Friday, September 28, 2007

NY Times Maine Beer Trip

The NY Times published a nice light article in their travel section detailing a quick 2-3 day beer trip up Maine's coast to Bar Harbor. It reads like it's written by someone who enjoys good beer but doesn't spend enormous amounts of time thinking about it. In other words, not a beer-geek. He starts in Portland touring D.L. Geary, Allagash, and Shipyard and drinking at Great Lost Bear, Gritty's, and Three Dollar Dewey's. After Portland, he drives up to Sheepscott Valley Brewing Co. and Andrew's Brewing Co. on his way to Bar Harbor. These two are new to me, but sound fairly interesting. In Bar Harbor, he hits Bar Harbor Brewing Company and Atlantic Brewing Company.

Based on our trip to Portland and Freeport in May, I'm sure this trip was both beautiful and very fun. I haven't been to Bar Harbor since I was a kid and Mandy's never been, so maybe it's about time to go. If we do, I imagine our trip will be very similar.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cambridge Brewing Company

After a beautiful drive along the Charles through Cambridge, the taxi dropped us off at 1 Kendall Sq., at MIT's backdoor. The entrance to Cambridge Brewing Company was immediately spotted across the square, nestled snug into a corner with an Irish-themed pub on one side and an unattached building on the other. The design of this place is very deceiving because standing in the middle of the square it's almost impossible to realize that CBC is an actual full-size brewpub. It has the outward appearance of a tiny cafe.

As you walk through the entrance sign, you encounter a host station to put your name in for a table. Since it was 3PM on a lazy Saturday, we could have sat anywhere we wanted. You can enter the restaurant proper, or stay to the right in their beautiful outdoor seating area. The tables are roughly divided equally between fully exposed to the elements and under a large overhanging tarp to provide some protection from rain. We chose to sit outside and enjoyed just hanging out and taking our time. Our server was very attentive and more than willing to let us take our time. She was also very honest when we asked about some of the appetizer specials.

The beer was fantastic. They had 4 regular offerings (Golden, Amber, Pale Ale, and Porter) along with 3 seasonals (Pumpkin, Arquebus (a "summer barleywine"), and The Wind Cried Mari (a heather ale)).

The highlight was the Pumpkin, which everyone loved. We all agreed it would be very easy to drink a lot of it. The heather ale was a very interesting beer that we all enjoyed because it was so different from anything we've had before. The hints of lavendar really stuck out. The Arquebus was very interesting, but a little sweet and tart for my tastes. It was overloaded with ripe fruit tastes and I wouldn't have wanted more than the sampler I had. I can definitely see why it gets good reviews on beeradvocate though, barleywines just aren't really my thing. The Golden was a very well made beer in the K├Âlsch-style with a lighter taste profile (obviously). Very balanced with no off-tastes. The Amber had wonderful body and was not overly sweet. A touch of hop flavor in the finish. The Pale Ale was bursting with citrus fruitiness in both the taste and aroma. Very balanced with its bitterness...a great beer. The beers were so good I wanted to buy growlers, but unfortunately we were going directly to the beerfest. We'll just have to go back.

As for the food, we tried 3 of the appetizers. The two chicken dishes (terryaki skewers and buffalo chicken quesadillas) were both very dry. The third was some type of tostada salad, which was very good. I'm willing to give them a pass on the food this time because it was a rather strange time to visit. That's not really a good excuse, but I liked their beer so much I'll be generous. Plus, their real menu looks fairly interesting. I guess the worst case scenario is that you go for the beer, which isn't really a worst case in my book.

I liked sitting outside at CBC enjoying their beer so much that when it came time to leave, part of me wanted to skip the beerfest and stay. Ultimately I'm glad we didn't...I'll just have to get back here again soon.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Beer Fest!

We’re back and fully recovered from our trip to Boston for the German Beer Fest.

The four of us (my BIL Adam, his gf Kelly plus me and Mandy) left around 12:30 pm on Saturday after dropping the dogs off at the vet (kennel) and running a few errands. We arrived at the Doubletree Suites just across the river from Cambridge on Soldiers Field Rd. around 2:30. For those of you who have never used Priceline, I highly recommend it. We got two spacious suites on the 14th floor of a beautiful hotel for $80. In Boston. The room had two TVs, including a hi-def plasma and the bedroom looked out over a beautiful view of the Charles and then downtown Boston.

