Beers of the Year 2010

updated May 5, 2010

The section way at the bottom of the page is very nice with pictures and all, but until I have time-- or get some help--it's too much.  But now that this website has some relevance again I'll try to post some of the best we've tasted recently "glitz-free" .  I'm trying a new approach-- we'll enter our favorite beers more or less as we find them and also beers that we think are interesting for one reason or another.  We normally don't bother to list beers we don't like (you might find them quite nice), but we are going to post a few unpleasant experiences in the chance it could save you some money.


Top Beers of 2010

We recently had a chance to try the 2009 vintage of Samichlaus Classic from Eggenberg, Austria.  Those of us old enough to remember when it came from Switzerland still debate whether it lost a step in the move, but there's no debate that the "classic" is a well deserved description.  Lots of brown and demerara sugar flavors emerge from this intensely malty brew, but there are enough hops to keep it from being unpleasantly sweet.  It's sort of a liqueur of a beer-- not as strong as a Drambuie, but with a similar sort of malt-sweet intensity.  Definitely a sipping beer in any circumstance, a 750 ml bottle virtually requires a social event for the tasting.  (Tasted 4 May 2010, purchased from Monster Beverage, Glasboro, New Jersey)

There was a time when you might just as well keep driving when you saw a Hops brewpub.  No more.  The central command has unleashed its brewers-- at least in part-- and some of the seasonals are worth a major detour.  The Oatmeal Stout from Hops in Alexandria is probably the best beer we've ever tasted from any link in the Hops chain.   It comes across as a blend of cream stout and oatmeal stout.  There's lots of dark malt flavor with notes of both coffee and ash.  The end is an improbable combination of cream and clean.  Just a bare hint of a lactic-like edge as it drinks gives it some extra complexity.  (Tasted 6 March 2010 at the Brewer's Ball).

When we visited Coronado Brewing Co. near San Diego a couple of years ago the beers were competently brewed but  we were disappointed that they really didn't have any "headliners."  They're bottling one now.  The Red Devil Imperial Red Ale features huge malt and hops.  The malts are exceptionally clean and matched by a long late bitter.  The combination of the chocolate malts, hops and booze gives a suggestion of chocolate mint in the aftertaste.  Ellie found the hops a bit syrupy, but I think they needed every pellet to balance the boatload of malt.  The unhelpful website calls this a porter.  Right.  The bottle is equally unhelpful on the ABV; websites range from 10.0 to 10.7 and its hard to tell whether any of them know for sure.  What I do know for sure is that I was glad we weren't driving after trying our 22 ounce bottle of it. (tasted 19 Feb 2010, purchased at Chevy Chase Wines)

We visited Bluegrass Brewing Company in 1994 and while the beers were hit and miss, the best of them were very respectable.  Our impression since is that they're a bit less hit and miss and the best of them are truly exceptional.  One of the exceptional ones is Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout.  It's actually pretty hard to make a bad bourbon stout -- the wood, vanilla, alcohol, and malt flavors will cover almost any mistake-- but it's not easy to herd all those huge flavors into a superior sipping beer.  Bluegrass has.  Big bourbon-vanilla flavors ride over the alcohol and all of it rests on big dark malts.  An increasingly creamy taste as it drinks is more satisfying than cloying.  Nice winter beer (Tasted 30 Jan 2010, purchased at Norms)

The Brickskeller tastings always have some great beer and the one on Feb 2 was no exception.  We were especially impressed with the Kollaborator Doppelbock brewed at Devils Backbone.  A beautiful deep ruddy garnet with herbal notes in the dark malts.  Softly complex deep dark roasts show toast as well as roast flavor.  Richly malty but with exceptional balance in a style that rarely achieves it.  If you haven't been to Devils Backbone, head on down the the Brewridge trail and pay them a visit when the snow melts a bit.  Tons of beers and beautiful scenery.  (tasted 2 Feb 10)

A scenic drive up the Susquehanna River valley in Pennsylvania will lead you to Selinsgrove and the Selin's Grove brewery.  It almost has the feel of a 19th century tavern and there are always new beers to try.  We found two beers on a recent trip that were particularly good.  The Organic Shade Mountain Oatmeal Stout is one of the few beers I can remember whose organic version may be tastier than the non-organic original.  It's creamy and silky, with flavors of cocoa powder and other chocolates from the malt.  Even more striking was the 2009 St. Fillian Wee Heavy that we were lucky enough to encounter on cask.  A twelve percent head-knocker, it features an extraordinary play between big and complex dark malts and effective balancing hops with just enough of an ale fruitiness in the finish to add to the complexity.  Ellie commented "tastes like raisin bread and Nutella, only better."  We came very close to changing our plans and booking a local hotel-- they won't sell growlers of the cask.  (tasted 15 Jan 10)

