Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Revival of Session Beers with Notch Brewing

A renaissance is coming in the world of craft beer. It’s the resurgence of “session” beers. One of this movement's local leaders is Chris Lohring - formerly of Tremont Brewery - now founder of Notch Brewing.

What's a session beer you ask? Essentially, a beer that’s lower in alcohol. Though there’s often debate as to where the ABV (alcohol by volume) cutoff mark is for a session beer, it’s commonly thought to be at or below 4.5%. An ABV of 5.0% is acceptable as "sessionable" by modern-day beer geeks, but traditionalists disagree.

Years ago, drinking a few beers at lunch before returning to work was not frowned upon. Times have changed because, among other things, beer has changed. In Britain, session beers were commonplace due to taxation around on a beer’s alcohol level. Brewers had to develop flavorful and desirable beers that hovered below 4.0% (as a point of reference, Bud Light has an ABV of 4.2%).

What’s common among beer geeks is their love for beers with names that include words like “imperial” and “double”. These beers are higher in alcohol. And it’s not uncommon to find them aged in oak, whiskey, or bourbon barrels. Left behind, though, are session beers.

Beer geeks will never tell you they don’t care for session beers. They’ll advocate for them with honesty. However, they won't rate them as high as double IPA’s, barleywines, and Russian imperial stouts; what are typically referred to as “big” beers.

According to Chris Lohring:
            We’re not sure when high flavor beer became synonymous with astronomical ABV, but to us it doesn’t seem right. Drink a "delicious" beer these days means you're falling off your stool after three... The art of great beer without a debilitating ABV seems all but dead.”

It’s with this mindset that Lohring started Notch Brewing in Massachusetts. Like a few other local brewers without a home, Lohring contracts time from the Ipswich Ale Brewery to brew on their equipment.

recently had a poker game with some friends. Being a fan of appropriate beers for appropriate situations, I brought the Notch Session Pils. We typically have a few beers at poker night, and because I had a 45 minute drive home after, I didn't want to drink anything too high in ABV.

The pilsner was a hit. At first I notice that it's yellow color is foggy, unlike most of its pilsner brethren. Although, some believe classic Czech-style pilsners are not always as clear as their German counterparts. 

A large, white frothy head forms and laces well down the glass. There’s a little malt husk in the aroma with notes of bright hops and yeast.

The taste combines flavors of bread, a little wheat grass, and lemon zest. I can tell it has Pils malt, and Saaz hops. Its malt profile tastes faintly of corn at times, which is undesirable terrain for my liking, but it never quite falls victim to it.

The mouthfeel is a little slick. It drinks smoother rather than crisp, which I didn't expect, but enjoyed. 

Drinkability is high of course because of its ABV. But lets not forget that taste plays an important role into the idea of drinkability. Just because a beer is low in ABV doesn't mean it's tasty enough to warrant a few. The Notch pils satisfies both needs and is worth picking up again for the right occasion. It doesn’t beat my favorite pilsners, which tend to be crisper, but it’s well made and worth the money. In the end, I was left with enough curiosity to try more from Notch.

As you spend one last afternoon around the grill this Labor Day weekend, I encourage you to put down that double IPA and oak-aged imperial stout. Instead, try a situation-appropriate session beer. Of course there are other low-ABV choices beyond Notch. But not many others pull it off while still providing big flavor. Notch is making it happen right in our backyard, and that deserves our attention.

Grade: B

Notch Brewing

Monday, August 29, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #5: Just Beer Brewing

Want to buy beer without having to get your lazy butt out of your car? Head to Just Beer Brewing in the farm hills of Westport MA.

I’m convinced “Just Beer” is tied for the title of world’s flattest brewery name alongside Danish brewery “Beer Here”. OK, I guess it’s uniquely simple and honest [golf clap]. As I discovered they make quality beer, I overlook the name.

Just Beer used to be Buzzards Bay Brewing. The Buzzards Bay brand was discontinued in the fall of 2009, and Just Beer was born. The facility is the same, and they still contract brew for a few notable brands including Nantucket’s own Cisco Brewers, and Offshore Ale from Martha’s Vineyard.

