Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Southern Tier Brewing Co - Raspberry Wheat

Ah, fruit beer - I've tried and reviewed a couple of examples of this style recently, and they've all, without exception, been very refreshing and simple beers.  The kind of drink that goes just brilliantly with a light riverside meal or picnic on a balmy summer's day such as we've been experiencing (a bit more sporadically than I'd have hoped) recently.  The kind of beer which, for some inexplicable reason, often gets labelled as a 'malt beverage' rather than a true beer, as if it were some kind of processed, manufactured alco-pop - a really unfair label, as these beers are just as worthy of the name as the IPAs or stouts which connoisseurs are more inclined to praise.

I guess there's understandable reluctance on the part of some hop-heads to fully accept fruit beer - generally these styles are very low in IBUs, so any hop aroma is usually very restrained, and hop bitterness is at a minimum in order to let the fruit flavour through.  But really, I say there's nothing wrong with a well-crafted, uncomplicated fruit beer to celebrate the season.  Particularly when they're as well-made as the ones we have on offer in Upstate.

Tonight's example comes from Southern Tier - I've already reviewed a couple of their beers and have been very impressed with both.  So here's hoping this one is true to form!  Oh, and by the way, the glass in the photo is my commemorative sample glass from the Real Beer Expo.  It's a much better glass than the ones I've been using (yes, the kind of glass you use really does make a difference!).

This brew pours a light, straw colour, with low to moderate carbonation.  Although you can't really see it in the photo, it had a good-sized white head with decent lacing (poor retention, though I'm not going to hold that against them too much).  It's brilliantly clear, with no haze that I could see.

The aroma features prominent, tart and fruity raspberries, with some faint hops detectable underneath.  It's great when a fruit beer smells of the real fruit rather than an artificial syrup.

It tastes a little sweet, with the raspberry featuring prominently and sitting at the back of your mouth.  It's got that lovely sweet and tart combination which I always love about summer fruits.  There's also a very mild hop bitterness detectable in the taste, which complements the fruit nicely and doesn't clash.  It's almost as if it's there to gently remind you that you're drinking a real beer.

The mouthfeel's smooth with a fairly low carbonation level, possibly a little low for the American Wheat style.  The body's pretty light, just as it should be for a summery fruit beer.  The finish is slightly sweet but not cloying.

A really nice fruit beer with some subtle hoppy touches.  Here are my scores:

Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 3.5/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 3.5/5

Overall - 3.875/5.  It's a really great summer brew, perfect for the hot summer days ahead.  The balance of hops and fruit was particularly unusual - in the best way possible.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An invitation to Nathan Berrong

Yesterday, Nathan Berrong of CNN posted an article where he extolled the virtues of West Coast beer.  It's caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere because he states 'there's no debating that the best region for beer in the United States is the Pacific or West Coast region.'

No debating, huh?  Well, if that's the case, he clearly sparked some kind of non-debating argumentative social discourse, because there are currently 618 comments (and counting) on the article, many of which express very sharp disagreement with Mr. Berrong's bold assertion.  

I think that he's rather missing the point of craft beer - in his opening paragraphs he only mentions the hop-heavy IPA and Pale Ale styles as if they're the epitome of beercraft.  Not so, say I!  Bucketloads of hops do not a Great Beer make.  Here in Upstate alone, we've got awesome breweries making fantastic examples of a broad range of styles, some of them aggressively hopped (like CB's Caged Alpha Monkey, or the IPAs made by the lads at Three Heads Brewing), others not so much, because they realise how to use them appropriately!  The base ingredient of beer, believe it or not, isn't hops, it's malted barley; hops are added to balance the sweetness of the base malts.