The same trip took us to Brewworks Brewpubs in Allentown  and Bethlehem.  Most of the beers are brewed at the location that serves them, but occasionally they trade a few kegs back and forth.  We found Bethlemem Brewwork's Elongator Doppelbock on tap in Allentown and it made our evening.  A rich deep smooth malt evidenced a long and effective conditioning period and some orangey hops in the finish made it a distinctive example of the style.  The alcohol is evident, but not overwhelming.  Herbal and fruity notes add to its considerable complexity.   Allentown's Hop'solutely, an 11.5% Triple IPA, pairs an enormous Cascade and Amarillo punch with creamy huge body. Not for the fainthearted.  (tasted 16 Jan 10)

Laughing Dog beers come all the way from Ponderay Idaho to show up in beer stores in the Mid Atlantic and that can be risky.  A bottle of their CSB Special Bitter showed infection, but who knows how long and where it sat while it was going off.  But some of the Laughing Dogs are well worth the trip.  The Dogfather Imperial Stout is one of the winners.  Seven malts and four hops provide rich thick roasts and lots of broad leafy hops gain in complexity as it drinks.  While the first sip is tasty, there's a wonderful journey of roastiness into and beyond the finish.  Coffee, then chocolates then cappuccino play before chocolate and hops take over the first row in the aftertaste.  Rich body, creamy mouthfeel, very dark.  The website (click here) understates the attraction of the hops as well as the hugeness of the body, but at least provides the ABV missing from the label-- 11%.  A short-time seasonal and worth an effort to find.  (tasted 2 Jan 2010)

Clipper City Winter Storm Imperial ESB.  Starts with a big rich maltiness and then "KERSLAM!, Batman", huge hops in the finish provide a roclicking balanced ride to a nice aftertaste that even shows a bit of ale fruitiness.  Nice copper color with a sweet and herbal aroma.  At 7.5 abv it's huge for an ESB, but bordering on a session beer in the Imperial mindset.  (tasted 5 Jan 10)

Mikkeller are contract brewers that make us look like glaciers by comparison with an array of beers from a range of breweries.  The label didn't clearly tell where they brewed their Santa's Little Helper 2009, but whoever brewed it did a great job.  Chewy; notes of wild flowers early almost suggest dandelions, but the cocoa (real cocoa) smoothes the beer and makes room for some roasted malt as it drinks.  Ellie thought the alcohol was a bit too evident, but I'd take a chance on getting stuck in the chimney to get to another bottle of it. (Tasted 12 Jan 10)

Of Note 2010

Coastal Brewing/ Old Dominion Hop Mountain.  A friend of mine and I saw this on the shelf at Norms and had the same instantaneous thought -- "UmmmHmm-- they've got <the> recipe sitting around after all."  But it isn't Tuppers'.  Coastal really didn't want to do a Hop Pocket when it had our name on it and they don't want to it now, which is just fine with both of us, I suspect.  But this beer isn't bad.  An affordable American Pale Ale with a good hoppy aroma and some grapefruit and clean caramel malt in the finish.  A bit tart in the end, perhaps, but I'd be pleasantly surprised to find a beer this good in a ball park.  (tasted 1 Jan 10).

Skip these 2010  (unless you're as crazy as we are to run up your numbers)

Baltika Arsenalnoye-- The  container, a great big clear plastic bottle, should have been warning enough, but Ellie and I just don't pass up beers we haven't tasted.  It could have been a surprise after all.  It wasn't.  Sweet honey and caramel flavors and almost certainly sugared.  Ptui.

Brasseurs Illimites Simple Malt Altbier.  It may or may not be infected, but it's unpleasantly sharp, especially for any sort of alt.  We assume it's trying to be a sticke, but you're better waiting for a chance to go to Dusselforf.  The IPA from the same brewery is somewhat better, but there are so many really good IPAs on the market...  (tasted 1 Jan 10)

Cambier importers have brought us some very fine beers, and they're local.  But they've missed the mark with Brasseurs de la Maurise Saine Source Scotch Ale.  It reaches the high end of Wee Heavy strength at 9%, but it's as edgy as a wild Belgian ale.  A soft early roast and a late chocolate malt can't overcome what tastes like a not-very-successful "Scottish Farmhouse."




owww!  --these are sooo old:

Week of November 8, 2008:   A trio of November winners:



Week of June 26- July 3:   California Dreamin' 

 Thanks to Southwest and Hilton, which make it pretty easy to earn a free flight (and get free advertising on this page in so doing), we had a chance to flay virtually free to California and grabbed it.  Forty or so beers into the trip we've had some moments to remember.

