Wednesday, January 29, 2014

America’s Beer Renaissance: Consumer Choice and Variety in the U.S. Beer Market

I was born in 1982. Only a few years before my glorious arrival there were a meager 44 breweries in the United States. Today, the red, white, and blue proudly boasts 2,722 breweries with an additional 1,744 in the planning stages to open in the future. That kind of growth is hard to fathom and has played a massive role in giving consumers something they were yearning for only 30 some odd years ago; consumers now have a choice.

The beer industries growth during my lifetime has been nothing short of amazing and while there is plenty of positive to focus on (that which I'm only overlooking for the purpose of this post), I wouldn't be me if I didn't take a moment to give my "yeah, but" on a topic that means so much to me. Yes, the beer industry is booming and growing at an incredible pace. Beer drinkers in America are happier than they've ever been, but I'm beginning to ask myself if it is time we start asking when is too much simply too much.

I'm not even talking about "the bubble" in this case. Economics aside, simply trying to choose a 6-pack is a serious undertaking nowadays. I walked into a store on a Friday not so long ago looking to pick out a 6-pack and a bomber for the weekend and it turned into quite the drawn out event. This particular store has a good selection of craft beer, but it's small pickings compared to some of the other booze distributing behemoths in the area. Heading into the store I didn't possess a plan in regards to the beers I would be selecting, but I figured I could freestyle myself into something good within five minutes. Instead, I circled the store like a lost puppy completely confused as to what I wanted. I was asked if I needed help at least three times, but I declined each time not having a clue which direction I wanted the sales clerk to pull me in. I've tried roughly 600 distinct beers in the last 3+ years. Yes, that's small time compared to some of the more intense beer chasers out there, but it's more than enough to have a good idea as to what I like. I read about beer every single day and obviously I write about our fermented friend. On top of all of that, I brew 6-8 times per year so you'd think a decision on beer wouldn't be so difficult.

But it was difficult and I think it's because there are already just way to many choices out there. And despite having over 2,700 breweries to turn to, so much of  it is essentially the same thing. IPA's pop up left and right, but how many of them actually need to find their way to the market? How many are truly adding something unique to the landscape? There are great IPA's out there and thank the hop gods for that, but for every exciting slam dunk of an IPA there are ten that come out that taste, look, and smell like every other run of the mill IPA already on the market. At $9 and up for a beer, it's too expensive for me to keep guessing what's going to be good and at that price I expect to get my dollars worth. I love that we all have a choice now, but I'm not looking forward to having even more beer to choose from knowing that far too many of those that await are beers that we don't need and will only contribute to an already difficult choice.

Let's take a look at Stone Brewing Co. Their brewery alone released 74 beers in 2013 and that's not including what they consider their standard offerings. That's simply too much. There's variety and choice and then there is new for the sake of making new. How many of these beers really added something truly different from beers they already produce? A handful, maybe? So, who not focus on perfecting those beers and taking them to the next level. Flooding the market with something every time a new hop finds its way to your brewery isn't innovative. I wouldn't expect a restaurant to put out 74 different variations of a hamburger in a year just because they like having fun with different types of salt and pepper. On the same token, I don't feel the need for breweries to release endless variations of generally the same beer just because they want to use new hops or ship out 3 different versions of the same beer with one minor tweak. The NEW NEW NEW angle is simply a marketing ploy used to take advantage of the craft beer communities obsession with always going for the next new thing. Other breweries see the success brewers have spitting out beer after beer and before you know it they feel like they need to start throwing out infinite seasonals and one-off's to keep people's attention. Instead of having a shelves full of well thought out perfected over time beers we have shelves filled to the brim with beers offering the same basic thing someone else already did all in the effort to keep up and keep beer enthusiasts interested. The whole "limited release" thing is much the same. As consumers, we wanted choice and now we've got it.  Now it's time we start showing how choosy we can be. Do we need a billion pumpkin beers? IPA's? Imperial fill in the blanks? No. What we need from craft beer is to really put the craft in craft and as consumers it's our job to demand that of our breweries.

