Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Beer Pairing Made Easy

As turkey day approaches, forums on beer websites start to focus on the obligatory question – “what beer do I pair with my Thanksgiving feast”?

The first response is almost always “a good barleywine”. Other typical responses cover a plethora of Belgian styles. Of course there are no right or wrong answers. Try what you like. Or, look for a brewery to make the process fool proof for you by producing a beer called “Thanksgiving Ale”. We all know not to judge a book by its cover, but when you see a beer with that name, it’s hard to pass up for this purpose.

Thanksgiving Ale is an English old ale brewed by Mayflower Brewing Company, which DBNE recently visited. Given their name, location, and back story, I can’t think of a more appropriate brewery to make a beer solely for our November holiday.

We tasted this brew last night. Pouring it into a tulip glass, we generated very little head but liked its deep, dark auburn color. Aromas of brown bread, vanilla, molasses, and brown sugar were all there. This immediately reminded me how much I like canned brown bread with cream cheese. But I digress.

The flavor profile matched the aroma, but with an added note of raisin. The more the beer warmed up, the less sweet it became. I began to taste the essences of wood, peat moss, and earth which provided enough bitterness to keep the sweetness in check. Near the end of the glass I noticed a note of cherry. There are layers of flavor here, and that equals two-thumbs up from me.

If you’re considering a beer pairing with your Thanksgiving dinner, I suggest seriously considering Mayflower’s Thanksgiving Ale. It clocks in at 8% ABV and will run you approximately $6 – $7 for a 22 oz bottle, and you have fewer than forty eight hours to get yours in time to pair with mom’s sweet potato pie.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The revenge of Infinium

In November of last year, Sam Adams released a unique beer called Infinium. It was brewed in collaboration with the great German brewery (and the world’s oldest ) Weihenstephaner. Infinium is technically categorized as a Bière de Champagne, which as you might guess, is a cross between beer and champagne. It's a newer beer style that's usually produced in Belgium.  

Upon Infinium's first release one year ago, it received mixed reviews with arguably more bad reviews than good ones. The majority’s consensus was that it was simply unimpressive, gimmicky, boring, and not recommendable. I didn’t think they’d brew it again. But, Sam Adams and Weihenstephaner teamed up again this year to give it another go. This year's batch, however, has noticeable differences. 
A small release party for Infinium 2011 was held at the Sam Adams Brewery last night, and DBNE attended. Sam Adams founder, Jim Koch, was present at the party and I couldn't help but notice that he seemed smaller in person than I imagined him to be. He spoke for a few minutes and expressed that he wanted this year's batch to have a bigger backbone. He informed us that the new version is enhanced by “dry hopping with fresh Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops to impart a fresh yet delicate citrusy hop character.”

Jim’s description accurately represented what we experienced. We didn't have high expectations when we walked in, but we were impressed and surprised how much we enjoyed this year’s batch.
While last year's version was more champagne-like. This year's version tastes a lot more like a beer that merely winks at champagne. In a blind taste test , I don’t think I could pick out this year’s Infinium as an obvious champagne/beer crossover. It didn't even sport the fizzy head inherent with champagne. Instead, Infinium’s head is foamy and amazingly doesn't dissipate. An “A” for appearance.
The enhanced, grassy-hop profile was noticeable on the nose along with sweet malt and faint citrus. The biggest enhancement on the flavor front is actually the caramel-malt profile. It’s huge. It tastes sweeter and more syrupy as it warms without ever becoming unwelcoming. What makes it lovely is the lining of orange and apricot notes in the mix.
Also commendable is that its 10.03% ABV is unnoticeable to the palate. Yes, you feel it later, but there’s no trace of alcohol in the flavor. This is uncommon for a beer with that alcohol level.
In the end, we were quite impressed. Anyone who was disappointed with last year's Infinium should give this year's version a chance. The only drawback is that a bottle costs $20. You do get 750 ml, and I’m sure its production requires higher costs. But compared to other beery treats you can buy with $20, is it worth that price tag? That’s debatable. However, Infinium does have a celebratory air about it. So given the situation and company you share it with, it definitely can be worth it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sam Adams Single Batch Series

DBNE recently attended a release party at the Sam Adams brewery in Jamaica Plain, MA, in honor of their new, limited-edition, Single Batch Series. The series consists of four new beers touted as “the brewers’ favorite beers”. They’re available nationwide in 22 oz. bottles ($4.99 - $6.99), and this is the only time they’ll be brewed, supposedly. Hence the “single batch” moniker.  

