Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eli's - Allagash Tasting

We hit Eli's last night for a late snack and some beer. The purpose of the trip was to try the phenomenal Allagash Black. I was so focused on the Black that I don't remember much of the rest of the rotation. I do remember:

Allagash Black
Allagash Tripel
Allagash Dubbel
Allagash Grand Cru
Stoudt's Double IPA
Rogue Imperial Red (!)
Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock (!)
Great Divide Fresh Hop Ale
Sierra Nevada Celebration
Smuttynose Scotch

The Black was so tasty and silky smooth I had three (Mandy was driving) Eli's first for me as I usually mix it up. It's a unique beer because it's made with roasted malts similar to a stout, but it also has belgian dark candi and is fermented using a belgian yeast. Allagash calls it a "Belgian style stout." I was concentrating on drinking it, not analyzing it, so no detailed notes. I remember it being silky smooth and much more stout-ish than Belgian-ish...the Belgian-y qualities were very subtle and came out in the finish adding a layer of complexity not found in normal stouts. The alcohol (7.5% ABV) is so well-hidden that I would have guessed it was in the 5% range, which is dangerous. I would rather drink Black than the vast majority of stouts (imperial or otherwise) I've had recently, which seems to be my developing yardstick "how much do I want to drink more of this?". It was still on at Eli's at 10:30 last night, so get there quick before it's gone!

As a (hopefully) quick sidenote, this beer presents an interesting stylistic quandry. Beeradvocate calls it a "Belgian Strong Dark Ale" and Ratebeer calls it a "Foreign Stout." It struck me as much more a stout than a Belgian Dark Ale so I'd probably lean more towards the "Foreign Stout" side or maybe "Export Stout." I'd say a new style is emerging "Belgian Stout," but when half of the examples are American, it seems weird to call it Belgian. Anyway, this doesn't really concern me much, as long as it tastes good, and Allagash Black does. I just think it's rather interesting watching a new style bloom in front of us.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Flatbread Restaurant - Canton, CT

Flatbread Restaurant (not to be confused with American Flatbread Burlington Hearth) is a chain of flatbread pizza restaurants that cook using fire pits similar to this:

A branch opened in the (relatively) new Shoppes right off Route 44 in my hometown of Canton, CT. It's located in the back, right past Barnes & Noble and near Old Navy and Dick's. Over the past 2 years or so it's become my favorite place to go eat pizza.

The atmosphere is very "crunchy" for lack of a better word. All the ingredients are organic, they cook in an open flame fire oven, the decorations are earthy including some tibetan prayer flags, the furniture is wooden and functional, and on Thursdays there's live music usually consisting of a guy playing acoustic guitar and singing folk songs. Personally I love the atmosphere and prefer something along these lines to modern or fancy. Also, just remember it is Canton, CT (a fairly wealthy suburb) so while the restaurant itself is fairly crunchy, much of the clientele just got home from their white collar job in Hartford.

The menu is extremely basic with two choices: salad and/or pizza. The salad is very good made with organic ingredients with an optional topping of local (actually, MA) blue cheese crumbles. The pizza is also made with all organic ingredients. You can start with a simple red pizza (I think it's called "Jay's Heart") or one with no red sauce and add your own toppings, or pick from one of the many specialty pizzas. You really can't go wrong, everything's fantastic. My favorite topping is the maple sausage, so sweet with a nice kick at the end...perfect with a lighter IPA.

Since this is a beer blog I guess I should get to the good stuff. While the selection won't blow beer geeks away, it is surprisingly good for Canton. None of the big 3 are available on tap or otherwise. They continue with their local and organic theme by keeping the selection from New England breweries and often having an organic choice. The draft list on Saturday included:

Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout
Farmington River IPA
Farmington River Brown
BBC Lost Sailor IPA
BBC Cabin Fever Ale (this was a surprise, usually it's Gold Spike)
Opa Opa Red Rock

I know they had a few more than this but I'm drawing a blank. They usually have a Long Trail seasonal, but it had just kicked. In short, it's not Eli's but it's a heck of a lot better than any other pizza restaurant in the area. There's never anything wrong with a Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout or a fresh Lost Sailor. My only complaint about their beer is that they keep it on a fixed menu including a "guest tap." They change their rotation enough that the list is never accurate and their "guest tap" becomes meaningless because there are 3-4 beers not on the list. I usually just ask the server to run through the beers on tap to avoid confusion.

