Sunday, July 31, 2011

Best Beers in the World?

If you know me well, you know that I love It's no secret. I rate, I trade, I drink, I share, I attend events and festivals, I organize tastings, and more. I'm a born and raised ticker. My wife knows not to go to a beer store with me unless she wants to waste more than the amount of time it'd take her to buy a pair of shoes (just kidding, honey... we both know I don't go with when you buy shoes). My friends know that when we go to a bar or restaurant I'll be sitting there on my phone annoyingly looking, sniffing, sipping, and rating away. I'll buy a new shitty pale lager from Burpslotsostan to rate when it's sitting among ten of my favorite brews. You get the point.

Being involved with ratebeer has made me a bit of a lucky man several times in my life, often with the help of a few friends. At festivals, tastings, and through trades, I have been lucky to try some of the best beers in the world. A recent tasting of one of them inspired this blog post.

On ratebeer, for about as long as I can remember, two beers have been tied for the top spot. One is Närke Kaggen! Stormaktsporter and the other is Westvleteren 12. For you morons that care about BeerAdvocate (note to self: future blog), as of this writing, Kaggen! is number eleven and Westy 12 is number one, just like ratebeer.

So what constitutes the world's best beer? Complexity? Balance? Rarity? Who knows. The old joke is that on ratebeer, all you have to do is brew a decent imperial stout and throw it in a barrel. Either that or make something super rare (I, for one, like quadruple imperial stouts aged with unicorn testicles inside of dragon-fire-breath charred rainforest wood barrels that aged a once-only bourbon whiskey for 100+ years - and the sour version is even better). Taking a look at the Top 50, one can't really argue with that mindset.

Speaking of rare, barrel-aged imperial stouts, let's begin with the Kaggen. It's a bit tough to find a ton of information about this beer. Närke has a website, but unless you're fluent in Swedish (Bork Bork Bork!), or have a lot of free time to fiddle with Google translate, it's not much help. According to BeerAdvocate, this beer is "the cask matured version of Stormaktsporter." Well, that's helpful. Viewing the BeerAdvocate descripition of regular Stormaktsporter, I deftly read "For the cask matured version of this beer, please do a search for Kaggen!" It's a never-ending circle of insanity. Starting to get my point?

Moving on, luckily ratebeer's description claims Kaggen! is an "imperial stout brewed with heather honey and aged on oak for 2.5 months." Phew. With the help of some friends, I was able to land two bottles (two different vintages) of this beer in a trade awhile back. Despite the teensy 6oz (or so) bottles, the description of this beer boasts "share the bottle," so we recently got together to taste this delight, and here is my full review:

"2009 Vintage - Opaque black pour with a frothy brown head that fades to a ring but sticks. Complex aroma of fudge, char, oak, bourbon, and a touch of alcohol. Wonderful flavor loaded with fudge, big smokey/char character, a lingering hint of coconut, definite oak, and more. Unique and quite good.

2008 Vintage - Opaque black pour with a small brown head that sticks. Huge BA (barrel-aged) aroma on this one with buttery vanilla, fudge, and more. Rich flavor displaying BA characteristics with lingering roast and a touch of ash."

My rating after considering both vintages was a 4.7/5, putting it at number sixteen in my list of current ratings. It's pretty awesome, and the ashy/char aspect makes it stand out as somewhat unique among the hundreds of impy stouts I've had, but I can't say it's the best beer I've ever had, that's for sure. I have some ratings stowed away for special occasions that I haven't put up yet either, so it'll go down the list some. All in all, I'd say it's probably within my top 25 beers. No unicorn testicles, but it's pretty good.

As for the Westy 12, we got some in this trade as well, but we drank it awhile back. I had already had it once before and I still have another bottle that I'm going to share with my brother in-law in two weeks (lucky bum). This beer isn't so mysterious. Their website is in English, there are multiple articles and Wikipedia entries about them, etc. Aside from being the top rated brew in the world on both major beer rating sites, it is also the only Trappist brewery not available in the US, making it the most elusive in most cases. The 12 is their abt/quadruple... I'll spare you that discussion, because if you're reading this blog, you probably already know what I'm talking about. If not, head here.

