Monthly Archives: June 2015

Cigars, Keys and Panhandles

If I had to draw a brewery hot spot map of the U.S., it would glow red around Chicago; it would burn with fiery hues in a stretch from San Diego up through California, and the top left, Portland, up into Washington State would light up the rainy night sky with its incandescence. And of course, for fear of upsetting anyone Stateside, it would be peppered with spots of orange and red just like the holes surrounding my dartboard; peppered from Alaska, Hawaii and right across to the Atlantic seaboard. Except for Florida.

What Florida is known for is a state that grows citrus fruit (somewhat erroneously, it’s predominantly a cattle grazing State nowadays), welcomes Canadians for their Winter hibernation, has a world class theme park in a swamp, a rocket base and has an incredible coastline with an enceinte of beautiful Keys, home to Manatee, ‘gaters, everglades and the Lesser Spotted Key Lime Pie. But beer? No, non, ni.

Why? Why did I believe this? And why have I changed my view? Well, just a few short years ago, I combined a business trip with a holiday to the state. The craft beer range in the supermarkets were slight; internet search engines for ‘Craft beer Florida’ or ‘Florida microbrewers’ broadly drew a blank. It seemed that The Sunshine State was still in love with sunshine lagers designed for hydration and slaking thirsts, not offering character or uniqueness. On my particular travels, I found one brewpub, located in a characterful building, but on checking it a few years later, found it was closed.

Hit the fast forward button and zip through the last five years. Select Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ from Spotify* and scroll through to 12’ 27”, blow your whistle and shout, “All change!”

The first difference: the snack and drinks trucks around the Disney Parks. Yes, they’re still selling plastic beakers of Bud Light. But they’re also selling Sam Adams Summer Ale. Think what you like about Jim Koch, but that feels like a mighty beachhead to me. And then there’s the selection of craft beers in C stores and supermarkets, which I wrote about in a recent post – you can’t miss it. Craft beer is reaching maturity too – or at least it’s now a dominant trend you can’t ignore rather than something that’s emerging. People are getting excited and on board. And more particularly, Floridians are getting excited and on board.

florida cracker_FotorAnd so it came to pass then that we ended up in a friend’s swimming pool, cooling down after a day kayaking drinking cans of Cigar City Brewing’s Florida Cracker. I liked this beer very much: it was a Belgian style ale, brewed in the American way; some unmalted wheat, curacao orange peel, coriander and according to their web page, a Saison yeast. It was a blissful combination after a hot day; characterful yet refreshing; reasonable pokey in alcohol (5.5%ABV) yet hopelessly drinkable. The brewery was in nearby Tampa and from the range that I saw, and the fact that the locals I spoke to knew of it, bodes well.

Just to the south of Tampa is circus country; Sarasota is where The Ringling Brothers circus had their base, provenance which lends its inspiration to Big Top Brewing Company and many of their brands. I got some Circus City IPA – a feisty, hop-forward beer. And again, in cans – this time packaged on a mobile canning line; the can being stickered (nicely done) rather than printed – an additional help to the would-be brewer. There are more: I liked the look of Fat Point in Fort Myers too but couldn’t make it down there; further south there’s a brewery on the beach in Naples. In fact, poking the wasps’ nest found me stumbling upon the site of the Florida Brewer’s Guild. Take a look. Little breweries popping up everywhere. Soon the map of Florida will be painted red.

*Other music providers are available. Oh, and it’s from ‘Foxtrot’, 1973.

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015

Never meet your hero

There’s all sorts of cod advice on the internet about why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. A motif of this revolves around the fact that your hero isn’t in fact some 2 x 6-packed Hercules-cum-Adonis with the intellect of Stephen Hawking and simply oozing pheromone-rich, indescribably alluring charisma out of every unblemished pore. In fact, they are likely to be quite human. One eye slightly higher than the other, one ear slightly lower than the other, a troublesome, unspoken wart, hairy nostrils and perhaps a small holiday tattoo to unrequited love on the nape of the neck, just behind their ear.

Generally, I attempt to avoid hero-worship if I can help it and possessed of sufficient rationality, this doesn’t tend to be a problem. Where I do have some hero-magnetism is with underdogs: Damon Hill was one, but he also had a very stylish racing helmet, which counted double. Irreverence and authenticity helps too: my daughters and I met Bradley Wiggins in a queue at Manchester Airport once; he was perfectly down to earth and back then, not as famous as he is now (this being a few months before winning the Tour de France and Olympic Gold); but, although we have an ‘in’ joke when we see him on TV, we also recognise he’s just a family guy who is particularly good at his job and also particularly apt at speaking his mind. But heroes? Real heroes – I could count them on the fingers of one hand with a digit to spare.

