Friday, December 12, 2014

Beers of the Week: A Winter Warmer and a Porter

This was a pretty quiet week for beers. I mean, I drank but several of the beers I enjoyed throughout the week were ones I had already showcased here on the blog. Here are two for you consideration.

When I lived in Atlanta there were only a handful of breweries to choose from. Since moving I have learned that the industry is picking up, but alas I can't get most of it here. Sweetwater Brewing, however, is available throughout Asheville but not in too many places. The pizza joint Mellow Mushroom, itself an Atlanta-based business, has tons of beers on tap including several Sweetwater choices. And this time of year that means Sweetwater Festive. It had been a while since I tasted this beer and I was surprised to find it had a little bit of a sour flavor, but I'm not entirely sure that wasn't the fault of the tap line. It isn't a terribly heavy beer for a winter warmer but it does have cinnamon flavors and lots of rich malts. I was surprised that I didn't like this as much as I had remembered.

So, while a porter isn't exactly a winter seasonal it is a style of beer (along with stouts) that I crave this time of year. There are several local porters that are my go-to beers around town but there is also another North Carolina beer from another part of the state that I always forget about. Foothills Brewery is located in Winston Salem and they have several beers available all around Asheville. So when faced with a choice I decided to follow the path less traveled and have a People's Porter, which I never otherwise order. This is a version of a traditional English brown porter and it stays true to its style. I tasted some coffee notes along with the chocolate malt.

I expect that there will be more opportunities for some winter seasonals this coming week and throughout the holidays as we travel to Michigan to visit family over Christmas and New Year's. I am looking forward to some of their great beer choices as well since that state's craft beer scene is pretty epic.

Friday, December 5, 2014

More Adventures in Winter Beer

I've been a lot of places since Thanksgiving. At at most of those places I have consumed delicious seasonal beers. Let's get right to it.

On the day after Thanksgiving we found ourselves at Bar of Soap enjoying a can of one of their new winter beers. This is Unita Brewing's Yard Sale winter lager. While I enjoyed this beer I found it rather un-wintery. I mean, it is a richer, more malty lager than many of the light lagers we're use to, but it didn't have a lot of personality. That being said it was tasty and I would drink more than one in a sitting. The primary flavors would be best described as toasty, vanilla, and caramel.

I have found most of Unita's beers to be hit or miss. I like many of them quite a bit but the rest seem very middle-of-the-road. It is rare that I absolutely hate it.

On Saturday we decorated our house for [insert winter holiday here]. I love this time of year. I love the decorations, the celebrations, the food, and most especially the beer. So to get into the spirit of putting up our tree and dusting off those old holiday nick-knacks, we purchased Kasteel's Belgian Winter beer. Its brewed with real Belgian chocolate, you guys!  Seriously, what could be better. And it was exactly what I wanted out of this beer. The rich, dark beer has roasty and chocolate aromas which translated directly to the flavor. It is 11% alcohol, so don't take this one lightly. Drink with caution. It was absolutely perfect for a fun night at home setting up and decorating the tree.

Then earlier this week we went on a little adventure. Three places, three different seasonal beers. Our first stop was Hi Wire Brewing in downtown Asheville. This is such a great little out of the way brewery. They have several fantastic year-found beers as well as great seasonal offerings. Right now the Strongman Coffee Stout is on tap. I'll be the first to admit that coffee isn't one of my favorite things but beer like this might convince me otherwise. It isn't pretending or just playing around. This is serious coffee flavor. It is a creamy beer to begin with which blends well with the dark, rich, coffee flavor. While this isn't a holiday beer it certainly is a great seasonal. Because it is dark and comforting it fits in the winter warmer category. And, as it turns out, it is only 5.2% ABV which actually makes it a pretty responsible choice.

Then we wandered next door to Ben's Tune Up, a local Asian fusion restaurant. There we ate raman and miso and yummy fish tacos. But we also enjoyed Southern Tier's holiday beer, 2XMas. The bar area, where we ate, is dark which is great for atmosphere but bad for photographs so this is the best we could do. Their other "2X" beers are generally very hoppy so that is what I expected when I took my first sip. I was mistaken. 2XMas has plenty of hops but the hops they use are piney so the beer takes like Christmas trees instead. Plus lot of ginger. Like, a ton of ginger. Turns out there are other spices in there too, but mostly I tasted the ginger If you don't like ginger this may not be the beer for you. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Turns out Southern Tier makes a number of holiday beers including one called Krampus which I must now find.

