Friday, April 29, 2016

Mad Ginger Beer

This isn't your typical beer. In truth, I can't really refer to it as a beer, and I shouldn't: the producer doesn't, either.

I was reluctant to write a review of this alcoholic beverage, but I remembered that I have reviewed cider, and it could be argued whether a Radler is truly a beer or a beer-like beverage.

So yes, this review goes on.

The artwork on this can caught my eye, with its bright orange and the bushy-faced lumberjack, wielding two axes, as if to do battle. The brown beard flows down the length of the can and around the back in artsy swirls, and it wasn't until I got home and examined the can closely, as I sipped its contents, that I found that the artwork was a source of frustration.

The font style that is used with the artwork is a cross between all-caps Comic Sans Serif and wooden logs assembled to make letters. The design, plus the impossibly small font size made it difficult to read some of the label, damned-near impossible to read other parts, even with my glasses.

A note to the brewer: it isn't only young folks who drink your bevvy. Some of us are old folks whose eyes are dim.

When I bought this ginger beer, I expected a ginger-flavoured beer. When I poured it, observed it, and sniffed it, I knew that I was dealing with a beverage that was closer to a cider than to an ale. Nearly hidden by the tiny, blended font, the can reads, "alcoholic malt beverage."

This was a brew unto itself. Let's take a closer look.
Crazy Beard Mad Ginger Beer (5.2% ABV)
Crazy Beard Ale
Oakville (Toronto) ON
Appearance: deep apricot with a quick effervescence that poured with no discernible head, like a nearly flat ginger ale. Beads clung to the side of the glass but did not last. Minuscule pearls that rose from the bottom of the glass were the only evidence that the "malt beverage" was not flat.

Nose: candied fruit—almost like sweet, green apples—with ginger and what I detected as a hint of papaya.

Palate: sweet apples and candied tropical fruit. The ginger beer is slightly cloying, covering the tongue and mouth. The ginger coats the back of the throat and provides a lingering finish.

Overall impression: while I wasn't anticipating a cider-like, malty beverage when I first opened the can, I felt that this was a nice, light-tasting refreshment. It's more like an alcoholic soda, with its fruit and ginger sweetness, and I think I would enjoy it much more on a hot summer day, much like I crave a Radler or a lemonade after working outside in the heat.

Is it a beer? No.

Is it a flavoured cider? No.

Is it good? Yes.

Would I drink it again? Absolutely! (Just, don't make me try to read the label again.)

Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Southwestern Road Trip, Part 4

I'm still dreaming of California.

I loved the warm weather with the cool breezes off the Pacific, the laid-back feeling, but most of all, the beer. When I went to San Diego with my family, I learned that this coastal city, just a short drive from the Mexican border, was called the craft-beer capital of the United States. And whether I drank beer that was made within the city or within the state, I was never disappointed.

I found my first local beer shortly after arriving in La Jolla, in northern San Diego. The beer was from a city that I had passed through, between Temecula and La Jolla. The name was well-known to me but it was something I had never tried.

It was a great way to get into the Southern California spirit. Literally.
  • Arrogant Bastard Ale, by Arrogant Bastard Brewing (Escondido CA, 7.2% ABV, rate 5): the bottle reads, "You're Not Worthy," and perhaps I'm not. This strong American ale knocked my socks off with its intense maltiness and caramel flavours, full body, and long, strong finish. The alcohol is as aggressive as all of the flavours, but it is perfectly balanced, so it works. From the first sip, this ale says "buckle up: you're in for a ride."
The next day, my family and I spent the day wandering the beaches and shops of this posh village.  And when lunch came around, we found ourselves in the heart of La Jolla, in front of a Mexican restaurant that emitted intoxicating aromas of grilled meat and spices. We were immediately pulled into Jose's Court Room and ordered chicken enchiladas, which I washed down with the perfect pairing to Mexican cuisine: IPA.
  • Sculpin IPA, by Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits (San Diego, 7% ABV, rate 4): full of fresh, citrus hops, and flavours of pineapple (and a hint of mango?), this is an easy-drinking IPA that I could drink all day, and would have had more, were the alcohol content not so high (though it wasn't visible on the palate). As I said, it was perfect with my lunch.
In downtown San Diego, I had planned to visit at least two breweries, and I achieved that goal. But I didn't visit all of the breweries I had wanted to see. Originally, I wanted to visit Stone Brewing—when I first saw the bottle of Arrogant Bastard on the store shelf, I thought it was a Stone beer because the label is strikingly similar, but I later found out that Arrogant Bastard, despite the label, is its own gypsy-styled brewery—because I had tried some last year, at the Kingston Beer Festival, and really enjoyed it. As it turned out, I didn't go, and I'll explain later.