   Near San Jose, Sunnyvale has two brewpubs.  Faultline is huge with good food, but caters almost exclusively to the office crowd.  It's the only brewpub I've ever seen that closed on weekends only.  At the FireHouse we were greeted by brewer Steve Donohue as if we were long lost friends.  Happily, his beers allowed us to be gracious and honest at the same time.  Steve has had enough experience to rest on his laurels, but he tends to be his own worst critic-- his beers, already very good, are only going to get better.  He managed to pull off a rye IPA that we both simply loved.  We're hop heads, but there are beers that don't do well with big hop rates and rye ales are usually in that group.  Steve managed the balancing act beautifully.

Up in the redwoods above Palo Alto in the tiny town of Woodside sits Alice's Restaurant.  We're not sure if you can get anything you want there, but you will want anything they get you.  All the web pictures show bikers in profusion, but the crowd was pretty yuppie-ish when we were there for a mid week lunch. They serve as a sort of unofficial tap for the Devil's Canyon Brewery in Belmont and have 5 to 6 of DCB's beers, all quite competently brewed.  The setting is woodsy and beautiful.  You'll realize on the way up why you need to drink moderately enough to drive down with care.

Further up the peninsula towards San Francisco, the Half Moon Brewing company overlooks the bay and serves good seafood and a bevy of house brewed beers that range widely in style and quality.  The food is good and the view is remarkable.  Stagger back to the newly opened Oceana Hotel and Spa two doors away with all rooms facing the bay.  If you stay, plan to eat a meal at the nearby Ketch Joanne for wonderfully fresh seafood at a good price. 

East of San Francisco, Stockton is home to Valley Brewing, a sort of neighborhoody local.  Ellie and I disagreed on several of the beers, but we did agree that the brewer was interesting to the point of courageous.  Order the Mango and you deserve what you get, but the Indian Red Ale and Stout were first rate.  Most interesting was a "Czech" pils brewed with a blend of west coast American hops.  We're going to be seeing more beers of necessity in the future as brewers use what they can find instead of finding what they want.  Not sure if this stems from the hop shortage, but whatever possessed him to do it was a fine and useful spirit.  Interesting and hoppy without being overbearing, it was a beer I set aside to finish on and was glad I had even after the stout (and, umm, the mango).


Week of May 16-May 23

   Savor, a food and beer extravaganza, brought 48 wonderful craft breweries to DC and paired their offerings with some very well chosen appetizer sized foods.  it wasn't cheap, but even with the $85 a head price, they sold out all three sessions.  Next year will sell out faster.  We spent two nights of wonderful socializing, and still found time to try a dozen and a half or so new beers between the friends and food pairings.  The kolsch (sic) from Heiner Brau was our big surprise-- Koelsch beers are very hard to brew and almost no one really hits the spirit of the Cologne originals quite right.  Heiner does.  It's a tad sugary, but more important than the actual flavor components is a hard-to-describe ethereal lightness that nearly all the true Koelsches have and Heiner gets it.  Another surprise was Florida Beer Co.'s Southernmost Wheat.  We expected the key lime to be a typical gimmick, but it really worked with the wheat and the resulting beer was refreshing in the same way a Belgian Wit is refreshing.   The St. Louis Brewery -- the one from St. Louis not Belgium-- brought a pair of vintage powerhouses.  The bourbon barrel aged imperial stout (2006) managed to keep the wood under control and allowed rich deep malt and complex fruit flavors to take center stage.  But the wood was there, as it was in Schlafly Reserve 2006 was one of the most successful blendings of malt, hops, and oak we've ever tasted.  Foothills' Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout offered astonishingly well interwoven dark roast and chocolate flavors.  Pelican Pub, which almost never hits an off note, scored another winner with its Brun belgian-style ale.  Port Brewing's Veritas 003 is a lambic with an attitude-- Tomme Arthur probably wouldn't have been able to sell a gallon of it 20 years ago, but people were raving about it all night.  With good reason.  An adventure in controlled spoilage, it's a grown-up's delight of sour, dry, roast and fruit flavors.  The best of American brewers, and Tomme most certainly is one, now more than hold their own with the very best of the Belgian specialty brewers.  Someone who is even a bit older than we are was commenting about what a great time it is to be alive if you love good beer.  There may have been times when there were as many good beers brewed, though I seriously doubt it, but there has never been a time when a serious beer drinker could so easily get to so many of them.