I highly recommend this place if you're looking for some great pizza and some really good beer. The prices are a little steep (for the food, the beer is reasonable), but it really is worth it. And after, you can head over to Barnes & Noble for some coffee and finish your Christmas shopping.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Surly Darkness

Surly is a small brewery near Minneapolis, MN. It was on my list of things to seek out during my trip to St. Paul, but didn't have time. I have gotten the chance to try some of their Coffee Bender at Beeradvocate's American Beer Fest a couple of summers ago and it was fantastic. This marked their "coming out party" so to speak as they were very new at that point and only distributed to MN. Since then their popularity has exploded (not necessarily because they participated in the American Beerfest, mind you, because they make fantastic beer).

On Saturday they released their annual Russian Imperial Stout, Darkness. They followed Three Floyds example and created a special day for its release with the intent of selling all the bottles at this one event. Apparently there was music and food along with all their regular beers on tap. Every Spring, Three Floyds has their Dark Lord Day . I guess the difference between the two is that Dark Lord Day has becom so big they're looking into off site locations to hold it because the lines have gotten so large. People travel from all across the country for this and turn the day into one big party and beer tasting event. Three Floyds wins by guaranteeing their Dark Lord will sell out at $15 a pop, not to mention all the other beer they sell that day. I guess the guys at Surly realized what a good thing this was and decided they wanted in the game.

The result of this was to create demand for the product that may not have existed otherwise. Now all of a sudden it has become the beer to obtain. If you glance at the beeradvocate and ratebeer trading forums, it seems every thread is devoted to looking for Darkness or figuring out what people are willing to give up for Darkness. The beer is seen as rare because only a select few were able to get it. The rarity seems to create a sense of demand for the product that wouldn't exist if it was more readily available and it keeps people interested in the breweries that hold these events (another example is The Angel's Share from Tomme Arthur at The Lost Abbey, which is also a hot commodity in the beer trading circles).

I'm not trying to make a value judgment about these breweries because, frankly, I think it makes great business sense. I guess what I don't understand are the people who feel such a need to try these beers. I've never had Dark Lord, or Darkness, or The Angel's Share, but I can't help thinking as I'm enjoying a more readily available imperial stout: "how much better could Darkness really be?" Is it really worth getting upset about not being able to try it? My answer is a resounding no. I'll continue to enjoy Southern Tier's Oat or Storm King or Smuttynose Imperial Stout and let other people arrive in Minneapolis at 2AM when it's below zero to wait for a beer that they must absolutely have. I guess I just don't understand this need people have to try everything. People even get mad at the monks of Westvleteren because they don't make more beer and distribute to the USA. Like the monks care about that. Sorry, but I'll wait until I make it to Belgium to drink Westvleteren...and if I never make it? I'll drink biggie.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Plan B and City Steam

I had a busy Sunday, hitting both Plan B and City Steam.

