Monday, May 30, 2011

The Squirrely wrath Beer Chronicles, Part II

Let's move on from breweries to brewpubs.  Brewpubs add another layer of complexity on to the whole "beer thing" in that, by their nature, you are a captive consumer and they provide the "environment" for your drinking.  Great beer consumed in the ambiance of a wet t-shirt contest being cheered on by a horde of drunken frat-boys is going to be devalued to some extent.  Actually, I've never consumed great beer while watching a wet t-shirt contest cheered on by drunken frat-boys, so I am only imagining that this would be "bad"...but, hopefully, I make my point.

...and let the record show that the following is extremely Me-centric.  I don't doubt that there are many, many excellent brewpubs that are not on this list purely because I haven't been to them.  If you disagree with this list, let me know.  I don't need much of an excuse to try new beer...

So, without further ado:

The Squirrely wrath Top 10 List of Brewpubs

(The order here is stream-of-consciousness and has no significance)

  1. Goose Island, Clyborn Ave, Chicago - This is the brewpub that started the Goose Island empire and taught many Chicago residents, myself included, what the craft beer revolution was all about.  The brewpub has survived re-zoning, gentrification, and all manner of other urban ills....and it has Goose Island beer.  Enough said.
  2. Squatters, Salt Lake City - For me, two significant events happened here: 1) The last dinner I had with my mom, and 2) Daughter #2's wedding rehearsal dinner.  A sentimental favorite, perhaps, but Squatters does Utah-mandated low alcohol beer well.  If I'm in Salt Lake, I go there as much for the excellent beer as the misty-eyed memories.
  3. Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland - Yes, Cleveland.  Despite its location in a moderately sketchy area, Great Lakes has two things going for it:  The always excellent Great Lakes beer and a spectacular Victorian era bar, complete with bullet holes left over from a by-gone episode where none other than Elliot Ness himself apparently felt the need to educate the locals in the "Chicago Way" of doing things.
  4. Deschuttes Brewpub, Portland - Well, duh. Deschuttes beer and great food, including burgers made from happy cows who spent their (short) lives munching on spent grain from the brewery, but don't think about that too much during dinner.
  5. Mad Fox Brewing, Falls Church, VA - A rather recent and quite-by-chance discovery in a quiet DC suburb.  Their very excellent Orange Whip IPA introduced me to the absolute awesomeness that is Citra hops.
  6. Moab Brewing, Moab, UT - Surprisingly, this remote Utah town boasts two brewpubs, the rather embarrassingly-named Eddie McStiff's and Moab Brewing.  For reasons not germane to this narrative, I am a quasi-regular visitor to Moab and, while there, Moab Brewing is a nightly stop for me and mine.  Low alcohol Utah beer, very nicely done with an "eclectic" touristy clientele. 
  7. Great Basin Brewing, Sparks, NV - Good beer in a relentlessly casual - some might say, "ramshackle" - ambience.  In spite of being a short walk from the Nugget mega-resort, its generally a locals-only crowd with a heavy sprinkling of the local homebrewers.
  8. Four Peaks Brewing, Tempe, AZ - Always a big selection of great beers in an interior that looks far more "brewery" than "restaurant."  It's proximity to ASU makes a stop here in the evening a little problematic for quite, contemplative beer consumption, so stop in for lunch, instead.
  9. Elevator Brewing, Columbus, OH - Another Ohio brewpub featuring great beer and an absolutely spectacular Victorian-era bar.  This is how your great-grandfather sat down for a beer.
  10. Great Dane Brewing, Madison, WI - A sprawling brewpub, just off Capitol Square in downtown Madison.  Consistently tasty beer with a distinctly Madisonian crowd.  Don't expect to find a lot of Rush Limbaugh fans quaffing suds here, but I'm apolitical when it comes to beer and, as long as you don't get in my face with your stupid opinions, I'll drink with anyone.
Honorable Mentions:  Of course, the list above is highly subjective and another day and another time or after another visit many others might make the list, including:  Desert Edge, Salt Lake City - In my intemperate youth, I spent many hours downing pitchers of Coors in what was then called, "The Pub."  Years later, on returning to Salt Lake, I found that, as my taste in beer had matured, so had Utah's, The Pub was now Desert Edge Brewing.  Ninkasi Brewing, Eugene, OR - Strictly speaking, this is a tasting room, but you're tasting Ninkasi's beers.  That is all. Chicago Brewing Co., Las Vegas - In a city where you can find faux versions of New York, Paris, and Venice, why not a little bit of my ex-residence?  Chicago Brewing is easily the best of the local brewpubs.  Rock Bottom, Everywhere -  Rock Bottom had an inauspicious start; a chain of brewpubs all brewing the same completely uninteresting, but "safe" beers, but the company saw the light and hired brewmasters for each of their brewpubs and let them brew their own recipes.  Whenever you're a stranger in a strange town, the local Rock Bottom is a safe bet.  LadyFace Brewing, Agoura Hills, CA - The beer scene in southern Kalifornia is, like most things there, grim, but LadyFace is a standout; a small, very experimentally-minded brewery.  Not all of their beers are good, but they are definitely trying to push the envelope.