The Westy 12 is... damn tasty. Here is my full review, from the very first time I tried it, as I didn't edit my rating when I recently tasted it:

"The aroma hints of grapes and some dark fruits as well.  The flavor is grapes and dark fruits mixed with wonderful Belgian yeast characteristics - and no hotness whatsoever. This is delicious, well balanced, and very smooth.  The mouthfeel is amazingly soft and effervescent like real Champagne."

This is a simple, straightforward review, as I tend to do. I ended up giving it a 4.8/5 which currently lands it at number four on my list of ratings. It's getting closer... but I still wouldn't say it's the best beer I've ever had, or my favorite. My favorite part was that smooth, effervescent mouthfeel... very nice. Given the factors I mentioned above, I'd say it's definitely in my top ten favorite beers of all time. Monkalicious.

So, going back a few paragraphs... what constitutes the world's best beers? In my book, it's a combination of balance, complexity, and a certain hint of something unique that makes the beer stand out as an excellent brew or sets it apart from others. What makes these two beers so highly rated and so special, by my guess, is that even if they don't happen to be everyone's favorite beer, almost everyone will find them to be high quality and tasty, making their average ratings soar. This is opposed to other beers, say a Nutella Brown Ale, where some people will call it their favorite beer ever, and some people will call it their least favorite beer ever. It's kind of like how nobody actually listens to Mozart, and yet all of you know who that is. And, of course, we can't forget that certain sprinkling of rarity and elusiveness that makes the beer taste that much better when we sip it out of our fancy glasses.

A lot of you are probably saying, "Okay, tough guy, then what is your favorite beer?" Well, you can view my full list of ratings here (click "My Rating" to arrange by my score), but I can also just tell you that I've only ever given two beers a solid 5.0, and one of them I haven't put on ratebeer yet. The first you can see - Russian River Pliny the Younger - a tasty double IPA, which happens to be my favorite style. The other, which I haven't put online yet, is the definition of rare... so much so that it's even in the title... Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Stout... okay, so the rare thing is a bit tongue in cheek, but I happened to have loved that beer, and regular Bourbon County Stout was one of my first (and remains to be) favorite beers ever.

And, oddly enough, as of this writing, there is no listing for a Nutella beer, though I'm guessing it's what this one was hinting at.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fresh Tallahassee beer! …well, at least 3/4 of it.

Before I get started, I’d like to clear up something that is going to come up after this post. Yes, I work for a beer store in town that is affiliated with the neighboring bar. No, nothing I post here has anything to do with my job there, my affiliation with either place, or anything of the sort. Got it? Awesome.

Sweet, since that’s cleared up, allow me to get started. Recently a well-known local beer bar, Fermentation Lounge, hired a few brewers to brew on site. They formed what they deemed “Golden Horn Brewing Company” (whatever that means – my guess is the fantasy novel).

Holy. Shit.

You heard me right - A BREWERY IN TALLHASSEE! Finally! Praise Saint Arnold’s wolf!

Now I’m newish to Tallahassee, and I’m definitely no Tallahassee historian, but I gather that this is the first brewery opening since Buckhead closed down. It’s hard to find a ton of information about Buckhead, but a friend told me the doors closed in 2003 and thus Tallahassee has been without a brewery for approximately 8 years now. Also, one of Buckhead’s head brewers was none other than Wayne Wambles, head brewer at the now infamous Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, FL. While there, Wayne managed to pull in several medals, including some from the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival… stiff competition.

Anyway, I have been to the first two brewery releases and have plenty to say. Those of you that know me know that I’m an educator. One technique to soften the blow is to sandwich criticisms between positives. For instance:

“Awesome, Tommy! You can play a B-flat!”
“…but you can’t play anything else.”
“…and your clothes smell nice!”