So, Mr. Berrong, I'd like to issue you an invitation: come to Upstate New York, and I'll personally guide you on a tour of the fabulous breweries and brewpubs we have here.  I'll show you how our moderate, mid-European climate creates a fantastic environment for growing hops, barley and adjunct grains.  Please, see how it compares to the West Coast, and I think you'll find that Upstate Brews are some of the finest you'll find in the country.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

Three Heads Brewing - Blimey English-Style Pale Ale

One of the neatest things about being a Brit in Upstate NY is that you get to critique the attempts that people make at imitating your own accent and culture.  From Renaissance festivals to Cockney reptiles selling insurance to those God-awful accents that well-meaning Hollywood actors put on, there's plenty of opportunity for a proud Englishman to smirk at the Yankee perception of his way of life.  I also thoroughly enjoy it when locals refer to me as 'that Australian guy'...oh my, oh my.

When it comes to beer, however, Upstate practices the sincerest form of flattery by emulating very closely a lot of the great British beer styles I've known and loved.  Frankly, you're probably better off getting an Upstate-brewed British-style beer than an import, because English ale doesn't travel well, even when bottled.  More than once I've bought a bottle of a well-loved British ale, only to find that it tastes skunky, or stale.  So I've been exploring some of the local ale offerings, and I'll be jiggered if they're not a damn fine impersonation of British Best.

Tonight's review is of Three Heads Brewing's Blimey, a cheekily-named Extra Special Bitter which boasts a respectable 6.0% ABV and whose label shows a stereotypically buck-toothed Queen's Guard with an old-fashioned London Routemaster bus in the background (this got me all nostalgic, because you rarely see those buses in the city these days).  I couldn't help but raise a smile at the picture - though I hasten to add, I pride myself on having the most un-British teeth imaginable.  My wife will back me up on that.

The beer pours a light copper, with a slight head and low-moderate carbonation.  It's very clear, which shows it's been filtered well.

Bready malts dominate the aroma, with a balance of mild UK hops.  There's a slight alcoholic warmth that hits your nose, and very low fruit esters are detectable.

When I first tasted it, it was fresh from the fridge (I should have really known better - British styles are usually best served at around 54-58 degrees Fahrenheit).  Served from the fridge, it had an aggressive hop bitterness which clashed with the malty aroma.  As I let it warm slightly, however, the malt had more of a chance to show itself over the hoppy bitterness.  The bitterness remains fairly strong, as one would expect (this brew has 60 IBUs).  Served on cask at cellar temperature, I can imagine this beer comparing very favourably with UK standards like London Pride.  There's a slight toasty quality to the aftertaste, which is subtle and quite pleasant.

As far as mouthfeel's concerned, there's a low level of carbonation, and a medium body.  The brew finishes fairly clean and dry with some bitterness.

It's a great beer, and I like it a lot.  So here are my scores:

Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 4/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 3.5/5

Overall - 4/5.  Great strong British ale.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why 'Upstate'?

It occurred to me the other day that this blog is only a small part of a broader turn I've made in the past year or so towards supporting the local and organic food movement.  And yet I've only hinted at this in my posts; I've never fully explored or explained this aspect of Upstate Brews.  Well, today I'd like to briefly go into some of the reasons why I support this movement, why it's relevant to this blog, and why it's important to support our local, independent breweries here in Upstate.

Organic food has become a huge deal in recent years, with millions of consumers turning away from conventionally grown ingredients (which are farmed with the assistance of chemical treatments, pesticides and - increasingly - genetically-modified organisms) and instead purchasing food which has been farmed using traditional methods which, proponents argue, produce better, healthier, more nutritious ingredients, and are also better for the environment.

One side-effect of the new interest in organic food is the commercial organic industry, which is very well-intentioned but has also resulted in some oddly ironic actions - for instance, the demand for grass-fed, organic beef has contributed to deforestation in South America as farmers try to create more pasture for their cattle. 

Hence the local food movement - a way to move towards a sustainable, organic model of food production which benefits the local economy as well as lowering our carbon footprint and delivering nutritious food at a reasonable price.  In Upstate NY, we're faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to locally-grown food - so it makes sense that farmers should be able to sell their goods directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man and maximising their profits, knowing that they are also giving excellent-quality food to people who might not have the means to pay for grocery-store organic food all the time.