Plucky underdogs, irreverent and authentic. Well, there’s a better definition of craft beer than I’ve seen hithero. And musing on this, I realised that I do have more heroes than I admit to myself. They’re just not human; they’re of the malty and hoppy variety. Ultimately, there is a whole generation of brewers who, in my lifetime, have saved beer from a uniformly bland future. Many of them are U.S. stories, and as such, brands that are hard to find on our shores. I found two on my recent trip Stateside: beers which, to a craft beer enthusiast, and possibly those living near a good retailer (probably in London) will be familiar: Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA.

The story of the company’s genesis is written up in a part-autobiographical / part-business text by its founder, Sam Calgione, an affable and slightly languid New Englander. He’s also familiar to many more (albeit also on the subject of beer) through the company being featured on Brew Masters on Discovery Channel (2010). Sam, like many of company founders like to tell the tale of his distinctive ales as widely as he can and it’s worth tuning into some of his TEDx lectures, particularly on those that tell of the story of some of his beers and how they came about.  At the core of Dogfish Head beers is a central thought: ‘off-centric ales for off-centric people’.   There, in the credo of the brewery, is a manifesto that says: ‘we will play round the edges’. It says, ‘You don’t consider yourself mainstream; you’re an individual. So are we’. And that becomes the product brief: Dogfish Head beers must be different – different, not just from Big Beer, but different too from many other craft brewers. Hence: Midas Touch Golden Elixir, based on a recipe dating back before, well, before Last of The Summer Wine for sure (actually it purports to be inspired from a recipe from the 8th century BC and contains Yellow Muscat Grapes – Compo would be proud). Or Pangaea, which is brewed with an ingredient from each continent, including some Antarctic water. Or Noble Rot, a Saison, brewed with malt and grapes, the grapes being infected with botrytis for that Chateau d’Yquiem touch.

Now, if you’re a Big Beer player, you must compete in pale lager: Carling; Carlsberg, Heineken, Moretti, Jupiler, Asahi, Tsingtao, Bintang, Castlemaine, Molson, Corona, Quilmes. Similar build, similar personality, different clothes. If you’re a craft brewer, then you need to compete in IPA – well, pale and India Pale certainly. This was the challenge faced by Sam Calagione and the Dogfish Head team in the early 2000s. They’d crunched the numbers. They were pondering how to ensure the brewery remained full, and full with beers true to them. They needed an IPA. But how to do IPA the Dogfish way, the off-centred way?

Heinz WolffThe answer ultimately, was to deploy an elaborate, Great Egg Race contraption to make small additions of hops every minute for the length of the boil: for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 120 minutes; in my head I have my old chemistry classes in mind; vertical pipettes mounted above a steaming copper; Professor Heinz Wolff gently adding ze hops all ze time. Vonderfol! Don’t spoil it for me.

But anyway, there they were, two of them at least, on the shelf in Publix in uptown Sarasota. Six packs and singles of 60 and 90 Minute IPA. I’ll be honest, time actually did slow; I handled them cautiously, reverently, gently. I think I might have stroked one, and purred, ever so quietly. And then this strange thing happened: I got them back to the condo, chilled them down, but I couldn’t open them. I mean, what if, just supposing, it turns out to be, well, just a quite ordinary, no doubt tasty, but still, quite ordinary IPA. What if, all the hyperbole was just that? Mere hot air, evaporating away like the steam from a copper boil?

IMG_3553A few days went by and I drank down the stocks of my other beers: some damn fine ones as it turned out. The issue had to be confronted: I thought slow and took out the Dogfish Head bottles. I polished a particularly bulbous ‘70s wine glass, not ideal, but it would have to do. I prepared the seat and low table on the balcony overlooking the sea. I got my book. And I cracked open the crown. The 60 minuter first. As you’d expect from a beer so doped on humolone, the head was effusive, abundant. It was tight too and Honiton lace, you know, the sort that old doilies were made from, was left down the inside of the glass as I drank. The colour was mid gold; but how to describe the aroma? Volatile, fresh, profuse, intense: it raced out of the bottle-neck even before pouring. It was spicy and resinous and quite three dimensional – the dimensions of taste that is. The first taste was zippy and fresh; here now a grassy hoppiness. Across the mid palate was the spiciness and the lingering finish was bitter, quenching, not astringent but actually smooth and rounded. Maybe this is my palate, but I’ve found the same phenomena with other highly hopped beers (Stone Ruination for one): an expectation of being undrinkable (unfinishable is more accurate perhaps) but the opposite is true – providing there is a strong malt backbone, the beers are highly drinkable and surprisingly balanced. Yet for all that, at 60 IBU and 6%, it’s still a half brick in a hop pillow.