There's a bit of narrative to this post, after all.

The other brewery that I wanted to see was Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and after a tour of the USS Midway, my family and I were pleased to learn that the brew pub was only a five-minute walk away.

Karl Strauss is an open-concept pub with a long bar, fermentation tanks behind glass windows, and plenty of tables. The service is friendly and attentive, and especially knowledgeable about their beer. And they have a lot of them on tap.

Naturally, I had to try as many as I could, so I ordered eight 4-ounce samplers (sharing them with my wife) with a late lunch. My kids ordered their mac and cheese, and they said it was life-changing. They liked it so much that they begged me to bring them back the next day. And because we learned that Stone Brewing, in the Gaslamp Quarter, didn't serve dinner, we decided to return to Karl Strauss, where I ordered all of the samplers that I missed at our first visit.

The second night's sampler
Here they are, in the order that I drank them over the two visits:
  • Columbia Street Amber (4.5% ABV, rate 3): deep gold in colour, this amber lager was light in body but had good flavours from start to finish. Although I don't gravitate toward lagers, this was a good start to the sampler.
  • Mosaic Session IPA (5.5% ABV, rate 3.5): this pale-straw offering is a very light-bodied session ale that cleansed the palate and went well with chili-lime sweet-potato fries. On a hot day, this would be a great go-to beer.
  • Pintail Pale Ale (5.3% ABV, rate 2.5): this ale was gentle on the palate. Perhaps, too gentle. It was very light in body and on hops. I would have liked a little more bite. It was good, but I was more impressed with my first two samples and was eager to move on to the next.
  • Red Trolley Ale (5.8% ABV, rate 4.5): over my vacation, I had tried a couple of red ales (which I don't generally care for) that changed my opinion of this style. Karl Strauss' Irish red is the best that I've ever tried. Ever. Ever! I let my wife take a sip, since we were sharing, but I told her that I intended to finish the rest. I would definitely drink it again.
  • Big Barrel Double IPA (9% ABV, rate 5): I will not lie. I brought some of this ale home. It knocked my socks of with the big grapefruit aromas and the high IBUs (the brewery says 90). There is lots of complexity and a ton of alcohol, but this IPA balances it all perfectly and remains true to its style. I loved it. Writing this review, I'm reminded of it, want to open a bottle of it right now, but I will save it for a special occasion.
  • Wreck Alley Imperial Stout (9.5% ABV, rate 3): this is a classic Imperial stout. And though the alcohol level is high, the chocolate, prunes, and licorice temper it.
  • Aurora Hoppyalis IPA (7% ABV, rate 3.5): I needed this IPA to bring my tastebuds back to normal after the intense stout. Lots of hops, as its great name suggests, and a long, full finish. I finished my burger with this ale and it was a great match.
  • Blacks Beach (ABV NA, rate 3): I had this schwarzbier on my second visit, as the first of a second sampler. It had lots of hops and great flavours, and had me excited for what was yet to come.
  • Big Grrr! Small Batch IPA (ABV NA, rate 3.5): there was a hoppy richness to this red IPA, and while the flavours were interesting, they didn't blow me away like the Red Trolley Ale did. Still, I would drink it again.
  • Six Suits A Hangin' (8.5% ABV, rate 4.5): wow! This Belgian brown ale was aged in bourbon barrels, and the bourbon really comes through and wraps you in a soft, warm blanket. I loved it and wished that I could take some with me, but it wasn't available in cans or bottles. But it made me want to return to San Diego some day, soon.
  • 27th Anniversary Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Chocolate Imperial Stout (13% ABV, rate 4): again, wow! The high alcohol content makes this stout heavy on the booze with a strong follow-up of chocolate. It's great, but I was thankful that I was walking.
One evening, we drove into Coronado, the tiny resort island where the old Hotel Del Coronado looks southwest, into the Pacific Ocean. It's the hotel that was used in the 1959 movie, Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. We spent some time on the beach, admiring the beautiful sand, the waves, and the setting sun, and then headed to the bay side, where we had a great view of the downtown skyline, and enjoyed dinner on an enclosed patio. It was at the Village Pizzeria where I tried a Coronado craft beer.
  • Orange Avenue Wit, by Coronado Brewing Company (Coronado, 5.2% ABV, rate 2.5): distinct orange flavours dominate this wheat ale, with notes of cilantro and a slightly flinty finish. It's light, fresh, and went down well.
Because we were travelling with kids, and because my wife doesn't share my love of beer, the trip also called on me to take my daughters where they wanted to go, and as with Phoenix, they wanted to shop for vintage video games. We found a shop in Ocean Beach, which is on the coast, just south of SeaWorld.

