Friday, October 2, 2009

A trip west for family and the Great American Beer Festival

Musings on a 6 day sojourn to Denver and San Diego

This trip originated as a visit to see my parents, was then augmented by an offer to attend the GABF in Denver. Along the way much food and drink consumed, so I thought I would review a few of the places we went to.

The Denver experience was great, time with my brother and sister-in-law and her cousin and wife. Mucho thanks for hosting. I really enjoyed Boulder, we made several trips there, including a wonderful Italian dinner, but the highlight had to be the Avery Brewery/tasting room. Since it was GABF week, they had special rotating kegs on all week. Many were versions of sour beers, infused with Bret, many were good, a few awesome, the bottled one Dave bought (Sue Generous) was a good example, well soured with plenty of flavor behind. Despite the industrial park setting, they have a nice outdoor cafe, lots of seating, well worth a stop when in Boulder. The other pubs we tried there were so, so, forgettable and now I have.

The GABF was wild, some 5,000+ folks each session on the floor of the Colorado Convention Center. We got there at the 5:30 opening time for the last session on Saturday and the line was at least a 1/2 mile long. In the end even though we got in 40 minutes after opening we still had plenty of time. Must have sampled 50+ one oz. tastings. Some decent pub type food. Huge floor area, lots of brewers were down to one offering, nowhere near the 2100 offerings at the beginning, never go again on Saturday. Highlights from Allagash, Dogfish Head, Southhampton, New Glarus, The Bruery, and many more. Tried to take notes, impossible. But the winners were announced by then, we tried to hit them to see what the judges were thinking. A must event once for beer lovers, as I've learned since the off site events make a big difference, we'll hit more next time.

We tried to stay in nominal shape, did a nice hike in Boulder, rode a $2K lovely bicycle in San Diego, and had a long walk in SD. Overall I gained weight but only a pound or two.

San Diego, recently named top beer city by Men's Journal, included The Blind Lady, Tornado, and the Linckery. All outstanding in their own way, Toronado a killer place. Some 30 beers on tap, and on Mondays all are $3.00. Amazing. Great local selection which I was seeking, decent Belgian offerings, great atmosphere, top notch.

Overall, I'm still liking the Chicago scene for food, and we did make 5th in that MJ poll, but I would swap our beer scene for SD. It's getting closer though with the recent additions of Metropolitan Brewing, Half Acre, and Publican.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Retailer Closeouts, Brewers that Care

I've had several experiences now with the end closeout bins at Binny's Skokie location, not the baskets, but the end cap areas or right in their normal spot on the self. They have a lot of American micros, and I suspect some aren't rotated or replaced when they are old. It seems these are usually bombers from brewers with a wide selection, discounted below $5, saving you at least a couple of bucks. Since many beers do not have package-dating on them it's hard to tell how old they are. I've had a few problems with these purchases, mostly from the beer going flat or becoming oxidized. I suppose it's buyer beware, but I took up this issue with a recent purchase right to the brewer and got a wonderful response.

Rogue to their credit, has wonderful people. From their website I sent an email about getting a flat beer that I had wanted to try. It was their Christmas beer. They replied within 24 hours notifying me they would replace my purchase, no questions asked. In fact a box came to me straight from the brewery, with 2 bombers to replace mine.!! A day later I got a package with a Dead Guy t-shirt! Very friendly followup and great service in my book, the new beers were fresh (no surprise as they were straight from the brewery), and the t-shirt is very nice!!

I don't know if you would get this type of service from all brewers, but it's worth contacting them directly if you have a problem bottle. A good brewer will want to know about customer and distributor problems, not bury them. Give props to Rogue for caring about their customers.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Smoke 'em if You Got 'em

For this months Session, the subject is smoked beers. Thanks go to prolific, well respected Philly-based writer Lew Bryson for hosting.

In the past I've had some great smoked beers, of course the great German Rauchbiers from Schlenkerla . or the fabulous Ham on Rye from Three Floyds which tasted just like a liqufied sandwich and didn't need food to go with it.

For this Session I'm tasting Goose Island's newly released Smoked Bock, only available at the Clybourn brewpub. This bock is brewed with 75% smoked malt from the American malter Breiss, backed by bock malt to give it a solid backbone. It's a nice chestnut brown with a cloudy look and small tan head. The nose is amazing with deep peat smokiness and hints of leather. The taste follows the smell with the bock hitting up front with a lingering smoke aftertaste. This beer ways in slightly over 7% abv but is not heavy or overpowering. Goes really well with the Pulled Pork sandwich on offer.