In Rochester alone, we have summer farmers' markets in the South Wedge, Brighton, Monroe Village, Fairport, Pittsford and Irondequoit - all offering locally-grown produce, most of it organic.  And let's not forget the downtown Public Market which sells a huge range of produce, most of it conventional but there are some organic suppliers too.

In the winter, the Highland Park market offers an incredible range of fresh and frozen produce and baked goods.  It's a beautiful thing, and I have to say that with prices comparable to or lower than Wegmans, everything I've bought from the farmers' markets has been of exceptional quality.

Which brings me to my next point: Upstate Brews exists to explore the locally-produced beers available to us here in Upstate NY, which are usually of far superior quality to beers produced on a massive scale by 'macrobreweries'.  They're not always brewed using local, organic ingredients - although that's something I'd really like to see more of.  These local, independent breweries do, however, have a commitment to producing excellent beers and ales, contributing to the local economy (so that, for instance, Rohrbachs and Custom Brewcrafters have become the offsite brewpub for many Rochester-area institutions), and generally being awesome.  In an area that's lost a lot of its major powerhouses and industries, the burgeoning craft beer business is a great boon to Upstate.

Homebrewing is also growing in popularity, as people realise it's a lot more economical to produce beer at home than to buy it in stores.  If you get really good at it, you might even be able to make the transition from homebrewer to professional brewer - which is how a lot of the Upstate microbreweries started.

So, buying local beer is important because it supports small-scale brewers of hand-crafted drinks, and in this area, supporting local businesses is vitally important.

We're spoiled in Rochester because we even have a macrobrewery in the city - North American Breweries, producers of Genny brand beers, as well as the Dundee craft label.  So we have no excuse to buy from the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors) - almost every style of beer is produced by one of the local breweries!

Well, if you've read this far, congratulations and thanks for letting me ramble on a bit about one of my passions.  Hope it gives you some food for thought!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rochester Real Beer Expo TODAY!

The Rochester Real Beer Expo is happening today, 6pm-10pm in the South Wedge!  It's on Gregory Street, between South Ave and South Clinton Ave, and there are plenty of awesome breweries represented from Upstate and beyond.  Tickets are $45 at the gate ($40 if you buy them online) - if you're looking for something fun to do this evening, this is an awesome way to get to know more of the incredible craft beers we have available to us in Upstate!

Oh, and I'll be pouring at one of the stations, so keep an eye out for the Upstate Brews Guy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ithaca Beer Co - Nut Brown Ale

In my city neighbourhood, we get a lot of wildlife - no, not the students drunkenly stumbling out of bars yelling 'Eyyyyy, loveyoulezzallgetchickenwings!', but small, cute bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks that decided to live the urban life.  I often see them running around in the branches (my bedroom window opens to a canopy of trees) and a few days ago, while I was walking to the car a bunny hopped out of the bushes and just sat there in front of me for a moment, too confused or scared to hop away.  It's moments like that which make you happy to be up at ungodly hours of the morning.

A couple of weeks ago, a blackbird made it his mission to tap repeatedly on the window.  For hours at a time.  You'd think he'd get a headache, or get bored or something, but no - he'd just tap-tap-tap away at his reflection, hopping between branches to get the best possible position.  I named him Robert and eventually came to look forward to his daily visit.  I've not seen him recently, but he'll come back.  I know he will.  Right, Robert?

One of the funniest things about squirrels is when you see them carrying little nuts in their mouths, then stopping to grab them with their little paws so they can chow down on them a bit.  It's adorable!

And that, oddly enough, brings me to today's review:  Ithaca Nut Brown Ale.  I've been pretty impressed with Ithaca's offerings so far - their Apricot Wheat was light and refreshing, and CascaZilla was a hoppy Red Ale with lots of character.  They've been given a shout-out in CloneBrews, 2nd Edition: Recipes for 200 Brand-Name Beers, which also has a recipe for cloning Nut Brown.

It's another dark beer, so again it's not what you'd immediately associate with summer - but imagine buying a couple of good steaks and throwing them on the grill as the evening begins to draw in and the weather cools off a bit, and these styles really come into their own.

