Sunday, October 2, 2011

GABF '11

Gotta love the Great American Beer Fest. I covered twenty-two breweries, 50 beers before nearly passing out.

The sweet 16:

1. Sam Adams' Utopias
Certainly not the best beer I had, but it's the most brag-worthy. At 27-percent alcohol and a ridiculous price tag on the open market, this was a good get. It was so strong, it tasted like bourbon and even burned going down. The 1-ounce taste was enough.

2. Goose Island Bourbon Barrel Coffee Stout
Had it last year, and it was awesome. Liked it even better this year. A really wonderful stout.

3. The Bruery's Black Tuesday
Had it last year, and it was awesome. Liked it a little less this year. So over the top and really sweet. Damn good though. Their Oude Tart Flander's red was a nice surprise, as well.

4. Ballast Point Victory at Sea Imperial Porter
I've always wanted to try Ballast Point's beers, and they didn't disappoint. I thought Sculpin IPA (see below) would be the best, but this imperial porter, which checks in a 12.2 percent was amazing. Smacked of vanilla.

5. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
Very high-quality IPA. Read a lot about it, and it didn't disappoint.

6. Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops
Amazing imperial stout, black and chocolatey.

7. Three Floyds' Zombie Dust
A hoppy pale ale that was refreshing and highly drinkable.

8. Troegs Perpetual IPA
Really hoppy and crisp. A nice drink.

9. Port Brewing's Doheny Double IPA
Big and hoppy. A serious hop bomb.

10. Lost Abbey Veritas
Excellent sour with hints of oak. Their whole line-up was amazing, but this jumped to the top.

11. Allagash Mattina Rossa
Great sour with many different flavor levels. I got the last pour of it at the festival. Glad I did.

12. AleSmith Speedway Stout
This is another brewery I wanted to hit up. A nice stout. The AleSmith IPA was really solid, as well.

13. Alpine Nelson
The rye IPA had a big hop nose and was very crisp. Really delicious. The Ugly black IPA looked really dark but hardly had any malt notes at all. I liked it, as well.

14. Cigar City Hunahpu's Imperial Stout
Cigar City was the belle of the ball -- long lines and tons of beer. I tried their White Oak IPA, Jai Pai IPA, Oatmeal Raisin Cookie. Hunahpu, though, is a world-class beer that I could drink forever.

15. Nectar Ales (Firestone Walker) Black Xantus
A strong imperial stout. Rich, robust, and coffee-like.

16. Bear Republic Racer 5, Racer X and Cafe Racer 15
I've had the previous two, and the 15 didn't disappoint. I love Bear Republic.

The flat 5:

1. Kern River
I really wanted to try their raved-about Citra Double IPA, but they ran out. Thumbs down.

2. Bell's
They didn't bring anything interesting. Really weak showing.

3. Russian River
The only new thing they had was Defenstration. It was an OK blonde. Don't get me wrong, Pliny and Supplication are still amazing. I was just hoping to try new things from them.

4. Founders
They didn't show up this year. WTF?

5. Minneapolis Townhall Brewery
Their Mango IPA was interesting, but I was expecting more from this raved-about brewery.

Notable trends:

1. Oak-aged imperial stouts dominate
They still rule the beer world. Big, bold and boozy is the way to go to prove your brewing chops.

2. Sours surge
Sours are increasingly becoming mainstream. Lost Abbey, Russian River, the Bruery, Allagash, Cascade and others lead the way.

3. Experimentals emerge
Short's Brewing, which created a bunch of off-the-wall flavors like Key Lime Pie, created quite a buzz. Cigar City's oatmeal raisin cookie still rules that category, though.

4. IPAs passe?
Seems like fewer and fewer IPAs pop up at GABF. In the adventurous swell, maybe the good ol' standbys are losing favor.

5. Breakfast beers abound
I had a bacon and egg porter that was gross. Saw tons of other similarly themed beers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The big one

In the beer geek culture, no beer is bigger than Westvleteren 12. The Belgian-style quad affectionately known as Westy jockeys with Pliny the Younger for the top spot on Beer Advocate's best beer list. Usually, Westy gets the nod.