Finally we ended our beer exploration at Catawba Brewing located in the Biltmore Village area of town. Catawba's seasonal beer offering comes in the form of King Winterbolt, It is an English style brown (or porter?) ale with some Englishy hops. I drank quite of bit of it last year as well. Kind of like Uinta's Yard Sale, I found King Winterbolt to be underwhelming but drinkable. It is a really really good beer, but it doesn't really have any flavor profiles that scream "holiday" or "winter" to me. I suppose when I declare my favorite beer of the season is a specialty brew with ginger and raisins you probably can't expect me to go ga-ga over something super basic. It is a really good beer but I think I would love to see some infusions to give it some kick for the holidays. It would taste great with cinnamon, chocolate, dates, or other flavors of the season. I'll be watching to see if they release any specialty versions of King Winterbolt over the next month or two.

What beers did you discover this week? What have been your favorites that you keep going back to?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014: This Week in Beer

This year Matt and I hosted Thanksgiving here in Asheville. Matt's mom came down from Michigan and on Wednesday, before the holiday, we took her to a great local spot called King James Public House.We got a bunch of small plates and shared them and they were amazing. King James is really a cocktail bar so we couldn't pass up a couple of delicious mixed drinks. But they also serve great beer both on tap and in the bottle.

Their new winter offering was a bottle of Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome ale. Sam Smith was one of the first beers I liked before I was able to get my hands on many craft brews. This quintessential English beer is frequently imported in bottles. When I was visiting London in October of this year I was able to get my hands on cask drawn Sam Smith  which is, as you might imagine, significantly better. This is because it is fresher if nothing else. The Winter Ale was okay. It seemed a little ordinary to me. It is a simple bitter ale so it didn't have a lot of the spices or rich flavors that I prefer for my winter ales. I think I am biased towards darker beers this time of year. That being said it wasn't undrinkable and it worked well with the rich food that we were eating.

Then came Thanksgiving dinner.

We hosted it here in Asheville which was a wonderful change. We always travel for Thanksgiving and it was really nice to have it in our own house. Our friends Reid and Erika joined us as well so we had 5 for dinner. The meal consisted of a 21-pound smoked turkey from a local barbecue restaurant. It was amazing and there is no way we could have a made a bird that tasted as good!  Instead we concentrated on the sides: a pierogi casserole in place of mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, stuffing in the crock pot, and a spinach salad with goat cheese, pecans, and dried cranberries. For dessert, Erika brought cherry pie and I made chocolate pumpkin cupcakes with caramel cream filling and caramel glaze. Oh, and we had Oreo pumpkin ice cream from Ultimate Ice Cream.

Thanksgiving table with Autumn Maple Beer.
Of course, with all that food we needed the perfect beer. Enter The Bruery's Autumn Maple. Yum yum! Technically you could call this an autumn seasonal but it was brewed specifically to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of a pumpkin base they choose yams and brewed it with all the traditional autumn spices, molasses, and maple. It is a Belgian style ale and has a slight sour component to it but not in an unpleasant way. It went really well with the whole thanksgiving dinner. I had bought some additional, different beer for dessert but I just had some more of this instead. I'll save the other beer for a different blog post.

This Thanksgiving was a success - and it still isn't over. Today we are going out for dinner with friends and then checking out some local holiday lights. Tomorrow, Matt's mom is helping us put up our tree and decorate the house. I am certain there will be more winter seasonal beers to explore in the coming week.

What kind of beer did you have with your Thanksgiving dinner?

Friday, November 21, 2014

November 21, 2014: This Week in Winter Beer

This week in winter beer was strong right out of the gate.

The season kicked off for me at the Highland Brewing Cold Mountain Release party. Cold Mountain is the seasonal offering from Highland Brewing right here in Asheville. The recipe starts with the same base but each year they change up the flavoring agents. And this year they've hit it out of the ball park. The release party spanned three days last week - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Matt and I hit the Friday event and enjoyed a regular pint of Cold Mountain and two of their flavor infusions: coconut and chocolate. From what we understand the brewery ran out of Cold Mountain on tap by mid-day Saturday. Some locals consider the hype to be overkill. Once the beer hits store shelves people go a little crazy to get their hands on it. But this year especially the hype is well-deserved. (I have a couple 22oz bottles in my fridge and I was able to get some on tap at King James Public House the instant they tapped their keg). If you have never tried Cold Mountain before I think this is the year.