This is a man's beer, with a nod to the original intent and style of brewing beer. The intent and primary use of beer in the Middle Ages was for sustenance, and a bacteria free source of libation. "Don't forget to pick up a growler of supper tonight honey" - but it would likely be a 3%er or less. Beer was often brewed with open wood fires and flames lapping up the side of the brew kettle. An outdoor activity for sure. It's a style of beer to remind us of simpler times, maybe happier times?

Later at the monthly BA gathering I tried Stone's Stone Smoked Porter, a roasty porter not as chocolaty or deep tasting as most but a good support for the smoky flavor. It was more muted than the Goose beer, maybe just not as fresh. And from San Diego no less! A good beer, but we should probably stick with our locals when we can.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Urban Belly - A great strip mall find

Urban Belly is a new "Foody" restaurant opened by a veteran from Le Lan (named Zagat's top Asian Restaurant 2008) that focuses on a limited menu, knows what it does well, is BYOB, and has a stark yet friendly feel with long tables. These sharing tables encourage the sharing of at least your libations, if not your food. We did share our meals and enjoyed them with a couple of brought beers. This could be a new template for a whole new way of dining in these troubled times.

The big question you have on entering and settling is, should you be paying $11-$13 for a noodle dish, $7-$9 for rice dishes, and $7-$8 for dumplings in this strip-mall setting? The answers from our recent experience are yes, yes, and a qualified yes.

On a recent trip we entered for a late lunch and were greeted by the superb wait staff / cashier lady. From the front counter you can see right into the small kitchen, and heading the troops was the chef and co-owner Bill Kim.

The menu holds a mere handful of selections from each of the three primary areas (mentioned above) plus several side dishes. We had the pleasure of sharing #9 Phat Rice, which is a sampling of all three rices #6,7,and 8. The combination included a succulent short rib beef and scallion portion, smoky and soft pork belly and pineapple, and refreshing organic pea shoots and Thai basil. We also had #14 Asian egg noodles stir fried with spicy garlic chili, Tofu, and Chinese Eggplant, with just the right hotness level with subtly toothsome noodles. We had no room for a dumpling order, but trust they are as carefully prepared.

As other diners were enjoying their selections, we felt compelled to savor every last morsel of our lovelies. Lunch was uncrowded and unhuried. The spicy noodles paired well with a final beloved bottle of New Glarus Imperial Weizen from last summer.

Note that the neighboring store is a laundromat, and that parking is not allowed on that side of the lot. Not a big issue. Overall, an A rating for this surprisingly nice and relaxed high end noodle haven, an oasis in a strip mall!!

Comments from the host blogger and guest MrQuartetman.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Recent Evolution of Chicagoland Beer Retailing

Here is a 30 thousand foot view of the beer retailing market. Why the review now? It's important to know how far beer retailing has come, and where it's going. The continued growth and increasing share of micro-brewed beer depends on a healthy retail environment. And much of the retail improvement has come over the past 2-3 years.

Witness these observations:

- Most Whole Foods stores now have good multi-pack and single bottle beer lineups, including 6 drafts at the Grill at the new Sauganash location
- Lush Wine & Spirits, with two locations, Drinks over Dearborn, and In Fine Spirits are all new in the past 2 years, and are similarly small shops which stock primarily singles of hard to find micros, and some vintage ones too.
- The re-birth of Armanetti's on Lincoln (and the others still in the chain), now a much better location for micros.
- The growth and commitment of Binny's, which has hired some of the best beer experts in the city, capped by the giant selection and tasting bar at the new South Loop location.
- Archer Liquors has become a major internet retailer.
- Even local grocery stores have stepped up to the plate.

This commitment has incentivized brewers across the board to responded to and fill this growing demand. Now we have new bottles coming from Flossmoor Station, Metropolitan, Half Acre, and a renewed commitment to specialty bombers by Goose Island. We have many more varieties of high quality Belgian beers now. We have drawn distribution interest from major West Coast players like Lost Abbey/Port Brewing and even a Wisconsin brewer (Tyranena).

Bars have upped their lists as well, witness the growth in the bars qualifying as beer destinations for Chicago as defined by Beer Advocate.

These are good times indeed, and the perishable nature of beer will keep supply and demand in check. It's much easier now to get the style and precise beer you want. Much easier to find a single of that beer for tasting. Much easier to compare prices across the internet sites of the predominant retailers. And much easier to find it close to your home or office.