In addition to contract brewing for the aforementioned brands, the facility is also used by the popular husband-and-wife duo, Pretty Things Beer and Ale project. Dan and Martha (the Pretty Things team) set up here on occasion to brew their beer themselves, as opposed to having the Just Beer folks follow their recipe.

My wife and I grabbed her parents and made the trek to Westport to kill a gloomy Saturday afternoon. The driveway and entrance to the Just Beer farm is picturesque (apologies for the gloomy picture). They grow hay here to supplement their income. In fact, the amount of hay gown here ultimately helps the brewery obtain a negative carbon footprint – something they’re proud of. Their environmental efforts don’t stop there. They plan as many of their “boil" sessions as possible for one day to minimize energy consumption. And their leftover “mash” (from the “mashing” process) is sent to another local farm to feed cows.

Walking inside, you immediately enter a room where you can taste and buy beer. Three beers for tasting were on tap: “Golden Flounder”, “Dave & Ray lager”, and “Harry’s IPA.”

Golden Flounder was a low-ABV (4.6%) brew with a wheat malt bill. I call any beer at 4.5% ABV or lower, “sessionable”. This one was close enough and sure seemed inoffensive. Very light, but smooth. It would sure please many.

The Dave & Ray lager is their newest beer. If I had a blind sample of this, I’d guess it was their stab at an Octoberfest/marzen given its color and slightly sweet malt body. (They didn’t necessarily say it wasn’t a marzen.) As a bonus, the brew had a faint farmhouse funk at the end, which I loved.

Harry’s IPA, also known as “Case of the IPA”, had the highest ABV out of the three we tried – 6.0%. However, that’s the minimum expected ABV for an IPA. What’s lovely about this brew is that its big hop punch gave you the impression it contained more alcohol. It was a bit bitter, but very flavorful with resiny, leafy hops. A man behind me claimed, “waaay too much hops in there for me!” Not for me, though.

My favorite of the 3 was the lager, which we purchased a growler of. It paired nicely with fried chicken and sweet potato fries later that evening.

It was surprisingly busy there for a day that was rainy and altogether uninviting to leave home. Although their website claims they don’t offer tours, a gentleman asked for one. The girl behind the counter kindly offered to provide one to everyone in the room. She filled a small pitcher of Golden Flounder and took us all into the facility, kindly refilling our tasting cups during her talk.

After the tour I sneaked a sample of something else called “Undrinkable”.  It was not on tap, but in a 750 ml bottle that someone opened to share with someone else. Dark malts mixed with a Belgian-like sourness and a fizzy mouthfeel. Not undrinkable to me, but to others it may be. Pair it with a funky cheese and I’m sure it’s enjoyable.

On our way out the door, we also bought a 22oz. bottle of their pale ale called Moby D for only $2.50. It wasn’t available for tasting, but given the price and the quality of the brews I did taste, I couldn’t pass it up.

Our visit concluded at this point, but let me reiterate one thing I mentioned earlier. Yes, you can buy beer here without getting out of your car. It’s a beer drive-through! Open during the summer, you can purchase a case (or more) from their drive-up service. Pull up around back, honk your horn, and tell the man what you want. (You don't have to get out of your car, but if you're a decent person, you may help the man fit the beer into your trunk.) Depending on whether you want a mix pack or single-style case, all you need to fork over is $15 - $20 per case. I heard someone got three cases here for a special $35 price. Great deal! 

So get off your lazy butt and support local, fresh beer - possibly without having to get out of your car.

98 Horseneck Rd
Westport, MA
(508) 636-2288

Thursday and Friday, 1:00 – 5:00PM: Bottle sale only
Saturdays, 11:00AM – 6:00PM: Tastings and growlers 
(Growler fills only on Saturday.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #4: Offshore Ale Company

If you haven’t been to Martha’s Vineyard, you should go for two reasons:

1) Back Door Donuts (also called “Martha’s Vineyard Gourmet Café & Bakery” for the civilized folk)

2) Offshore Ale Company

OK, there are many more reasons to go to MV. It’s a wonderful island. But these two food spots in the busy village of Oak Bluffs are highlights. Before I talk about Offshore Ale Company, let me make clear that I’m not joking about Back Door Donuts. Go there. Do not question me. The apple fritters are intense, the donuts delectable, and the ice coffee is unbeatable (take note Dunks). Plus, with any bakery purchase, you get a free “I Love Back Door Donuts” bumper sticker. What more do you want?