Week of May 7- May 15

     What a week!  Double Lupolin Reuniolins and Sierra Nevada at the Brickskeller leading up to Savor (see above).  Almost 20 incredibly good beers in those two events.   Narrowing the field is tough, but at the top of our list was Tomme Arthur's Port Brewing 2nd Anniversary Beer.  A full bodied rich deep brew in which a deep rich malt base is somehow overshadowed by even bigger hops  Pineapple and grapefruit flavors lead, but there's much more to it.  Avery's Samael's Oak Aged Ale (2008) featured a rich liqueur-ish vanilla-whiskey, but with plenty of malt and hops to make it nicely complex.  Sierra Nevada's beers seemed almost conventional by comparison, but what wonderful convention they are.  The most interesting was a Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale-- not a wet hop beer, but a nicely balanced hoppy ale featuring the first harvest of New Zeeland hops that SN brought in specially for this ale.  Our top score of the night went to 2008 Bigfoot (no surprise) which still defines an American Barley Wine in our book.  If you can find SN's brown ale try it even if you don't usually like Brown Ales.  It's hoppy for the style

Week of April 9- April 15

        Sometimes life interferes with tasting.  Parents weekend, contra music, baseball and, oh yes, the day jobs have limited our "research" lately. We did get a chance to be at Gordon Biersch in Rockville for the introduction of this year's Maibock.  It's very malty, but avoids being cloyingly sweet.  Uncomplicated, but balanced, the malt showed a bit of the gumdrop note that can show up in a German pils, but fairly subtly, considering how much more malt goes into this strong lager.  I had to switch to the Czech Lager for my second beer because it's simply one of my favorite beers in the world right now, but Ellie stayed with the Maibock, and that says volumes about its drinkability.  The last time I went out to dinner I spent most of the time softly grumping about the Pilsner Urquell I was drinking.  I don't see why the Czechs can't do as well as the Rockville Gordon Biersch.  OK, I've had P.U. in Prague and it is better when it's fresher.  Still.....

Week of April 1- April 8

There are a few advantages to getting old. With the kid(s) gone you can save a few bucks and do something crazy once in a while.  We flew to Providence last Friday and took a train back.  On Saturday we made a run to Julio's in Westborough, Mass. and, as always, scored enough bottles to keep us busy for a month.  Getting the on the train was a neat trick, but at least we didn't have to worry about flight regulations.

Providence has two brewpubs.  Union Station, located in an old railroad station about a half a mile from the much less romantic Amtrak station is a John Harvard operation, but with an atmosphere all of its own.  Trinity Brewhouse, located in a former Burger King, is funky and eclectic.  Almost everyone we met in Providence (and we met many; the people of Providence are wonderfully friendly) was an ardent supporter of one of the two and thought the other wasn't even close to as good.  Nice rivalry, and both places seemed to be doing well.  The brewers, ironically, get along just fine and you can taste some shared approaches (especially to styles and yeasts) in their beers.  We found the beers on the sweet side, but the evening at the two breweries was a joy. 

We detoured through Plymouth and had some fresh seafood overlooking the harbor with the state's newest beer, the appropriately named Mayflower Pale Ale.  A competent product from a brand new brewery, it tasted all the better since we could just about see Plymouth Rock as we drank it.  (The rock itself is undercover as renovations continue on the monument that contains it.

Our top beer of the week was one we bought earlier in Pennsylvania.  McKenzie Brew House's Biere d'Hiver, a Biere de Garde. Candy sugars, honey and spices are very suble, as indeed is everything else about the beer.  But it's all in a beautiful balance that unfolds as it drinks into complex wonderfully sippable beer.

Week of March 26 - April 1

We snatched up the trio of "Ola Dubh" beers from Harviestoun in Scotland.  Each version of this dark strong Scottish ale is aged in a different vintage of Highland Park barrels.  The 12, 16 and 30 year old references are to the scotch in the barrel, not the beer.  They are magnificent.  I suppose they appeal to the beer snob in me, and I did like the 30 year old best, but I'm sure I would love these in a blind tasting.  The whiskey flavors are reasonably subtle in the younger versions, but explode in the 30 year old.  It suggested some kind of mix of Drambuie and Russian Imperial Stout.  I'm thinking of starting to play the lottery to get the money for more of it.