The only downside was that it wasn’t near a T-stop and the shuttle ran too intermittently for us. We had to take a taxi to cross the river to Harvard Sq., though I guess $8 per ride split between 4 people isn’t really any more expensive than the T.

After checking in and enjoying the room for a few minutes, we loaded into a taxi who drove us on a beautifully scenic drive down the Charles and around through MIT to our destination…the Cambridge Brewing Company at 1 Kendall Sq.

I won’t say much about it here because I plan to make a separate post, but it was my first visit and I loved it. Its reputation is well deserved.

After killing some time sampling CBC’s beer and eating some light appetizers, we started walking towards the T-stop. We wanted to burn off some of the alcohol we just consumed and find a place to get some coffee to help combat some of the sleepiness that was starting to encroach. Unfortunately, what looks to be a local coffee shop right next to CBC was closed. It always amazes me how coffee shops can stay in business and be closed on the weekends. You’d think there would be plenty of MIT students looking for a place to maintain their caffeine high while studying on the weekends. Eventually we made our way to the Kendall Square T-stop and found an Au Bon Pain to get some (bad) coffee. After that we hopped on the subway and made our way to Back Bay Station via the orange line.

As a quick, and rather pointless, sidebar I’d like to point out how much I love public transportation systems…specifically subways. Every city should have them. Until recently, I was intimidated by them because I didn’t know how they worked or how to read the maps. Then we spent two weeks in Paris and Munich and realized they’re really all basically the same. There’s nothing like figuring out two massive systems in two different foreign languages to help your confidence riding them back home.

After getting off the T at Back Bay, walking a few blocks down Clarendon to Tremont, we were at the Cyclorama home of all the beeradvocate beer fests. The second session of the fest began at 6 pm and when we arrived about 15 minutes early the line to get in was already starting to get long. I’m glad we got there when we did because it soon stretched around the block. It isn’t a big deal though, because as with all the Boston fests, the line moves very quickly. We were making fun of security because they were yelling to have your ID and ticket immediately available, any fidgeting and you’d be sent to the back of the line. I felt like I was in a Seinfeld episode about to order soup.

We handed our tickets to security, had our IDs checked, and walked up the stairs to the second floor. The cyclorama is a very cool building to have a beer fest. First, it’s huge. Second, it’s a wide open floor plan. Third, there are skylights in the ceiling that add just enough lighting to keep it looking fresh.

The German fest apparently didn’t have as many booths because the middle of the floor was set up with a bunch of long tables with seating.

This is a change from the other fests we’ve been to, where there were booths set up around the exterior of the room, plus two rows of booths running up the middle back to back. Mandy’s only complaint about the fests is that there isn’t enough seating, but there was plenty of it on Saturday. There were brewers set up shoulder to shoulder surrounding the exterior of the floor plan. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to their placement that I could tell, but the fest guide had the layout to help you find what you were looking for. There was a mixture of three different categories of brewers and distributors. There were American brewers who brought their German-inspired beers, the German breweries/distributors who are available for purchase in the USA, and a select group of German breweries who are not available for commercial purchase in the USA. For obvious reasons, this third group was the most special. It was where I started, where I finished, and where I went in the middle when I couldn’t decide what else to try.

Highlights of the fest included Weihenstephaner Hefe that was the freshest I have ever tasted. Adam called it almost too hefe-weizen-y, which I personally thought was a good thing…a very good thing. Most of the special Germany-only beers were also standouts including the Faust-Miltenberger Pils. Truthfully though, for me this fest was all about just drinking the wonderfully fresh beers on display. I was much less concerned with trying to find the gems of the fest because they were all gems…and by the end, the weizens all began to taste the same, as did the doppelbocks and pilsners!