We have one of the best markets environments for the purchase of beer. It's all due to the changing demand of the Chicagoland beer drinker - keep those microbrews coming.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's All Over Except for the Shouting

Our very own Great Lakes Brewing News, available in print at most beer bars and brewpubs, recently hosted the "National IPA Championship" at various venues around the Midwest and Northeast. I'm guessing New York City falls into the Great Lakes area definition, as that is where the final taste-off was held. The full bracket layout with results is here.

I note that both craft brewers and brewpubs were represented. As many of the brewpubs don't have bottle production, we'll never see them here. They probably had the advantage vs. the commercial production entries since they could produce a "one-off" version of their best try. Indeed, the winner was from a brewpub, Laurelwood Brewing Company, Portland, OR.

Laurelwood was the only brewpub in the "final four" - the others included Tyranena's Bitter Woman, a favorite of mine from Wisconsin, Big Sky's Big Sky IPA, and Rogue's Yellow Snow IPA. Happily all these are more or less available in the greater Chicagoland market. Find them if you can and if you love hoppy beer.

I find that IPA's are a good gateway beer for novices. There are few ball breakers in this style, rather just good spicy beers, with solid malt backbones, usually around 6% or less alcohol by volume. Other locals to seek out include the highly loved Two Hearted from Bells, Dark Horse IPA, and Arcadia's India Pale Ale. all from our neighbors in Michigan. And of course Goose Island makes a very good one, it just wasn't in this competition.

Note: the Title of this blog entry is a "shout out" to my late friend Steve Wlodarczyk whom I got the saying from (usually a reference to a disputed competition or tragedy) and was a great lover of beer. The next one's for you Steve.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rare Beers Get Another Friend in the Market

Lust Wine and Spirits has of yet no website (a blog only), two locations (one in Roscoe Village and one near UIC in University Village), and a focus on wine, with a sophisticated owner (the Twisted Spoke guys) is a rare and good / great beer retail location in Chicagoland. MrQuartetman and I paid a visit to the University Village location in early March, and despite a mere one cooler of beer, they have an excellent beer lady (we met her) and some nice rare selections.

The shop holds tens of wines, lots of good ones, and a long wooden bar with wine selections and one beer tap (out when we were there), and a quite small footprint overall.

According to the beer lady this is the go to place for Goose Island's rare bottles. It may be the only place that has bombers of Extremely Naughty Goose, and it's no wonder it's only here, at $30 per bottle. Mr. Hall (Goose owner) apparently asked them to sell it as a rarity (to pay for the new website?). It is a great ale, but too pricy for us. Try this rarity at Goose Clybourn, currently on tap for no more than $7.

They also have Hitachino's Commemorative Ale, Poperings Hommel ale, Sam Adam's Double Bock, and several more rare singles, no sixpacks here, no macros. Most bottles were fairly priced considering the rarity.

This place joins West Lakeview Liquors as among the few retail locations in Chicagoland where you can find unique and even well "aged" beers.

We recently ran into Sam's Clybourn beer buyer recently and noted that they carry some rarities, like the 2002 Aventinus, a wheat dopplebock, which the maker ages in it's own mountain cellars. So in a pinch you can now find a few places around the city to pick up a well aged beer. Not all beers hold up well over time, they usually must be bottle conditioned (live yeast still in the bottle) and higher alcohol (usually above 8% by volume). Bottle conditioned Ales that are well aged can be spectacular.

I would site one I had recently as the beer of the year so far, a 2003 version of Bare Trees, a wheatwine (reviewed in detail at the link by dOb, the guy who brought it to the tasting, thank you man) made by Two Brothers. Sublime.

Good to see these stores know that some beers age as well as most wines. Great to have them around and I hope they keep up with more well aged beers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Nice Spot on a Golf Course?

Yes, the Wilmette Public Golf Club off Lake Ave. has a totally rebuilt clubhouse with a hoppin' dinner location. It serves as the 19th hole for golfers but it's much more than that.

We went on a Friday with neighbors who know one of the serving staff. That helps this review for sure, but the food was very well done. Seafood or Fish fry platters for all, and all were enjoyed. A nice starter salad, plus full plate (two options) with each entree make this a bagain meal around $12 per head. Now on top of that they have decent taps, including Sam Adams, Fat Tire, and Anchor Steam. A big full menu beyond the Friday fish specials, from sandwiches to steaks. For the food and atmosphere, a B+ and considering the value in a A's for sure. The beer list could use more micros, but not a bad selection considering.