Samuel Adams' Longshots this year are a Weizen Bock and a Grape Pale Ale.  We sincerely applaud SA's willingness to put out beers that are somewhat off the wall.  They come in a mixed six, but you might want to try a single before investing in a six-pack.  We have a couple extra if you'd like ours.

Victory's Baltic Thunder is roasty, fruity, complexly tannic with, I think, some echoes of  a lactic edge before some hops at the end.  I'm not sure how true to the style it is; from my perspective it may be a bit too clean and straightforward.  Or it may just be the best example of the style I've ever had.  Whatever-- it's yummy beer.


Week of March 19 - March 26

Rock Bottom pubs brew a "Fire Chief" Ale and donate a portion of the profits.  They only tell their brewers to brew a red ale, so the Fire Chief varies a good deal from one location to another.  Bethesda Brewer Geoff Lively tells us that the Alexandria locations version is intensely hoppy (we'll be trying to get there before it runs out) and the version we tried at King of Prussia was a nice British style Pale Ale.  Geoff's spin is a German Alt-- clean and straightforward with a slightly tangy hop balance; we were back for more last week.

We keep finding excuses to visit our daughter at Swarthmore and not just so we can try beers along the way.  But we do happen to find some pretty unusual routes between Philly and DC.  Our last one took us though Lancaster.  In addition to  Lancaster Brewing's homey brewpub, Iron Hill has a spiffy new establishment.  Their best beers are stouts-- a superb Irish Dry and an equally excellent Russian Imperial Stout.  The Russian is a wonderfully rich sipping beer featuring deep chocolates and hops that add complexity as well as balance.  The historic Bube's brewery, returned to brewing a few years ago, is producing a wider range of better beers than ever with new brewers and is well worth the visit.  Another first rate Irish Stout topped our list: stronger and richer than draft Guinness, it was creamy and dark with a finishing hints of chocolates and coffee. 

Dock Street's current incarnation is near the university in Philadelphia.  A funky wood oven pizza place, it reminded us of Chicago's "Piece", though there were more students and fewer families.  A nice range of beers with no misses made for a fine evening.  the most interesting was an 6.8% Old Ale with 15 herbs that worked surprisingly well.  Complex herb and cherry notes with a dry finish made it easy to keep sipping it. 

The Iron Hills (I think there are 9 now) all brew distinctive beers and are increasing the number of seasonals offered.  Iron Hill's West Chester had a paid of eye-poppers.  A 9.8% golden barleywine showed off intense grapefruit and pineapple hoppiness but a huge pale malt base made it a fun ride.  The 9.5% Quadfather Belgian had a nicely complex range of sugars, fruits and malts with some rescuing hops.  A Belgian yeast gave it a slightly funky character.

Down the road a ways, McKenzie Brew House is still turning out exceptional beers with a relatively new brewer.  The E.I.P.A. (English IPA) is worth the trip.  Malty, hoppy, and tangy, it's much more aggressive than most current British IPA's, but softer than West Coast American versions.  It was one of my favorite beers of the year.

If you're thinking of a Pa. beer tour, or any other for that matter, check out http://beermapping.com/ for locations and directions.

Week of March 12 - March 18

The Iron Hill Brewery in Media, Pennsylvania has what they refer to as a record number of seasonals on tap-- at least 5.  They're always good beers and often adventurous.  Ellie thought their Bourbon Porter was over the top, but I thought it was a rollicking Rollo-ride of chocolates and cream flavors.  (Remember the Rollo candies?)  It starts with an almost shocking blast of bourbon-- must have been first use of the cask.  We both loved this year's version of their Abbey Dubbel.  Slightly scaled back to 7.3%, it has rich complex dark flavors that suggest burnt sugars and burnt figs.  A rich, fruity and woody aroma foreshadows the play between a restrained but distinctive Belgian yeastiness and complex malts.  Yum.

But you don't have to go to Pennsylvania to find great brewpub beer.  With Tuppers' Pils off the market for a while, we've been searching for a first rate fresh lager to fill the void.  Gordon Biersch's Czech Lager is doing a fine job.  It's a different style than ours-- Czech, rather than the more hoppy German interpretation--but it's wonderfully straightforward and bracingly quenching.  Very clean malt flavors with just a hint of breadiness that echoes a good Helles play nicely with just enough hops to maintain balance as it drinks.  Magnificent sustained hop crispness as it drinks.  We've become semi-regulars at the Rockville outlet that's closest to where we live.

