The Quest for Utopia

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Sam Adams Utopias is sort of the white whale of the white whales for beer chasers.  It’s not made every year and it’s super hard to find.    Add to that that even when you can find it at retail, it can cost $200 a bottle.  Older vintages can be up to $900 on eBay, or at least $450 for a recent year.  I have to admit I came into this tasting of it by happenstance in that I am friends with a guy who happens to have a very generous friend in New England who sends him amazing beer for his birthday.  This batch had to top them all because it included a bottle of Utopias.  Utopias is a special blend of aged beers from Sam Adams’ barrel house.  Some of the beer included in the mix, which varies at each release, is as much as 19 years old.  I would probably call it a barley wine because of the high ABV and look and flavor of it, but at its heart it is a Triple Bock.  It is mixed with other rare Sam Adams’ releases like Millenium as well.  Then they age it in a series of different kinds of vessels like Jack Daniels barrels, and port, scotch and cognac casks as well.  The end product is decidedly unique for a beer.  However, it is not unprecedented in terms of flavor.  It does have an unusually high ABV.  I think the version I had was 27%, but the releases range from 22-28%.  Anyway, the having the opportunity to taste this white whale of white whales just fall in my lap was an amazing stroke of luck and I am most grateful to my friend and also to his friend who bought and sent the beer.  I would say the flavor was a strong combination of bourbon and port with lots of dark fruit like figs and cherries thrown in.  It was quite boozy and the body was heavy.  It really resembled a port more than a beer.  I would clearly recommend it as a dessert or nightcap beer.  The bottom line is that it was amazing and if you have an opportunity to get it, definitely do.  I’m not sure I would advocate spending $900 on one bottle of beer.  Even $450 is probably too much to spend.  But if you find it for less or have an opportunity to taste it somewhere, jump on it!

Hopslam 2016 vs. Hopslam 2015

IMG_6330So I was lucky enough to brave the crowds and actually get Hopslam the last two years, which was no small feat.  I almost missed out this year as I chased it around by going to all of my favorite beer stores just missing it by frustrating small amounts of time.  Employing social media is both a blessing and a curse.  The problem is everyone uses it and as soon as a store or bar reports having it on Twitter, Facebook or one of the beer specific ones like BeerMenus or Tap Hunter, the locusts descend and scoop it all up in seconds.  This time I got the notification from BeerMenus that my local World of Beer had some and I made a date with my wife to go. The trouble was I got the notification on Saturday morning and we couldn’t get there until Saturday evening.  When we finally got there, sidled up to the bar and got the bartender’s attention, he told us he had just poured the last one and gave it to the couple next to us.  However, as it turns out, they were very neighborly and felt bad that they got the last of it and offered that they just bought some at a butcher shop not far away and that it seemed like they still had some.  I hatched a plan to go the next day.  I went to the butcher shop the next day with great anticipation.  My heart sank slightly when I entered the store and saw only a small selection of beer and I didn’t see the Hopslam.  No one else was in the store, so the guy behind the counter asked if I needed help.  Rather then reveal that I was looking for Hopslam, I just asked where the beer is.  He pointed to cooler separate from where I’d looked and the Angel’s harps began to play when I saw the last six pack sitting there.  I grabbed it quickly and headed to the counter.  At $22.99, it’s a little pricey for a six pack of beer, but I still felt elated at successfully reaching the end of a long and difficult quest.  Anyway, on to the comparison.  One thing I noticed right away is that the two beers are very similar.  Now, maybe that’s not a surprise considering it’s the same name beer, made by the same brewery.  Still, that’s not always the case.  I’ve done vertical reviews on other beers like Dogfish Head Punkin Ale that have been different each year.  These two both poured a medium copper color with a thin white head that dissipated quickly.  The 2015 version was just a shade darker.  Both had a similar aroma of both floral and earthy hops.  The hop flavor came through similarly in both as well.  There was a light chamomile -like flavor along with a more herbal hop flavor that do a little twist together on your tongue.  However, the one noticeable difference was that the 2015 version had a marked bready or biscuity flavor to it and, thus, also a slighter higher malt profile.  The 2016 version was more balanced, though the honey was a little more distinguishable in the 2016 version.  I would say both versions were very good.  I’m not sure I can say one was better than the other because the differences were minor.  You really have to be looking for them.  I rate them both five out of five proper pints.