When we pulled into the one vacant parking spot, right beside Luna Video Games, I looked up at the shop in front of us and had a Eureka moment. We were parked at a brewery, one of which I was unfamiliar, but that wasn't going to stop me from getting to know it and to sample what was on tap.
  • Hefeweizen, by Culture Brewing Company (Ocean Beach, 5.9% ABV, rate 3.5): the first aroma to hit my nose was beautifully sweet bananas, and the fruit carried through and mixed with citrus flavours on the palate. This was a gorgeous hefe.
  • Pumpkin Brown (5.7% ABV, rate 3): of course, this wasn't pumpkin season. But this wasn't your average pumpkin ale. There was no nutmeg or allspice: there was simply a straight-up roasted pumpkin with chocolate overtones. It was unique and tasty.
  • Milk Stout (6.2% ABV, rate 3): there was a subtle silkiness to this stout. Quite enjoyable.
  • Oaked Porter (7% ABV, rate 3): all of the classic dry porter flavours are there, with an added oak bitterness. I liked this porter but I found the alcohol took away from the full enjoyment.
  • Mosaic IPA (6.6% ABV, rate 4): this was the second California ale that I tried with this name, but with a different style. And this IPA was the best of my Culture samples. There were big, fresh hops with great structure and a flavourful finish. I would have picked some up, but it was, sadly, only available on tap.

Fourteen days, two states, 17 distinct breweries, and 56 distinct brews made for the best beercation I've ever had. It will be hard to top it, but I'm willing to try.

Keep an eye out for the beers that I listed over the past four weeks, and if you can get your hand on the ones I recommended, go for it.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Soutwestern Road Trip, Part 3

I did Tucson in one day. But what a day it was.

Tucson is in the middle of the Sonoran desert, where the air is dry and the heat burns down on you. Because of the dryness, it's perfect from keeping metal from corrosion, and that's exactly why the Airplane Boneyard houses hundreds of aircraft in various states of disrepair. The parts are kept and used and they don't age.

Unfortunately, for we humans, the dryness makes us thirsty. Luckily, there are plenty of breweries to quench our thirst.

Because I did Tucson in one day, traveling with my family, my brother, and his kids, I couldn't make Tucson a place to tour breweries all day. We were spending the morning at Pima Air and Space Museum and the afternoon at the Airplane Boneyard, so for lunch, we searched for one brew pub that would satisfy my quest for beer and fill everyone's stomach.

And, luckily, it was only 15 minutes away from the airplanes.