Our friend Greg Kitsock brought us our top bottle of the week-- Green Lakes Organic Ale from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon.   Mellow toasty sweet malt takes center stage, but there are enough hops to balance well and make it easy to return to.  It's not easy to make a superior organic beer.  Brewers are limited in both malts and hops and often have a hard time avoiding an earthy edginess.  The complexity of the malt in this amber ale is, therefore, exceptional.  It would be a fine beer were even if it were not organic.  At 5.2% abv. it's pretty close to a session beer, especially for Oregonians. 

Week of March 4 - March 11

Our disagreements of the week again consisted or whether we thought a beer was a good beer or a great beer.  I thought Great Divide's Old Ruffian Barley Wine, a 10.5% head banger currently (as of march 11) on tap at the Brickskeller was wonderful, but "good" was as far as Ellie would go.  A creamy malt with echoes of Ovaltine stands out among complex flavors of gentle fruit and plenty of hops.  Ellie found it too hot for her taste and thought the hops were a bit over the top.  Ellie loved the Ginger Kyte from Williams Brothers brewery in Alloa, Scotland, praising the fresh ginger flavor and tart astringency in this truly unique offering.  It was too hot for my taste, but from the ginger not the alcohol-- at 1% abv., only US regulations would call it anything other than a soft drink.

But we had few little disagreement about Bell's Hopslam 2008.  Big sweet creamy hops show a hint of oil, but only slowly develop pineapple flavors; a slightly caramel clean malt provides a nice foundation.  It's enormously hoppy, of course, but it retains it's complexity as it drinks.  It was on tap upstairs at the Brickskeller as of Tuesday March 11, but the Brick's selections turn over quickly. 

Week of February 26- March 3

We spent last Saturday night at the Brewers' Ball, a benefit for cystic fibrosis.  It's a fun event with most of the local breweries represented.  The beers below were a few of the ones we were able to sample.

Ellie and I joke that the only thing we every fight about are the ratings we give to beer.  Except it's fundamentally no joke.  We disagreed sharply over Shenandoah's Old Rag Mountain Ale aged in a bourbon barrel and Rock Bottom (Arlington) El Hefe Hefeeizen.  It's important to say at the outset we both enjoyed both beers, but only one of us found each truly exceptional.  Ellie likes brown ales more than I do, so it wasn't a big surprise that she went for the Old Rag enthusiastically.  "Smooth dark creamy malt with bourbon."  I thought it was nicely roasty with well-controlled wood flavors, but perhaps a bit understated.  Ellie used to consistently rate  Hefeweizens higher than I did, but that's starting to change.  She liked the El Hefe fine, but I thought it was exceptional-- lemoney wheat and a gentle clove spice that made for a wonderfully refreshing drink. 

We had no argument over Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron.  Aged in purpose-built vats of Paraguayan Palo Santo wood, this beer will be more easily available in the future than it is now.  It's a rich, thick 12% abv powerhouse, full of dark roasts with hints of fruit and hops in the finish.  Underneath it all is a soft vanilla well-blended wood.  Ellie called it "smooth and unctuous"-- no argument there either.

Other well above average beers we found at Julio's in Westborough, Mass.

Week of February 19-26:

It's taken us forever to get to Bill Madden's Vintage 50 brewpub in Leesburg.  Our bad.  We spent an evening in the lounge and enjoyed it hugely.  (There's a Hampton Inn about 5 minutes away.)  Bill is a great brewer and there's a great range.  No surprise, the pale ale topped our list-- all the more fun since we could compare draft and cask versions.  I loved the cask; Ellie preferred the hop profile of the draft.    Happy hour prices are embarrassingly low and Monday features cheap but really delicious burgers.

Somehow we had missed trying St. Feuillien's Tripel, from Le Roeulx, Belgium.  An 8.5% kneeknocker, it's a classic example of one of my favorite Belgian styles (see below). Full but pale malt, metallic dry and sugary with hops to keep it on the track.  Complex fruit finish.  Maybe a little edgy late, but pretty close to a definitive version of the style.  Pour it with a huge head to knock out the CO2 bitterness.

We found a bottle of Olde Richmond No.4 (Brown Ale) at Greenwood Gourmet near Crozier, west of Charlottesville.  I'm usually not overly fond of brown ales, but this one had a lovely chocolatey quality to the malt that just plain tasted good.  Ellie liked its smoothness and creaminess.  I'm not sure it would win on style points, but that's why we don't hand out medals when we're drinking for pleasure.  This is one very pleasurable beer.

