond the beer tasting awful.  For those who can recognize such faults, any sadness likely comes from the pouring out of the beer, and about the wasted money.  But there’s always the chance that something worse might happen, that a newcomer to beer might be led to think that the odd flavors and aromas are expected.  I’ve seen Untappd comments on imperial stout check-ins that note that “the tartness to the beer is unexpected, but so very interesting”.  Seriously, how many sour stouts can you name?  Such thinking might lead to a continued acceptance of poorly rendered beer, which I’d say is the worst possible consequence of all.

So do some reading on off flavors, there are plenty of articles.  Then, go ahead do what you’ve been doing already, and taste plenty of beer.  When things don’t seem quite right, be ready to recognize it.  And by the way, if you feel as if something needs to be called out, do it kindly.  I’d like to think that no one wins with poor quality product.  With so much beer out there, it is bound to happen, but remember – there is so much beer out there.  No matter if we’re talking about nationally distributed brands or your local brewery, we should all expect nothing less than good, well made beer.

Needless To Say, It’s A Big Week For Big Lick Brewing

•September 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

big-lick-brewing-circle-logoIt takes a pretty notable announcement for a brewery to upstage its own 2nd anniversary.  Or more likely, for Roanoke’s Big Lick Brewing, timing is everything.  This Saturday (September 24), the brewery is indeed celebrating its 2nd anniversary, an event worthy of raising a pint on its own.  Raise another then, because earlier this week, the brewery announced plans for its new location that will be several times larger than the current one, include indoor and outdoor seating, a stage for entertainment, and last but not least, let the brewery increase its brewing capacity from the 2bbl system it currently uses to a 10bbl one, while still retaining a 2bbl system for pilot batches.

The brewery had long outgrown its current spot, making the expansion a welcome announcement.  Most of its regular customers will likely tell you how Big Lick occasionally has to take a head count within its tasting room as not to exceed capacity, especially on days when a new release had come on tap.  Such as it is with breweries when solid beers like their Gone KoCo coconut porter and their “This Time” IPA series have become as cared for among the area’s craft beer drinkers as they have.

I imagine those same beers, as well as many others, had placed an expectation for such growth some time ago, as it did with me.  Perhaps the most impressive thing shouldn’t be the expansion itself then, but how such an expectation developed over a relatively short period of time.  Congrats on your 2nd anniversary, Big Lick Brewing, and many more to come in your well deserved new home.

****Check out Big Lick’s 2nd Anniversary Event page on Facebook here (live entertainment, food, and an expanded selection of beer will be on hand) 

And check out info about their expansion here!

Draft Beer At A Coffee Shop? Of Course.

•September 2, 2016 • 2 Comments

Last weekend, while the beer curious in Roanoke once again took over a large section of downtown for the second time in a less than a month, this time to celebrate another Deschutes event by bellying up to the Oregonian brewery’s admittedly impressive, multi city block, nomadic “Street Pub”, another beer related event was occurring almost simultaneously, albeit one that was a bit more low key.  South Roanoke’s beloved purveyor of coffee, Sweet Donkey Coffee House, had just finished installing their taps – yes, beer taps – just in time for the weekend, and they celebrated this new side of their business by hosting their own Deschutes tap takeover that Friday night.

For those who might be unfamiliar with Sweet Donkey’s non caffeinated offerings, bottled beer has been on the menu for a while now.  So at first, offering beer on draft might seem to be simply a deeper level of commitment to that side of their business.  But for regulars to the coffee shop, you likely know better, and for those perhaps who are not too familiar with Sweet Donkey, and are still wrapping their minds around the thought of a coffee shop with beer at all, it is much, much more than a new business plan, and really couldn’t make better sense.  With its fenced in front yard, its wide front porch and side patio, and its wholly welcoming and comforting look given by the large brick house it calls home, Sweet Donkey might as well be the poster child of what a neighborhood coffee shop – and therefore, a central spot for friends to gather over any shared, social beverages of choice, be it a cup of coffee or a cold beer – should be.  Simply put, I’m not sure there is a more charming spot to enjoy a beer other than your own porch at home.  Offering draft beer then, is not just a commitment to a business model, but clearly is what the owners want the experience of their shop to be for their customers.