Sometimes it’s tough.

I’ll start by saying that I love Fermentation Lounge. My first year in Tallahassee I lived within walking distance of the place and visited frequently (since I’ve moved across town, I still visit, but not as often). I know the bartenders, they know me, there are good beers on tap in a chill atmosphere, and life is good. Their owner Scott is one of the nicest guys I’ve met and he’s always willing to chat about beer or the business over a cool brew. I’ve also met a few of the brewers, one in particular, and they are all very nice, love beer, and seem to know what they’re doing, which is all a good sign.

I’m also thrilled that Fermentation took the step that has been needed in Tallahassee for years by opening a brewery. Fresh local beer is the bee’s knees and Tallahassee has been devoid of it for way too long. If you know me well you understand how much I love breweries and brewpubs and I was and still am excited beyond words about this venture.

As for the releases… so far, nothing special. Mistakes are allowed, and they’re still improving, but if you scroll back to the top of this page you’ll see the title “Tallahassee Beer Critic,” not “Tallahassee Beer Lover of All Things and Giver of Pats on the Back.”

I’ll begin with the first release, which was a giant travesty that still has me fuming when I think about it. For months they advertised that they were making two beers to serve on tap – a grapefruit saison and an amaretto porter. I was literally the first person there on the release date and when I told them I wanted a glass of each, I was told that the porter keg got shaken up and they weren’t serving it quite yet. Understandable… I guess? I later heard a worker saying that when they moved the kegs they had to lift them around a lot and the porter kegs got quite shaken so the beer was coming out foamy, filled with yeast, and bitter… awesome. A late blog post stated that the screw-up happened sometime during the kegging process... who knows?

So I slowly sip my grapefruit saison (rating) and wait. Still no porter. I order another craft beer on tap and wait… and wait… and wait. A craft beer buddy of mine shows up and we start waiting together. Eventually the beer is erased from their board and we are told they’re going to let it settle overnight – try again tomorrow! Hurray.

Fast forward to the next day and I’m sitting in the bar right at opening waiting for my amaretto porter. The bartender has no idea what’s going on and no brewers are around to say anything so I sit sipping a brew and playing Angry Birds, really starting to understand the birds’ pain. I want this beer even more than they want to kill those pigs. One man’s golden egg is another man’s brown brew, I suppose.

Eventually a couple of brewers show up, they taste the beer, promptly remove the kegs, and leave… with hardly a word. The porter is gone. No dice, no beer, nothing. I sit more disappointed than Casey Anthony’s prosecutors. Later on their Facebook page they kindly explained that they were not happy with the product and they will never serve something that they’re not happy with. That’s perfectly respectable, but let’s go back a minute.

Don’t mess up your kegs! I understand that they have a small cooler and it’s hard to get around, but be careful. Or if it was the kegging process, figure it out! Also, how about you have the brewers or employees show up earlier to get things organized, settled, and ready to go. What’s that you say? The brewers all have full-time jobs and can’t show up when the bar opens to get things ready (which is also why I wasted over an hour the second day waiting to find out what was going on with the porter)? Well I’m not the first to say it, and I won’t be the last – that’s not my problem. If you’re going to keep having problems, maybe you should find someone else or find more dedicated brewers.

On a more positive note, the second release went off without a hitch, technically speaking. They served a golden lime beer (rating) and a hybrid brown ale (rating) that were… okay. One of the things that gets me about Ferm sometimes is their somewhat arrogant attitude about craft beer. They don’t serve macros, they scoff you if you ask for a beer that’s not good enough for them, and they make fun of other bars for serving macros and doing giveaways. So what did they do? They basically brewed a Corona-with-a-lime-in-it beer. Their claim for this brewery is that they’re going to be creative and brew wacky, original things. Well a golden ale with lime isn’t exactly the most creative thing in the world (yes, even with the honey). When I went back to Fermentation the next night, the lime beer was still on tap, which speaks for itself (more about batch size later).

