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Friday, September 29, 2006

New York City - Night 3: Union Beer Trade Tasting

NYC - Night 3 - Tuesday, September 26th:

A couple of weeks before my trip, I was poking around for info about any beer events that might be happening in NYC during the week of my visit, and I stumbled across a short announcement about a free tasting event for the bar and restaurant trade that Brooklyn's Union Beer Distributors would be hosting at The Puck Building in downtown Manhattan. I figured it would probably be a small event with some local brewers on hand, and maybe a few imports being sampled as well - a nice way to spend a few hours and try some new beers, assuming I could get in.

I dropped them a line mentioning my "credentials" as news editor at The Bar Towel and writer of this blog, but wasn't holding out a lot of hope as it seemed to be a NYC-centric event based on the description. After a week with no response, I pretty much wrote it off as a "not gonna happen", but then I got the following email:

Dear Greg:

On behalf of Union Beer Distributors, I cordially extend the invitation for you to attend the most extensive craft beer Trade Tasting in New York City history. On Tuesday, September 26 from 5 until 10 PM at the historic Puck Building on Lafayette and Houston, 85 breweries from around the world will serve their libations to an exclusive audience in an intimate setting. Complete with live jazz music, hors d’oeuvres, and speeches from some of the industry’s most influential figures, this will be an event not to miss.

Among the dozens of internationally acclaimed brewers in attendance will be:

Matthias Trum – Owner, Head Brewmaster, Aecht Schlenkerla, Bamberg, Germany
The sixth generation brewer of the world renowned Brauerei Heller Trum produces the world’s most popular rauchbier (smoke beer) style.

Etienne Dupont – Owner, Cidermaster, Domaine Dupont, Normandy, France
The fifth generation Cidermaster from Normandy is one of the world’s foremost calvados producers, however he earned his place in the world of craft cider when the New York Times voted his cider as the best in the world in a 2004 blind tasting.

Hans Peter Drexler – Head Brewmaster, Schneider Weisse, Kelheim, Germany

Toshiyuki Kiuchi – Owner, Brewmaster, Hitachino Nest, Kounsosu, Naka-shi, Ibaraki, Japan

Chris Beauwarts – Owner, Brewmaster, Brasserie d’Achouffe, Achouffe, Belgium

And many, many more.

Looked like it was going to be a little larger than I'd expected.

I arrived at the Puck Building soon after 5:00 PM and was ushered into a good sized room with beer being poured by a variety of brewers both familiar (Rogue, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada, Ommegang) and not-so-much (Mercury, Cape Ann, Butternuts). A fantastic selection - but all American micros. What happened to the imports?

Then I noticed the passageway to the other room. The spacious, ornate, gorgeous ballroom with dozens and dozens of brewers and beers from Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Japan and beyond. Not to mention a spread of bread, cheese & dried fruit, countless wait staff serving hors d'oeuvres, and a live jazz trio providing some elegant ambiance.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I almost wept a little.

Seriously, this was the most refined and well-organized beer event I've ever attended. Seeing beer being presented in such a civilised and respectful environment was a great thing indeed. Although since the event was being held by a distributor trying to flog their wares in one of the most competative bar and restaurant markets on earth, I suppose I should've expected it. I guess it's hard to shake the jaded nature I've developed from living amongst the backwards beer culture of Ontario for so long.

So after walking around with my mouth hanging open in disbelief for a few minutes, I started in on the tasting. I haven't gone through my notes to do a full count, but I'm sure I sampled somewhere around two dozen beers over the course of the evening, and enjoyed almost all of them. Here are a few highlights:

Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout
A new beer from Japan's Hitachino Nest brewery that they were pilot testing at the event. It has a still, deep brown body with no head, and an amazing aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee. The body is a little thin, but the flavour is fantastic, with lots of coffee backed-up with some cocoa and malt notes. Hopefully, it'll be added to their official line-up soon.

Troubadour Blond & Troubadour Obscura
These beers from Belgium's Brouwerij The Musketeers were completely new to me, but I'm glad I stopped at their small table, as both of them are very good. The Blond is described on RateBeer as a saison, which seems to be an appropriate style, as it has a bright golden colour and aromas & flavours that encompass yeasty, fruity and spicey notes. The Obscura is self-described as a stout, although it's also undeniably Belgian, so it holds a very interesting combination of sweet roastiness and tangy spice that I really enjoyed.

Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier
I was very happy to have a chance to try this rare treat from smoked beer specialists Aecht Schlenkerla, as I'm a big fan of their more commonly available Märzen. Unlike the other Schlenkerla beers, there is no smoked malt used in this golden lager, but it picks up a delicious smokiness from the brewery's filters. And it helps that even without the smokiness, this is a very nice lager, with well-balanced malt and hop flavours and a crisp, subtle body.

Thomas Hardy's Ale
This famous vintage ale is descibed by the brewer, O'Hanlons, as "the beer enthusiast’s equivalent of rare cognac". A little hoity-toity, perhaps, but having finally tried it, I'd say that it's a pretty apt description. I sampled the 2004 vintage, which is considered somewhat young - it's said to improve with age for 25 years or more - but I still enjoyed it. It has a huge, sweet aroma of toffee, fruit cake and whiskey, and a complex flavour of port, whiskey, sweet orange, chocolate and much more, all leading to a warm, tingly, lingering finish.

Aventinus Edelbrand
One of my favourite beers is Aventinus, the standard-bearing Weizenbock from Germany's G. Schneider & Sohn. So when I walked by their table and saw a smaller version of the distinctive purple Aventinus label on what looked like bottles of icewine, I was intrigued. I asked and discovered that it was Aventinus Edelbrand, a brandy-like spirit with 42% abv that is created by distilling Aventinus rather than water. This rarity is generally available only in Germany, but several bottles of a special barrel-aged version were brought over especially for this event. The samples being doled out were understandably small, given the potency and scarcity of the beverage, but I got enough of a taste to appreciate the flavours of oak, port, whiskey and grapeseed. Not the best hard booze I've tried, but good enough that I'd be happy to own a bottle of it.

There were lots more, but that's a good sample. Full notes and ratings for the whole night will end up on RateBeer soon.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Syndication Blues

It seems that Blogger has been making some changes recently, and the old RSS and Atom syndication feeds that I had linked over in the sidebar are now dead. The Atom feed is now here, and the RSS feed seems to be completely gone, although I think it was "experimental" to begin with.

Not that this will do much good, as anyone who has been reading via one of the old feeds probably won't see this anyway. But just in case...

In other news - NYC continues to be spectacular. Further updates in the next day or two.

EDIT: Thanks to the comments, I checked the old feeds again, and found that they're back, but pointing to the new feed mentioned above (including an RSS version I wasn't aware of). So - never mind!

New York City - Night 2: Heartland Brewing and (almost) The Ginger Man

NYC - Night 2 - Monday, September 25th:

First of all, I should mention that due to my knowledge of the location and appearance of NYC landmarks being completely pathetic, I was wrong about being able to see the Empire State Building from my hotel window. It's actually the Chrysler Building. D'oh.

I did, however, walk over to the ESB last night to visit one of the locations of Heartland Brewery (350 5th Ave. at 34th St.), a brewpub chain with several spots around Manhattan. The atmosphere of the place is an interesting mixture of comfortable elegance and kitsch, with dark wooden tables and leather chairs & benches surrounded by beer posters and paraphernalia from around the world. As you might expect from the location, it attracts a lot of tourists, and the prices definately reflect that: a pint of beer will run you around US$6, and the food is equally pricey, i.e. US$17 for three crab cakes and a slightly wilted green salad. At least the crab cakes were tasty, with a high crabmeat-to-filler ratio, and a nice homemade tartar sauce on the side.

As for their beers, they have a half-dozen regular offerings - including the expected light lager, pale ale, wheat & stout - as well as several seasonals. I had a taste of everything on offer, and found my favourites to be Farmer Jon's Oatmeal Stout, Smiling Pumpkin Ale and Indiana Pale Ale. The stout was a little thin on the palate, but the aroma and flavour made up for it, with notes of toffee, treacle, cocoa and smoke, and a nicely bittered finish. Smiling Pumpkin is a flavourful autumn seasonal made with honey-roasted pumpkin and a load of spices, giving it that "liquid pumpkin pie" vibe that I really like. And the Indiana PA is simply a well-made, hoppy pale ale, with a lot of citrus and spruce in the flavour.