The fest was extremely fun and well-run. The attendees were younger than usual, I thought, and there wasn’t any drunken nonsense that you normally see towards the end of session 2. There were just two complaints expressed by our party of four. First, we wish that brewers would allocate half of their stock to each session. We went to the Harpoon booth to try their Sticke Beer, the “official beer of the fest” and they were all out! How do you run out of the official beer of the fest? So we asked for the Kellerbier…out of that also. Sorry, but I can get your Octoberfest and Munich Dark at any beer store in CT…no thanks. I’m sure the folks at Session One got to taste these to their hearts’ content, but if you wanted to try it during Session 2 you had to hit their booth in the first hour or two. That’s not cool. The second complaint is a rather generic complaint about beer fests in general. I guess I noticed it on Saturday because it isn’t usually a problem at beeradvocate fests so it stuck out. When you get your sample, get the hell out of the way. People were grabbing their sample, taking maybe one step backward, then just turning around and talking to each other. It created impenetrable walls of people surrounding the booths. They wouldn’t move when you said excuse me and gave you dirty looks if you tried to move them a little with your arms/elbows. Sorry, but get the hell out of the way! There was plenty of room in the center of the vast room to stand around and talk, don’t clog up the booths. There were a few points where I felt my blood pressure start to raise and I’m a pretty laid-back guy! Again, this isn’t usually a problem at these fests, but for some reason it stuck out to all of us. There was also a third problem when one of the volunteers (beeradvocate “hires” its members on a volunteer basis to work at their fests to do things like empty buckets and pour beer at the various booths) refused to fill up two samplers for me. I was trying to save a little space by taking Mandy’s glass for her, I wasn’t trying to drink both myself…heaven forbid. After I went back and got Mandy so she could get it herself, he rolled his eyes at her. WTF?! None of the other pourers refused to double pour the entire night except for him.

When the beerfest ended at 9:30 we were all a little tipsy, but not quite ready for bed yet. We walked back to the T-station and took the subway to Harvard Sq. where we walked around aimlessly for a while searching for John Harvard’s. Finally we asked a nice couple who pointed us in the right direction. We enjoyed some beautifully served cask IPA and a light bite to eat. Eventually we stumbled into a taxi and made it back to our hotel room before passing out.

We slept in the next morning but luckily weren’t feeling much in the way of ill-effects other than maybe a slight headache. We drove over the bridge and ate brunch at Fire and Ice in Cambridge. If you’ve never eaten at Fire and Ice, I highly recommend it. After gorging on brunch we drove home and I spent the rest of the day on the couch watching football and a couple of soccer games I recorded while we were gone.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

German Beer Fest

There are still tickets available to Beeradvocate's German Beer Fest Saturday at selected outlets throughout Boston. Regardless of your personal opinions about the Allstrom brothers, you have to admit they put on a pretty awesome beer fest. This is their first attempt at a German fest, but their Belgian fest is usually one of the most popular of the year. Looking at the list of breweries and beers I'm very excited to see a bunch of choices that aren't available commercially in the USA. I expect most of my time will be spent at these booths.

I'll be there (Session 2), will you?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Centennial IPA and Future Partial Mashes

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my brewing recently and I've come to the conclusion that I need to simplify things. I don't mean my methods, as I actually think I need to become a bit more sophisticated, but in my ingredients and recipes. After learning about German brewing methods that produce fantastic beer with the simplest of ingredients (1-2 types of grain, 1 type of hop, and a house yeast strain) I realized that you don't have to have a complicated grain bill nor a complicated hop bill to make truly great beer. Most of the recipes I've been brewing I've taken from the internet and to be honest, I have no idea what the various pieces contribute to the final beer in terms of taste. In fact, many of the grains I've been using to steep actually require mashing.

As such, I've decided to simplify my recipes to better learn what the various ingredients actually contribute. As part of this decision, I've also decided to move to partial mashes. I don't want to continue steeping grain that isn't supposed to be steeped, but I also don't want to limit myself to a fairly small sample of specialty grains for my recipes. The answer is partial mashing. After doing some extensive reading on the subject, I won't need any extra equipment and it will only add a 1/2 hour or so to my brew day (I already steep for 30 minutes). It seems like mashing is simply steeping for a longer period of time under more strictly controlled temperatures. I already have the materials for an extract/specialty grains porter, which will be my next brew, but after that I intend to make a wit using the partial mash methodology. Who knows, maybe I'll see such a large difference in my beer I'll be inspired to go all grain.

My first brew under my new simplified philosophy was a one hop IPA brewed on Saturday:

5 Gallons, 4 Gallon boil

.5 lb Crystal 20L
6.5 lbs Light DME
1 oz Centennial Hop Pellets 8.8% (60 minutes)
.5 oz Centennial Hop Pellets 8.8% (45 minutes)
.5 oz Centennial Hop Pellets 8.8% (15 minutes)
1 oz Centennial Hop Pellets 8.8% (5 minutes to flameout)
1 oz Centennial Hop Pellets 8.8% (Dry Hop)
1 tsp Irish Moss (15 minutes)
WYeast 1272 American Ale II

I made a 1 qt starter the Wed. prior. My usual procedure is to make a starter on Wed., then put it in the fridge on Friday night to drop the yeast. On brewday, I pour the liquid off the top and make another 1/2 quart starter. By the time my wort is ready for the yeast, my new starter will have a nice krausen. It worked on Saturday with a lag of less than 3 hours. The next morning I woke up and I was maybe an hour away from having to clean up a huge mess as my airlock was completely clogged and the lid on my fermenter was starting to bulge!