Fair Winds Brewing Company

On a recent Spring like Sunday afternoon I decided to try out Fair Winds Brewing Company.  It has been on my list for a while and I haven’t gotten around to it, so I decided it was about time.  The immediate location is cool because you have to drive through a short tunnel under some train tracks (though the tunnel a little narrow for two lanes).  The traffic down I-95 and then on the Fairfax County Parkway can be a little challenging, even on a Sunday afternoon though.  Once you arrive, the space is very inviting.  It is the end unit of a small industrial strip.  There isn’t a whole lot of parking, but it seems sufficient for a Sunday afternoon.  They do have reserved parking for veterans right in front, which I thought was cool.  The interior of the tasting room is definitely industrial chic with hanging pendant lighting and exposed ducts.  The staff was very friendly and willing to help guide your selection through their various offerings.  At the time I was there I think there were 8 beers on draft and 1 or 2 in cask.  I decided to try a cross section of their beers, rather than all, but by the end I had tried most of the them.  I had the Quayside Kolsch, which was crisp and refreshing with a slightly biscuity flavor.  I also had the Howling Gale IPA, which was very impressive.  It had a strong malt backbone with a nice floral and citrus hop bite to it, yet it was not overly bitter.  I also had the Siren’s Lure saison, which I felt was a little disappointingly bland.  Next I tried the Running Light Red.  Like a red should, it had a strong malt signature, but it also had a slightly fruity flavor to it.  I liked it a lot, but if malt is not your thing, it may not be for you.  After that, I went dark with Ghost of the Mariner stout.  This one was a little disappointing.  It had strong vanilla and cherry notes, but it tasted a little too much like Dr. Pepper to me.  Lastly, I tried out the Blackened Seas Porter with Vanilla and Chocolate.  This one had swirls of complex flavor.  It went from dark fruit to vanilla to chocolate and back again.  I really liked the Blackened Seas.  Overall, it was a very nice experience.  It would be great if they had food.   There was a food truck outside and they had menus to order from, but still it would be nice to have something made there.  I would definitely come back here though.

Williamsburg Alewerks

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I happened to be passing through Williamsburg one day recently and realized I’d never visited the Williamsburg Alewerks taproom.  It was a beautiful Fall afternoon and couldn’t have been a more perfect time, so I decided to drop in.  I’d really only tried their Old Stitch Brown Ale before while enjoying a Colonial dinner at Chowning’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.  That was decent, but not spectacular.  This time I decided to try some of their more kicked up recipes…I went with the Bourbon Barrel Coffee Stout called Cafe Royale, a Belgian Strong Ale called Jubilee IX, a Pumpkin Ale, and a collaboration they did with Virginia Beer Company that is a Red Rye IPA.  I appreciated that the bourbon barrel stout was not overly bourbony.  The bourbon nicely complimented the roasty and coffee flavors of the stout.  I would give that beer a solid three out of five proper pints.  I really liked the Jubilee IX.  It had the strong dark fruit flavors of a dark strong ale, along with a slight estery flavor from the Belgian yeast.  The 12% ABV was well hidden.  I could have had a few of these and had to leave in a wheel barrow.  That one I would give four out of five proper pints.  The pumpkin ale was a little too spicy for my taste.  I usually like a little more of the malt signature in a pumpkin ale.  The spice mixture was a little heavy on clove, I would say.  That happens to be my least favorite of the pumpkin pie spices.  I would give that one two and half proper pints.  My favorite of all was the Red Rye IPA.  I love rye in almost anything. This was very refreshing with a slight fruity flavor mixed with a little spice from the rye and grapefruit from the hops.  I could have this beer anytime.  I would give it four and a half proper pints.  Overall, I enjoyed Williamsburg Alewerks and would definitely stop in again the next time I’m in town.