Now, if they’re previously unreleased, I don’t understand how they could be the brewers’ favorites. Favorites out of what? Have they been brewing these behind scenes for personal consumption? What else do they have hiding back there?

The lineup includes four beers: Griffin’s Bow (barleywine), Tasman Red (red IPA), Third Voyage (double IPA), and The Vixxen (chocolate chili bock). Needless to say, these are all bigger, more intense beers.

The event was intimate and well attended without being too overrun. Each of the four beers had their own station with a savory food pairing. Interestingly, most of the stations had unique cupcakes to pair as well. Though the cupcakes ran out quick at some stations.

We received four tokens to sample four beers, and two tokens to sample two food items. The fact we weren’t each given enough tokens to sample all four food items was strange. The food seemed specifically chosen to pair well with, and enhance, the flavors of the specific beer it shared a station with. Regardless, my wife and I split our food tokens to sample everything equally.

In short, the verdict on the beer was that there were two hits and two misses.

Griffin’s Bow was the surprise. It’s an Oaked Blonde Barleywine. What’s funny is that neither my wife nor I get excited over blonde ales. And, while I do enjoy some barleywines, my wife generally steers clear of them (though she appreciates their flavors). Despite all that, we both enjoyed Griffin’s Bow immensely. It’s complex with layers of flavor. Notes of vanilla, cinnamon, oak, caramel, and fresh hops, are all there. It got better with each sip and paired well with the quesadilla served with it. While Griffin’s Bow packs a punch, it's not overwhelming as long as you sip slow.

Next was Vixxen – a chocolate chili bock brewed with ancho and chipotle chilies. We didn't hate it. It just lacked complexity. The notes of chili spice were noticeable, pleasant and subdued. Chocolate was definitely there, but beyond that, there wasn't much to it. There was no visual head to speak of when poured, and I had a hard time creating one in the glass. The mouthfeel was smooth and had that slick feeling that many Sam Adams beers have. Overall, Vixxen wasn’t bad but we expected more excitement, and therefore, felt let down. The food pairing here was chicken mole, and while it seemed to make a nice enough pairing, the food sample was so small one could hardly tell. The cupcake we received along with the chicken had a Mexican chocolate kick and was delicious.

The Tasman Red – a red IPA – is brewed with Topaz and Galaxy hops grown near the Tasmanian Sea. It was nice enough, but not the best hoppy red we’ve had. I wouldn’t choose it over, say, Bear Republic's Red Rocket. But it was still enjoyable and I gladly have another if someone handed me one. The red-malt profile seemed a bit thin with a strange note of plastic. Its hop presence didn't smack you in the face (which we sometimes like, frankly), but it was assertive and pleasing. The macaroni and cheese paired with this beer didn’t elevate anything and was merely a snack. But I never turn down a snack. Heck, I even make a point to go to BJ’s Wholesale Club to eat the free samples, regardless of whether or not I need to shop for anything.

Lastly was Third Voyage. It’s a double IPA (DIPA) brewed with Cascade hops from three different regions of the world. Third Voyage tastes exactly how I expect Sam Adams to make an DIPA – not enough hops, too much malt. While its flavors were nice enough, “enough” doesn’t cut it in the loved DIPA corner of the beer universe. There are too many great DIPAs one can easily find to warrant settling for Third Voyage. What bugged me most was its hop character. In both aroma and flavor, its hops were weaker than what we just experienced in the Tasman Red. And Tasman Red is only supposed to be of “regular IPA” strength. That’s backwards, and speaks to Third Voyage’s folly as well as Tasman Red’s relative success.