The bad thing is that Westy is really hard to get. It's brewed by Trappist monks in a small, rural Belgian town, and you can only buy the beer from them or a handful of licensed stores in the area. So many Americans are SOL.

But for my 31st birthday, my roommates Jake and JK ordered a bottle off eBay for around $30. Yep, 12 oz. for $30. Probably the best birthday gift I ever got. We cracked it on the last day of school. By the way, the long lag in the blog can be contributed to said school. I've been drinking -- just not writing about it.

The Westy comes in a brown bottle with no label. The only way you know what it is is by it's legendary bottle cap. It poured a rich brown with beautiful lacing. That lacing -- the frothy white stuff that sticks to the glass -- is what really sets Westy apart. The beer looks like none other. It also feels very thick, frothy, and effervescent in the mouth. It almost seems to come alive after you take a drink. I've never had a beer feel like that before.


In terms of taste, it's very delicate. It's roasty and sweet. It's rich and smacks of alcohol. I got hints of pear. That said, it was a lot more subtle than I thought. It was nice, just not as spectacular as I thought it would be. In fact, St. Bernardus Abt. 12 packs more flavor, but is otherwise quite similar in taste to Westy 12.

Westy, though, stands alone in lacing and mouthfeel. I know that sounds like super-snobby beer talk. Those categories seem like minutia until you have a beer that really excels in those areas. And Westy sure does.


The details:
Name: Westvleteren 12
Brewer: Brouwerij Westvleteren (Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren)
Beer Advocate rank: 1
Style: Belgian Quad
Alcohol: 10.2 percent
Cost: $30-ish for a 12-ounce bottle
My Grade: A
Skinny: No beer has a mouthfeel or lacing like Westy 12. The taste is very subtle, and I'm not sure I grasped it all. Is it as spectacular as its legend? Probably not, but it's still damn good. Wish I had easy access to the beer for repeated tries.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The best of the GABF

The Great American Beer Festival has long topped my list of must-dos. I finally went this weekend with my brewer buddy Mike Clark. Here's the best and worse of the day.

Top 12 beers I'd never tried before:
1. Black Tuesday, The Bruery.
No. 54 on the Beer Advocate list. Bourbon-barrel stouts were the bell of the ball, and this was the best. Huge, rich beer that is amazing. Folks were buzzing like crazy about it all day. Rightfully so.

2. Founders' Canadian Breakfast Stout.
No. 17 on the Beer Advocate list. Really rich. Really sweet. Pretty much incredible.

3. Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, Cigar City.
No. 45 on the BA list. The beer is aged over coffee beans and ancho chiles. It's big, bold and awesome.

4. Bourbon Country Brand Breakfast Stout, Goose Island.
No. 21 on the BA list. Another big stout that tasted more of alcohol but still really solid.

5. Founders' Breakfast Stout.
No. 7 on the BA list. It's great but doesn't pack quite the taste of the Canadian.

6. Firestone Walker's Parabola.
No. 97 on the BA list. It's a pretty intense imperial stout, but mellower and more mature than some of its competition. Really solid.

7. Older Viscosity, Port Brewing.
Really, rich intense stout from one of my favorite breweries. Worth seeking out for sure.

8. Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale -- Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, Cigar City.
It tasted like a Oatmeal Raisin Cookie. Really different but in a good way.

9. Vlad the Imp Aler, Cascade.
Really great sour. I liked it better that the Bourbonic Plague I also had from them.

10. Racer X, Bear Republic.
The best IPA of the day from one of my favorite California breweries.

11. Bourbon Barrel Stout, Odell.
A damn nice example from a damn good Colorado brewery. Their line-up could have been one of the best at the whole event. Odell is so much better than New Belgium, it's laughable.

12. DeConstruction Ale, Odell.
A wonderful American strong ale.

Biggest disappointments
1. Dogfish Head.
Their line-up was woefully underwhelming. A lot of creative beers that seemed like they'd be awesome but lacked the taste I was looking for. The smokey and bitter stout Bitches Brew was the best but was merely OK. Theobroma, Chateau Jiahu and Grain to Glass were a waste of ling-waiting time and valuable drinking space in my gut. I left still puzzled about why DFH is so well liked. Their 60 Minute IPA is very solid. I think their 90 Minute is way too malty for the style. Much of their other creative stuff seems to miss the mark. I appreciate their pushing of the brewery boundaries, but I really dislike a lot of their stuff.