Ithaca Nut Brown pours a rich, dark copper, and fairly clear, except for a little chill haze.  It has a good-sized head with a light tan colour.  Moderate carbonation is evident.

There are prominent nutty malts in the aroma, with some caramel too.  The dark chocolatey malt is clearly there but not as intensely as in the Double Dark Cream Porter.  Some hints of burnt sugar in the aroma too.

They really weren't kidding when they called it Nut Brown!  The nutty flavour is very prominent and it's just great.  It's balanced by a moderate hop bitterness and some fruity esters.  There's just a hint of citrus hops in there.  Dark malts and hops are well balanced, and both are evident in the aftertaste.  Tasty, tasty.

As far as the mouthfeel goes, there's moderate carbonation, with a medium-full body.

This is a great beer, and a good example of the style.  If Robert comes by the house again, I'm definitely pouring him a little saucer of it to welcome him back.

Appearance - 4/5
Aroma - 4/5
Flavour - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 3.5/5

Overall - 3.875.  Great American Brown Ale, with a lovely nutty character.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Don't worry, we'll be back soon!

The past few days have been a bit quiet on the blogging front, and I do apologise - it was my birthday yesterday and I spent most of the weekend doing vital beer-related research for the blog.  I'll post my findings sometime later this week - sooner, rather than later, I hope.

In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of Custom Brewcrafters, and prepare yourselves for the awesomeness that is forthcoming!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Custom Brewcrafters - Double Dark Cream Porter

OK, readers, it's polling time!

When you think of beer, what kinds of adjectives come to mind?

Hoppy?  Malty?  Bitter?  Refreshing?  Floral?

How about 'chocolatey'?  Probably not the first thing you'd think of.  Even with many of the dark ales on offer in this area, I think we tend to major on roasted flavours and bitterness, so the idea of beer with chocolate qualities is still a bit of a novelty.

Which is why Custom Brewcrafters' Double Dark Cream Porter (they really have to come up with a catchier name) is such a refreshingly different brew.

Porter is an odd style with a rich history; broadly speaking, the style was a precursor to stout and so it's like a lighter-bodied version of that style.  It's growing in popularity - particularly in the US, although I do recall some examples from old Blighty where the style originated (legend has it that it got its name from the London hall porters and service workers who rather enjoyed it).  Main characteristics include a rich, dark colour; low hop flavour and aroma; dark malt characteristics without harshness or burnt flavour; and a medium body.  CB's porter achieves all of these really rather well.  

The beer pours a deep, dark-chocolate brown, not quite opaque but pretty thick.  There's a deep red colour to it, which you can see by holding it in the light.  It has a tan-coloured head, not massive but respectable.  There's not a lot of carbonation, but it's there - as a rule, British styles are less carbonated than American ones.

A chocolatey malt aroma hits your nose with the first sniff, and a little roasted barley underneath.  Some toffee-like scent is detectable also - it's a complex, strong, multi-layered aroma.  Really great stuff, and more subtleties are unearthed as you swirl it around in the glass, unlocking the bouquet.

The taste is equally complex and fascinating - chocolate flavour mingles with the nutty malts.  There's some hop bitterness in there, but this beer definitely leans more towards the dark, roasted malt side.  It doesn't taste burnt or acidic, however, unlike some dark ales.

This porter has a medium body, with low carbonation.  There's some alcohol warmth in there as it goes down, which is a great way to round off a full-blooded dark ale.  

Overall, this is a great example of the style, very drinkable with lovely malt characteristics.  The chocolate aroma and flavour are wonderful and it avoided the 'burnt-toast' character that many dark ales have.  Here are my scores:

Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 5/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 4.5/5

Overall - 4.5/5.  It's an odd choice for a June evening, I suppose - this is the time when most craft breweries are bringing out their Hefeweizen and IPA, as well as fruit beers.  But dark, chocolatey malt flavours can be just as summery as the light ales - imagine this with a juicy steak or some summer barbecue favourites.  Delicious.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ellicottville Brewing Company - Blueberry Wheat

Ellicottville is right in the southwestern corner of New York, a small town that's best known for Holiday Valley, a ski and golf resort which is a major tourist attraction for the region.  It's known as the Aspen of the East.