Spitting distance from Back Door Donuts is Offshore Ale Company. On a recent trip to MV, my wife and I visited twice.

Do you like eating complimentary peanuts and throwing shells on the floor? Offshore welcomes you and expects this type of behavior. This is a popular place for dinner. It’s in a busy part of town, and because it’s not huge, there’s often a wait for tables. Unfortunately the bar area is not huge, but we’ve been lucky to score a seat there on all four visits going back to last year.  

One reason I like this place is because although it’s super casual, the food is above typical pub fair. The kitchen is exposed, providing a bistro feel, and they put an artisanal touch on familiar comfort dishes. The food we’ve had was delicious.

They brew on site and beautiful copper brewing kettles are visible through a glass wall into a separate room. In this room you can also see a chalkboard listing upcoming beers. It will tell you which are boiling, which are fermenting, etc. Nice touch, even though I sadly won't be around to drink them.

Let’s talk beer. Ladies first. My better half had the Menemsha Creek Pale Ale which she declared a “good pizza beer.” I tasted it as well and agree. It has a familiar, faint caramel malt and with a touch of floral hops.

On to better things, we both had a pint of “Hop Goddess” and began to feel that we were now in business. If you’re a hop head, grab this. I feel it’s a cross between an American IPA and a Belgian pale ale. It looks cloudy and bright orange in color. Strong hops own the aroma with a touch of apricot. The taste is full of citrus, as well as floral and resiny hops, blended with almost Belgian-style yeastiness. It’s smooth, a bit dry, and quenchable. Highly recommended.

The Steep Rock Stout was another winner in my book. Pitch black with a white head one-finger in size. Its aroma was a mix of baker’s chocolate, charcoal, and slight molasses. The taste was similar to the aroma, with notable notes of roasted grain, oats, and coffee. Dry and easy to drink. This one earns another high recommendation.

I did taste their imperial stout called “Inkwell”. This is similar to the Steep Rock Stout, but with a lot more heat thanks to its 10% ABV. However, it didn’t impressed me because it couldn’t hide its alcohol well, which ruined the flavor profile. If you want a stout here, stick to the Steep Rock.

Not during the most recent visit, but the first time we were here, I had their amber ale and Helles Bock. The amber ale can be considered their flagship. You can find bottles of it in stores. It’s serviceable, and boasts toasty malts with faint hops that only serve to keep the brew balanced. An agreeable table beer for the majority of their audience.

I remember being impressed with the Helles Bock. It was refreshing, crisp, and floral. A great summer beer.

Recommended? Yes. Very much so. But, let’s be honest. If you’re a beer geek on the Vineyard, there’s no other brewery to go to. Are there bars with a few decent taps? Sure. But, breweries? No. Luckily this one’s a good one with satisfying food. Just skip dessert there and head to Back Door Donuts (I mean, Martha’s Vineyard Gourmet Café & Bakery) for fine pastry.

Kennebec Avenue, Oak Bluffs
Martha’s Vineyard

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #3: Opa Opa Brewery and Steakhouse

On Sunday, we attended a 4-year old’s birthday party (the daughter of my wife’s dear friend, who also married us earlier this year) two hours west, in central MA.

Though I knew there was free food and birthday cake at our destination, I wondered how we could make the four-hour round trip more exciting. My brain immediately started to do what it naturally does whenever we leave our neck of the woods. I wonder what breweries or craft-beer bars are nearby, or on the way. And I wonder what beers are distributed on the way that I can’t get at home. It’s automatic and I can’t help it. Thinking of central Massachusetts, there are no beers sold in stores there that I can’t get at home. However, there are a couple of breweries and brew pubs in the area.

We chose to hit the Opa Opa Brewery & Steakhouse over others because 1) they’re open on Sunday, and 2) I’ve never been there. Easy as that. All of a sudden this four-hour round trip doesn’t sound so bad.

