Sunday, November 30, 2008

Terrapin India Style Brown Ale

A couple of weeks ago Michael - who lives in Atlanta - called me from Taco Mac, legendary (so I'm told, though I'm a little suspicious of the name) for their world-class beer list. He told me he'd just had a really hoppy Brown Ale, that it was amazing, and that I had to try it.

I told him that the beer he was describing was impossible, a contradiction, so he must have been wrong about what it was. I had no doubt that he'd had something to drink, and that he really liked that something. But a hoppy brown ale? It defied credulity.

Shifting into professor mode, I explained to him that the Brown Ale is a British style of beer known for its rich malting, but that it isn't particularly hoppy. In fact, all British styles go light on hops, as far as I know. Brits may have their Bitters, their Strong Bitters, and even their Extra Special Bitters, but none of those are, by contemporary American standards, particularly bitter. An American Pale Ale or an India Pale Ale, for example, while related to Bitters are, frankly, a great deal more bitter.

The Brown Ale, however, is mild even by British-style standards. Some of my favorite beers are Brown Ales, including the native-to-Louisville Bluegrass Brewing Company Nut Brown Ale. But they aren't known for their hoppiness. Derived from the English style Mild Ale, they are more more malty, thicker, and delightfully sweet.

But Michael, only 21 years old but by no means cowed by my knowledge of any subject - much less my relatively limited knowledge of beer - swore over and over again that what he'd had was a very hoppy Brown Ale. He looked it up on the menu and told me that it was called an India Style Brown Ale, and that it was brewed by Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Georgia.

I'd never heard of Terrapin, so he told me he'd try to pick up some bottles from them for me when he'd see me at my parents' house for Thanksgiving.

True to his word, the first thing he handed me when I arrived in Lexington, where my whole family converges every year for Thanksgiving (this year my poor mother had to find places for maybe 23 of us to sleep!) was a 12 pack sampler from Terrapin, featuring their Rye Pale Ale, their Golden Ale, their India Style Brown Ale, and their SunRay Wheat Beer. Those are the four beers they bottle year-round.

All I brought him, sad sack that I am, was a bottle of my favorite winter seasonal, the Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout (which he didn't like quite as much as Brewery Ommegang's Chocolate Indulgence) and a bottle of Sierra Nevada's winter warmer, aptly named Celebration Ale.

He also gave me a few other Georgia micro-brews, which I may write about later if they merit it and if I carve out the time to write about beer again. I'm most looking forward to tasting the Sweetwater Festive Ale that I'm currently cellaring.

But last night - finally home from juggling Thanksgiving with two families - I cracked open the 12 pack sampler from Terrapin. The first bottle I tried was the Rye Pale Ale, which I drank with dinner. While the idea - adding some rye extract to an American Pale Ale - seems bold, the end result was less adventurous than it sounds. What I tasted was a very drinkable if a little nondescript Pale Ale. More golden in color, a little thin, with a wispy head, it was hoppy without being overpowering. Not a bad effort, but it doesn't merit a post of its own, either.

After dinner - while watching another miserable Kentucky-Tennessee football game - I cracked open the India Style Brown Ale. If only the game were so lively!

It truly is a contradiction, a Brown Ale with 65 IBUs (International Bittering Units, a measure of the hops in a beer). It makes use of 6 different malts and 5 different kinds of hops to create an impressive hybrid between an IPA and a Brown Ale, keeping the biting hoppiness of the former while also preserving the sweetness and rich malting of the later. Deep brown in color, it was relatively thick, had a robust, white head, and finished smoothly for such a hopped-up beer.

I liked it, and eagerly anticipate the other two bottles of it sitting in my fridge. I'm glad Michael called to extol to me the virtues of this "impossible" beer!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yuengling Original Black & Tan

I tried several new beers on our recent trip to Holden Beach. The best, and most notable, of these was the pint of the Duck Rabbit's Milk Stout that I had in the hotel bar in Chapel Hill while I was sulking about not being able to make it to the Carolina Brewery. The most interesting, however, might have been the Yuengling Original Black & Tan, a pre-blended packaged beer (more on what that means later).

Yuengling, which traces its history back to 1829, advertises itself as the oldest brewery in America, and I won't argue with that. Based out of Pottsville, PA, it is now - after the InBev acquisition of Anheuser-Busch - the second-largest domestically-owned brewery in the US, behind only Boston Beer Co. (of Samuel Adams fame).

The Black & Tan is one of seven different beers offered by Yuengling, though as noted above it is a blended beer rather than a discrete beer in and of itself. Traditionally a Black & Tan is one of many different blends that a bartender might offer, a mixture of a dark ale (a stout or a porter) and either a pale ale or a lager. Now companies like Yuengling are offering pre-blended beers in bottles, mixed at the brewery rather than your local pub, and for sale in your friendly neighborhood grocery of liquor store. (For a comprehensive list of the various Black & Tans now available pre-blended, and consumer reviews of them, see here.)