Posthumous Award: This list wouldn't be complete without mention of the now-closed Bardo Rodeo, Arlington, VA.  The Bardo owners took over an abandoned car dealership, turned the service counter into a bar, put tables in the showroom and service bay, and turned the upstairs offices into a pool room.  The beers were eclectic, but leaned a little towards Northwest styles; their Chinook Ale was an experience.  My first contact with William Blake was in the Bardo's men's room where, over the urinals, someone had scrawled, "The road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom."  Well, yeah...

But wait!  There's more...

It has occurred to me that the above list is incomplete without mentioning two very excellent brewpubs in Boulder, CO:  Mountain Sun and Boulder Brewing.  The Mountain Sun can only be described as relentlessly counter-culture and this might put many off, but they always have a big selection of interesting beers on tap and they are not afraid to experiment.  Boulder Brewing's pub is actually located at their brewery and, with the addition of a kitchen, their tasting room has morphed into a brewpub.

...and at the other end of the spectrum:

Of course, there are brewpubs at the other end of the spectrum: the bad ones.  Now it's not my way break bad on people when they don't have an opportunity to rebut and, consequently, I shy away from slamming a brewpub.  Besides, I give every small brewer a little consideration.  If I don't like their beer, I recognize they might have had a few "bad" batches or recipe malfunctions.  Having said that, I have been into a few brewpubs that were so egregiously and heinously bad that I have no problem waving people off from them as their beer is so bad as to give microbreweries everywhere a bad name.  So...this Hall of Shame includes:

Boulder Dam Brewing - I wanted to like this place.  I really, really wanted to like this place.  Located in historic downtown Boulder City, an easy drive from the Fortress of Solitude, with ideal outdoor seating, when I heard they were opening, I thought my prayers had been answered.  However, upon heading over and settling down for a few beers, all hopes were dashed.  The beer was Gawd-awful; no body, carbonation all wrong, and every beer I had was seriously flawed.  Oxidized, gigantic amounts of diacetyl, and one was clearly infected.  I gave them another shot six months later, thinking, "Okay, the last time was in the middle of their start-up pains; maybe they're better."  No.  Still crap...and then, I learned that their brewing system was from these bastards.  Sweet Mother of Gawd!  This is a travesty; a single tank brewing system, using supplied extract mixes and then this gruel is served off the dormant yeast.  No wonder the beer sucked, big time.

 Port Aransas Brewing Co. - Sometimes, even the idyllic life in the Mojave Desert requires a break and that's why the redhead and I have a Fortress of Solitude Lite on the Texas Gulf Coast...and when I heard the nearby Port Aransas had acquired the "Port Aransas Brewing Co." as its newest restaurant...well, you can imagine my excitement.  But, no...karma is a cruel bitch and when the redhead and I rolled in, I saw the same Specialty International equipment that was turning out the total swill at Boulder Dam Brewing.  Crap.  To their credit, "brewpub" does have an impressive - for south Texas - selection of micros, but at the end of the day, like Boulder Dam Brewing, these guys just don't care...