Vertical Comparison of Dogfish Head Punkin Ale 2013-2015

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For several years I have been an avid fan of the Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, that annually debuts right around, and sometimes on, my birthday.  For many of those years, I would have said the debut of the Punkin Ale was one of my favorite times of the year and that the beer itself is one of my all time favorite beers.  In recent years there has been such an embarrassment of riches in craft beer and so many breweries have taken pumpkin beer to new levels, it’s harder to say that Punkin Ale is still my favorite overall beer.  Nevertheless, it is clearly among my favorite pumpkin beers.  One thing occured, though, that may endanger that trend.  Beginning in 2014, it seems, I perceived a change in the recipe, as did several of my other beer geek friends.  Some abandoned it altogether because of the change.  One went so far as to call it undrinkable.  Dogfish Head definitely did change the label and, not for the better, IMHO.  However, it is difficult to judge whether a beer recipe has changed in an annually released beer, since you normally can’t compare it side to side with the earlier version…unless you hoard beer like I do and happen to have three bottles of Dogfish Head Punkin Ale in your refrigerator from each of 2013, 2014 and 2015.    To test my friends’ reactions, as well as my own perception, I decided I would try a side by side comparison (they appear left to right in the photo above) to see if I could tell for certain how big the differences were and identify them, if possible.  You may be able to see that once poured into the glass, there are some differences in the color.  They are not major, but the 2013 version is a bit darker than the other two.  The 2015 is the lightest.  Overall, I would say it turned out the differences were not as stark as I thought.    However, they were distinguishable and I had my wife taste as well just to be sure.  By far, the 2013 has the most pronounced pumpkin pie spice flavor with distinct flavors of brown sugar and nutmeg.  It also has a bready aroma similar to an English muffin.  The 2014 version, was the most non-pumpkiny.  They was very little pumpkin pie spice flavor, though there was a trace of cinnamon.  Brown sugar was not noticeable to me.  It tasted the most like a regular brown ale.  It had the aroma of whole wheat bread with a little cinnamon.  The 2015 version had a noticeable hoppy bitterness to it that the others did not have, as well as a little yeast in the aroma.  It returned more toward the pronounced pumpkin pie spice flavors from 2014, but was still less than the 2013 version.  Overall, the 2013 was my favorite and, I think tasted the most like a pumpkin ale.  For my two cents, the label on the 2013 version is also the best.  I say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but I know there has been a lot of competition in the pumpkin ale category in recent years and the good folks at Dogfish Head may have felt compelled to try out some different things.  Fortunately, the beer seems headed back in the original direction.  Punkin Ale is still a darn good beer and I would not call any of the versions undrinkable.  Still, I think the older version is definitely better.

My Five Favorite Beers from Great American Beer Festival 2015

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I just returned from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this past weekend.  It was an awesome experience, even more so than last year.  Perhaps even a little bit much, but I’m not complaining.  There were 750 breweries, 3,800 beers being served, 60,000 attendees, 3,400 volunteers, and 242 medal winners.  Over 6,000 beers were judged in the competition, which was a 20% increase over last year.  Needless to say, it is difficult to even scratch the surface of the breweries’ offerings even if you attend all four sessions.  I only attended two of the four four hour sessions.  Nevertheless, I followed the buzz, listened to tips from other attendees on breweries to look out for and hunted those down and occasionally tried out a random target of opportunity along the way.  The atmosphere is really fun and people are really there to have a good time.  Even with as many people as there are and as long as some of the lines can get, people from all over the country are just really friendly and jovial.  There was plenty of security, but it almost seemed to me like it wasn’t necessary.  Anyway, as I did last year, 3 Floyds was my first stop to get a hold of the elusive Zombie Dust.  It does run out at each session of the festival if you don’t hurry to their booth.  Nevertheless, my feeling is that it’s a little overrated.  It is, however, truly a good pale ale.  Some of the booths really get a tad crazy with the lines and they will run out of the popular beers quickly.  Cigar City, Dogfish Head, Allagash, Ballast Point, The Bruery, Russian River and Lost Abbey were among those with the longest lines, of course deservedly so.  Anyway, on to my five favorites.  I was able to get to quite a few breweries and with only one ounce tasters, you do have some latitude to get around.  Still, the time goes quickly, especially if you get chatty.  Almost all of the beers I had were really good, with maybe a handful of exceptions.  These five were just ones that really stood out to me.