2. Sam Adams.
They kept teasing the pouring of their fabled Utopias -- the 27-percent alcohol beer that pours from a copper container. We checked back many a time to get a hold of it, but they opened it on the sly and it quickly disappeared. Would have loved to try it.

3. Brooklyn Brewery, AleSmith, Bell's and Stone
Four breweries I wanted to visit but didn't have time. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Simply the Brett

Brettanomyces is an oddity of the beer world. It's essentially a yeast strand that has morphed and gives off a very odd flavor. In many beers, finding brett would be bad and give it a bad flavor. But some kinds of beers -- mostly those brewed in the Belgian style -- are centered on brett.

And few beers do it better than Boulevard Saison - Brett.

I love saisons. At the moment, they're my favorite style. And Saison - Brett is one of the best out there.

It pours golden with a frothy head that quikckly disappears. Smell is of hops and yeasty spiciness.

The taste is very crisp from dry hopping. Then you get that Brett funk. Some say it's a horse-blanket taste. Others say hay, straw, must, barnyard. Sounds gross, I know. But that funk works really well with the crisp hop bite and the crazy yeast spiciness. The Brett taste lingers. But there's also some peppery and even slightly sour notes going on.

It all combines for a very crisp, aggressive, robust saison. If anything, it may be too aggressive. Ommegang Hennepin, which I see as the Cadillac of the saison style, has a lot of the same flavor profile, but everything blends a little bit better.

Still, Saison-Brett can't be faulted. This beer is spectacular.

The details:
Name: Saison - Brett
Brewer: Boulevard Brewing Co.
Beer Advocate rank: 87
Style: Belgian Saison
Alcohol: 8.5 percent
Cost: $11.69 for a 750-ml bottle
My Grade: A
Skinny: This beer certainly isn't for everyone. It has a very distinct taste -- one that I love. It's highly creative, while still fitting firmly within the confines of the saison. In short, this is a beer you should experience -- whether you'll like it or not. I very much like it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mt. Tam

After spending a couple days trudging around San Francisco -- including one epic 20-mile walking day -- I needed to get out of the city.

I set my sites on Mt. Tamalpais. It's the tallest peak near San Francisco, peeking out above the Golden Gate Bridge. It's in the California Coastal Range -- San Francisco on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

I drove around Mt. Tam State Park looking for the trailhead for a while. Eventually, I met some elderly hikers who told me where to park and where to start the hike.

The trail began on a paved road that quickly became poorly maintained dirt. The road weaves its way to West Point Inn, a rustic lodge reachable only by hiking. It's a great spot with beautiful views of San Francisco and the ocean.

I hiked past the inn to the summit of Mt. Tam. It's a little bit of a letdown because you can drive right to just a few feet below the summit via a beautiful paved road.

I wanted my legs to do the work, though. Still, I met a number of tourists who'd driven. That's always a bit of a downer.

The summit was cloudy -- as is common, but the cover parted enough in spots for me to get a full view of the beautiful terrain around me. That area of the country is awfully hard to beat. And Mt. Tam is the perfect physical escape from the great big city of San Francisco.

The details:
Mt. Tamalpais via Pantoll Road and West Point Inn
Location: About 5 miles north of Mill Valley, Calif.
Length: 6 miles
Beginning elevation: 1,950 feet
Peak elevation: 2,574 feet
Difficulty (out of 5): 2

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ghostly good

Sunday night was an evening of high expectations. The series finale of "Lost" aired. To commemorate the death of my favorite show, I picked a beer I'd been highly anticipating drinking -- Fantome Saison. (Plus it seemed like a good fit with "Lost," a show that features a phantom-like smoke monster.)

Fantome Saison is the highest rated saison, according to Beer Advocate. Rate Beer also gives it a 99 out of 100. Since I love saisons, I really, really wanted to try this beer, which is brewed in Belgium and is hard to find in the US. I got lucky and snagged a bottle at New Beer Distributors in New York.