From a business perspective, I don't fault anyone for making decisions based on what they know will sale. Stone or any other brewery should do what they know will bring the green in. What I hope for is that we get to a point as a beer drinking community where we begin to become much more discerning about the beers we select, choosing beers based on merit and quality. I want my beer to be the sole speaker as to it's quality, not the fact that a brewery threw a new hop into the boil the second it got its hands on something new.

We're to the point now that on average a person lives within 10 miles of a brewery. Taking into consideration the continued growth of the industry mentioned up top, you've got to imagine the miles to brewery number will only continue to lessen. It's great that there is so much out there for all of us to enjoy and that it doesn't require a 4 hour journey to acquire the beer we want, but how many of these newer breweries are necessary? How many are going to produce offerings that make them stand out from the crowd? We need to start looking to the best option and not the newest or most rare. We need beers and breweries that are at the top of their game so that trips to the beer shop don't turn into tossups when it comes to picking out a new beer. It's not enough for a brewery to simply produce a beer that's better than the can of Bud our Dad's grew up on. We're past that point. Now's the time to expect more of our existing craft breweries and realize that more breweries is the wrong talking point to consider when we're discussing what is a healthy beer market in the USA. Despite what the cute 5 year old girl from the AT&T commercials thinks, more is not always better and I'd like to think the beer community is a little more evolved than the group featured below.

Thirty-five years ago, I think it's fair to say that the USA was a beer wasteland. Overall, we had a whole lot of nothing on offer. Thankfully, those days are behind us and we now have plenty to choose from. But let's not allow our enthusiasm blind us to the fact going from one extreme to the other could be just as damaging. We wanted a choice and today we have that. Check that one off. Goal Complete. But now that we have a choice, let's move on to bigger and better things. Let's look at the beer we have and stop worrying about the beer we don't have or the beer that's next. What are we doing good? Where can we do better? What's going to separate USA craft beer from the rest of the world? Is it going to be the fact that we have a variety of the best beer on offer anywhere in the world? Or is it going to be the fact that our shelves have evolved from  a handful of choices to one where our shelves resemble a well organized flea market and we're spending 90% of our trip at the beer store clawing through mediocrity hoping to find that one gem? I think you know where I want to go, and I hope you're with me.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Maryland Beer Reviews: Baltimore Washington Beer Works Tell Tale Heart IPA

Back with another video review. This time I'm talking Baltimore Washington Beer Works Tell Tale Heart IPA. Still working out my camera presence and all that, but this'll do for now. 

One thing I noticed was that as this beer warmed up was the astringency I experienced early on became less and less to the point that it became a very balanced beer and the cattiness become less prominent while the citrus balanced out and the malt began to pop it's head out more. 

This is something I've noticed with a lot of beers I drink. What I think about a beer initially can be totally different by the time I'm down at the bottom of the pint. I'm aware of how temperature can affect taste and I did let it warm up prior to filming, but still, this beer didn't really fully open up to me until the the second half of the drink. This made me realize that I don't think a quick sniff and taste is a fair way to review a beer, and so I'll be changing up my review format a bit to accommodate for my beerpoloar disorder from here on out. 

Beer: Baltimore Washington Beer Works Tell Tale Heart
Style: IPA
ABV: 7.3%
IBU: 50

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hanging with the Brewer: Redbrick Station's Mike McDonald

Late last week when my fiance Deana realized we had Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day she mentioned that it might be a good time to finally get all of our Xmas decorations put away. I agreed and then promptly went about figuring a way to get out of participating. A few minutes later, I had an e-mail out to the fine folks of Redbrick Station inquiring about meeting with their brewer, Mike McDonald. They were kind enough to agree to a meetup. Needless to say, hanging out with Mike beat Deana's day of stuffing reindeer into plastic bins by a considerable amount.

Being that we recently turned the page on a new year I decided that one of things I want to bring to the blog is a lot more interaction with local breweries. I chose to start off with Redbrick Station for a variety of reasons. Out of all the brewpubs in the area, I've spent more time in their establishment than any other. I can walk there from work and I only live 10 minutes away making every day the perfect day to sit down with pint there. I also decided to start with Redbrick Station because I really love what they are doing there and yet I feel like they don't always get the attention from local beer connoisseurs that they should.