One other entry here, Oggi's Pizza & Brewing, Orange, CA.  Oggi's is a chain, but they came well-recommended and their beers are well-regarded in brewing circles...and it is entirely possible that their beers were spectacular, but who could tell?  This place was just fucking loud, really loud; as in, family night loud; as in, small children running in and out of the bar, squealing; as in, sports bar, my-team-is-kicking-butt; as in, a table full of nurses, drinking their way through happy hour at the top of their lungs.  It is possible one could go here on another night and be able to down a few beers in the relative quiet that a respect for good beers dictates, but I wonder if it is worth it.

      ...and people wonder why I'm messed up.

      Picture time for young Squirrely...
      1. Perry Como sweater...check!
      2. Slap on a bow tie...check!
      3. Pants made from some old drapes...check!
      4. Cowboy boots (Yee-hah!)...check!
      All right, get the photographer.  Let's do this thing!

      Monday, May 16, 2011

      The Squirrely wrath Beer Chronicles, Part I

      I know a little bit about beer.  I've been brewing my own for just short of 19 years and am a National-level BJCP-certified beer judge.  How does one get to be a beer judge, you might ask?  The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, my friend...practice.  In any case, as anyone who has not been living in a cave on the dark side of the moon for the past twenty years knows, craft brewing has returned to America after Prohibition - thank you, all you early 20th century do-gooders - killed it.  In fact, craft brewing has become so popular that it can almost be confusing going to a store for beer these days and being confronted with a virtual rainbow of choices...and I have been asked, "What do people who know about beer drink when they are drinking beer?"  To that, I have to respond:  It doesn't matter what I drink.  The best thing you can do is to just try different beers - and in the process, support you local craft brewer - and decide what you like.  Beer is a big universe - far bigger than the budmillercoors crowd would have you believe - and you need to find your own space in it.  It's about what you like.  However, for those who feel they need guidance, I'm here for you.

      This is going to have to be multiple posts as there is just too much to write about.  This first post will be devoted to my favorite breweries, the second will be about my favorite brewpubs, the third will be about my favorite beers, and finally, the last will be a short tutorial on beer appreciation and what makes for a good beer.

      ...and so, it begins.

      The Squirrely wrath List of Top Ten Breweries

      Before I begin, let me qualify what follows by saying that my favorites are limited to breweries that I have actually had an opportunity to sample their wares.  Obviously, this list is subject to change as my range of experience expands and, if you think there is a glaring omission here, by all means let me know.  I really don't need an excuse to try a new beer.

      Drum roll, please.....

      1. Sierra Nevada - It's not much of a stretch to call Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, "iconic."  This beer defines the American pale ale style and it is virtually impossible to drink any American pale ale without comparing it to Sierra Nevada's relentlessly hopped version.  Sierra Nevada's other beers are uniformly good - and their seasonal Celebration is awesome - but their Pale Ale alone earns them a place on this list.
      2. Deschuttes - The person who introduced me to this Bend, Oregon brewery said, "These guys just don't know how to make bad beer."  I'd disagree; they don't even know how to make mediocre beer.  Deschuttes' Black Butte Porter is probably the best example of this style being brewed today.
      3. New Belgium - Just as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has defined what can be done with hops in a beer, New Belgium's Fat Tire sets the example for what can be done with a malt-dominated beer and their other beers are uniformly interesting and tasty.  When their 2 Degree Below seasonal is available, I never pass it up.  Besides, they had a brew dog named Arrow that is posthumously remembered in their Mighty Arrow just got to like them for that alone.
      4. Anchor - Fritz Maytag, of the washing machine Maytags, bought an abandoned brewery and, arguably, began the craft brewing revolution in America.  While Fritz's rather ruthless defense of his "Steam Beer" trademark has not sit well with many brewers, Anchor Steam remains another iconic, exclusively American beer style and Anchor's annual Christmas Ale, good, bad, or just plain weird, is always much anticipated in the beer community.
      5. Uinta Brewing - Utah's arcane beer laws place alcohol restrictions on beer brewed within the state and yet, Uinta has worked within those boundaries and produced Cutthroat Pale Ale, easily my favorite low alcohol beer.  Whenever, I am back in my home state, my trunk is invariably filled with cases of Cutthroat.
      6. Marstons - Okay, your brewery is in Burton-on-Trent, the heart of Britain's brewing better know how to make beer.  Fortunately, this 1834 established brewery has had lost of practice and, just as SNPA defines the American pale ale style, Marstons Pedigree defines the English version.
      7. Cantillon - One word, "lambic."  Forget what everything you think you know about what beer is and try a bottle from this Belgian brewery.  You might hate it, you might love it, but I promise it will be an adventure.
      8. Victory Brewing - This Pennsylvania brewery is another place that seems incapable of making uninteresting beer.  Their Hop Devil is a not to be missed beer and their limited release of Yakima Twilight last year...all I can say is, "Wow!"
      9. Stone Brewing - When a brewery names their flagship beer "Arrogant Bastard Ale," it's pretty much a sign that they don't give a crap about what you think about their beer...and that's a good thing.  Stone is know for making big, complex, high-alcohol beers and, if you are not collecting their yearly Vertical Epic releases...well, why the hell not??
      10. Chimay - Belgium is blessed with many, many, many breweries, all brewing their own unique beer styles most of which never make it to the United States.  Chimay is generally available and all of their beers are just dang good.
      This is my list and be warned that, were I to write this blog next week or next month or next year, the list might well be different.  It's a tribute to how much good beer there is being made in America these days that my list of Honorable Mentions is rather lengthy:  Ninkasi Brewing (Tricerahops Double IPA), Russian River (Pliny the Elder), Three Floyds (Alpha King, Robert the Bruce), Goose Island (Nut Brown Ale), Bells (Two -Hearted Ale), Middle Ages (Druid Fluid...funny story here, but it will have to wait), New Glarus (Elkhorn Octoberfest), and others that, no doubt escape me at the moment.