I was never much of a skier - I took one lesson as an extremely un-coordinated teenager, on a family holiday, and ended up colliding with some poor Austrian kid in the most undignified manner imaginable.

I tried to use my 6 months of high-school German lessons to apologise and make sure the guy was OK...knowing my luck, I probably accidentally told him that I have 5 cousins and 4 aunties, and that I enjoy potato salad with sausage and sauerkraut.

Which would explain the confused look he gave me as he beat a hasty retreat into the snowy mountains.

So, me and skiing - not a match made in heaven.  Me and beer, however - much better suited, as I discovered a couple of years later in college.

That's good, because Ellicottville has had its very own brewpub since 1995, appropriately named the Ellicottville Brewing Company.  They have two locations - one in Ellicottville, and another in Fredonia - and their brews have received international acclaim.  I'm excited to try out another Upstate brewery, and one which puts out award-winning product!  Some of their brews sound really interesting - for instance 'Pantius Droppus', an Imperial Pale Ale which apparently gained a priest's blessing at a summer festival...the mind boggles but I'm certainly intrigued.

So, I'm reviewing their Blueberry Wheat - fruit beer is always great for the summer, and I think American Wheat is often chosen for the base style because it's got a light body and gentle character which allows room for the fruit character to make itself known, and not clash with any strong malts or hops.

The brew pours a straw-like colour, with brilliant clarity and moderate carbonation - a discernible head but not too big.  This is just right for a wheat-based fruit beer.

As far as the aroma goes, the blueberry is quite strong and sweet, with a subtle wheat underneath.  It's not overpowering, and it's a sign of good things to come!

The beer has a good, distinctive blueberry taste - not artificial and not overly sweet, with a slight tartness which you'd associate with the fruit itself.  As you drink, a sweetness comes through and lingers in the aftertaste.  Hops are restrained and not overt in the taste - a good thing, as I'm not sure a distinct hop flavour would be a good complement for the blueberry.  A really pleasant, summery beer.

The mouthfeel was light in body, with moderate carbonation.  Refreshing and thirst-quenching - as a summery, fruit beer ought to be!

Overall, this is a really good fruit beer with great character - a cold six-pack of this would be a great addition to anyone's summer cookout, or an evening out on the porch with some friends.


Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 4/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 4.5/5

Overall - 4.25/5.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Custom Brewcrafters - Caged Alpha Monkey IPA

Ah, India Pale Ale.  A style beloved by so many beer enthusiasts, but also feared by others (i.e. Yours Truly).  Particularly in its American incarnations, it's intensely hopped, which gives it a really bitter taste.  Personally, I prefer brews which exhibit a good malt character and restrained hops, so whenever I try an IPA it's with a sense of adventure.  The two examples I've reviewed so far here (from Dundee and Southern Tier, respectively) have been pleasant surprises, with only moderate hops and a fresh, floral character; which led me to think maybe I'd judged the style too harshly based on a couple of bad experiences prior to starting Upstate Brews.

So I was pretty excited with today's bottle: Custom Brewcrafters' Caged Alpha Monkey.  I had a pint of this when it first came out in December 2010, and did enjoy it but couldn't do a full review.  My memory is that it had an intense hop character but it was of the fresh, floral variety rather than the aggressively bitter variety - and pretty enjoyable to an IPA-phobe like myself.  The recipe's been tweaked since then so I wasn't expecting a clone of the first batch.

The brew poured nicely with a respectable off-white head, decent clarity and a rich golden colour.

Aroma - an intense, resinous, piney hop aroma hit my nose.  There was some clean malt character detectable underneath.  It's a good example of American IPA...which is great, but gave me a slight sense of foreboding as it's precisely the strong, intensely-hopped examples which have turned me off the style.