So I asked Mike, who has been brewing for 22 years (16 with Redbrick) just that. Did he ever consider what Redbrick's nitch was within the Maryland Beer scene? His answer was very refreshing. Most all of the beer he brews is sold within the walls of the brewpub and so he's making beer for the people that walk through their doors every day. He's not brewing for himself or spending time looking at the landscape of Maryland beer and trying to keep with the trends. At the end of the day, Mike's using his 14 barrel system to produce sessionable (more often that not) English style beers that guys like me can enjoy two or three of with dinner before we head home for the evening.

On that front, Mike's doing a damn fine job. A big thing in craft beer these days is pairing food with beer. In my experience, I find this to be a challenge because of craft beers tendency to go big on everything. Yeah, there are beers that pair easily but there are far too many I don't want anywhere near my pint glass when I'm eating. At Redbrick, their beers are well balanced and work well as a standalone beer or something to help wash down whatever food you have in front of you. In other words, the beers are flavorful but they aren't so over the top that you find your tastebuds hosting a battle royale between beer flavors and food flavors.

On a different note but along the same theme, the well balanced nature of Mike's beers make them perfect for carrying on conversations. As much as I love admiring a beer for it's color, aroma, taste, head retention, lacing, mouth feel....(you get the point)....there are times where I just want a beer that tastes good and isn't going to get in the way of a conversation. Better yet, I don't always want a beer that's going to be the conversation. After work, all I want to do is unwind with a good beer and relax for a little bit. There is a time for getting overly precious with my beer and then there are times when all I want is a good old fashioned beer delivered to me in a simple but delicious way. Creating unassuming but fantastic beers is a skill unto itself and something I wish more people took notice of. Mike nails these types of beers at Redbrick and given that they style themselves as an English Style Pub, the nature of Redbrick's beers are right in line with where they ought to be.

In addition to their staple beers that consist of Avenue Ale, Honeygo Lite, Spooners Stout, Something Red, and Daily Crisis IPA (their top seller) Mike usually has one or two seasonal's on tap. Yesterday, I enjoyed Winter Solstice on cask and it was delicious. It was nutty with a nice mix of caramel and toffee and would go perfectly as I work on this post while it's 20 degrees outside and we're 6 inches deep in snow. A few other favorite seasonals are a Blueberry Ale known as They Made Me Do It and a Watermelon Beer called Cerveza Sandia. Trust me when I say Cerveza Sandia is one of the most refreshing local beers going at the end of a hot summer. Neither of these beers (or any Redbrick beer for that matter) use extracts and remain true to their base beer while offering subtle hints of fruit. If you don't like fruit beers these are definitely a few to try.

Another thing they do really well is cask ale and I give Redbrick a lot of credit for turning me onto cask. When I first started getting into beer I didn't really know what cask beer was but it was at Redbrick where I learned just how different a beer can become simply by serving a beer through a cask instead of the traditional CO2 fed system I was used to. Mike prefers to throw Ave Ale in the cask and dry hop it, but all the beers minus Honegyo Lite are fair game for cask treatment. Personally, my two favorite cask offerings are Daily Crisis and Something Red. Something about the rounded soft flavors make these beers extra quaffable.

Something that make Redbrick's beers unique are the fact that they use open fermentation. I wasn't previously aware of this fact, and I won't pretend to tell you what flavors I can pick up on their beers that arise via open fermentation, but it's something not everyone does and I'm always a fan of the road less traveled. Mike also informed me that he doesn't mess with water chemistry. Once upon a time he might have tried to recreate Burton upon Trent water but found that White Marsh water worked just fine. Being that water is the main ingredient in beer, if you're a fan of drinking local you can drink easy knowing that the water, and hence the beer, is as local as local gets.

If you haven't had a chance to try Redbrick out recently be sure to stop back in and give them a taste. Yes, I know some of you won't want to make the trip out to of the city and into the suburbs, but don't let that stop you from getting some. The Wharf Rat almost always has something of Mike's on offer. And just as an FYI to any curious readers, I got to taste a Barleywine that was fermented in an Oak Barrel and it was out of this world good. It's more along the lines of an English Style Barleywine with hints of citrus, sweet malt, and a bit of spice throw in from the Oak. I loved it now and hope to get a taste in the future because it's only going to get better as it ages another couple months. Be on the lookout for that one down the line as it's going to be very limited.

