a compilation of musings on one of the world's oldest beverages...and a few other topics.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why beer? (plus some reviews)

I suppose I’ve had decent exposure to craft beers and imports ever since my college days. Despite my fratty past, it wasn’t all kegstands of Red Dog and shotguns of Beast. A Sam Adams here, a Sierra Nevada there. Even a few Hitachino Nest beers. But it’s only been within the last five years that my appreciation for better beers crystallized into a full-blown hobby (obsession?). It was only a matter of time probably. I’ve been very much into whiskeys of all kinds, and wine as well. With my ex-pastry chef wife and deli-owning parents, food is very important to me, and what meal is complete without a perfectly complementary beverage?

These days, there are very few things more enjoyable for me than discovering a truly eye-opening new beer. Funny enough, what I’ve discovered over the years is that my tastes run to two polar opposites. On the one hand, I like big malt-forward, flavorful Belgians and American strong ales - Stone products and all manner of Belgian-style tripels are at the top. But at the same time, light, subtle Saison styles are also among my favorites. And don’t even try to get me to choose one favorite beer, or even a single style. In my mind, it’s a bit like music appreciation - anyone who can name a single favorite band probably hasn’t heard enough bands. In much the same way, one of the great aspects of beer is surely the sheer variety of styles that exists.

So why so much attention on a product that is so ubiquitous? Why glorify something that you can often find some of the very best of - as opposed to say, fine wines - for under $15 at your local shop? As both Megan and I have noted, there is the issue of underexposure - a large swath of the public has very little awareness of the heights to which beer can rise. As a dedicated aficionado (“connoisseur” might be a bit much) of the worlds of whiskey and wine, I have found that beers can be every bit as versatile, complex, and mind-blowingly flavorful as its more powerful brethren. But aside from the here-and-now enjoyment factor, there is the historical element that appeals to me. Depending on who you ask, beer in some form or another dates back some 9000 years or so, predating both liquor and wine. It has served as currency, sustenance, and cultural touchstone for civilizations spanning the globe. In places where the water was non-potable, it literally saved lives by providing a safe means of hydration. With just a handful of ingredients and an astoundingly simple (and in the beginning, probably accidental) biochemical process, it has come to change the course of our history as a species. A whole lot of effort has been expended to fine-tune beer; to bring it from its near-alchemic nascency to its current status as a scientific - if still somewhat fickle - process. That in itself, is something to be respected and appreciated.

Now, as a beer blog, we intend to do our fair share of straight-up reviews, so I might as well get the ball rolling. As the East Coast contingent of our little blog, I am of course, the only one of the contributors to get the kind of weather that would traditionally be thought of as appropriate for consumption of so-called “winter warmer” styles (sorry, ladies, I know California CAN get cold weather, but I’m the only one digging myself out of about six inches of snow over here!). So I thought it appropriate to do a few reviews on some of these beers that I picked up from my latest trip to Total Wine in Sterling, Va.

- Full Sail Wassail -
The Skinny: Rich, candied fruit malt, but a medium-thick mouthfeel that keeps things from getting overwhelming. Dark chocolate notes. Citrus rind hops bring up the rear, but don’t wander into bitter territory.
The Takeaway: Smooth, smooth, smooth … a highly drinkable representation of this style. No need for overt spicing here.
Grade: A-

- Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve -
The Skinny: Fruity sweet malt, with low carbonation, and light hopping made this somewhat boring on the tongue for me. The almost tropical aroma and flavor aren’t really my thing, but this could have been addressed with a more pronounced hop/citrus character to even things out. The 7.2% ABV is well-integrated.
The Takeaway: Flat and nondescript, but not at all bad. Won’t be seeking it out though.
Grade: B-

- Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale -
The Skinny: Awesome, cranberry/cherry, nutmeg/cinnamon brown-sugar cookie nose. Big and malty. The flavor follows through on that promise, with a mouth-filling dry bourbon/toffee element, and satisfying yeasty bread notes too. Bitter hops settle in during a long, but clean finish.
The Takeaway: A well-regarded beer, and for good reason. This just shot up my list of favorite winter warmers, sidling up alongside Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale.
Grade: A-

That’s all for now. Cheers!

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