I picked up a six-pack of Yuengling Original Black & Tan at the beach mart on the island at Holden Beach, and I did it for three reasons. First, staying with our extended family (with my lager-loving father as the other main beer drinker) I was really jonesin' for a dark beer. Second, the Yuengling Black & Tan was one of only two dark ales available on the island. The other was the perfectly safe but thoroughly unexciting Newcastle Brown Ale.

Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with a Newcastle Brown Ale. It is perfectly drinkable, with a nice, smooth flavor. In fact, when I'm out in what my family politely calls "normal" places (that is, away from those fine establishments that cater to beer geeks) either it or a Guinness is my default beer. But I've had it a time or two. I know exactly what it will do for me. Safe, sure. But what about romance? What about variety? What about the thrill of the unknown.

For me, at least, the Yuengling Original Black & Tan was a thoroughly unknown quantity. Thus it had to be tried. It just begged me to buy it.

That begging was most successful because of the third reason I picked it up: the price tag. At a svelte $5.49 for a six-pack, I simply couldn't resist.

The Yuengling Original Black & Tan is a blend of their Dark Brewed Porter and their Yuengling Premium Beer, a pilsner. It is dark - almost black, like a porter - and has a robust head when poured. It smells a great deal sweeter than a porter, and for good reason: it isn't one. Also, while it has the roasted, almost burnt, malty flavor of a porter, with hints of dark chocolate, it goes down a fair amount smoother, and is less complex. The pilsner mellows out the aggression of the porter.

As a fan of rich, complex, almost abrasive dark ales, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this Black & Tan. At first it struck me as a porter that lost its nerve. But then I realized that I was judging it unfairly. As I've noted a few times, it isn't a porter. I keep pointing that out because several of the reviews a the Beer Advocate made the mistake of judging it as such. It is a blend of a porter and a pilsner.

As I'm typing this (Saturday night, though this won't post until Sunday morning) I'm finally polishing off the last of the six-pack I bought at the beach, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. It is a more-than-drinkable beer, at an exceptional price. But I've never been a fan of blended beers, and this is no exception. Worth the money, no doubt, but - despite the fact that I bought it expressly for this purpose - there's no real romance. Just a decent beer at a cheap price.

The price-point, in fact, is ultimately the real selling point. I'd certainly rather drink this than a macro-lager, and they are comparably priced.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Browning's Brew Pub

[Update, 11-14-08: I've recently learned that Browning's went out of business last month. Sad times, when the economic downturn takes out a local brewery.]

One of my favorite beer mantras is drink locally. Not only does drinking locally help support local businesses, it also helps increase the quality and diversity of the beer available where you live. If your city can support a locally brewery, it can most likely also cultivate a market for better imports and craft beers.

To that end, in Louisville, we beer lovers are delightfully spoiled. There are four different brew-pubs in the Louisville area - three in Louisville proper (Bluegrass Brewing Company, Browning's, and Cumberland Brews), and another just across the river, in New Albany, IN (New Albanian Brewing Company). Each local brew-pub crafts a wide variety of beers, offering a mixture of brews made year-round and seasonals. You can find almost any style of beer you'd want, and find it locally.

Knowing my passion for local beer, Sami - who says she doesn't like beer, though I've been working on her - has resigned herself to dining in local brew-pubs in those rare moments when we can actually eat out. She even bravely pretends to enjoy herself.

Going above and beyond her duty to occasionally put up with my culinary eccentricities, for our anniversary she even suggested that we go to a local brew-pub, Browning's.

Browning's has a fantastic location, on Main Street downtown, sharing a converted old warehouse building with Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Cincinnati Red's Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Bats. We were hoping to package dinner with a baseball game, but alas the Bats were out of town.

Before we even arrived at the brew-pub, I had my evening planned out. I was going to have their Louis XVI Guillotine ESB with dinner, and follow it with their Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout. The ESB - despite the incongruence of having a British-style ale named after a French monarch, which could only happen in Louisville, named, as we are, after Louis XVI - is a pretty damn good beer, one of my two Browning's regulars (along with another British-style ale, their John Shield's Blacksmith Porter). The Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout I'd never had, though I like the Bluegrass Brewing Company's Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout, a local favorite.

Bourbon barrel ales are made by brewing an ale - usually a dark one, like a stout or a porter, though the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is an amber - and then aging it in a used bourbon barrel. This creates both a stronger beer and a more complex flavor, as the beer both goes through an additional fermentation and takes on some of the flavor of the bourbon barrel. Because bourbon is native to Kentucky, and because it is illegal for a distillery to reuse the charred oak barrels that bourbon is aged in, there are several different kinds of bourbon barrel ales made in Kentucky. It is a kind of local specialty, a way to reuse bourbon barrels without violating the laws concerning the production of bourbon. The end result is often quite a treat.