Lastly, but most important I'd like to thank Mike and the people at Redbrick Station for allowing me to come in and take up some of their valuable time. It was a day well spent, full of great information, good beer, and a heck of conversation with Mike McDonald. See you next Tuesday for $1 beers!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ropewalk Tavern

A few weeks ago, in between discussing Eastbound and Down and Tiger Woods 2008 at The Wharf Rat, I got into a conversation about favorite bars in the area. I mentioned that I don't venture over to Federal Hill as much as I should, but that I always liked stopping by Ropewalk Tavern when I was met with an "Eww, really? Isn't that a Republican bar?" I know there are random pieces of Ronald Reagan memorabilia scattered throughout, but really, who gives a damn? I go there because it's usually not packed (at least the hours I'm there), the beer selection (especially bottle) is pretty good, and the sandwiches are quality. Nobody asked me who I voted for when I asked for ketchup with my fries, so if you share the concern that you're *gasp* in a Republican bar you're safe.

Anyway, on to the food. I don't remember what we were on that side of town for, but we decided a simple dinner of sandwiches was in order. Deana ordered a Turkey and Brie sandwich and I decided to temp fate and go with the Sgt York burger.

The Turkey and Brie was awesome. As much as I loved my burger, I had restaurant decision envy the whole time we were eating because Deana's sandwich was just that good. A big pile of juicy turkey, melted salty brie, sweet honey mustard, a few slices of apple, lettuce and tomato were all piled inside a soft pretzel roll. It was great. I really loved how the apples added a nice crisp bite to an otherwise soft sandwich and the contrast between sweet honey mustard and salty brie was really fun. The fries served on the side were also much better than you're standard fare. 

My Sgt York burger was also a winner. The burger itself had really good char flavor and the fried jalapeno rings (hence my aforementioned tempting of fate) added solid but not overpowering heat. It was also topped with melted pepper jack cheese and a chipotle mayo, but neither of those really stood out to me. Perhaps because the burger was so full of that delicious char flavor my taste buds weren't interested in seeking out other flavors. Whatever the case, the Sgt York burger is a good choice for anyone that likes a little spice with their burger. 

As I mentioned up top, this is one of my favorite Fed Hill bars and one I'd recommend to anyone who wants a good beer and some really good sandwiches. Ropewalk isn't fancy, it's just good and every time I've been there that's been enough for me. 

Price: Average
Recommendation: A winner for all, no matter your political affiliation.
What to Order: Turkey and Brie

Ropewalk Tavern on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Maryland Beer Reviews: Full Tilt Brewing Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout

I've been looking for ways to spruce up the blog and video reviews are something I've wanted to do for quite a long time. You would think that talking to a camera about beer is easy, but alas, it is quite the opposite. It took me 3 beers over two different nights to get this to be simply okay. Hopefully, I can grow into being in front of a camera and this will develop into something everyone will enjoy.

The Maryland beer I chose to review to open up 2014 was Full Tilt Brewing's Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout. Watch the video to hear my thoughts and if you have a Youtube account please subscribe to the channel.

Beer: Full Tilt Brewing Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout
Style: Sweet Stout
ABV: 6%
IBU: 36

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Thai

I like Thai food. I mean, I really, really, really like it. It's not the type of cuisine I grew up eating, but ever since I was introduced to Spice & Dice in Towson it's become one of my favorite types of food to seek out. Their ability to blend spicy, sweet, tangy, herbaceous flavors is something to behold. So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to My Thai a little while back.

Given that the name of the restaurant was My Thai it only felt naturally to order one. Obviously, I'm more of a beer guy and don't usually go for mixed drinks but My Thai came through with some tasty cocktails. My Thai's My Thai consists of Raspberry Rum, Van Gogh Dutch Caramel vodka, and orange and pineapple juice. Overall, it was a very sweet forward drink with the Raspberry Rum coming through most prominently. Typically, I'd save a sweet drink like this for after dinner, but  the My Thai does well to combat some of the spicy dishes you might be in store for. Pictured below is their Sugar Cane Punch which is a mix of Anejo 7 year rum, orange and pineapple juice, sugar cane, muddled citrus,and cherry. In comparison to the My Thai the punch was much more citrusy and the rum packed a fairly strong burn on the way down. But that's just fine by me. Afterall, if I'm drinking liquor I want to feel the heat

For an appetizer, we started off with lettuce wraps. Other than a Wedge Salad there is no better way to experience iceberg lettuce than a lettuce wrap. The cool, crisp texture  of the lettuce leaf is the perfect vessel to place their mixture of tender chicken, fresh onion and peppers, cilantro, and spicy citrus vinaigrette. This might be the ultimate appetizer due to it's ability to pack a wallop of flavor while at the same time remaining light and leaving plenty of room for your dinner ahead. 