Later this week I found myself at a local bar where two winter seasonals were on tap. Since "Winter Seasonal" isn't a specific style many breweries are just making any old beer and slapping a wintery name on them to sell more this time of year. That is how I feel about New Belgium's Accumulation White IPA. The kicker is that New Belgium has made a number of really good winter seasonals in the past that are no longer in production. Accumulation was available last year at least and maybe the year before so I was hoping they would have a new offering this year. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. I found it lacking in much flavor that would differentiate it from anything else. I knew I wasn't going to like it but in an effort to make this blog as content rich as possible I thought I should give it another try. It was slightly watery and lacked body. However, if you like IPAs you may enjoy this one.

That same night I also drank this year's batch of Sierra Nevada's Celebration. Now here is a winter IPA I can get behind. It was rich, well balance, and a gorgeous holiday red color. Sierra Nevada, who recently opened a facility near Asheville, is known for their IPAs so it makes a lot of sense that they would concentrate on this flavor profile for their holiday beer. Several of the people I was with ordered more than one pint of this beer which I believe speaks to its drinkability. If you do like IPAs I would advise drinking this rather than Accumulation.

But then, the most amazing thing happen. Just yesterday I found myself at the local spot called Asheville Brewing. It is a relatively small scale brewery that seems very focused on maintaining their local status. They put out really good beers but most of them can only be found on tap at the brewery itself (they have three locations in town). They can a few of their flagship beers but the specialty brews are draft only. We were at the movie theater in the back of the restaurant, known as the Brew n' View, for another event all together. Some friends (ZaPow Gallery) had been featured in a PBS series called Start Up and they were screening the episode. What I wasn't expecting to find when I got there was my current favorite winter seasonal. Seriously, I just wanted to drink all kinds of it. The best part - it's called Ninjabread Porter. It is based on their popular Ninja Porter, which has won several awards around the country, but there was added ginger, raisins and some other stuff the bartender-guy said that I don't remember. Seriously, they had me at Ninjabread! I definitely plan on getting more of this while it lasts. So seriously, leave me some! 

I believe that Ninjabread is the perfect antidote for the people who believe that Cold Mountain is over-hyped.

That's my winter beer list for this week. I'm going to try to update every Friday - though with the holiday next week it may not happen as planned. However, I am specifically going on a beer hunt this weekend to find some great seasonals to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. If you have any suggestions please feel free to make them in the comments - including where to find them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Winter Beers of 2014: Let's Make this Happen!

*tap tap tap*
Is this thing on?

Wow, it has been over a year since I did anything with this dusty old beer blog. It isn't that I haven't been drinking beer - in fact, I've been drinking plenty of beer. It is more that I get going on it and then something else shiny distracts me.

But since I did a series on Fall beers in 2013 I thought I would take some time this winter to talk about some yummy beers for the coldest season. Its already snowed a few times here in Asheville so I am ready! 

Highland's Cold Mountain (Winter Seasonal) from 2012
I'm going to try to update once a month and catalog the beers I like and the beers I don't and the reasons why. I hope it can help a few people make informed decisions about beers for the season.

Winter beer is a very broad category. For the purposes of this blog I am going to try to focus on beers brewed specifically for the winter or holiday season. I may also include some other darker beers from time to time like a good hearty stout or porter because that is what I crave this time of year.

If you wan to know more about seasonal beers and dark beers, check out my book How to Drink Craft Beer: A Beginner's Guide. It is meant to be a guide you can take with you as you explore new beer flavors and learn what you love. It would make a great holiday present for the beginner beer drinker in your life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sam Adams Fat Jack Pumpkin Ale and Oktoberfest

Sam Adams is one of the largest craft brewers in the country. Some might argue that definition but Sam Adams does in many way fit the profile of a craft beer maker rather than a large scale macrobrewery.

The best thing about Sam Adams is that their beer is pretty good, sometimes even great, and you can get it almost anywhere. While I tend to frequent establishments that specialize in small craft beer every once in a while I find myself at a bar where they have only Bud, Bud Light, and Sam Adams Lager. I go with the Sam Adams.

The brewery also produces a few great seasonal beers. Their Winter Lager is decadent and delicious, but I'll save that review for another time.

I want to focus on two of their Autumn seasonal beers today: the Pumpkin Ale and the Oktoberfest.