I had my first taste of Nimbus Brewing Company a couple of days after arriving in Arizona, at Copper Blues Rock Pub & Kitchen, in Phoenix. I had really enjoyed their oatmeal stout and was looking forward to trying more. At their brew pub, I sampled the stout again plus six more.

  • Dirty Guera Blonde Ale (4% ABV, rated 2.5): this light-coloured ale had an equally light body and quickly quenched my thirst in the heat (it was about 30C). The flavour was also light, so halfway through this sample, I passed my glass to my wife and moved on. It's an easy-drinking ale but I found nothing that stood out on it.
  • Red Ale (5% ABV, rated 3): as I stated in my review of Beaver Street Brewing, in Flagstaff, I'm not a big fan of red ales. But my visit to Arizona was starting to change this opinion, thanks to Beaver Street and now, Nimbus. This is the most-flavourful red ale I've ever had. Lots of body, good balance between malts and hops, and a full finish. I drained this 4-ounce glass.
  • Pale Ale (5.5% ABV, rated 3): this is a classic pale ale, with fresh hops and a clean finish. This would be perfect for an afternoon in the heat.
  • Old Monkeyshine English Ale (8.2% ABV, rated 3): this English-style ale is very malty and packs a punch. I enjoyed it, but because it didn't taste like a traditional English ale and because the alcohol came through to distraction, I rated it as I did. I could only finish about a third of the glass before I felt the need to move on.
  • Brown Ale (5% ABV, rated 3): another English-styled ale, this brown was very nice. Light body, good balance, and a nice finish. I enjoyed it very much but, again, there was nothing that stood out, nothing that distinguished it from any other brown ale.
  • IPA (7.5% ABV, rated 4): now, here was a great Indian Pale Ale. Lots of bold, bitter hops, tons of grapefruit, and a long, strong finish. I only wished that the alcohol content wasn't quite so high.

Nimbus makes some very good ales, any one that I would say, "Go for it." The food at the pub was enjoyable and pleased everyone at our table (where ages ranged from 4 to 51). And that says a lot.

If you're ever in Tucson, seek these folks out.

I did have additional beer that day. It was, after all, St. Patrick's Day. Our hotel, a Hampton Inn, served some green ale during Happy Hour, and I indulged in a glass. I didn't want to appear snobbish, so I didn't ask the staff member who was handing out the glasses what it was we were drinking (I also thought that she might not have known, as it was coming out in a glass pitcher, from the kitchen, and she was just pouring the glasses). I expected the beer to be Bud, or Coors, or some other swill, but when I sipped it, I noticed that it had good body and reminded me of a wheat ale.

It was good.

I've never drunk green beer before, never participated in that strange St. Paddy's Day ritual. This time, I was glad that I had.

There was one additional beer that I had in Tucson, late in the evening, at Pizzeria Bianco in the downtown core. It was lovely.

  • Dragoon IPA, by Dragoon Brewing Company (Tuscon AZ: 7.3% ABV, rated 4): great body, nice hops, clean finish. I looked for more of this ale at some of the Whole Foods that we visited for the rest of the trip, without luck. 

The next evening, back in Phoenix, my brother took me to a pizza shop in Meza, but we didn't eat. The restaurant, Queen's Pizzeria, also served craft beer on tap. We had been listening to some live music, a couple of doors down at The Underground, and between sets we went for a pint, to chat and to rest our ears.

  • Road Rash IPA, by THAT Brewing Company (Pine AZ: 7% ABV, rated 3.5): I loved the name of this brewery and their IPA was classic, with great citrus notes, beautifully balanced bitterness, clean finish, and bold flavours.

It was a great beer to end my trip in Arizona.

From this point out, my road trip was taking me to California, and the apparent beer capital of America, San Diego. 


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Southwestern Road Trip, Part 2

One of the truly beautiful parts of Arizona is up north, between the mountains of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, as well as to the east of the canyon, along the Colorado River, near Lake Powell and the Utah border. If you're interested in reading about my thoughts of this area and seeing photos, check out The Brown Knowser.