      Say what you want about the U.S. of A. right now, but it's a great time to be a beer-lover.

      But wait, there's more!  Here's a special added bonus feature:

      Inevitably, there were breweries worthy of mention that I neglected to add to the above list, most notably Flying Dog Brewing - they make great beer and have Ralph Steadman designing their labels; wrapping awesome around awesome.  I also have to, begrudgingly, add Dogfish Head to the list.  I mean, their 60, 90, and 120 Minute IPA's are great beers, but for the love of Gawd, Sam, enough with all these silly, gimmicky beers.  Ice from Antarctica for the brewing water for Pangea?  Get back to me when you're ready to take beer seriously again, Dogfish.

      ...and a posthumous mention of the William S. Newman Brewing Co. of Albany, NY.  For me, the craft brewing revolution started in 1982 when I walked into Newman's, carrying my then 1-year-old Daughter #1, and bought a box of beer (this was a 1 gallon, soft plastic container in a cardboard box) from Bill Newman himself - he actually went into the back and filled it.  Here's the conversation:

      Bill:  First time here?
      Me:  Yeah.
      Bill:  Wanna taste?
      Me:  Okay.
      Bill (pointing to Daughter #1):  What about her?  She want a taste, too?
      Me:'s a little early for her, but I'm good. Set me up.

      Newman's packaging sucked and the beer was, by today's standards, mediocre, but it was one of the first ripples of the tidal wave that was coming.

        Saturday, May 14, 2011

        English lesson

        Recently, the redhead and I stopped into our favorite watering hole for dinner and a few beers.  We seated ourselves and shortly had a couple of frosty beverages in front of us.  A few sips later, it became apparent that, in addition to dinner and beer, we were also going to be treated to a lesson in the use of what Ralphie referred to as "...THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the "F-dash-dash-dash" word!" Sitting immediately behind us was a thirty-something woman and an older couple.  Thirty-something was engaged in a loud, almost-continuous monolog, the point of which was virtually incomprehensible other then demonstrating her expertise in the use of the word, "fuck." Her skills were, indeed, impressive and she practiced them relentlessly.  As we drank our beer, a cloud of obscenity was being generated at the adjacent table that, seemingly, filled the bar and sucked all conscious thought into itself.  The redhead and I were speechless and were unable to do anything but sit there, mesmerized by the torrent of cursing next to us.