I didn’t have extremely high hopes for this place. I’ve had their flagship beer before, as it’s sold in stores, and it’s always been satisfactorily serviceable. Never anything to tell your friends about. But not bad at all. And the restaurant itself had mixed reviews.

The brewery/restaurant lies in the sleepy town of Southampton MA. We arrived at 1:30PM and the place was essentially empty. A brunch buffet was set up with no takers. We sat at the large bar to have lunch off the menu and try some beer.

As I looked at the beer menu and noticed there were at least twenty house-made beers on tap, I opted for the sampler. This served me six different four-ounce samples of my choice. I chose their Octoberfest lager, their “American Wheat”, brown ale, porter, “Red Rock” flagship, and the Warthog Double IPA.

My wife had the Honesty pale ale which was quite flavorful. I noticed a strong malt profile and a pleasant kiss of bright hops.

The Octoberfest presented the traditional flavors of a Märzen, but unfortunately also yielded a little too much bitterness for the style. The faint taste of soap didn’t help either.

The American Wheat was served with a lemon in it. I wanted nothing more than to throw that lemon across the room as hard as possible. Please, people. If you throw a piece of fruit in your beer, you’re telling me you didn’t put much effort into making the beer itself. No respectable beer should have a piece of fruit in it (yet this would haunt me again moments later). Needless to say, this wheat beer was low in carbonation, taste, and life. And there’s that soapy aftertaste again... (Get a better dishwasher!)

Thankfully, the brown ale provided solace. It was smooth, properly sweet with caramel malt, and offered a faint note of roasted coffee. Things are looking up. I bet it would pair very well with the BBQ dishes on their menu.

Ahhh, porter. My favorite style. It hardly ever disappoints me, and Opa Opa’s Southampton Porter came through nicely. It’s a classic take on the style. Straight forward with notes of bittersweet coffee, unsweetened chocolate, and oatmeal. It goes down easy. Nicely done. Whenever I have a classic porter, I imagine pilgrims drinking it. (Don’t ask)

The Warthog Double IPA  started sweet and finished with a grassy and citrus character. Its mouthfeel was surprisingly creamy. Definitely a slightly different take on the style, but very enjoyable. 

The sample I left for last was the Red Rock amber ale – their flagship. Just like the brown ale, it compliments their steak and BBQ menu well. I think it would also work well with Chinese food. Just saying. It’s perfectly sweet and smooth, albeit a little low in carbonation.

At this point, after I tasted a bit of each sample, the bartender came over and asked which of them was my favorite. I said the porter. Her body language insinuated this was an incorrect answer. She asked if I’d like to try something else, complimentary. I asked for the milk stout, and I was glad I did.

The milk stout looked beautiful – almost like a Russian imperial stout. Its head was a dark, khaki color and offered a terrific aroma. I smelled dark roasted coffee with a nod toward cappuccino, and some lactose sweetness on top of oats. It was a soft sweetness. Just right, with a fairly short finish leading to easy drinkability for the style. This was now my favorite.

Somehow another free sample ends up on the bar. Something she declared as “the Opa Opa lager”. It’s based off the German style called “Helles”, and is appropriately light, bright, and refreshing. It could use a bit more character, even for the subdued style it strived for.

At this point the bartender asked if I liked fruit beers. I wanted to say no, but tried to be nice. The best I could say was, “mehh… I don’t discriminate, but…”. She cut me off and asked, “are you saying I should give you a sample of our watermelon beer? It’s our best seller.” 

There we go again. The previous brewery we visited (Blue Hills) also declared their watermelon beer to be the best seller in summer months.

I never turn down free samples. But this watermelon beer was not even worth a sample, let alone a free one. It’s a lackluster pale ale with an oversized chunk of watermelon dumped into it (fruit in my beer again!). It looked ridiculous and tasted pathetic.

The bartender can tell we didn’t care for it and proceeds to give us yet another complimentary sample. This time, a mix of their Red Rock and the strawberry ale. OK, maybe it’s because I set my expectations at absolute rock bottom (mixing beers sounds blasphemous), but it wasn’t horrible and I could see it may have its place out in the backyard, on a warm summer day...I guess. I’d still never reach for it.

We had a pleasant and generous bartender, but she seemed hell-bent on getting me to like the fruity gimmick beers. Not happening. Neither my wife or I fall for them often enough. But we did appreciate her allowing us to try other beers we didn’t pay for. This is not uncommon at other breweries, but most bartenders at breweries typically give you one ounce when you ask for a complimentary sample. Our friend here at Opa Opa filled a 4 oz glass to the brim four separate times, without us asking. That’s a full pint’s worth of free beer. Not bad. We like to think she’s not just suckering us into giving her a larger tip. But she probably was.

As a side, the food here wasn’t half bad. The BBQ chicken sandwich on Texas toast was tasty enough. The steak fries were great. The chilli hearty and delicious. And the free bread was a peasant-style loaf baked with a little molasses. Thumbs up.

Overall, if you’re in the area of Southampton MA, I recommend trying the Opa Opa brewery and Steakhouse. We enjoyed enough worthy beer and a tasty enough lunch with friendly service. I couldn’t ask for much more.

69 College Highway
Southampton, Massachusetts, 01073

Friday, August 19, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop 2: Blue Hills Brewery

Located in Canton MA, you’ll pass by this place without realizing it. It’s located in a small, easily unnoticed building consisting of 4 or 5 small businesses. Look for the circular brown sign in the middle of the building.

We walked into a fairly dark room that is part tasting room, part office. There’s a small bar, a few stools, a cooler/refrigerator with beers for sale, and some press for the brewery adorning the wall. It doesn’t seem like they do tours here, but that’s no sweat off my back.

Two men stood behind the bar. Both were friendly. One of them sporting a bright, fire-engine red button down shirt with the sleeves ripped off. His accent matched his shirt. Comical. The other guy seemed like the owner.

I heard this place gets busy at times, but there was only a young couple at the bar when we were there. They donned a camera and note book, and handed me their business card, and on the back, written in pencil, was the name of their blog - “Squirrel Farts”. I thought, “Darn! They got the Squirrel Farts moniker before I did”. Not really.

We tasted 4 beers. First was their Wampatuck Wheat. Despite its mediocre score on BA it really hit the spot for me. I expected a serviceable, thirst-quenching summer wheat brew. It was quenching, but also quite flavorful with notes of wheat grass, banana spice, and lemon. I enjoyed it more than I expected. 

Next, we tasted the Watermelon Wampatuck Wheat. The owner mentioned this was their best seller in the summer. I can see how. Throw watermelon flavoring in anything and watch the masses eat it up. I love watermelon as much as the next guy, but this was not for me. The watermelon notes ruined the base beer that I adored moments ago.

The Anti-Matter pale ale was next, which is the second release in the brewery’s single-malt-single-hop series. This one uses Vienna malt and Calypso hops. It’s a golden brew that’s supposed to offer subtle notes of pear and apple peel. I didn’t quite get that. Overall, this brew didn't impress me. My wife liked it, however, and I do like the concept of the series. Try it for yourself and form your own opinion. I see it in bottle shops often.

Lastly was Black Hops. FLASHBACK: I’ve had this beer before. In the wave of all the new “black IPAs” and hoppy black ales that have sprouted over the past year or two, I immediately thought this was a hoppy black ale. Given its name, I think that’s a fair assumption. I remember liking the brew, but noticing that it wasn’t too hoppy at all. The bottle was fresh so I couldn’t blame age on the absence of hops. I just chalked it up as a tasty brew that lacked the abundance of hops I expected for the style.

BACK TO PRESENT: The owner mentions Black Hops isn’t striving to be a “black IPA”, and that it’s actually more of a schwarzbier. OK, that makes a hell of a lot more sense given what I tasted. They should consider renaming it because, NEWS FLASH – all the beer geeks are saying it’s a black IPA and judging it as one. There’s probably been some unfair criticism due to that. Anyway, this SCHWARZBIER is a little sweet, but good. Notes of baker’s chocolate are noticeable as well as subtle notes of Baileys Irish Cream. It drinks more like a sweet porter or stout.

In the end, I recommend the Black Hops and the original Wampatuck Wheat.

Is visiting Blue Hills Brewery a riveting experience? No. But do you like sampling local beer, being able to talk to the owner, and supporting a small, honest craft brewer trying to make a name for itself?