Great for families or couples going out, the only complaint is that the crowd is older, no teens or 20's here. Well we weren't looking for a disco anyway. Much fun and good value food to be had.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Update on the Craft Beer Segment by the WSJ

From today's WSJ, paper of the American Dream, craft beer is doing well, even in tough times. Included are comments by the Metropolitan folks, our newest makers of craft beer (mostly lagers which is fine with me).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lagers to Love, There are More Than a Few Out There

I don't submit for all of these monthly blogging Sessions built around a theme, but #25 is dear to my heart, entitled Love Lagers. As the host The Beer Nut describes it,

"It's the world's most popular style of beer and can be found in abundance in almost every corner of the globe. For millions of people the word "beer" denotes a cold, fizzy, yellow drink -- one which is rarely spoken of among those for whom beer is a hobby or, indeed, a way of life."
I was until quite recently a lager basher. After joining the ale revolution several years ago thanks to mrquartetman, I fell in love with these top fermenting beauties for their aromas, complexities, higher alcohol (gotten over that), and overall wonderful tastes. Ale, after all, was the original beer; weak ones were used in place of food, and were safer than water, by Middle Age folks, both adult and kids, of old Europe.

It was the German's in the 19th century who figured out how to brew with bottom feeding yeast, at colder temperatures, and lagered these brews, or stored them for aging and smoothness. Good beer, well made, then bastardized by the Americans who adopted the German style, if not the purity laws. Lagers were responsible for pushing ales out of America. With the bastardization of adjuncts (corn, rice, etc.) added, our beers became proverbial piss water. So what if people wanted clear beer, this is not champagne folks, although some are starting to push that way.

Well thankfully, home brewing came back in 1978 (thanks Mr. Carter) and ales returned. Many of the thriving micro-brewers who now produce tens of thousands of barrels annually started as homebrewers. American craft brewers, now to mention many homebrewers, have picked up the Lager mantle and are now producing some of the best in the world. In particular, one of my favorite brewers, New Glarus, seems to have the best handle on lager styles. Witness their recent unplugged release of Bohemian Lager. A Lager I can love. The smell and taste are best described by a fellow Chicagoan blogger I know:
The smell is crisp and clean but with a of a balance of aromatic hops and malts. Clean crackery/biscuity and light toffee/caramel malt sweetness intermingles with grassy/floral and semi-spicy noble hoppiness that add a good little bite. I even get some light lemony accents in the smell when I take deep whiffs. If this were a bit more pungent it would smell really amazing.

The taste is even better than the smell. Very bright, crisp, clean, and most importantly - balanced. Crackery/doughy, light toffee, and pale/pils malt sweetness does an intricate and delicate dance with great spicy/floral/grassy hop flavor and bitterness with a seemingly light-oak character. More lightly lemony notes come out as it open up. It has such a great clean profile but still lots of intricate flavors, which I find most pilsners/lagers lack for my tastes.
Yes, this is a lager anyone could love, take that AB and Miller!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Bug Up My Ass

The recent Coors marketing ploy has been bugging me for months now. Since when did Coors become the "Banquet Beer". Marketing goofiness aside, this is no banquet beer with current plethora of wonderful micros out there, over 1,500 US makers at last count. Coors is a regular C- rated American Adjunct Lager, according to Beer Advocate. I remember it as a near-mythical beast, nearly impossible to acquire in the Midwest, it was supposed to be well worth it for the lucky few who were able to lay their hands on some. And I did, at least the 3.2% abv version allowed for under 18 folks on a near mythical trip to the mountains.

It was the summer of 1975, prior to senior year in high school, my close friends and I made a June trip out to Colorado to climb the mountains. We had a drive-away (one way) car, which you could get as a 17yr old in those days (not anymore I believe). The four of us shared driving, made it from suburban Chicagoland to Denver in just over 20 hours. We had heard of the legendary Coors, but had never seen it.

We went straight for the town of Estes Park, not stopping for anything as we had precise reservations for camp sites. We hiked the dusty, barren Rocky Mountain National Park for 7 days, drinking only water from the streams. Over the week we came to appreciate the value of water, and possible beer filled our dreams at 10,000 feet. Once we came down dusty and worn out, we found a store that had the 3.2 Coors. I still question why we didn't seek it out before the hike, maybe we thought we'd never actually go up. Anyway, after surviving on tasty but plain water for 7 days, this 3.25 stuff tasted like the proverbial mothers milk, absolutely fabulous!! And it didn't seem to have the graininess or mouth puckering bitterness, and maybe it was a bit sweeter and smoother than the Schlitz or Old Milwaukee or Blatz we were used to. Sucking down 2-3 in the first half hour off the mountains seemed very normal.