In the end, the two hits were Griffin’s Bow and Tasman Red; the two misses were Vixxen and Third Voyage. Griffin’s Bow was the unanimous winner of the lot in our eyes. But see for yourself. They’re all worth trying once.

The event was organized in collaboration with the Boston-based Pintley (www.pintley.com) website. Pintely is another beer-rating website that’s still relatively new, but fun and easy to use.

Pintley has partnered with Sam Adams again for another event (tomorrow) around the release of this year’s Infinium. DBNE will be there. A champagne-like beer brewed in collaboration with the mighty Weihenstephaner, Infinium was first released last year and suffered mixed reviews which lead me to believe we would never see it again. We hear this year’s recipe has changed for the hoppier, so we’re excited to get a sneak peek. Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #12: Mayflower Brewing Company

Egyptian servant pouring beer
I sometimes forget how significant of a role beer has played in world history. Beer recipes are found on Babylonian clay tablets from over 6,000 years ago. In the 13th century, it was customary to baptize children with beer. And in ancient times, monks who fasted or abstained from solid food subsisted on beer. 

Egyptian woman 
brewing beer.
There’s a seemingly endless number of noteworthy facts involving beer’s purpose and place in historical societies. The Egyptians often come up in these tales. For example, they used beer to treat over 100 illnesses in 1600 BC. But my favorite fact is that the Egyptian pyramids were essentially built on beer. Stonecutters, slaves, and public officials were paid in a type of beer called 'kash’, from which the word 'cash' originated. Two containers of ‘kash’ beer were minimum wage for an Egyptian laborer’s day of work.

I was reminded of beer’s place in history, specifically of its role on board the Mayflower ship, when DBNE recently visited Mayflower Brewing in Plymouth MA.

In 2007, Mayflower Brewing was founded by a tenth great grandson of John Alden. Mr. Alden built and tended to the wooden barrels which carried the Mayflower’s most precious cargo – many gallons of beer to sustain the Pilgrims on their journey to America. Beer was the staple drink on board the ship. Water became infected and spoiled quickly. Beer contained little-to-no bacteria, and hops (new to the brewing process at the time) preserved the beer longer. It was also a terrific source of carbohydrates. Everyone drank beer daily, including women and children. The sailors on board the Mayflower received a daily ration of one gallon.

After sixty-five days at sea, the Mayflower abandoned its planned destination along the Hudson river, and eventually landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer. The Mayflower's log explains the passengers "were hasted ashore and made to drink water so that the seamen might have more beer". On their arrival, the pilgrims immediately built a common house, which included a brewery.

The Pilgrims’ new colony and plantation in Plymouth contained a “very sweet brook” and “many delicate springs of as good water as may be drunk.” Today, Mayflower Brewing uses water from that very same brook to brew the Mayflower family of ales. I think John Alden would be delighted to hear that.

Mayflower’s brewing facility is located in a shared business building, tucked away in a quiet corner of a well-kept business area. Open on Saturday’s, their tasting room has a more inviting feel than others we’ve been to. It’s very clean and still looks new. There are a few tables and a nice-looking bar that beckons you to sample the five different beers they have on tap. Don’t mind if I do.

We sampled Mayflower’s four beers that are always in rotation and available in stores; the Golden Ale, Pale Ale, IPA, and Porter. The fifth tap is dedicated to their seasonal offering, which at the time of our visit was the Autumn Wheat.

Golden Ale is similar to a blonde ale and was the lightest beer in the bunch. Crystal gold in color, its malt character brings biscuits to mind. Mild floral hops balance it well. Overall, it’s dry, refreshing, and clean with little bitterness.

Pale Ale is Mayflower’s flagship beer. It seemed old-fashioned, and that's neither a good or bad thing. Compared to some of the other American pale ales found today, this one’s mild and as balanced as can be. The malts are toasty and woody. And while the hops do offer herbal esters, they’re busier balancing things out.