I enjoyed the Fat Jack Pumpkin ale over a dinner of chicken tikka masala while sitting outside on our mountain next to a camp fire. It didn't hurt that the setting was wonderful to begin with. For fun we split the beer by pouring it into our 4 ounce beer tasters. It was delicious. It had all the spices that I love along with a sweet pumpkin flavor which complimented each other well. It was very satisfying and the pumpkin, spices, and maltiness went extremely well with the spicy cream sauce of the tikka masala.

If you aren't sure whether or not you would like a pumpkin ale, this would be a pretty good one to try out. It is rich and decadent and should give you a good profile of a well made pumpkin beer.

Along with the Fat Jack Pumpkin ale, Sam Adams also produces an easy to find Octoberfest lager.

Lagers are the most common type of beers produced by the macrobrew companies. Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are all lagers, but most craft beer enthusiasts will agree that they lack any depth or real flavor. Most are made using adjust ingredients such as rice or corn. The Germans, who kind of perfected beer centuries ago, created a beer purity law which insisted beer be made with only four things: water, hops, malt, and yeast. I do like beer with added flavors - such as pumpkin spices - but I am not too keen on rice or corn in my beer. The reason I am going into this kind of detail is because I think Sam Adams Octobefest is a good "Introduction to Craft Beer" for someone who has otherwise only experienced offerings by the major macrobreweries. It is light, crisp, and refreshing with all the richness that a traditional marzen beer should have.

I am a fan of Samuel Adams Boston Brewery. I love a lot of their seasonal beers, including their Fat Jack Pumpkin and the Octoberfest. Check them out for yourself before it is too late. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Brown Beer and Autumn Hikes: Two Great Tastes that Go Great Together!

The last two weekend I've gone hiking. After these hiking trips I have enjoyed a brown ale at a local watering hole. I thought I would share those with you.

The first hike was at Laurel River near Hot Springs, NC. It was a 7 mile hike total, which was a little long for someone like me. I really wanted to give up at about the 6 mile mark but where would I go? No helicopter would come rescue me, so I had to keep hiking.

After we did finally crawl back to the car we drove into the town of Hot Springs to the Spring Creek Tavern and had a seat at the bar. It is a really nice place with great atmosphere. We haven't tried their food yet, but we plan to next time we're up in Hot Springs.

I ordered a Bell's Best Brown, a great year round brown beer brewed by Bell's in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I consider Bell's my first craft brewery even though that is a slight exaggeration. I went to college in Kalamazoo but at the time I didn't drink beer at all so I can't really claim to have been a fan in the 90s. I'm willing to jump on that band wagon now, though.

This brown ale is one of my favorites when I am in the mood for malty goodness, which I usually am about this time of year. It is well balanced with just enough hops to give it some character but not too much to draw attention away from the roasted malt flavors.

If you like traditional browns with just a hint of something extra this one is a good bet for you. It is sweet and caramel-y. It is perfect for a crisp fall afternoon or for the first beer to quench your thirst after a long and strenuous hike.

For the second hike in as many weeks, we drove down to Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia and met up with some friends from Atlanta. The hike around the gorge is pretty easy with the most difficult being over 600 steps down to a suspension bridge and 500 steps back up to the top of the gorge. It took me a while to make it up the steps. I'm not really what you would call "in shape" and I have asthma so I puffed my way up one section of stairs at a time.

After our hike we drove up to the town of Clayton, Georgia and discovered their quaint downtown area. We stopped for dinner and drinks at the Universal Joint. I was surprised to find this place in such a small town. There is also a Universal Joint in Ashevlle.

There I ordered a Duck Rabbit Brown Ale which is brewed in Farmville, North Carolina. They served it to me in a Red Hare glass, which is a brewery out of Atlanta. It seemed appropriate. Duck Rabbit specializes in dark beers and their Milk Stout is one of my very favorites of all time, which I know is a pretty bold declaration.

Duck Rabbit Brown Ale is rich with a very well played bitterness to the hops profile. It is a strong beer that can stand up on its own if you like that sort of thing. The dominating flavors for me in this one is chocolate and coffee but neither are overwhelming. They play off each other and the hoppy bitterness very well. If you want a brown beer with a little more punch than most of them check out this one.

Have you been out hiking this fall? Have you stopped for a beer afterwards to quench your thirst? What have you been drinking?