Now at normal elevation, I can't bring myself to purchase Coors, certainly not a six pack, maybe a tall boy if I sought it out. I know it would be a disappointment, after close to 35 years how could it be otherwise.

I recently had the Schlitz 60's recipe on draft, it wasn't bad. Maybe the Coors back then was better, I suppose we'll never know. In any event I can't go back, and I don't want to, nor do I feel I have time enough to test every old favorite out there, there are too many full flavored ales and lagers to write home about now, but maybe the Banquet Beer deserves another shot. I will always think of it as the mountain beer, and a refreshing one at that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Amazing Democratization for Beer Lovers

As a follow up to my last post about BA events, I did attend the Second Chicagoland beer trading event last Thursday at Goose Island Clybourn. Starting around 6pm, with the introduction of two new beers from Goose, namely the new Juliet, and a Saison (to be sold in 650ml bombers soon), we then had some 50 - 60 attendees who each brought a beer or two to try. More amazingly, as the night went on the Chicago Beer Society (a homebrewer group, not sure if the name is right) folks came in with samples of their recent tries. Overall a great selection. No reviews here, but some highlights:

- Several home brewed Pilsners, each decidedly better than anything I've had in commercial beers.
- a 1994 vintage Cuvee Renee, the straight lambic from Lindeman's ( the guy said he bought it off the shelf last year!)
- Viking Hot Chocolate, a mellow chocolate beer that had a spicy kick
- 2003 Bare Trees, an aged wheatwine from Two Bros. (Warrenville)

Ignoring the highlights, if you had a discerning taste for certain styles (say Belgian blond ales), you could probably have had some 5-10 different beers. I had a few more. And some decent pizza was provided.

Point being, this is a savvy play by Greg Hall and Goose Island to continue to be the center of the Chicago Beer scene. As they move to update their menu and offerings, they want to connect with more influential customers - good thought!

The monthly beer school tastings are nice for the "amateurs", this one is for the "pros". With a combination of food, samplers from Goose, homebrews from the CBS folks (an a few BAers too), and not to mention FREE, it's a low cost way to keep "early adopters" interested in Goose's beers and operations. CBS is old school, BA's are new school, and together it's all good for the Goose, and the customers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Beer Advocate is the networking place now

Beer Advocate has grown swiftly with the internet boom and the craft beer boom to become the most influential online location for US beer lovers. They also have a magazine, but that's just a way to make money. The real action is online, as they how have changed their homepage to highlight their beer forums.

Until recently the only regional focused forum for Chicagoans was US - Midwest. Recently I discovered a new group under Chicago. What a find! Lots of local information, on new beers coming into the market, events, and reviews.

The formation of this group made possible for one of the most exciting recent beer tasting events in Chicago, the BA Chicago Gathering/Beer Swap. Fully 62 folks signed up for this, and the reviews on the forum were great.

Beer Advocate, for a modest cost, is the place to keep up with if you seek info on beer coming out, venues, events, and anything else beer Chicago. I certainly will be watching it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Great article about one of the most innovative beer makers in America, Allagash. It speaks to what they are doing in inventing new ales, lambics for one, something that our Chicago brewers could learn from. If you can do this stuff in Maine, you can certainly do it here.

In any event check it out this article and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wisconsin brewers benefiting from holiday brews

Nice third hand article from December sited by New Glarus from the Milwaukee paper relating to winter beer brews by Wisconsin brewers. I've had several of these and liked most of them, hard to get some in IL of course, but as it's the closest state to us we go there several times a year. Worth it for sure, I don't believe Indiana offers as much (other than Three Floyd's). Enjoy.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Session 23 - Old and New

This monthly session is simply about what I will miss from the beer world of 2008, and what I anticipate will excite me in 2009.

As for 2008, it's all in my previous post of Dec 31, see below.

Looking forward to 2009, I anticipate:

1) trying the new line-up of New Glarus beers,
2) finding more good beers at favorite Chicagoland restaurants as they continue to appeal to the growing number of better beer drinkers,
3) finding more fresh beer available in Chicagoland - either via growlers or mini-kegs (5 liter offerings - come on Bell's, I've seen 'em in Missouri, can't you get 'em here) from local micro-brewers. Wishing there were more Whole Foods serving fresh beer like the Bowery Beer Room.
4) hoping to see new out-of-state beers making it here (yeah for Lost Abbey/Port Brewing showing up in '08), like the canners Surly and Oscar Blues. As a connected wish, hoping to see more good beer make it into cans (special liners now so they don't taste tinny).
5) Finding more real ale, that is cask beer, in the area.

Should be another great year.