Speaking of dinner, I choose Red Curry while Deana selected Pad Thai. I loved the curry. There were tons of fresh vegetables such as peas, carrots and eggplant,chicken, and the sauce was a nice contrast of spicy, sweet and creamy. I particularly liked the texture of the curry as it was thicker like a sauce and not so much broth like. I prefer when curry sauce can kind of sit on top of rice as opposed to seeping through. Most important of all, the Thai Basil (my favorite of the Basils) and it's unique anise flavor was used in just the right amount. 

Deana's Pad Thai was every bit as full of flavor. The Pad Thai was a rice noodle dish mixed with chicken, sprouts, egg, peanuts and tamarind sauce. It was surprisingly creamy and also slightly tangy thanks to the tamarind sauce which Deana really enjoyed. Peanuts served on the side end up becoming a nice contrast of texture in comparison to an otherwise crunchless affair.  

Fans of Thai food and those of you looking to try something new would serve yourselves well to try out My Thai. The food is fresh and full of a myriad of delicious flavors. From starting our meal with mixed drinks down to the last bite of Red Curry our dinner at My Thai was one to remember. 

Price: About Average
Recommendation: Great place to experience good cocktails and fantastic Thai food
What to Order: Everything I mentioned above was great, but I wouldnt pass on the mixed drink or lettuce wraps

My Thai on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 6, 2014

My Favorite Baltimore Bars: The Wharf Rat

Before the Holidays Deana and I drove from Burb to Baltimore to do a little last minute Xmas shopping when an impromptu trip to The Wharf Rat had me thinking it was time I resurrect the "My Favorite Baltimore Bars" series after such a long sabbatical.

For a variety of reasons December isn't my favorite time of year and I couldn't wait until my winter vacation began. This year the weight of the season was feeling particularly heavy and so on the first of what ended up being twelve days of freedom I decided I was going to blow off a little steam via alcohol induced bliss while we picked out a few last minute Xmas gifts at the Bavarian Christmas Village. For those of you that missed out on the Village this year be sure to seek it out next year. It was filled with tons of awesome one of kind of items that I know made at least two grandmothers happy.

Anyway, before we got down to the Village we decided to make our first visit to World of Beer for lunch (a future post altogether) since it was on our way. We only meant to have a bite to eat and a beer, but with their beer menu and my winter vacation excitement fermenting over we decided to stick around for quite a few more (Brewers Art Bird House Cask, Karlovacko, New Belgium Wild2, and Southern Tier Krampus). Needless to say, despite Krampus's best effort I was full of the Christmas Spirit by the time we made our way to the Village and after picking out a few gifts I was in no mood to let the revelry come to a premature end. We decided to head over to Fells Point, but I was hoping to avoid being clustered in a massive crowd after dealing with a plethora of bipeds at the Harbor. My only other ask of the next imbibing destination was the offering of good beer. The first  place I could think of that met my criteria was The Wharf Rat and so to South Ann Street we went.

Pick a reason why someone might love a bar and this place has it. 

Beer Selection - I don't recall how many taps they have exactly, but I know they offer around 10-15 different beers on tap plus an additional 3 or 4 on cask. In the past year or so I've become a big fan of cask ale and this is probably my favorite place to grab a pint right now. On this particular day, Yards ESA was going down especially easy. And the Sly Fox Chester County Bitter made me feel a little less so.

Food - I can't say that I've sampled all of their menu, but I can definitely vouch for their pizza. Each time I've ordered a pie, I've been more than impressed with the quality of pizza coming out of such a tiny kitchen. In fact, the kitchen is literally right behind the bar. One second your bartender might be facing you pouring a beer and the next they could be turned around rolling out dough for your pizza. Fresh pizza made from scratch right before you while you're downing a delicious pint is something I think we can all get behind. 