Moving along, the IPA showcased both hoppy and sweet characteristics. It uses pacific northwest hops with highlights of pine, citrus, and toasted honey-like malt. I’ve had the IPA in bottle and on tap, and experienced something different each time. It's hoppier from the tap, sweeter from the bottle. But the bottle I had may have been a bit old, and therefore lost its hop punch. I couldn't tell because the date imprinted on it was smudged. 

Next, we tasted the Autumn Wheat  which is their fall seasonal release. I’m often leery of wheat beers, as I find too many to be mediocre. Thankfully this one was anything but. However, I could see some beer geeks declaring it mediocre because it’s subdued. It drinks like a yeasty brown ale, and brown ales rarely astound beer geeks. But its flavors of brown bread, caramel, wheat, and banana are balanced and mixed seamlessly. This one surprised us.

Porter is my favorite style, so I was excited to finish with theirs. I’ve had it once before, on cask. I remember feeling conflicted about it. But, since I firmly believe beers taste slightly different at different times because of many reasons (the way it’s served to you, bottle vs. draft, your palate that day, company, environment, food accompaniment, etc.), I wanted to meet it again for the first time.

The porter is generally one of Mayflower’s most talked-about brews. I overheard it's one of their best sellers along with the IPA – and with good reason. What I like about it is how it reminds me of pilgrims. Earth, wood, smoke, molasses, and oats; those are all things I associate with a stereotypical pilgrim scene or old-fashioned New England food. And Mayflower’s porter hits all of those notes. Given their story it’s fitting that Mayflower Brewing delivers a solid, classic porter. But it’s modest. Its robustness doesn’t make you bang on your chest. It’s almost elegant.

After all that sampling, the beer we ended up taking home was not one we tried. Their limited-edition Thanksgiving Ale is sold in 22oz bottles only, and at 8% I hear it’s a tasty Strong Ale. I’ll find out soon.

We did get a brief, standard tour of the facility. Tours seem to happen spontaneously. As soon as a handful of people show up who are interested in a tour, one of the bartenders shows everyone around.

I encourage you to visit Mayflower for at least the easy-going and welcoming vibe you experience as soon as you walk in. A handful of people showed up while we were there, and the tasting bar at times felt more like your friendly neighborhood pub. People who seemed like regulars came in to refill their growlers, but would also hang out, chat, and sample all the beers as if they hadn’t had them before. The staff didn’t seem to mind at all. And I don’t blame the patrons because the pours here are generous.

Mayflower's brewery is easy to like. If you didn’t already have a reason to visit the pleasant town of Plymouth Massachusetts (especially in the summer), now you have one.

Mayflower Brewing Company
2 Resnik Rd, Plymouth, MA

Tastings and Tours:
Thursdays and Fridays 4:30PM to 6:30PM
Saturdays 11AM to 3PM

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Brewery Tour Stop #11: Element Brewing

I love the phase a new brewery is in when they’ve only got a handful of beers to their name. To me, it’s those first few beers a brewer produces that represent the soul of the brewery’s vision. They’re the reason someone decided to put everything on the line and start a business.

Or, maybe I just enjoy breweries with fewer choices. More choice is not always better (I’m looking at you, Mikkeller). I was reminded of this when DBNE recently made a visit to Element Brewing.

Located in the small town of Millers Falls, the brewery sits in a space one would hardly imagine a brewery to be in. It looked as if a modest-sized town store once occupied it. Turns out, as we later learned, the space was previously home to a post office.

This is the smallest brewery I have ever been in. Because of its size, I was immediately reminded how young Element is. It’s just two years old. But, I can already say this with assurance – it has a very bright future.

Walking inside, we were greeted by a friendly young lady and a gentleman named Tom Fields. Tom explains he’s one of the brewery’s three partners. A self-proclaimed “numbers guy”, Tom admits that he “can’t make you an ounce of beer”. He leaves that up to his two partners, Ben Anhalt and Dan Kramer, who combine nearly forty years of brewing experience.