We stopped into Plan B for a quick snack and a couple of beers during the afternoon. The tap list was better than the last time we went, but still not as good as the reports from the Simsbury location that we still haven't made it to. The tap list included:

Sierra Nevada Celebration
Great Divide Hibernation
Long Trail Double Bag
Dogfish Head Chicory Stout
BBC Porter
Farmington River Brown
Ipswich Original
Brooklyn Lager
Southern Tier Old Man Winter Ale
Avery The Czar
And probably a couple of others

(Note: I wrote this before realizing that I've never done a review of Plan B in West Hartford! I'll try to remedy that in the next few days)

In the evening we tried to hit City Steam for dinner prior to a Christmas show at the Civic Center. Unfortunately, it reiterated why I'm not really a big fan of this place. The beer was great, it was everything else. For starters, I ordered the mead I mentioned here. It came in a white wine glass, which I guess is OK, but they only fill it halfway and charged $5. I got 5-6 oz of a mead that they advertised as 8%ABV. It was a decent enough drink, though I'm no expert on meads, but I was left feeling a bit taken. After waiting an hour, we were finally seated. We informed our server that we were in a bit of a hurry and proceeded to receive horrendously slow service. The food we got wasn't very good either.

I think I finally figured out what rubs me the wrong way about City Steam. It's very impersonal. Other bars and brewpubs we go to focus on either the neighborhood (locals) or the regulars (if it isn't a neighborhood setting). Everyone is welcome, but you always get a certain sense of conviviality and friendship between both the patrons and the staff. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part these places make you want to become one of the regulars. Despite this, they never make "tourists" (people who aren't regulars) feel unwelcome, it just gives you something to strive for by coming more often.

I never get this feeling at City Steam. Instead, I get the feeling that they cater to the "tourist," which tends to create a feeling of coldness and impersonality. I feel like, while there may be regulars (and there are because they have a mug club), they never really cater to them. Instead, they're happy to accept the hordes of one-timers who stop in for a meal prior to attending an event at the Civic Center. This is understandable as the place is always packed on event nights, but it makes me want to choose someplace different. It leaves me feeling that there's no sense of community, I'm just surrounded by strangers waiting to go somewhere else. The servers become unfriendly, the bartenders downright rude (standing there waiting for a tip?!), and the other patrons: nameless strangers.

The beer was very good (the Flowers of Edinburgh Scotch Ale was top notch), but suffice it to say we didn't have a very good time. I think I'm knocking them down to fourth on my list behind Willimantic, Cambridge, and John Harvard's. They're still ahead of Hops.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Session # 10: Sierra Nevada Celebration

Side note: "The Session" is a monthly beer blogging event. Each month a new blogger picks a theme and anybody is free to contribute by writing a blog entry related to the theme and sending to the host on the first Friday of each month. This month's theme is "Let it snow, let it snow, Winter Seasonal Beers" and is hosted by Ted at Barley Vine. It's my first contribution to the Session.

They say certain aromas can trigger deep emotional responses in people. While I've certainly found this to be true, I've also found that certain beers can trigger similar responses in me. Such is the case with my favorite holiday seasonal: Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale. In the world of holiday seasonal beers the norm is to revel in the malty side of beerdom and to add liberal doses of spicing. Dark in color and deep in flavor, these beers are perfect for enjoying around the fire. Sierra Nevada bucks this trend by producing a bitter, hop fueled, amber elixir that epitomizes the American IPA style.

I look forward to seeing the first cases of Celebration showing up in my local bottle shop every season. It has come to represent everything that the holiday season should be, but is often not. It can be an extremely stressful time of year between work and personal life and Celebration Ale has become a lighthouse of sorts to guide me closer to what is really important. Too often we get caught up in working late to meet year-end deadlines, trudging through overcrowded shopping malls looking for the perfect present, fighting traffic, dealing with difficult family members, getting electrocuted (that might just be me), and any number of other irritations. When struggling with all of this and trying to remain cheerful, it helps to know that soon I'll be able to go home and enjoy the company of my wife and two dogs and enjoy a tasty Celebration Ale. I make sure to keep my fridge stocked so I can always look forward to this simple pleasure.

A second reason why this is one of my most loved beers is that it was the first IPA I truly enjoyed. This was fairly soon after discovering craft beer, but I was still more taken with the malty side of the spectrum, the porters, stouts, and scotch ales. IPAs were just too bitter, but every once in a while I would try another to see if my tastes were changing. My first Celebration Ale was the first time that I realized my tastes had changed and that I was actually enjoying an IPA. There was no looking back from there as I've become a full-on hop head and I have no regrets.