As for the brown ale – they described it as being inspired by a night they mixed Old Speckled Hen and Hobgoblin. Well I’m going to come right out and say it – both of those beers are terrible, so why try to copy them? And why were you drinking them in the first place? However, the brown was the most successful of their ventures so far in my opinion. The next two brews set for release are a watermelon wheat and amaretto porter take 2… here’s hoping it all goes well.

Beyond the beers themselves, I have some more issues. The first, and screamingly most obvious, is batch size. They brew their beers in 10 and 20 gallon batches. So, if you want to try one of their new beers, you have to go that night to get it because it’s going to sell out (well, except that lime beer). You had better get there early too because the place was pretty busy at the first release and they blew the kegs in under 4 hours. Essentially they’re not a brewery or a brewpub at all – they’re a place that serves homebrew once every couple of weeks. Why?

Though it’s not as big of an issue, something else worth mentioning is cost. Currently they are charging $4 for a 10oz pour of their beers, and all three beers have been that price. A few things don’t make sense here. For one, why is it so damn expensive? I understand the 10oz pours so as to divvy up the small batches better (see above), but why the high cost? If I’m paying that much per ounce, it had better be the best bourbon barrel aged imperial stout I’ve ever had. Also, how are all of the batches costing exactly the same? Shouldn’t there be some sort of configured markup? How much money are they making on this stuff and who does it go to exactly?

Speaking of 10oz pours, herein lies another contradiction that just doesn’t fit with their “craft beer” attitude. No matter which of their haus beers (their term) you order, it’s served in a generic wine glass. The first release featured full size wine glasses and you were simply handed a half-empty glass. The second release featured tiny 10oz wine glasses. It’s a very minor complaint, as wine glasses can prove nice all-around glasses, but I’d be much happier with a glass that was more appropriate for the individual styles. And if you’re wondering, yes, you can get smaller versions of several glass styles.

Alright, I think I have settled all of my qualms… some more important than others, I suppose. The important thing to remember here is that Fermentation Lounge and Golden Horn Brewing Company are doing something, and I’m extremely happy for that. Though other places in town are apparently also going to get into brewing (Momo’s, among other rumors), it’s great that Ferm put a foot forward and took this step. Like I said, the staff, owners, and brewers are all great people, the beers aren’t terrible, and they’re helping promote craft beer in Tallahassee, which is about like promoting job hunting to a hobo with a methadone addiction and a missing arm. No matter what they do, I will always be the first one in the door with a thirsty palate and an open ear.

Cheers to fresh local beer in Tallahassee!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Welcome, and fair warning

Yes, you read that correctly.

Welcome to my new blog... you may be asking why I started this blog. There are already tons of beer blogs out there and plenty of other sites where people review beers. Awesome - go read those and don't bother me.

Well, there aren't really any blogs or writers in the Tallahassee area, and I plan to do my blog a little differently. I will occasionally review beers, but only some of my favorites or some of the best beers I happen to try. There is at least one beer writer in town that I know of, but you have to pay to read the articles, and to be frank, he's not much of a beer guy, and he doesn't review beers or talk about beer things that often.

No, I will not be focusing solely on Florida beers. I will review and discuss beers from all over the world as well as beer events that I attend, various happenings in Tallahassee, and more. My blog will be a mix of things, which makes it just a touch different than most beer blogs out there... Get ready to be informed, get pissed off, and send me angry emails. I'm ready for you, and I'm prepared for the repercussions of what I intend to do. This will be an honest blog and not everyone is going to be happy, including this first post. I will post things that I love, events that I hate, screw-ups, and more. Be prepared.

If you're curious about me, I'm a tuba player that happens to love beer and everything about beer. I brew beer, rate beer online, judge homebrew competitions, sit around and read beer magazines and books, work at beer stores, meet up with other beer lovers on a regular basis, trade beer, share beer, drink beer, and just about anything you can think of. I don't know everything, but I know a damn lot and I have a small tolerance for mistakes and failure. Get ready.