However, I had neither the Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout nor the ESB, because when we arrived at Brownings I scanned the Seasonals list, and spied two beers I just had to try.

The first was the 80 Schilling Scotch Ale, which I started just before our meal and finished with our meal. It had a promising beginning. The color was amber/brown, which shone red when held up to the light. The aroma was both sweet and complex, with hints of caramel and vanilla. However, the head was thin and dissipated quickly. Still, I put it to my lips anticipating, based on the aroma, a very good beer.

Alas, what I got was both thin and weak. It was very drinkable, and it didn't taste bad. Rather, it simply didn't taste enough, if that makes any sense. The promise of a rich, complex flavor made by the aroma was left unfulfilled. There simply wasn't enough malting.

It was by no means a bad beer. It just didn't live up to its promise, and was vastly inferior to, say, Schlafly's Scotch-Style Ale. I'm glad I tried it, but I would have been better off sticking with the ESB or the Porter.

The other beer I tried was their Belgian Quad. A strong, dark, Belgian-style ale is my all time favorite beer, and this promised to be just that. It had alcohol aplenty (the waiter couldn't remember if it was 11% or 13% ABV, but whichever, it was certainly enough!), and was thus served in a half-pint rather than a pint. It was also certainly dark, mixing browns and blacks, and nearly opaque when held to the light. The aroma was, surprisingly, more subtle than that of the Scotch Ale, and as I put it to my lips, mildly depressed by the failure of the previous beer, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Instead I was startled. Richly malted, the Quad opened up a whole universe of complex flavors, delighting my palate, tickling my tongue. It was well crafted, by no means thin, and certainly not weak. I'd hold it up there with almost any domestic copy of a dark Belgian ale. In fact, it reminded me most of Brewery Het Anker's Gouden Carolus "Grand Cru of the Emperor."

So, if the dinner beer was a dud, the dessert beer more than made up for it.

On a final note, if you happen to find yourself in Louisville sometime, check out the local beer. It won't disappoint.


Here's what the Beer Advocate community thinks about Browning's.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout

The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville, North Carolina, specializes in well crafted dark beers. I stumbled upon their Milk Stout by accident on our recent trip to North Carolina.

After visiting Holden Beach, where my grandmother grew up in my great-grandmother's house, which was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 (according to family legend, the air-pressure in the house was so great that, even though the house was lifted off its foundation, tossed through the air, and landed several blocks from where it once stood, when my family went to clean up the damage none of the dishes in the cabinets had broken!), we visited my grandparents in Chapel Hill. While there I'd hoped to visit the Carolina Brewery. Whenever I travel I like to sample local beers.

However - even though my uncles were in town from Ohio and Texas, respectively, and even though my grandfather likes to visit the Brewery often - I couldn't talk anyone into going with me on the only night we would be in Chapel Hill. Dejected, I wandered around our hotel to see if it had a bar, and, if so, what their beer list looked like.

I stumbled into the bar right after we put Adam to bed, and asked the lone bartender - more interested in the pre-season football game on the TV than anything else - what they had on tap.

"Well, we used to have (insert generic American light lager - I can't remember if it was Bud Light or Coors Light, or maybe Miller Light) but we just ran out."

"Damn. Oh well, I was hoping for something local, anyway."

His eyes lit up.

"Local?!? Do you like dark beers? There's a great brewery just down that road over there," he said, pointing to his left, though as we were enclosed, with no roads visible behind the interior walls of the hotel bar, I couldn't tell what he might have been pointing at. "The Duck-Rabbit, in a little town called Farmville. They make the best beer around."

Then he handed me a bottle of their Milk Stout, and a pub glass to pour it in.

It was, simply put, one of the best stouts I've ever had. Dark black, and thick, with a cream colored head. Thickly malted, but mildly sweet. It had a rich, complex flavor, but still went down smooth (and, in a world in which words like "smooth" and "refreshing" are euphemisms for "tasteless," that's really saying something). In beer form, it reminded me of everything that I loved about a dark chocolate malted milkshake growing up. But it was no child's candy beverage, but a deep, rich, robust dark ale.

I'm sure I'll visit Chapel Hill again soon, since, in addition to my grandparents living there, I am considering UNC for my PhD studies (not my first choice, but definitely on the list). When I do, I have no doubt I'll finally make it to the Carolina Brewery. But they'll have some stiff competition on their hands if they want to convince me they have the region's best beer.


Here's what the Beer Advocate community thinks about the Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout.