Friday, August 29, 2008

Court of opinion is on session

The New York Times has a piece on lower-strength beers.

With that, some discussion, a few thoughts …

Sometimes it seems like the buzz about high-alcohol brews – ones Frank Sinatra probably would have dubbed gasoline (his preferred handle for Jack Daniel’s) – is the beer equivalent of Nigel Tufnel’s amplier cranking to 11.

But hey, you can make 10 louder, that is, make a quite tasty session beer (like Philly pub Nodding Head’s Berliner Weisse, 3.5% ABV), one that keeps its feet on the ground and lets you stay on yours after a pint or two (or three).

Ironically, it’s talk itself that’s one of the wider planks in the platform of session brews: You can enjoy beer without compromising your ability to converse intelligently (or work your mack daddy moves).

Big beers, and the taste for ’em, have been around long enough that they’re in no danger of fading away. There will always be fridge space for that big, corked bottle and the four-pack.

But it could be simple economics that pulls the choke chain and reins ’em in a little. They require more raw ingredients (whose costs have risen) to make and are pricier on the store shelf. And anyone who's divvying up their dollars knows the overhead of everyday living is taking a bigger bite these days.

So the marketplace will speak. Have a beer and talk about it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tria trip (Philly and back)

Philadelphia has been off our radar for a while now. Once there, you really don’t want to leave the city’s beer menu behind, it’s such a beer Shangri-La.

“Think Jersey, Drink Jersey” have been our watchwords; they still are, always will be. But allow us one an indulgence before summer folds its tent.

The trip to Philly started out as a quest for a pint of Sly Fox’s new schwarzbier, but the glass ended up going to a Belgian IPA and a rather robust London porter, rounded out with some exceptional blue-veined cheese. (With some luck, we’ll still get that schwarzbier.)

De Ranke XX Bitter (6% ABV) was a nice discovery on the beer menu at Tria café (18th and Sansom). Hoppy but not at all overwhelming, crisper than expected, quite good in fact. The one drawback: It’s a pricey proposition – $8.50 for an 11-ounce bottle (imports on Tria’s menu hit your wallet pretty hard).

But honestly, compare that to $10 for the same size bottle of Chimay at the tourist trap Phillips Seafood at the Pier on the Atlantic City boardwalk, poured by bar staff who don’t know much about the beer beyond sliding the requisite Chimay goblet in front of you, and then it becomes more about branding and less about the beer. (We’re not knocking our home state here, just pointing out a sad reality. But at least Phillips, a Baltimore import, has that choice on their beer list in AC.)

Tria’s all about matching beers and wines with great foods, so the timid and intrepid can pose their beer questions to the servers and get reliable answers.

We asked about the Meantime coffee porter on their menu, inquiring if they would bring one to our table. Meantime’s a London brewery that proudly wants you know they’re not a big UK national brewery. And they boast a cup of coffee in each bottle of the porter.

It’s a roasty, tasty beer, but to be honest it begs for some food to go with it, in our case, smoked chicken with Spanish peppers, cheese and herbed truffle mayo (a little less of the mayo next time, please).

Again, a price caveat – another $8.50. But the old saw about nothing ventured, nothing gained applies.

So how do you wrap up an excursion like this?

You hit DiBruno Bros. (Chestnut Street) around the corner for some take-home cheese (triple cream brie), then step over to Nodding Head (Samson Street) for a pint of Rubicon (we strongly considered the 3C Extreme Double IPA – Chinook, Cascade and Centennial hops – well, we did get a taste of it, and for a muscled-up IPA, it’s invitingly smooth), then you get naked, as in Naked Chocolate Café (13th and Walnut). The name pretty much says it all.

And for a nightcap at home base?

Well, this was supposed to be a Sly Fox moment, so their Royal Weisse fit the bill. And after all, it’s summer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A pint of Jersey fresh

What’s better than fresh beer? Fresh beer dry-hopped with freshly picked Cascades and Nuggets.

We spent some time Wednesday in the brewhouse at the Tun Tavern in Altantic City, where brewer Tim Kelly put on tap a special take on the Tun’s All American IPA, dialing up the beer’s aromatics with a few pounds of hops grown in South Jersey.

The beer’s a lightly filtered version of the Tun’s IPA, trending toward malty but smoothed out with the Cascades and Nuggets. The lighter touch with filtering gives the brew a hint of English real ale, however the carbonation is what you’d expect with American craft beer.

This is the first time Tim’s had a chance to use locally grown hops in a brew, but his preference is to be able to do it more frequently.

The cones came by way of Tim’s friends, Ray Gourley and Kathy Haney, whose small-space garden in Haddon Heights has produced an impressive crop of Nuggets, Cascades, Glacier and Goldings, among other varieties (check out the photo by Ray, cones as big as your thumb).

What got sacked up in a mesh bag and tossed into the serving tank smelled really great, so you can bet the beer’s worth moving up on your list of pint choices. (We took home a growler pulled early from the batch; haven't sampled it yet, but it will be more like real ale IPA, nice hoppy nose and low carbonation with the malty signatures.)

While waiting for the IPA to filter, we sampled a couple of the California brews – Lost Abbey Judgment Day and Moylan Brewing’s Hopsickle Imperial IPA – sent this way by the Thirsty Hopster.

Judgment Day, wow, the Cecil B. DeMille of beers, a quad as big as its biblical name. It’s got a warm alcohol kick (10.5% ABV) right from the start, in the nose and first sip, plus some chocolate notes before you get to the raisin flavors (it has raisins as an adjunct, plus some special B in the grain bill). Let it breathe and relax in the glass and some really big flavors unfold.

Hopsickle (9-something % ABV) was a beer that smelled better than it tasted, and that’s not a slap at its flavor, just an observation. You sort of expect an imperial IPA to be as bitter Paul McCartney’s ex, but the chorus of hop aromas were a nice preface to each sip from this pumped up IPA.

Looking ahead
Leather Neck stout, which has been off the Tun’s taps for a little while, is returning soon, and Tim plans to get rolling on an Oktoberfest (a Märzen fermented with Munich lager yeast) in a matter of days (just a tad behind schedule). Deeper into the fall, think spiced beer, and another lager will probably be coming back around.

Also, look for the Tun beers – four to six of them in fact – at a dinner at the Laguna Grill in nearby Brigantine about the third week of October. Plans for that were starting to take shape on Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stormy seas

State cutbacks are churning up some waves for the USS New Jersey, and quite possibly for fans of Garden State craft beers, who've made the trek to the battleship for the annual beer festival.

The news is this: Our perpetually cash-strapped state – overextended and underfunded – has had to slash the subsidy for the ship, which now serves as a martime museum docked at Camden's waterfront. (Read more here.)

That means layoffs for the staff that runs the ship, which exhibits the vessel's rather large history as the most-decorated battleship in the US Navy.

The USS New Jersey has provided free space for the June beer festival staged by the Garden State Craft Brewer's Guild for the past three years (twice on the ship's fantail and once along its dock). So what becomes of the relationship that has spared the guild some festival overhead?

Well, there's no word right now on what it means for next summer, presuming the guild wants to return to the ship's decks. (The festival used to move around the state somewhat, but found a mooring at the ship, so to speak, largely based on the free event space the Big J provided.)

However, an October Garden State guild festival at the Newark Bears minor league baseball stadium is still in the works. (More on that soon.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008


We managed to get our hands on a growler of The Ship Inn's Northwest IPA.

Lots of Cascade flavor in it, and was sort of like Flying Fish's Hopfish IPA colliding with SlyFox's Phoenix Pale Ale. It has the subdued IPAness of Hopfish and the flavor of PPA.

All things considered, it was certainly worth the side trip to Milford, as we returned to home base from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, where we went to check out Weyerbacher Brewing's hop harvest.

Handcrafted beer? You bet, especially when you pick the hops all by hand. The folks from Weyerbacher brought the crop in by cutting the bines and plucking the cones from morning through the afternoon.

Good thing there was pulled pork, cole slaw and a sixtel of their AutumnFest beer for sustenance, and some half-joking, half-serious comments of "have anything hoppier?"

We’ve followed their efforts to grow hops since April, and now all that’s left is to taste their Harvest Ale.

Check out the stills (we shot more video, too, that's coming as a sort of sequel to what we've already posted).