So do I.

Tastings at Blue Hills Brewery:
Friday: 3:30 – 6:30PM
Saturday: 2:00 – 6:00PM

1020 Turnpike Street #3B
Canton, MA 02021

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop 1: Jack's Abby Brewing

My wife and I recently declared a mission for ourselves; visit every brewery in New England. I will record/rate our experiences here. I've been to a bunch of them already, but for some of those, it’s been some time. So I'll start over. 

This may take a while. Unfortunately some highly desirable breweries are in the middle of nowhere and require long, pain-in-the-ass drives (Hill Farmstead, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, etc.). But we’ll get there eventually, probably by combining the trip with skiing, hiking, or leaf peeping.  

To start our mission, we recently hit 2 local breweries. One being the brand new Jack’s Abby Brewing in Framingham, and Blue Hills Brewery just down the street in Canton (the closest brewery to our home in Dedham). This post will focus on Jack’s Abby.

No, that’s not a typo of “Abbey”. I’ve learned that “Abby” pays homage to Jack’s wife, Abby. That gives me the warm fuzzies. Run by 3 brothers, this place launched in January of 2011 and only makes lagers. Kudos to that. Lagers are sometimes overlooked by beer geeks and don’t get as much attention as ales. They should.

When you visit, you walk right into a tasting room and saddle up at the small bar. The inside has an office feel, but you can see through a window into the brew house. There are shirts and growlers for sale, and they were refilling growlers from others who strolled in while I was there. They also have a few hop vines outside to look at if you’ve never seen one.

Side Note. The family runs a hop farm in Vermont, and if you like smelling super fresh hops, help them pick it as part of their Hop Picking Event on Sunday, August 21st.  Sounds like food, drinks, contests, and prizes are expected.  

We tasted 4 beers. First, the Red Tape lager which is a Munich dunkel.  Its bready notes and hop spiciness make it a winner in my book.  

Next was their pilsner. I mumbled to my wife that this one was “classic euro style”. It was tied for my wife’s favorite.  Their “Smoke & Dagger” rauchbier was probably my favorite. It offered sweet smokiness and dry, roasty malts that can do no wrong in my eyes. Lastly, their “IPL” (India Pale Lager) Hoponius Union was delicious and would please any hop head.

All the beers were solid and the guys were very nice. I enjoyed Smoke & Dagger and Red Tape the best. I would have walked away with a growler if I wasn’t for the fact that we were on our way north with no way to keep it cold for quite a while. I’ll definitely be back to make a purchase.

All in all a pleasant experience. I don’t believe they offer tours, though they will probably give you one if you’d like. Know that this is more of a tasting room and outlet to buy beer directly from the source. It’s worth a visit if you simply want to sample their beers, which I recommend you do. Don’t expect a grand tour with song and dance. There are other breweries for that.

Jack's Abby
81 Morton Street
Framingham MA 01702

Thursday & Friday: 3:00 – 7:00PM
Saturday: 12:00 – 4:00PM

Live in or near Cambridge, MA? Cambridge Common will host a Jack’s Abby tap takeover and pour their four core beers from 6:00 – 9:00PM on August 26.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Just a Little Sumpin'

Something I bought recently as part of my summer mix-pack was a beer called “A little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale” from Lagunitas. This is a well-loved Californian brewery that I’ve had ups and downs with. It started with downs. For example, I had big hopes for their “strong ale” named Brown-Shugga, only to be let down with a thud. It sounded delightful on paper, and its reviews rave. But it was not meant to be.

Other beers of theirs hit high points in my eyes, and this one was no exception. In fact, it’s my favorite of theirs that I’ve tried.

First off, I don’t like the name. It sounds corny, the label looks silly, and I have reservations with a large handful of wheat beers. Strikes were against me here. I had this beer recently before at my in-laws. It was delicious. But as I drank it out of a mug with a nose that was a bit stuffy at the time, I wondered if I could get the aroma’s volatiles worked up better at home in a proper glass. Boy, did I ever.

The brew is a orangey-gold in color. It's half hazy. I can see my fingers through the glass but they're blurry. Head is one-finger in size and fades. 