Wherever I went, there seemed to be no end of craft beer. Good craft beer. Whether I walked into a restaurant, sat down at a brew pub, or walked into the craft-beer aisle at a grocery store, I was able to find brews that I've never tried before and, sadly, may never try again.

In the second part of my Southwestern United States road trip, I'd like to share the beer that I had in the town of Page, at the Grand Canyon, and in Flagstaff, near the famous Route 66.

When we drove up to Page, my only thoughts were of touring the Lower Antelope Canyon and watching sunset above Horseshoe Bend. Anything else was icing on the cake. Of course, we had to feed ourselves, so between these two sites, we stopped at a Texas barbecue for dinner, aptly named Big John's Texas Barbecue. The barbecue sampler of various pulled pork, ribs, brisket, and sausage is the way to go if you're undecided, and one platter fills two adults.

Big John's offers some local brew, in bottles, and my wife and I chose well. Here are my notes on both choices.
  • American Pilsner, by Grand Canyon Brewing Company (5% ABV, rated 3): for those of you who have followed my past beer reviews, you know that a Pils is not my favourite style of beer. I did, however, find this Pilsner to be flavourful, with a nice body and a solid finish.
  • Sunset Amber Ale, by Grand Canyon Brewing Company (5% ABV, rated 4): while I sipped my Pilsner, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to try the beer that my wife chose and I ended up taking several mouthfuls over the course of our meal. This ale was a perfect marriage: the blend of hops and malt cut through the grease (the food was phenomenal) and sweetness in the barbecue sauce. Though I was happy with the beer I chose, I was happier that my wife was willing to share.
Grand Canyon Brewing is located in Williams, just west of Flagstaff, along historic Route 66. If I had known this while I was travelling, I would have made a side trip.

Even the Grand Canyon National Park offers craft beer at it's Yavapai Lodge. We stopped at this cafeteria for lunch and I found an interesting selection to go with my pulled pork sandwich.
  • Piehole Vanilla Cherry Porter, by Historic Brewing Company (6% ABV, rated 4): typically, I shy away from any beer that tries to pack in a lot of ingredients. I find that the flavours can compete and get muddied, and you're left with an overwhelmed palate. This porter by a Flagstaff brewery was done just right, with a lovely nose of vanilla and a mouth feel that brought the goodness of a porter that was backed up with a slight cherry flavour. The vanilla returned in the finish. You could taste everything, just not all at once, and this made for a very good ale.
Just as the sun set on the Grand Canyon, the winds picked up and the temperature dropped. As I snapped one of my last photos of the day, a particularly blustery gust snatched my 20-or-so-year-old expedition hat and carried it into the abyss (if you really want to get a sense of how deep the Grand Canyon is, just watch something get smaller and smaller as it falls forever and ever).

I grumbled all the way from the national park to our rented cabin in Flagstaff, remembering how I wore that hat all over Southeast Asia, how it provided me shade as I paddled a canoe through the Rideau Lakes system, from Kingston to Ottawa, how it kept rain off my head in countless situations, and felt that I lost a travel companion.

When we arrived in Flagstaff, we decided to stop at the local Safeway and pick up some groceries because we would be staying at the cabin for a couple of days and were going to take advantage of the kitchen, rather than spend more money in restaurants.

One of the things that I like about American grocery stores is that they not only offer alcohol, but they tend to include a great selection of wonderful craft beer. As I scanned the shelves, my sad eyes fell on a lone bottle that raised my spirits.
  • Cappuccino Stout, by Lagunitas Brewing Company (9% ABV, rated 4):  I have tried a couple of beers by this California brewery—a friend gave me a bottle when she returned from a trip to the U.S. and I enjoyed their IPA when I was in New York City last spring. I not only liked Lagunitas beer: I loved it.
    This stout was perfect for drowning my sorrows while, at the same time, lifting my spirits. The powerful coffee flavours are dark and rich. It was like drinking an espresso with a healthy shot of booze. And the 9% alcohol level is strong without coming across as too boozy.
The next day, while wandering the small, mountainous town of Flagstaff, my wife found a café just a short walk on the other side of the railway tracks that parallel historic Route 66, on Beaver Street. I had had some coffee a short time earlier and I wasn't in the mood for a pastry or other treat, so I sat on a bench outside of Macy's and asked Google to find the closest brewery.