I was also planning on downing a pint or two at The Ginger Man (11 E. 36th St. near 5th Ave.), but when I passed by both before and after my Heartland visit, I found it packed to the gills. I'd been warned that this is a popular spot, but I didn't expect such a crowd on a Monday night. It appears to be a great place, though - beautiful decor, an appetizing looking food menu, and a fantastic selection of beer on tap and in bottles. If my course lets out early enough on Friday, I may give it another shot and hope that it's not as insane in the afternoons.

In the meantime, the course is going very well, and I'm looking forward to an event tonight that will likely be the highlight of my visit to NYC. More about that tomorrow...

Monday, September 25, 2006

New York City - Night 1: The Collins Bar

NYC - Night 1 - Sunday, September 24th:

So, I'm down in NYC this week on business, taking an advanced course on Informatica, a suite of software that only database geeks know or care about. I could thrill you all with everything I'm learning about data loaders and transformations and such, but since the last word in the name of this blog is "Bites" and not "Bytes", I'll stick with the stuff you really care about.

I flew into town last night, and after an afternoon and evening of airport line-ups, a flight delay, and other travel annoyances, I definately needed a beer. Late last week, I found out that Matthias Trum, the owner and brewmaster of Bamberg, Germany's Aecht Schlenkerla brewery would tapping a wooden cask of their renowned Marzen rauchbier at a place called The Collins Bar (735 8th Ave. at 46th) on the night of my arrival. Unfortunately, the tapping was to take place at 6 PM, and due to the flight delay it was around 9 PM by the time I checked into my hotel. So while I didn't have high hopes of there being any of the cask left by the time I got there, it as a nice enough night that I decided to walk the mile or so over to The Collins in order to get some air and see some sights.

Located just a couple of blocks from Times Square, The Collins feels like a throwback to a time before the surrounding area had become cleaned-up and Disneyfied. The location has been operating as a bar since the late 19th century - including a stint as a speakeasy during Prohibition - and it exudes that unique combination of comfort, warmth and slight grottiness that you expect from a favourite neighbourhood watering hole. It also has friendly staff (if bartender Steve is any indication), a great jukebox, and free popcorn - not to mention a fantastic selection of beer, whisky, bourbon, tequila and other spirits.

I arrived around 9:45 to find a nearly empty bar and no sign of the Schlenkerla cask. I asked to confirm that it wasn't hidden away somewhere, and found out that I wasn't the only one to miss out that night - apparently when the cask was tapped, it was discovered the beer had gone sour, so it had to be dumped. I consoled myself with a glass of Brooklyn Blast, a fantastic limited release beer that the bar called a Strong IPA while RateBeer calls it an American Strong Ale. Whatever style it is, it was mighty good.

I considered either sticking around at The Collins for another pint, or walking the block or so to House Of Brews, but the day started catching up with me. So I thought better of it and headed back to the hotel, where I enjoyed my 32nd floor view which includes the Empire State Building just a couple of blocks away. That's where I plan to be tonight to visit Heartland Brewing...

(PS: I left my camera at home, so all photos this week will be borrowed/stolen from other sources. Which is probably a good thing, as I'm a crap photographer.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We've Got The Funk

Work has been kicking my ass lately, so posts here have been few and far between. This should soon change - at least temporarily - as I'm heading down to New York City next week for a course, and I plan to spend my evenings doing some beer-hunting with daily reports to follow.

But in the meantime, I thought I'd give a quick mention about a tasting that I had with the usual crew a couple of weeks ago, where we sampled the wares of two of the most unique breweries on earth: Cantillon and Jolly Pumpkin.

Cantillon are a family-owned concern in Brussels, Belgium that has been brewing traditional lambics for over 100 years. They're one of the few breweries still producing true, unadultrated lambics and as such they've become renowned amongst beer connoisseurs. Their beers are admittedly an aquired taste, as they are remarkably tart and dry, with strong flavours that get tagged with names like "funk" and "barnyard" and "horse-blanket". Yeah, they may not sound very appealing, but once you get a taste for 'em, there's really nothing like 'em.

As for Jolly Pumpkin, they're a much newer brewery that started up a few years ago in Dexter, Michigan. Unlike a lot of craft breweries that start out with a couple of popular styles - like pale ale or pilsner or stout - before starting on the weird shit, these guys went straight to the weird shit and never looked back. According to their website, they specialize in "open fermentation, oak barrel aging, and bottle conditioning", but that only begins to describe the wonderful and wacky beers that they produce. They only comperable brewery I can think of is Fantome, a Belgian farmhouse brewery that offers a similarly eclectic line-up of beers, many of which fall into the nebulous bière de garde category.