BAM! Wonderful aroma of pine and a meld of citrus goodness in the likes of grapefruit, tangerine, and lemon. Amazing fresh hop oils at work here. 

Sweet acidic citrus flavors dominate and invite the taste buds to the party. Lemon, orange, and grapefruit are the primary players. A sweet malt provides a subtle backdrop for the hop flavors to get their groove on. A pleasant bitterness lingers after a crisp finish and mouthfeel. 

This is a bigger ale that deceptively acts light and refreshing while smacking you with American citrus-hop goodness. I could see people accidentally having too many of these as its looks and drinkability are deceiving. It hides a 7.5%ABV punch. So watch out. Or, scratch that. Just embrace its powerful deliciousness.  Recommended.

Grade: A+

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Summer Beer Dilemma. Can Tröegs deliver with Sunshine Pils?

It’s summer. This is when people drink lighter, crisper, more refreshing beers. Pilsner, kölsch, blonde ale, weissbier, witbier, lawnmower swill, and the like.

Typically at the beginning of the summer, I declare that I’m boycotting summer beers this time around. I rant that they too often taste like an uninspired weak beverage that probably costs less money to make… but brewers get away with it as long as “summer seasonal” is touted somewhere on the bottle. OK, that’s not fair, and not true for all summer seasonals. But, it still happens too often.

As summer nears its unofficial end, I start to wonder if I missed any great summer seasonals this year. And If I did, I only have another week or so to get my hands on them before fall seasonals flood store shelves.

Worried, I rushed to the store this weekend and created a couple of mixed six packs containing summer brews I hadn't tried yet or forgot about.  

One beer I picked up was the Sunshine Pils from Tröegs. I have good enough luck with Tröegs. In fact, I find their hoppy American amber, Nugget Nectar (released in the Spring), to be divine. Plus, Sunshine pils has a serious rep around beer geekdom. I’m almost certain I’ve had the Sunshine Pils before, but can’t recall for sure. So, let’s meet this beer again.

…..:sigh: OK I can’t sugar coat it. Two thumbs down. Let me say that I love a good pilsner and this one is supposed to be fairly good.

It sports a transparent straw color, and its white head dissipates to a faint film. No big deal there – fairly common for a pils.

The aroma is merely reminiscent (lightly) of pilsner malt, with faint esters of lemon and grass. 

It tastes snappy. Light grain gives way to fake corn-like flavors that conjur the likes of Becks and BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) products. The core flavor profile is very short. I notice a little Saaz hops making an appearance near the end but that quickly gives way to some unwanted bitterness that backfires from the grass notes. It’s unfortunate because grass is typically favorable beer characteristic to me.

Appropriately crisp mouthfeel, though quite fizzy. 

The body? It’s light. Even for a pilsner.

In the end, the Tröegs Sunshine Pils is a let down. Off-putting bitterness, and a fake macro-like flavor ruins the party.

Grade: D

I do not recommend the Sunshine Pils. However, in my quest to always leave you with a recommendation, I will point you to a better pilsner. There are many. One example is Berkshire Brewing’s Czech Pils. It’s also a summer seasonal, but this one’s exemplary of a delicious pilsner; restrained, refreshing, yet full of flavor. Plus, it’s made locally here in Massachusetts. Find the last remaining bottles at your closest craft beer retailer as Berkshire Brewing only releases it July-August.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Discover Beer in New England

After hanging around for almost 15,000 years – getting kicked around and beaten into a parody of itself – beer is the new kid on the block again in the U.S. And it's demanding serious respect. 

With 1,753 breweries operating last year (2010), there are more breweries in America now than there has been since the late 1800's. That's a lot of "choice".

Is choosing a beer be complicated and frustrating? It doesn’t have to be. With a few tricks, an adventurous palate, and some guidelines, exploring an endless array of beers is fun, infectious, and delicious.

Check back often for upcoming beer reviews, event reviews, and food pairing notes for insight and guidance. Learn how to better smell, taste, and appreciate what you're drinking. And be forewarned, I may get on my soapbox about a few areas in craft beer’s culture.

More often than not, I'll focus on New England's craft beer scene, as it’s home. But expect exceptions.

Start discovering better beer. You’re going to need more than a bag of pretzels.