Also better than average:

Week of February 11-18:

    We brought back some magnificent Italian large bottles from Julio's in Westborough, Mass. (a bit west of Boston) and are savoring them one (maybe two) a night.  One of the best this week was Fleurette Gioia di Vivere spiced ale from Lurago Marinone, Italy.  Floral, creamy and complex and imaginative.

    We picked up the current year's Samichlaus at Whole Foods in Vienna.  It may be better than it was back when it was produced in Switzerland.  Ellie preferred the light, I liked the dark.  Both are just plain clean strong,  ummm, very strong, beers.

    We visited the annual Blue-Gray Breweriana show this weekend.  What a blast!  So much more than cans and labels-- including a non-stop hospitality room with rotating craft beers.  Bunches of brewers attend.  Many good beers, but the star was a bottle of Ballantine Burton Ale.   We'd had it once or twice before, but it continues to dazzle.  Brewed in 1946, (it's older than I am!!) aged in wood, and bottled in 1963, it was amazingly drinkable.  It wasn't hard to see the richness of that special brew.  Rich sherry tones (the good part of oxidation) and woody flovors dominated, but the malt was still there.  Thanks, Jeff, for sharing that one!

    If you haven't been to the Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Va., about a half hour west of Charlottesville, you need to take a Saturday -- or a weekend -- and go.  Excellent beers include an Irish Stout that we thought was more drinkable and tasty than Guinness, a fine American pale ale, and a wonderfully subtle Belgian Dubbel. A limited menu features local products.  Don't expect quick service if it's crowded, but it's worth the wait.   Cally's (formerly Calhoun's) and Star Hill are close.


Weeks and Weeks ago: A Trio of Tripels

Even longer ago: Iron Hill Brewing (see below)


A Trio of Tripels


            The explosive growth in the popularity of Belgian and Belgian-style beers in the United States has meant that beer lovers can find a range of Tripel-style ales in almost every area of the country. 

            Traditionally, tripel ales are associated with Belgian monastery breweries.  “Traditional,” however is something of a misnomer.  Despite the implications of some “abbey” labels, no Belgian monastery has brewed continuously since the Middle Ages.  The authentically monastic breweries are all relatively new 20th century creations.  Some claim to be using old recipes, but even in the unlikely event they are, differences in malting techniques and new yeast strains means the beer we’re drinking is probably not much like anything that was brewed 200 years ago.  That said, by the 1980’s a reasonably reliable style had emerged.  Often the brewery’s strongest offering, these triples have been light in color and nicely dry despite their strength. There is often at least a hint of metal dryness, sometimes a result of the candy sugar used to boost the alcohol content.   We refer to them as “traditional”.

Increasingly, brewpubs in the United States are brewing more or less in the Tripel style.  We’ve found many of these beers to be maltier and heavier than the Tripels we first encountered 20 or 30 years ago.  They usually are darker as well, more of an orange gold than the very pale gold of “traditional” triples.  Ellie tends to like this new style more than I do;  my near limitless capacity for dryness leads me to favor the older-type versions.  With a style this new, though, there’s no “right” way to brew it.  Get a few triples and make your own judgment.

            Tripels made good aperitif beers and go well with most seafood.  Ellie likes the way they stay clean with a cream sauce.


We recently sampled three tripels side by side.  Nice evening, of course.



Iron Hill Tripel is one of the bottle conditioned beers from the Wilmington Iron Hill.  We’d put it in the “new” style.  Its color is a rich gold—almost a dark peach color—and its fruity aroma suggests apples.  The taste is fruity for the style, and it’s heavier than many.  We’d be surprised to find it at a monastery, but it’s a tasty beer.  Apples and pear notes are most evident, but there’s a suggestion of green grapes underneath.  A touch of spiciness in the finish shows off the yeast.  Ellie found it a bit “hot,” but I thought it managed the 9% ABV punch pretty well.  We had it with a fairly mild pork goulash (no fish in the house that night) and were pleased with the way it matched up.