Along with a few other things, we managed to make it through eight of the nine pictured bottles. I didn't take notes on all of them as I'd tasted & reviewed a few of them before, but my thoughts on all of them, whether reviewed at this tasting or previously, can be found on their RateBeer pages linked here:

Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga (The Firefly) Belgian Ale
Jolly Pumpkin Bière de Mars Bière de Garde
Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza Bière de Garde
Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca Witbier
Jolly Pumpkin La Roja Bière de Garde
Cantillon Saint Lamvinus Fruit (Grape) Lambic
Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise Fruit (Raspberry) Lambic
Cantillon Iris Lambic

Friday, September 08, 2006

¡Viva Vienna!

Like wine, many classic beer styles - especially those from Europe - are named after the area where they were first produced. Pilsner was born in Pilsen, Czech Republic; Kölsch in Köln, Germany; Dortmunder in Dortmund, Germany; and Vienna Lager in... well, that one should be pretty obvious.

But unlike the others, Vienna Lager had a pretty short history of being brewed in its hometown. It was first brewed sometime around 1840 by Viennese brewmaster Anton Dreher, who found that the city's soft water allowed him to use lighter malts in his beer, lending it a mellow amber colour that was unique for the time. His methods and recipes ending up being borrowed and refined by brewers in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), leading to the creation of Pilsner, which in turn led to the creation of pretty much every pale lager beer in existence today.

Despite the popularity of the beers that the style spawned, the original Vienna style dwindled in popularity by the late 19th century, and probably would've died off completely were it not for its revival at the hands of a group of Austrians who had emigrated to Mexico. Even today, the most popular examples of the style - Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo - are Mexican, and while more and more North American microbreweries are crafting their own versions of this crisp and malty lager (including Ontario's Ste. Andre), it's rare to find a Vienna that is actually brewed in Vienna - or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter.

I recently met up with a fellow RateBeerian who had a weekend stopover in Toronto on his way from Mexico to Scotland where he goes to school, and he was kind enough to bring me a couple of beers from his home country that happened to be Viennas: Noche Buena from the large national brewery Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/FEMSA (also the producer of Sol and Tecate), and Santa Fé from the Beer Factory brewpub chain. I thought it would be interesting to sample them alongside the aforementioned Dos Equis Amber (Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma/FEMSA) and Negra Modelo (Grupo Modelo), so I brought them all along to a tasting with my usual crew the other night, and here's what we thought...

Dos Equis Amber
This one is almost as ubiquitous as Corona and Sol at most Mexican restaurants, so we all knew what to expect. It has a light caramel-amber colour with a small white head. The aroma holds sugary malt with some stale vegetal and cardboard notes - not very appealing. The body is watery, and the flavour is mild, tasting mainly of light caramel & sugar. Bland and inoffensive, just like a mass produced beer should be.

Negra Modelo
This beer is new to Ontario, but I first tried it when visiting San Diego last fall. It pours a dark, clear ruby-brown colour with a small tan head. The aroma is a bit stale, but still nice, with inviting malt and cocoa notes. The flavour is quite sweet, but also a bit roasty, with more hints of cocoa and a bit of caramel. Thin body, but it's otherwise more enjoyable than I expected, and certainly a step up from Dos Equis.

Noche Buena
This is a Christmas beer from the same mega-brewer that produces Dos Equis. It has a higher alcohol percentage than its more mainstream cousin (6% vs. 4.7%), and a slightly darker colour as well. The aroma has the expected sweet malt notes, along with an interesting herbal edge. The flavour starts quite sweet as well, but has a quickly appearing herbal bitterness, followed by a very short finish. Not bad, but the finish in particular is disappointing.

Santa Fé
Mexico is a country that is not exactly known as having much of a micro/craft beer culture, but the Beer Factory brewpub chain is one of a few brewers who seem to be trying to change that. Based on their take on the Vienna style, it appears that they're at least doing a better job at making beer than Mexico's big two. Santa Fé has a clear, dark amber colour with a small off-white head. The aroma isn't as sweet as the macros, but still has good hints of caramel and malt, with a faint smokiness as well. The flavour is very clean and fresh, with some bready malt and herbal hops. Simple, but enjoyable, and the unanimous favourite of the quartet.