As the holiday season continues I urge everyone to take some time out of their busy schedules to think about what really matters in their life; slow things down and actually enjoy the season. Having a Celebration Ale will help, I promise!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Great Waters Brewing Company

Business travel can be a funny thing. Travel alone and you have so much free time you don't know what to do with it all. Travel with other people and you barely have a spare moment. Such was the case with my trip to St. Paul last week. I was there for three nights and I was only able to hit one of the spots I had lined up in advance, Great Waters Brewing Co., a brewpub right in downtown St. Paul. Luckily, that wasn't the only drinking I did as I got to sample a couple of different offerings from Summit Brewery, also from St. Paul...a new brewery for me. I had quite a few of the Winters, a wonderfully smooth Winter Warmer perfect for the cold weather and the Extra Pale Ale, which was a decent, if a bit uninspiring, American Pale Ale.

I learned a few things about St. Paul during my three day stay: it's awfully cold in November (think dead of winter in New Hampshire cold), they have a big mall with an amusement park, and they have a system of skywalks that allow you to traverse much of the city without ever feeling the cold bite of the wind. This is an important detail to remember after a night of drinking.

After spending a few hours at a faux-Irish pub during a sponsored happy hour, I ducked out around 10PM to grab a bite to eat and a few beers from the local brewpub. Great Waters is located in a very convenient location in downtown St. Paul on 426 Saint Peter St. It's a rather small space as far as brewpubs go with an open floor plan. There are two separate seating areas that from the lengths of an L. They aren't separated by anything except space and a large post that forms the pivot of the L. The physical bar is integrated into the dining area, forming the L the dining area revolves around. It's a comfortable-feeling place, the walls lining the streets are almost all glass and it's well-lit but not overly-bright. As I walked in, the host immediately asked if I was alone and then proceeded to walk me to the bar and show me to an empty seat at the bar. Usually when you tell a host you want to sit at the bar you're lucky if they point you in the right direction. The waiter was pleasant and never let my glass sit empty for long before asking if I wanted a refill. There were a few small TVs, but they were tucked into corners so they wouldn't distract people who were there to socialize.

The thing that intrigued me about Great Waters was the fact that they always have four cask conditioned ales available. Served at cellar temp, in perfect condition, crystal clear and bright. I'm not sure I've ever been to a bar that's had more than 1-2 and this place always has four. If I lived in the area it would become a regular stop. While I was there I had the House Ale (a bitter), Tesla's Coil IPA, and the Bent Niblick Scottish Ale (Scottish, not Scotch). All were very good, but to be honest they all had a similar taste profile. The IPA was more bitter than the other two, the Scottish Ale was a bit maltier than the House, but their essential essences were very similar. My guess is they use a standard base and make minor tweaks to the hop profile and specialty grains and ferment with the same yeast. I don't mean to complain though, because all the beers were tasty and served in perfect condition. I easily could have sat there and had a few more if an early morning wake-up call didn't beckon.

The fourth cask ale was an Old Ale called Old Bastard. I had looked this up on beeradvocate prior to going and it didn't score very well so I opted out. In addition to the four casks, they had five "pushed" beers served colder in the more prevalent style via CO2. These were: Novemberfest (a Belgian style "honey braun"), Blackwatch Oat Stout (Oatmeal Stout), Saint Peter Pale Ale, Brown Trout Brown Ale, and Golden Prairie Blond Ale. I had hoped to slip away again at some point before flying back to tropical Hartford to try the Blackwatch Oat Stout, but that never actually sounds like a beer that would be wonderful on their casks. And now that I did some research and actually read about the Novemberfest I wish I had given that a try also.

The food has some interesting takes on traditional brewpub fare. I had the steak sandwich with chips, both of which were very tasty. I had intended to only eat half the sandwich but my plate was clean when I left the restaurant. Funny how that works.