We quickly received a sample of a beer called Extra Special Oak (ESO), and Tom brought us back to briefly show us the brewing space. Although he admits no credit to anything they brew, he still knew the process and pointed out where they milled, mashed, boiled, fermented, conditioned, and bottled.

I enjoyed my sample of ESO. Light amber in color, it contains the malt characteristics of an English Strong Ale without the typical bitterness.  Earthy, citrus hops and a little smoke make up its aroma. Its flavor profile serves notes of lemon, oak, vanilla, and toasty malts.  It’s very smooth, and boasts 7.75% ABV. Element refers to this level of alcohol as “the sweet spot that gives you a gentle warming sensation of alcohol without the shock value and booziness of more extreme styles”. They preach it creates a more full-bodied, multi-dimensional and pleasant beer. I certainly don’t disagree.

That ABV sweet spot, 7% - 9%, is found in all three of Element’s flagship beers, and six of the eight total beers they have produced.

A second common trait among their beers, beyond the ABV, is that they’re all bottle conditioned. So expect them to age well.

Our next tasting was Red Giant, the second of their three flagships. Solid caramel malt, along with a solid hop presence make up its backbone. Its flavor also brings to mind citrus, pine, bread, and earthy fruits.

Dark Element, an American Black Ale, rounds out their three flagships. This is the one Element brew I’ve had before, albeit a year ago. I loved it then, I love it now. Picture a hoppy schwarzbier blended with the fruity qualities of a Belgian Dubbel. It offers layers and layers of flavor with an amazing balance of roasted malts, hops, and soft fruit. Notes of apple, cherry, dates, and grapes are at play. I like to think there's something in Dark Element’s flavor profile for everyone.

We finished with samples of two seasonal beers. The first was their summer seasonal – an “Oatmeal Pilsner.” Those are two words I’d never seen next to each other. Needless to say, it made for an interesting brew. Oatmeal is usually associated with oatmeal stouts, which have a creamy mouthfeel. Pilsners often have a crisper mouthfeel. So, marrying the two styles was not something my brain could compute easily. But I had to try it. Firm biscuit-like malts balanced assertive hops, while mild oats provided an almost powdery sense and a soft mouthfeel. It weighs in at 8.8% ABV and is truly unique.

The other seasonal we had was called Altoberfest. It combines an Altbier with a traditional Oktoberfest marzen, and brings it up to Element’s ABV sweet spot. Bready malts, spicey hops, and a little faint fruit round out this one. It’s a more robust take on the fall classic, without any booziness rearing its head.

Though I loved everything we tasted, and probably their three flagship beers the best, we took home a bottle of the Oatmeal Pilsner, as well as a one-year aged bottle of the Altoberfest. They were both just too unique to pass up, and I’m sure they’d be nearly impossible to find in stores.

What you can find in stores more easily are their three flagships; Dark Element, Red Giant, and ESO. However, Element is only distributed within Massachusetts, and only the better beer stores carry them. But believe me, they are worth it. Yes, their product is priced above many other choices, but the quality matches what you pay.

Among the online beer geek circles, Element is known locally, but not yet recognized nationally. But I don’t think much time will pass before the hype train makes a stop on Element’s doorstep. As word slowly creeps out of New England, beer trading circles will see people outside of Massachusetts looking to trade their local gems for Element. But the hype will be backed up in this case. Element’s beers are too good to go unnoticed for long.

Look for Element’s beers at your closest fine beer purveyor in Massachusetts. They’re easy to spot on the shelves. Practically gift-wrapped just for you!

Element Brewing Company
30 Bridge Street
Milers Falls, MA 01349
Phone: 413- 835-6340

Brewery Hours:
Monday: Noon - 6PM
Thursday: Noon- 6PM
Friday: Noon - 6PM
Saturday: Noon - 6PM

Impromptu tours and tastes available most times.

Growlers and Bottled Conditioned 750's available to go.