About a year ago, I put a few bottles in a cooler and left them on the back porch, figuring the cooler would keep them from freezing.  It was the back corner of the porch, and, of course, I forgot all about them until I went to do the same thing again this year.  It turned out to be a nice experiment in the ability of some beers to survive serious mistreatment.  One of them was a gift from my brother, Tom-- a Pater Leiven Tripel from Van Den Bossche Brewery in Herzele, Belgium.  It was in remarkably good shape—a slightly leaky cork caused a bit of mustiness in the aroma, but otherwise the beer was wonderful.   It was gold with a hint of orange marmalade color-- we’d place it in between the light Belgian tripels and the darker American style.  More floral than anything else, it’s quite distinctive.  A clean dry finish shows off its traditional roots.  In retrospect, I'm sorry we didn’t have a fresh bottle to compare it to; it may have improved with the aging.

Allagash’s Tripel Batch 59 is as good an example of the “traditional” style as I know of in the United States.  Allagash, of course, has made its reputation by making stellar Belgian style beers ever since brewer Rob Tod opened it in 1995.  The tripel may be the hardest style to do well.

Ellie and I disagreed a bit about it.  She found some tartness that I did not and it was a bit “hot” for her.  She still rated it highly, praising the smooth sugars in the finish.  I think Rob has nailed the style.  There’s some rich malt and fruitiness in the opening tastes, but it dries beautifully to a yeasty and hoppy aftertaste.  A touch of metallic dryness is typical of the style and may be as much from the alcohol here as either malt or hop.  Slightly herbal as it drinks, it marries fruit and floral flavors well and an overall mellowness keeps any of the flavors from getting out of hand.  Ellie would truly enjoy sitting in front of a blazing fire in Maine and sipping this beer; I’d walk barefoot through a Maine snowdrift for another bottle.


Last week's Beer of the Week:


Iron Hill North Wales

Iron Hill North Wales Brewhouse

Like all Iron Hill Breweries, the Brewpub in North Wales, just outside Philadelphia, is a great place to get good honest beer and fine brewpub food.    Like other Iron Hill breweries, it also offers some very special beers in bottles, many of them vintage dated.     For the most part, these beers are brewed and bottled in the Wilmington facility and made available for purchase throughout the system. 

We recently tasted the 2004 and 2005 Old Ale and an authentic tasting Bamberger style Rauchbier.


Beer Notes:

Old Ale Holiday Vintage 2004:  Ruddy dark amber color with a winey, slightly nutty malt aroma.  Dark fruits emerge early and stay late, slowly moving from vinous flavors to a slightly burned dried fruit.  There's just a kiss of hop balance late, but what hops were there two years ago have mostly stepped aside in favor of the deep fruity complexity.  Some soft prune flavors and a hint of dates as it drinks.  Beer geeks always talk about the necessity of drinking beers warmer than refrigerator temperatures, but this is one that absolutely must be tasted at 55 degrees or warmer, and it does well with some time to breath.  The hint of oxidation subsides nicely and the fruit just gets softer and richer.


Old Ale Holiday Vintage 2005:  Like the 2004, there's plenty of fruit in this big golden garnet beer.  There's still some prune notes, but more raisons and grapes to go along.  Starts with complex dry fruits and some sweet hops have survived as well.  Creamy mouthfeel with just a very slight suggestion of an orange Ne-Hi sweeter fruit in the finish.  Gets creamier as it warms with some vanilla notes that emerge and just add to the smoothness.

     This may be the best Rauchbier brewed in the United States.  Ellie and I represented the Brickskeller in the late 1980's and went to Bamberg to choose a beer to import.  We went there expecting to court the brewers at Spezial, which at the time was our favorite rauchbier.  It wasn't until we had a second liter of the Heller Brewery's Schlenkerla that we changed our target.  The Brickskeller's import company began bringing Schlenkerla in shortly afterwards and we featured it in many of our tastings and classes in the 1990's.  The problem with using it in a tasting, though, is that a small portion seems unbalanced.  About all you taste at first is the smoke.  As it drinks, however, the palate becomes accustomed to the smoke and a rich clean balance ensues. 

    We had never tasted that kind of balance in a rauchbier in the United States until last week.  The Iron Hill version is beautifully malty, smoky, and clean and establishes a Bamberger balance as it drinks.  There was just a hint of fruitiness underneath that isn't common in Bamberger biers and Ellie thought it had a bit more of a "Slim Jim" smokiness to it, as opposed to Schlenkerla's smoked meat.   Those were essentially differences of preference, though, not quality.   An excellent companion to hearty foods, it also serves surprisingly well as a session beer (1.52 OG).  Expect to pay for quality; the $16.50 price is a long way from cheap, but then we're a long way from Bamberg.

            Next Week-- (maybe something new)