  1.  Citra Sour from Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco.  This is a single hop, citra blonde ale that is soured.   The sour blends wonderfully with the grapefruit flavor of the hops and gives it almost a champagne like flavor with clear citrus notes and a little earthiness to it.
  2. Imagination Atrophy from Adroit Theory in Purcellville, VA.  This is a caramel macchiato milk stout aged in bourbon barrels.  It sounds like it might be too sweet, but it hits the nail on the head.  It’s creamy with a little bit of sweetness from the bourbon and the lactose, but enough roast and coffee flavor to balance it out.
  3. Imperial Coffee and Cigarettes from Cellarmaker in San Francisco.  You would think this might be smoky given it’s title, but it’s just got a hint of smoke and roast that blends nicely with a rich and creamy brown sugar, coffee and roasty malt.
  4. Mocha IPA from Stone at Liberty Station, San Diego.  This was a surprisingly good mixture of my two favorite genres.  Strong coffee and mocha flavor balances against the hoppiness of the IPA.  Lighter in body than a coffee stout.  Also a less creamy and more crisp flavor.  The hops are a little drowned out by the coffee, but it struck a perfect balance for me.
  5. Sip of Sunshine IPA from Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Warren VT.  This may now be my favorite IPA.  There was none of the other famous IPA from Vermont, Heady Topper, at the GABF to compare it against, but this was a mighty contender.  I did also have the Pliny the Elder while I was there and I dare say I enjoyed the Sip of Sunshine better.  This had a juicy tropical fruit flavor, mixed with a citrus hop and a delicate biscuit malt flavor.  Nicely complex and not dominated by any of them.  I would keep an eye out for this one.

Snallygaster 2015

Each year for the past three years, the owners of Churchkey DC, Rustico and Bluejacket have hosted a massive beer festival in the shadow of Nationals’ Stadium in Washington, DC.  This year there were something like 350 beers from a variety of breweries around the country.  They specialize in finding beers that would otherwise be hard or impossible to get in the DC area.  The main part of the festival starts at 1 and the whole shebang goes until 6.  If you buy a VIP “Kraken” ticket, you get to come in 1 1/2 hours earlier and have 7 1/2 hours of drinking time.  I opted for the VIP option, but left early.  There are a number of food options, including booths and trucks.  I had some awesome chicken fingers from GBD at a booth.  There were also pizza, Vietnamese,  burgers and all sorts of other options as well.  They also have pretty decent bands playing on an outdoor stage for most of the day.  For some reason I’ve gone the last two years and it’s rained each time.  They don’t do a rain date, the festival goes rain or shine.  I like this festival because it’s outdoors (even though it’s been rainy each time I’ve gone) and there is a good crowd of people who also love beer.  I also like it because there are always some really good beers you just can’t get anywhere around here.  The downsides are that once the gates open to general admission, it gets pretty crowded, even on a rainy day.  The other downside, I’m not crazy about is that you get tickets to buy beer.  30 tickets come with your admission and if you want more you have to buy them, essentially at $1 each.  Many of the beers that I am hunting are in the 8-12 ticket range, so it’s not long before I’m buying more tickets.  The least expensive beers are 3 or 4 tickets.  The majority are around 4-6.  This is for about a 4 oz. taster.  The whole cost can add up very quickly.  Highlights for me were the Grey Monday from the Bruery.  An Imperial Stout with a whopping 18.6% ABV and hazelnuts added to the beer as it ages in bourbon barrels, whoa!  There was also the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Pecan Pie Porter from Clown Shoes, which rang it at a much lower 8% ABV, but was also very flavorful.  And one I have chased for a long time and never been able to have – Lunch IPA from Maine Brewing Company.  After chasing it for a long time, I was slightly underwhelmed.  It tasted like IPAs I’ve had some other breweries before.  Nothing too special.  I also had the Bhakti Chai Brown Ale from Avery, which I had heard of before.  I’ve had a Chai Milk Stout from Yak and Yeti in Denver and I’ve made a Chai Milk Stout myself, both of which I really like.  This, however, wasn’t as great.  Maybe it was the brown as a base.  It was too thin in body to support the flavors, I thought.  Not bad, but I’m not sure I would seek it out again.  I also had the Gourd Standard from Flying Dog.  My first pumpkin IPA.  It was a decent IPA, but not a great pumpkin beer.  Along the pumpkin lines, I also had a pumpkin sour from Allagash called Ghoulschip.  It was a tad too sour my taste, alas.  In any case, the festival was a hit.  Hopefully next year it will be sunny. I rate it four out of five proper pints, only because of the ticket thing.