A common school of thought these days in the overall beer community is that should a “bubble” of some sort burst in the craft beer business, that breweries dedicated to primarily serving to the folks who can easily drive across town or even walk down their street to reach the brewery will be one trend that not only survives, but flourishes.  No, of course Sweet Donkey doesn’t brew their own beer.  Yet part of the charm with that particular trend is not solely based in the making of the beer, but in the creation of an ultra comfortable, neighborhood centric spot to enjoy that beer with friends.  So with their announcement to serve draft beer, I couldn’t help but think that should that particular trend become more common, we may look back from a day not too far off and think of how one model of such a place might look (and feel like) was – of course – envisioned by a coffee shop.

Visit Sweet Donkey’s Facebook page here.

Microfestivus 2016: Location, Location, Location…and beer.

•August 13, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Sure, I could write about some of the beer that’ll be at Microfestivus today.  But you’ve probably already taken a quick look at the beer list, and if not, they’ll likely have ones available for you at the gate, should you be attending.  On the morning of the nineteenth Microfestivus, my mind is wandering beyond the beer.  Consider, for a moment, that perhaps the where is almost as noteworthy as the what.  In case you haven’t seen the festival map yet, Roanoke’s annual beer festival will line up along some of the streets within the Star City’s downtown area, along First Street and Kirk and Church Avenues, instead of on its periphery, as in years past.  For what it’s worth, I’m guessing it’ll feel even more cathartic than the last move was, when the festival ventured out of the confines of Elmwood Park.  But to cap it all off, let’s think about just how fitting the festival route seems, considering that after wandering down First, Kirk, and Church, past one beer tent after another, that the natural path for the festival seems to end right in front of the Texas Tavern.  I mean, for Roanokers, how fitting can that be?

Among other things that are also fitting but perhaps a bit more serious, I would be remiss to not send a quick shout out for the location of the VIP section.  Never mind that I have a favorite seat at Blue 5’s bar.  The downtown restaurant is easily stop number one on anyone’s guide to craft beer in Roanoke, and I think the world of Chaz and crew down there.  So how fitting is it that the VIP section is right outside the doors of Blue 5?  If you find yourself within the area, and see Mr. Blevins, consider thanking him for being a vital standard bearer for the craft beer scene in the Star City.

What looks to be perfectly traditional for the festival is, of course, the weather forecast.  In case you haven’t looked it up, it’s your typical Microfestivus forecast, which is to say that it’s calling for the asphalt under your feet to begin melting sometime around 3pm.  Good thing, I suppose, for the relatively high number of fruited beers and sours that seem to be on the list for today – nope, I’m not mentioning individual ones, just that they’re high in number, and that they’re often adequate for the quenching of thirsts.  It’s a reflection of current trends no doubt, though I’m not sure how many individual examples I would be interested in, personally.  After all, the number of IPAs on the list is even higher – a statistic that’s particularly fitting, well, at least for myself.  (And I’m sure I’m not alone.)

Not to delve too deeply into the melodramatic and start crying in our beer, but maybe we should also touch on the fact that somehow, this year’s Microfestivus feels like some sort of official cap on the last several months of brewery news for the area as well.  After all, we’ve welcomed Deschutes and Ballast Point to the valley, and without a doubt the lines at both of these brewery’s tents will likely be among the longest.  Come to think of it, such a sight would perhaps be the most fitting to be witnessed at the festival – two nationally known craft breweries, which the area courted and landed, serving up beer from their booths, all the while in the shadow of such classic downtown Roanoke spots like Lucky Restaurant, the former Kirk Ave Music Hall (now The Spot On Kirk), and Martin’s.

Unless you can’t tell, I’m a sucker for all things downtown Roanoke.  So yes, I admit loving the fact that Roanoke’s craft beer festival will be bordered by the buildings that make up the center of the city.  Crazily, I’ll also admit that if it wasn’t 95 degrees on the day of Microfestivus, somehow, it just wouldn’t be the same.  And of course, I’ll gladly admit that I’m proud my hometown landed Deschutes and Ballast Point, even if I don’t quite shed any tears into my beer over it.  

No, the only thing that might make me that happy is the sight of a cheesy and a bowl with at the end of the afternoon.

 
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