My smartphone showed me one that was across the street from where I was sitting.

Situated in a former grocery store, this spacious brewery has plenty of tables to accommodate a large crowd of craft beer lovers. I sat at the bar and ordered a sampler, and chatted with Jack, a retired bartender from Chicago, about the wonders of the craft-beer explosion. While we talked, I took pictures and made notes on Untappd.

  • Diamond Down Lager, by Beaver Street Brewery (5% ABV, rated 2): This lager was average but I found the finish a little weak. After only a couple of sips, I was ready to move on.
  • Summer Shandy, by Beaver Street (ABV was unavailable, rated 3): this was one of the more interesting brews of the sampler. A cloudy yellow that resembled lemonade, this refreshing beverage smelled of citrus and ginger beer, and tasted like a slightly spiked lemonade. It was flavourful and slightly sweet, and would make an excellent thirst quencher on a hot summer day. On this day, in Flagstaff, it was neither summer nor hot, but I enjoyed this ale all the same.
  • Red Rock Raspberry Ale, by Beaver Street (4.4% ABV, rated 2.5): the nose was filled with ripe, fresh raspberry as I breathed in this brew, and the fruit flavours carried through to the finish. It was good but didn't stand out.
  • Lumberyard Amber, by Beaver Street/Lumberyard Brewing Company (6% ABV, rated 2): I learned, as I searched for this beer on Untappd, that Beaver Street Brewing and Lumberyard Brewing are one and the same brewery, but at separate locations. Both are on the south side of the railway tracks, just around the corner from each other, both in somewhat historic buildings.
    Talk about cornering the market.
    Both breweries share their perspective ales, and I took it that this amber ale was brewed at the sister location. Or was it? When I first tasted the ale, I thought that the bartender may have placed the wrong glass in the spot for the amber. This beer was as dark as the IPA that Jack was enjoying and tasted of strong hops. My server happily poured me another glass, and I noticed that she drew from two taps as she filled my four-ounce vessel. "It's half red, half IPA," she told me as she replaced my old glass.
    Why would you blend beer? More than that, why would you blend it from two different kegs? In doing so, you assume that people at the tap pour the exact same way every time. For me, I tasted more IPA than anything else, and what the brewery was trying to do did not come off as an amber ale. What I tasted was okay, but I felt that the brewery failed on this sample.
    I also didn't trust what they posted as the alcohol content.
  • Railhead Red, by Beaver Street (5.8% ABV, rated 3): this was a very easy-drinking brew. Nice body, good finish.
  • Dingle Irish Stout, by Beaver Street (4.6% ABV, rated 3): a classic, dry Irish stout. Enjoyanle, but I have nothing more to say about it.
  • Flagstaff IPA, by Beaver Street (6.1% ABV, rated 4): I could see why Jack chose this ale. It has lots of grapefruit aromas, nice, bold, citrus hops, a solid body and a refreshing, palate-cleansing finish. I could drink this ale all day long.
  • R&R Oatmeal Stout, by Beaver Street (6.4% ABV, rated 4): this stout was beautifully smokey, with solid flavours and a great finish.
  • Hop Gag Imperial IPA, by Beaver Street (8.8% ABV, rated 3): generally, I feel that the word gag should not be used for any food or drink. Gag is a verb I don't want to associate with anything that I'm going to put in my mouth. And while the heady alcohol content made me take notice, it did not cause any reflux action. I did, however, find that the alcohol and hops seemed a little out of sync, though there was good body and the finish was long. I didn't like it as much as I enjoyed their flagship IPA, but this seasonal was interesting nonetheless.
In my next blog post, I'll share my beer experiences of Tucson.