I'm hoping that this simple IPA recipe will teach me about crystal malt specialty grains and centennial hops. A pretty simple request considering they're basically the only ingredients in the beer! My SG was 1.060. I don't have the stats on me, but I do remember the IBUs on the high side and the color on the low side. I'm sick of my IPAs looking like mud compared to things like Smuttynose IPA. I purposely shot for a lighter color.

I'm excited about trying a partial mash brew, but first I need to make my porter...hopefully in a week or two. Fortunately, October is shaping up to be a relatively slow month so I should have plenty of brewing opportunities.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The House of Brews Huntsville, AL

After Mason's Pub, we walked one block up Washington St to Northside Sq., a very pretty pedestrian area of downtown. Our destination was The House of Brews, a combination coffee house and beer bar. The first floor of the building houses the coffee shop and they provide free wifi. It is a wide open space with an industrial warehouse feel to it. You can order either coffee or beer downstairs, but the actual bar is upstairs. Here you find another open floor plan with tables and seats scattered around all facing a small stage where they frequently have live music. The actual bar is in the back and very small. They only have a handful of taps, but they were all devoted to craft beer. Among the offerings were Terrapin Rye, Brooklyn Brown, Blue Moon, Murphy's, and Sam Adams. As with Mason's, I wasn't taking notes and I've since forgotten the others. They also have a rather impressive bottle collection in a cooler sitting next to the bar. I didn't take a very close look, but I noticed many imported choices.

This was a cool little spot, but I'm not sure I would make it a destination in and of itself. I could see getting a pre-dinner beer here, eating at Mason's, then coming back after for either beer or coffee depending on preference. The downstairs is more social, very well lit, lots of traffic. The upstairs is more chill, darker, a place to sit and enjoy the live music. There's also an outdoor seating area, which was perfect on a warm late-summer evening.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mason's Pub Huntsville, AL

We made it back from AL without any major problems. On the way down we stopped at Captain Lawrence and filled our three growlers and I was even able to buy a bottle of Smoke From the Oak (actually, rum). We killed the growlers in AL, but I've still got the bottle of Smoke and it's sitting in my fridge as we speak.

Other than Captain Lawrence, there really wasn't much beer-related to speak of other than two quality stops in downtown Huntsville, one of which was Mason's Pub.

Mason's Pub is a restaurant/bar located right in historical downtown Huntsville on the corner of Washington and Clinton. It resides on the third floor of a quaint building.

As you walk in, the restaurant sprawls out in front of you. There are tables to the left, booths to the right, pool tables in the back, and a bar on the right. One gets the sense that Mason's has a bit of confusion with regard to its identity. It's part family restaurant, part college bar, part pool hall, part sports bar, and part men's club lounge. It's a comfortable place full of wood and light fixtures with an open floor plan. Still, it hasn't been open very long and you wonder whether it's trying to be too many things to too many people.

The food was standard American pub fare, but very tasty. There weren't any complaints around the table of 8. The ribs were good, but the highlight of the meal seemed to be the chicken tortilla soup, which was a special that day. Prices were reasonable, though maybe slightly higher than the chain restaurants that dominate in Huntsville. Then again, the food was much better than the chain restaurants. The service was fantastic.

As for the beer, they only had 6 taps, or so. There was nothing very interesting to note, though it was above average for AL. I'm willing to give them a break in this area though, as 2-3 of their taps were devoted to Olde Towne, which has since burned down. They replaced these taps with uninspiring choices like Stella, but one can hope these are temporary placeholders. Mason's stands out with their bottle list, however. By far the largest I've seen in the Huntsville area. I didn't take notes so I can't remember all the details, but I was very happy with the choices. I had a Paulaner HefeWeizen and an Anchor Porter. Mandy had a Terrapin Rye. I remember Mackeson XXX Stout, Brooklyn Brown, Brooklyn Weisse, Sam Adams, and many other very nice craft choices.

I'd recommend this place in a heartbeat to any craft beer lover who finds himself in Huntsville.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the second beer-related destination we discovered, a coffee shop/beer bar called House of Brews.