Taste - Hops, hops and more hops - bitter and resiny, with some citrus character as well.  With this new batch, they seem to have majored on the bittering hops, which hasn't left much room for any finishing or dry hops to shine.  A slightly sweet aftertaste, which allows the clean malt character to show itself. 

Mouthfeel - a medium body, with low-moderate carbonation, overall pretty dry but as mentioned earlier the sweet malt is evident in the aftertaste.  At 6.5% it's a stronger IPA, and a slight alcohol warmth is noticeable.

Technically it's really good - but I just can't get past the fact that this kind of beer is the reason why I have problems drinking IPA.  So, here's my rating:

Appearance: 4/5
Aroma - 3.5/5
Taste - 2.5/5
Mouthfeel - 3/5

Overall - 3.5/5.  If you love IPA you'll probably love this - it's just a matter of personal taste.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Southern Tier Brewing Company - IPA

Wegmans is one of Upstate's great assets, and now there's another reason to love them: recently, they started offering 'Craft Your Own Pack'.  Inspired by a similar service available at Beers of the World, the idea is that you pick out 6 single bottles of craft beer and pay a flat rate of $9.99.  It's a bit more expensive than your average 6-pack, but it's worth it for the opportunity to try out different brews from across the region.

When I picked out my half-dozen last night, there weren't a ton of Upstate varieties to choose from; but there was a decent selection from Pennsylvania and New England.  I eventually found 6 NY beers that I haven't reviewed before, and I'm looking forward to sampling them all (purely for the blog, of course).  Here's the complete list:
  • Southern Tier - IPA
  • Southern Tier - Raspberry Wheat
  • Custom Brewcrafters - Caged Alpha Monkey IPA
  • Custom Brewcrafters - Double Dark Cream Porter
  • Ithaca Beer Co - Nut Brown Ale
  • Ellicott Brewing Co - Blueberry Wheat
So, a good range I think - a couple of summery fruit beers, a couple of IPAs (I'm trying to overcome my IPA-phobia, really) and some darker ales which will be a bit more complex and really interesting.  I'm starting today with the Southern Tier IPA.

After my first encounter with Southern Tier, I'm setting pretty high standards for these guys - Phin and Matt's was a great Pale Ale, and if their other brews are of the same quality I'll be very impressed.  Phin and Matt's was proudly brewed with 3 malt varieties and 3 hop varieties - the IPA declares itself to be brewed with 4 types of each, adding an extra layer of intricacy to the flavour profile.  The website description of the brew states that it's triple-hopped - I'm guessing this means it was dry-hopped during the fermentation.  That's a good thing - it means you get a fresher, cleaner hop taste, leaving the bitterness to mellow out in the undertones of the flavour profile.  Dry-hopping also means that the beer will be a bit less clear when it gets to the glass - again, this is nothing to be afraid of.  Here are my impressions:

Appearance - Pale amber in colour, with a respectable off-white head and evidence of low to moderate carbonation.  Pretty clear, although a slight haze is detectable. 

Aroma - Definite floral hops in the aroma, not aggressive or skunky however.  Malt evident as an undertone, hops dominate as they should for an IPA.  Some slight fruitiness detectable, but not sure whether from hops or fermentation by-products.

Taste - Hops are the dominant character, mainly the floral flavour detected in the aroma.  The malt flavour is clean, allowing the hoppiness to shine through.  Some hop bitterness in the aftertaste, but not overpowering.  A slight sulfuriness is detectable, which is a stylistic option according to the BJCP and not a fault.

Mouthfeel - a medium body with low-moderate carbonation (probably a bit low for the style).  Fairly dry in character.  The hoppy bitterness does produce a bit of astringency but it's not over the top.  This is a slight stylistic fault.

Appearance - 4/5
Aroma - 4/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 3.5/5

Overall: 3.875/5.  A good IPA which detracts ever so slightly from the BJCP guidelines in a couple of places.  I really enjoyed this brew because it's a milder example of the style where the hops are a bit more restrained than in some of the extreme versions.  Would definitely drink again.  Maybe I'm becoming an IPA drinker after all...