As I watched the two-hour recap that preceded the "Lost" finale, I cracked open the Fantome.

It had a slight sour and musty smell, but it's faint. It poured a cloudy gold that gets milkier further down the bottle from the unfiltered yeast sediment.

The taste was surprisingly delicate -- slightly sour with some barnyard funk. The sour hits the back of the mouth, causing a slight pucker and the roof of the mouth to salivate. The funk -- a light horse-blanket taste -- intensifies on the backend. The beer has a flat carbonation, which makes drinking it sort of a wine-like experience.

What the beer lacks in taste intensity, it makes up for in authenticity. This is a classic farmhouse ale -- raw, simple, natural, organic. It's an artful Belgian gold ale that is worth seeking out.

That said -- like the "Lost" finale itself -- the Fantome didn't quite meet my lofty expectations. It's a good beer for sure. But I don't think it's great.

The details:
Name: Fantome Saison
Brewer: Brasserie Fantome
Beer Advocate rank: 68
Style: Belgian Saison
Alcohol: 8 percent
Cost: $12 for a 750-ml bottle
My Grade: A-
Skinny: Saisons just may be my favorite beer style at the moment. I highly anticipated this one because it's rated the best saison in the world by Beer Advocate. It's good, for sure -- delicate, funky, raw. But it's a bit more understated than I expected. I'd put it third on the world's best saison list -- a bit behind Ommegang Hennepin, which for me is still king of the saisons, and the wonderful Boulevard Saison - Brett.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hiking buddies

It's been a rough year with the divorce, the move and all that. The two things this blog is about -- hiking and beer -- have helped get me through. My love for both have given me something to concentrate on when everything else has fallen apart.

But, as is the case in most things, it's the people associated with the activities that are most special. So here's a roll call of folks who have helped me get through. They're chiefly my hiking but also my drinking buddies.

I've known Leif Sidwell since I was 4. We've been fast friends ever since. He's always there for me -- no matter the problem or time. I've probably spent more time hiking with him than anyone else. The best trip was last summer when we spent seven days in the wild near Gunnison, Colo. It was awesome -- not nearly as awesome as Leif's beard at the time. After I move to Colorado this summer, I'm sure we'll be hauling each other around the backcountry and up 14ers. Can't wait.

Chuck Rowling has been one of my best friends since middle school. When I separated from my wife and quit my job in January, Chuck insisted I come spend a month with him in Tacoma, Wash. We went on some epic hikes -- on the Olympic Peninsula, in the caves of Mount St. Helens, on the Oregon Coast, on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. Like Leif, he's been a steadfast friend through the bad times, and I'm extremely thankful for it. I've vowed to climb Rainier, and I hope to haul Chuck up with me.

Dustin Stover -- along with Leif and Chuck -- has been a best friend since high school. Our hiking stretches back to high school excursions on the South Loup River north of Kearney. We were able to trudge around together again in Los Angeles this spring when we hiked in the hills of northwest L.A. It was an odd but cool experience. I wouldn't expect anything less from Dusty.

Josh Nichols and I have been on some epic hiking experiences. We went to college together and worked at the Daily Nebraskan student newspaper, but our friendship blossomed when I convinced him to take a reporting gig at the Grand Junction Free Press. There, we climbed our first -- and second -- 14ers together, we endured a waterless hike to see the arches near Grand Junction and we scaled Crags Crest on the Grand Mesa. I spent two weeks with him and his awesome wife KP in Montana on my road trip this winter. They showed me some cool spots up there, too.

I met Cullen Purser by chance. I'd been assigned to write a story about his furniture-making prowess. We quickly became friends, and Cullen graciously showed me many of the off-the-path spots in western Colorado. My favorite excursion with him was last fall when we backpacked on the flanks of Mount Sneffels near Ouray, Colo. I took the usual backpacking stuff. He took a coat and an umbrella. That's hardcore. He's been a great friend beyond that, always willing to listen and give honest advice. Plus he's let me sleep in his shed many nights.

(Special thanks to Jennifer Conner, Katie Perkins Nichols and Jeannine Purser for putting up with me and letting me abduct their husbands for adventures in the wild over the years. Your patience -- and friendship -- is much appreciated.)