Ambiance - Just as important to a bar as the food and beer is the ambiance. You want to feel relaxed when you're there and The Wharf Rat provides a great environment in which to relax. I know it's often said that such and such place feels like home, but this place really nails down the home away from home vibe. The inside is wall to wall warmly lit wood and brick and the stairs that can be found along the back wall had me wishing that they were steps up to my very own loft so that I could visit them again as soon as my batteries were recharged.

Bartenders and Friendly Patrons - This is the real reason I love The Wharf Rat as much as I do. It's one of the few places where you can have a good conversation with strangers. The Bartenders are friendly and full of personality and I can't remember laughing harder than I did talking nonsense with the stranger next to me. He started off by informing me that my beard had him "mad envious" and after trading beard care strategies (FYI, I don't have one) he had me cracking up discussing the finer moments of Kenny Powers and Eastbound and Down and his semi luddite ways. Very rarely are you going to have an amusing conversation about someone just discovering HDMI cables and their apprehension to play any video game post Tiger Woods 2008, but at The Wharf Rat that's the kind of conversations you'll find yourself in. 

I walked in that day full of the stresses of December but by the end of my unexpected trip to a simple little bar my soul had been rejuvenated and made whole again thanks in large part to the people and drinks of The Wharf Rat. It's a bar that I know I'll visit again and again and one you should put on your must visit list the next time you're in Fells Point.

  Wharf Rat on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Session #83 - Against the Grain

This month's Session is hosted by Rebecca Patrick of The Bake and Brew and she'd like to know when we find ourselves going against the grain of the greater beer world. 

In 1993 I was an eleven year old boy psyched out of my mind to go see Jurassic Park. All I needed to see was a shot of a T-Rex to get amped up, but after what seemed like every kid I knew coming out of theaters loving the movie I couldn't wait to finally watch it myself. And what was my reaction after seeing it for the first time? I can still remember taking a break from swimming one day that summer and saying to my friend "Eh, it was good, but not as good as everyone says it was". No matter how good that movie was or wasn't it didn't stand a chance of living up to the expectations I put upon it after hearing everyone go bananas the first two weeks of its release. It was only after distancing myself from the hysteria that was 65 million years in the making that I was able to watch Jurassic Park and enjoy it for what it is. Eventually, it became one of the favorite movies of my childhood but I always wondered if I wouldn't have been so let down after my first viewing if I went in without any preconceived notions as to what the movie would be. 

That experience has shaped the way I've viewed other's opinions ever since. Yes, their opinions are just as valid as mine and some are more trustworthy than others, but I'm very careful about how closely I listen before I've had the chance to experience something for myself. Now that I'm 31 and beer is one of my biggest interests I try to never forget eleven year old Doug's Dino disappointment. I avoid almost all beer rating sites or anything that involves the giving of opinions galore. For the most part, I don't care what people think are the best or worst beers. When I listen to beer reviews, I rarely stick around for the final rating. Just give me the adjectives and that's enough to help me determine whether or not I want to try something. Is a beer citrusy, piney, malty, fruity, sticky, oily, pungent, sulfury? Adjectives I can work with and use to help determine if a beer is something I want to keep on my radar. Someone telling me a beer is an A- or a 92 out of 100 means nothing to me. I don't know what an A- or 92 tastes like. On the flip side, I know what pine tastes like in a beer and I know whether or not I'm a fan of beers with pine in the flavor profile. And I try to remember that when I'm writing things myself. I want to describe what I'm experiencing not determine what someone else should be experiencing when they sit down with a beer or restaurant for the first time. I'm not sure how successful I am at that, but I try nonetheless. 

So, to answer Rebecca's question when do I find myself going against the grain? Happily, I can say I'm not sure. I try keep an appreciable distance from the grain to be sure that my opinions and views are my own and influenced as little as possible by the opinions of others. I love hearing others describe things and help give me an idea as to what I can expect with a beer, but far too often I find people telling me what I should think and that's something I'm just not interested in. 

And now that we have that behind us let's get to what you came here for! Stone's Enjoy By line of beers can suck it! Just kidding, they aren't bad. They simply suffer from the Jurassic Park Effect.