This was a great place and I was very pleased I had made the decision to stop in. Very different from the CT brewpubs, yet I think it would still fit very nicely into the CT scene. Four permanent casks would be a very welcome addition.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Cambridge House

Not to be confused with the Cambridge Brewing Company, The Cambridge House is located at 357 Salmon Brook St. (Rt. 10) in Granby. It's on the left, directly off the main street about a mile or two past Granby center when coming from the south. Slow down or you'll drive right past it.

The Cambridge House opened a few years ago after a rather protracted waiting period (at one time I remembered the reasons, but I've since cleared that space in my brain for other useless information). After waiting expectantly for something, it's common to be let down. To every CT beer lover's delight, CBH lived up to the hype. They began with a modest, but very solid selection including an outstanding IPA (Abijah Rowe), a GABF gold-winning Kรถlsch (Copper Hill), a solid ESB (Old Mill Pond), and a wonderfully authentic Hefeweizen. Since then, they've added a bunch of choices that they circulate into the rotation seasonally and at the whim of the brewer (Stephen Schmidt). Some of my favorites include Porter's Porter, Three Steve Stout, Alt-45, and Newgate Mild. The mild was a favorite of mine because it was appropriately low in ABV so I could drink more of them in a session without getting drunk. Plus, you just can't find good examples of the style on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it in a long, long time and I fear it won't be back. The one knock I used to give them about the beer is that they were so popular they often ran out of their beer. It was particularly frustrating to drive 35 minutes to see that they only have 5 of their beers on tap and two of them are out. To satisfy thirsty patrons they added a very nice selection of guest taps including a few devoted to Thomas Hooker and a few to Berkshire Brewing. Nice to see them supporting the locals. They've since upgraded capacity and I haven't experienced these problems during my last few visits.

The building itself has a number of different areas to sit in. The entrance to the restaurant is actually located in what appears to be the back of the building as you look at it from the street. Walking up to the entrance from the parking lot you pass across a large outdoor deck, a fine option for the warmer months. As you enter, the bar area is to your left, the host station is in the lobby area, and the restaurant proper is upstairs. I've actually never even been up the stairs, it's usually closed when we're there. This isn't a problem if you want to sit and eat because there's a nice separate seating area past the bar area. It's secluded enough from the bar that you feel like you're in a restaurant, yet it can still get rather loud when the bar fills up. The bar area itself has typically tall tables surrounding the horseshoe shaped bar. There are a smattering of TVs around the room so feel free to go there to catch the game.

The food menu is typical brewpub fare with a number of twists and unique flourishes. Generally speaking it's very good, but we have been disappointed on occasion. I certainly wouldn't come here if food is the priority, but if you're coming for the beer you can definitely score a meal that will satisfy. You can't go wrong with the fish and chips. The service is generally fine. I've never eaten in the formal dining area, so I can't comment from that aspect. It's easier in the bar seating area because the servers are never very far away.

This is one of my favorite brewpubs in CT, behind only Willimantic (that I haven't been to in 10 months). The beer is always fresh and tasty and I love the atmosphere in the bar area. Plus, it doesn't hurt to be located in Granby, one of the prettiest places in CT. I'm actually hoping to move there in the near future!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Eli's on 12/2

I killed a couple of hours at Eli's on Sunday afternoon. Their list was fairly unimpressive for Eli's, but some of the highlights:

St. Bernardus Abt 12
Old Rasputin
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout
Smuttynose IPA
Stone Coast 420 IPA
Stone Coast 840 IPA
Sunday River Lager (Stone Coast)
Sierra Nevada Celebration
Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar (still no Shakespeare Stout!)
Harpoon Winter
Sam Adams Winter

A good list for a hop head.

I also went to Cambridge House in Granby on Saturday, but I want to write a proper review since I haven't done it yet. Plus, I need to post about last week's trip to St. Paul, MN.