IMG_3580The 90 Minute IPA has a pleasing mathematical symmetry too: a 90 Minute hop addition, 9% ABV, 90 IBU. The longer boil also brings deeper colour: here a deep copper brown (quite Best Bitter to be honest), with a just off-white head that again was full and billowing. To drink, the carbonation was surprisingly gentle, natural and sustained. A superbly balanced strong beer that belies its strength, or perhaps, re-writes our perception of what strong beer should be. Whilst 9% Carlsberg Special Brew is cloying and shakes you aggressively by the throat, here there is a profound maltiness, and a pine resin follow through. My note at the time read: “Dangerously drinkable. I understand it’s reputation. Boof!” Clearly, the 9% was already kicking in.

Yet there was a slightly bitter edge as a Brit. Reflecting, I found myself thinking: where are our pale ales of this inventiveness, this majesty? Why isn’t a beer like this being pioneered in Burton, or London. Oh sure, there are some great beers coming through. But a hero? A beer that makes you go, ‘Boof!’? Not just yet. Not just yet.

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015

Kellerweiss

Although Beer Tinted Spectacles was not set up with the objective of reviewing beers, there are times when a singular beer warrants that attention; when a beer triggers memories or is so enriching that it creates new ones. And the beauty of this is how subjective, personal that experience is, how evocative of a moment in time.

This was a case in point. We’d arrived at the airport in Florida earlier evening, and after the bright, breezy coolness of the UK in April, the humid heat of the central Florida swamplands slapped me like a warm towel after a particularly energetic Thai massage. The sort of massage necessitated by limbs and bones crushed and twisted from economy seating, and the endless fanning by rank cabin air, recycled through 350 sets of hairy nostrils. It was the bliss of a cavorting into a sauna and throwing water on the coals or skimpily running through the snow, between the pines and jumping into a Turkish bath.

Acculturation isn’t such a major concern when you’re a Brit travelling to the U.S. – so much of our lives and lifestyle is shared, familiar. Yet, there’s still a huge difference actually being there, immersed in it, rather than watching on it on Dave. My orientation is built around two things: geography (“Where the hell am I? Which way is north?) and shopping (“What do the locals eat round here? Oooooo look, Peanut Butter and Honey Oreos!”).   Due to my line of work, I’m pretty familiar with US food retailing; nonetheless, wandering up and down the aisles still gets me excited – product ideas get swiped with careful abandon.

Then there’s the beer. It’s like youthful love: heart fluttering, shallow breathing. I approach the aisle: the options, the choices; unheard of brands, local brands, or rarities in the UK, readily available here. And there’s the way beer is sold: the main fixture was 100% chilled (anathema to some I know, not to Tinted); 6 packs, wide bore large cans, narrow bore small cans – and so much craft (50% of the space) and many, many more craft beers in cans than the last time I was Stateside. And Big Beer was interesting too – no point in being sniffy; nice to see the old school Coors Banquet ‘stubbies’ and gratuitous use of thermochromic ink*. Great too, to see interesting displays and on pack promotions; there’s always room for another koozie or bottle opener in the Tinted House.

One beer stood out for me though: both because it looked tremendous, but also because it’s a beer style I have a particular fondness for. I love Bavarian wheat beers, not just for the unadulterated refreshment they offer, but also for their hidden complexity and their presentation. When I drink a good one, I think of Münich beer gardens or shady terraces gently stepping down to the river. I think of warm Summer evenings; bratwurst cooking over wood; of raucously green fields, readying themselves for harvest. I think of an impromptu disco at The Turf Locks in ’91 where we danced to the Cult at one moment and a Steeleye Span reel the next (Hey! Blame the DJ) fueled by pints of Tanglefoot and Royal Oak. In my mind’s eye, I see the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the rolling fields and away, away in the distance the snow-capped rising spires ascending. Fuse that with the entrepreneurial passion of the New World and the dancing bars on the graphic equalizer go banzai.

IMG_3436This is everything that Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss meant to me: the best of the old world and the new, all swaddled together in a autumnal coat. I was going to buy a six pack but only got two bottles as I was in the market for breadth that day (alas, alas).

And what can I say? It was as well-structured and brewed as any Sierra Nevada beer: the esters like a home-baked banana bread, not full on ripe skins. The body, through its natural carbonation from a healthy slug of yeast was dancing and swirling (this is a Hefe weizen, ‘yeast wheat’ after all); the body was a translucently pale, frosty yellow. As wheat beers go, not as complex as Schneider Weisse, but as drinkable as the lighter styles, such as Erdinger – yet, all the time with a grainy hoppiness that marked it out as just a little different. A beautiful beer. I have spoken to someone at Fullers and with Victorian haughtiness, demanded that they import it. He didn’t say no.

*Given that I pioneered its first application on beer, it warrants a mention, don’tcha think?

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015