Perennial Pineapple Kumquat Berliner Weisse

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When I saw this combination of ingredients in a Berliner Weisse at the beer store, it made me stop and take notice.  I was hoping it wasn’t too fruity or pineapple-y or too sour.  I decided to try it out with some pizza because it seemed to me the flavor combination with a slight sour I expected from the Berliner Weisse would probably do well with pizza.  Well, I was not disappointed.  I would say the pineapple was not strong, but was present in a subtle way.  I don’t know what Kumquat should taste like in beer, but I didn’t notice anything resembling it, except for a general citrus flavor.  The flavors that stood out to me were citrus, pineapple, maybe also a bit of mango and the slight sour of the Berliner Weisse itself.  The beer was light bodied and well carbonated.  I can’t say I would make it a go to beer, but it was very good.  I would give it three out of five proper pints.

Epic Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter

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This used to be a collaboration beer with DC Brau, but it appears this year Epic is going it alone.  This is a great pumpkin porter.  I know some people are getting tired of the pumpkin, but this one really stands out.  It pours dark, almost black.  It has strong chocolate and pumpkin pie spice notes in the aroma.  The mouthfeel is slightly oily, creamy.  It has a little dark roast to it, but strong chocolate in the flavor with a not overwhelming mixture of pumpkin pie spice flavors.  I would say maybe nutmeg, clove and allspice are out front and a little bit of cinnamon as well.  It goes nicely with some popcorn and a football game.  Five out of five proper pints.

Coney Island Hard Root Beer vs. Not Your Father’s Root Beer

So I had a little backyard cocktail hour over Labor Day weekend to do a head to head comparison of the two biggest (at least in Northern Virginia) hard root beers. First of all, I love root beer, so this was almost a no brainer. I’ve also tried making root beer before, so I had an idea of how it works. I needed to see what this hard root beer thing is all about. Mind you, root beer is (or can be) made similarly to beer, e.g., you add sugar, root beer extract and yeast to some water and let it sit for a while. The yeast in that case is mostly just to produce carbonation. In contrast, most commercial root beers you find in a store today are just a root beer flavored syrup and carbonated water. Nevertheless, the old school way to do it is to use yeast. I had not previously attempted to get the yeast to produce alcohol. It’s all about the type of yeast you use. Still, I figured since yeast eats sugar, if you aimed to make an actual beer, it would not be sweet because the yeast would have consumed the sugar to make the alcohol. Anyway, both of these root beers taste like soda, albeit a little flatter than soda. Nevertheless, they are just as sweet. The ones I tried both had an ABV of about 5-5.9%, but the Small Town Brewery (who makes Not Your Father’s Root Beer) also makes a 10.7% and a 19% ABV version. I think those may only be available in Illinois. On to the comparison. They both pour a dark brown, almost black color with a very thin white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma of both is of root beer, no familiar beer aromas like hops or malt are present. In terms of taste, I would say Not Your Father’s Root Beer tastes more like a familiar root beer to me. The flavor is sarsaparilla, vanilla, maybe molasses and the body is a little syrupy. The Coney Island root beer added licorice, which gives the beer a slightly spicier flavor. I would say for those who don’t like licorice, it doesn’t taste a lot like licorice, it just adds some spiciness to the other flavors of sarsaparilla, vanilla and molasses. I preferred Not Your Father’s Root Beer a little more, but these are both very good beers and they are both very good root beers. I don’t know if I would have more than one at a time because it’s pretty sweet like root beer and while I may have been able to put away some soda as a kid, I can’t do it now. Still, I really liked both of these beers a lot. I would certainly recommend it for someone who doesn’t like beer as a good introduction. However, even for beer aficionados, these are both great beers, but in sort of a category of their own. I would say they go perfectly with burgers, pizza or hot dogs and are great on a hot Summer day. I give both five out of five proper pints.