        She favored its use as an adjective, "...and, like, the fuckin' guy came over the other fuckin' night." or "The fuckin' air conditioner fell out of the fuckin' window and it was so fuckin' hot after that." but mixed it up a lot and also used it as a verb ("..and I told the fuckin' people to go fuck themselves."), a noun (", like, what the fuck was up with that fucker?"), and even as an adverb ("After the cops showed up, we started fuckin' runnin' down the fuckin' alley.").  Of course, being well-practiced, she frequently combined multiple forms in a single sentence ("Those fucked-up fuckers down at the fuckin' bail bond place.")  But she demonstrated her mastery of the word by using it as verbal punctuation:  A comma ("So, fuck, what was I supposed to do with a fuckin' engine block in my front yard?"), a period ("...and he fuckin' didn't even give me fuckin' gas money, fuck."), an exclamation point ("...and then, the fucker called his fuckin' mother, the fuckin' whore!  Fuck! Just fuck!"), and even an ellipsis ("But what really fuckin' pissed me off is when the fuckin' bitch said I was just fuckin' trailer trash. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.").

        The older couple sitting with 30-something seemed to be as dumbfounded as the redhead and I; they just sat there, staring blankly at her as she rocketed along her verbal trajectory.  Realizing there was some truly powerful ju-ju at work, I thought a counter-spell might be in order; raising my voice a decibel, I said - apropos of  nothing, "I could not fucking believe that fucking United would pull a fucking stunt like that!  I mean, what the fuck?  The bunch of fucking fuckers!"  This worked, but on the wrong target.  The female half of the older couple, whipped her head around like a lassoed steer at a rodeo and stared at me.  Thirty-something hesitated long enough to light another cigarette and started up where she left off.  My mojo was no match for hers; I was defeated.

        ...and so it went for our entire stay ("Fuckin', fucked up bunch of fuckin' fuckers, fuck!").  We paid up ("...and then the fuckin' mother-fucker really fucked up fuckin' big time!") and walked, almost zombie-like, to the door ("I can't even fuckin' imagine how fuckin' fucked-up I would fuckin' have to be to do that kind of fuckin' shit").

        Driving home, the redhead summed the evening up succinctly, "What the fuck?"

        Friday, May 13, 2011

        How to become a super hero.

        Step 1:  Acquire one or more super powers.  If this is not possible, then acquisition of highly advanced and not-generally-available technology is essential.

        Step 2:  Design and make a cool-looking Spandex suit.  Yes, I know that "cool-looking Spandex" is an oxymoron.

        Note that the order of these steps is important:

        Sunday, May 8, 2011

        A fashion!

        I am in need of fashion advice and what better way to get it than ask anonymous strangers on the Internet.  So here goes...

        The Background
        For my 50th birthday, the redhead gave me a diamond stud.  This was completely unexpected and not something I had ever even thought about having, but there it was.  In truth, the gift was both a birthday present and memento of my recent transition from a techie gearhead slaving away in the military-industrial complex to an owner/operator of a kite store.  So I thought about it and then thought about it some more and then went and got my (left) ear pierced.  Yes, that would have been me, in line with a bunch of tweeners getting our ears pierced.  Yeah.

        They say that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans and my "retirement" lasted an entire month as it seems the military-industrial complex was not done with me.  In any case, I returned to the techie gearhead world newly accessorized:
        Representation of my diamond stud in situ.  The presence of the cows in the background is unexplained.
        The Dilemma
        Fast forward seven years.  My left ear, as some of you know, still looks like the above picture.  Then, for a recent anniversary, the redhead decides that my accessorization needs an upgrade:
        Fashion accessory V2.0.  Again, the presence of the cow in the background is unexplained.
        A pirate earring.  Yes, it's a pirate earring, but Captain Jack Sparrow never had one made out of freaking titanium!  Yeah, that's aerospace-quality, forged titanium decorating my earlobe there.  Dang cool, right?  Did I mention that it's titanium?  Having said that, I'm thinking that the military-industrial complex may not be ready for pirate chic, but my 21st century fashion sense may not be entirely up to date (Note: Most of my "wardrobe" carries a Hamilton Carhartt label).

        So, here's your chance to weigh in and help shape the Squirrely look of the future.  Discrete stud or flamboyant titanium earring?