Monday, April 14, 2014

Session IPA: When Craft Beer Gets Crafty

Up until a few weeks ago I had never tried a Session IPA. The way I saw it, if I wanted to drink something hoppy I could drink an actual IPA. On days I wanted something lower ABV I could grab a wheat beer and be perfectly content. But then Stone's Go to IPA came out and I couldn't fight it any longer. I bought one and excitedly popped the bottle open the following night. It was the worst craft beer I've ever had in my life.

Originally, that's where this post was headed. I was going to tell you that Go to IPA had zero malt presence and that their hop bursting technique produced nothing but a weird sour citrus flavor. They say it produces "glorious hop qualities"; I say it creates a flavor profile that has been achieved by less than mediocre homebrewers for years. I was going to shake my digital head in disagreement like an irate Natty Boh bobblehead doll , but then I realized it might be too harsh to make an assumption about a particular beer when I've never actually had another within the "style" to make a fair comparison. To alleviate that shortcoming, I tried Lagunitas Daytime IPA (the best I've had at this point) and a few others over the past month. Most were okay given the style, but all are beers that have no reason to exist other than to capitalize on a segment of the craft beer community that will drink absolutely anything IPA related.

It's true I love to beat up Stone. This isn't the first time I've knocked on them and it probably won't be the last. But that's not what I care about in this instance. This isn't about one beer or one brewery. It's about the bigger picture. Session IPA is bad beer and it's a symptom of a larger problem I think a lot of the community ignores. Diversity in craft beer doesn't matter as much to brewers as they would have you believe. But so what, you say? People like IPA's so why is Session IPA bad beer? Well, it's not just because I've had a few and don't like the taste. I'm not a huge fan of Barleywine either, but I don't go around saying Barleywine is bad beer. I say Session IPA's are bad because the recipes don't even make sense. Regular IPA's work (American in this case) because the heavy bitterness they provide is usually, if brewed well, balanced by an ample sweet malt body. Yes, our IPA's lean heavy towards the bitter end of the spectrum, but they only work because the malt gives your palate a reprieve at the end. These Session IPA's don't work that way. We have brewers trying to give us the hop bombs we love, but are reducing the malt body in order to achieve a "session" level ABV and it doesn't jive. IPA's aren't just hoppy,something brewers all know but are happily ignoring, and yet that's all these Session IPA's achieve. Some come off as bitter hop water, and others have fantastic hop flavor but with nothing to support the finish. It's almost as if the liquid you have in your mouth evaporates on the finish at times. One second you brain is amped up for an IPA based on how hop forward the beer is and the next you're wondering if you actually were able to swallow anything the body is so thin.

The fact that we're so eager to latch on to poorly constructed beers like these speaks to the bigger issue of consumers drinking anything IPA related and brewers happily going along. Ray Daniels, Directer of the Cicerone Certification Program wondered aloud on twitter a few months ago if  "we’re creating a beer culture where IPA tyranny just replaces American Lager tyranny." After tasting Go to IPA, it's impossible not to wonder that very thing myself. What is craft beer coming to when Stone, a brewery known for criticizing big beer for putting out "fizzy yellow stuff", proudly releases a beer that on its best day is nothing more than "hoppy yellow stuff"? Taste is subjective, I get it, but bad beer is bad beer and we have to be smart enough to call brewers out when it's warranted. Now is the time to start screaming... so go ahead...I'm waiting.

Another couple of related quotes I came across recently were reported by Christopher Staten of Draft Magazine while attending the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference. The first quote scares me when I think about it in relation to Ray's quote above. Chris reported that IPA's currently account for 40% of the current craft market. It's fine if a lot of us like hoppy IPA's. It really is. I love them as well. But we don't have to love them all. We're allowed to be discerning. It's true that Stone makes great beer. It's also within the realm of possibility that they make bad beer from time to time. Knowing that they have the capability to produce top notch product, why are we so willing to accept mediocrity? I know we all want to be supportive and see the industry succeed, but all blind support does is produce a domino effect of foul beer. Brewery A puts out a Session IPA that overeager consumers love despite the obvious flaws. Brewery B sees the success and decides they want in on that niche market and puts their own Session IPA out that's even worse technically, but earns just as well all because they put the label "Session IPA" on the bottle. Before you know it, every brewery in the country is putting out their own version of a misguided style and that 40% keeps growing and we're left with an industry dominated by one umbrella style of beer and yet still claims that "craft beer is about standing up to and challenging monocultures".  If that's true why are we are so eager to accept and buy into a beer style that is so fundamentally flawed? And if we're for challenging monocultures, why aren't we more willing to challenging our own?

One the most often repeated reasons cited for enjoying craft beer is the fact that it provides variety. For a lot of us I think that's true. Many of us really do get the best craft beer has to offer. But some of us, let's call it 40%, pretty much dabble in one style of beer and one style of beer only. If you don't want to drink anything outside of IPA's I'm not going to ask you to stop. That's all you. But please, please don't just crown everything your favorite brewery releases as the next great thing. If Coors put out beers like some of the Session IPA's I've tasted we'd dog them to hell and back and ask why they're trying to dumb down the taste for the consumer. But let a craft brewer put out something as sloppy as a Session IPA and suddenly we're on to the next big thing in craft beer. Pretty crafty of the craft gang, no?

Craft beer got this far because we expected more out of beer. Now's not the time to get complacent. You have a voice and it's time to use it. We cheered our craft brethren into the mini-powerhouse that it is today. Now that we're here we have a question to ask ourselves. Do we want to be cheerleaders or do we want to be educated consumers who use their voice to move things in a positive direction. Three decades of blood sweat and tears seems like an awful lot to waste just to trade in All-Lager America for All-IPA. I thought we wanted more than that. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Celebrating International Pineapple Day with Bahama Breeze

Last week I was invited to celebrate International Pineapple Day with Bahama Breeze. Normally, I'm not a big fan of celebrating made up holidays, but complimentary pineapple cocktails were being offered and who am I to decline a friendly invitation!

Our brand new to Bahama Breeze server suggested we start off the night with a Goombay Smash. At first, I thought we were going to be taught a new move to smash Goomba's in the latest version of Mario, but in fact the Goombay Smash was a nice mix of pineapple juice, orange juice, and a healthy dose of dark rum. Next year, when you go to celebrate Pineapple Day, this is the drink to do it with.  The pineapple juice is the star of the show making the Goombay Smash totally refreshing. Initially, the rum felt a bit heavy, but after mixing my drink around a bit and allowing the ice to melt a tad the drink became dangerously easy to drink. So, be careful out there guys! It's a big drink. 

To go along with our drink we were served a variety of appetizers. The first app, and also our favorite, was the coconut shrimp. The shrimp were crunchy and breaded quite nicely. Yes, there was plenty of coconut but not so much that you couldn't taste the shrimp themselves. They were served with a citrus-mustard sauce that was a nice change-up from cocktail sauce or some of the weird sweeter sauces other restaurants have tried to pass off with coconut shrimp.

Another highlight of our appetizer session were the Beef Empanadas. They were filled with a mixture of beef, potatoes, and what looked like carrot or possibly sweet potatoes all stuffed inside delicious deep fried pastry. On their own, the empanadas were perfect savory little pockets of happiness, but the chutney served on the side played the perfect sweet counterpoint to the savory empanadas.  Deana, who came along with me to bask in the fruity celebration, was in empanada heaven when these came out.

About the time we were finishing those up the empanadas they brought another pineapple themed drink called Painkiller to the table. Painkiller was a delicious mix of coconut milk, orange and pineapple juice, a little ground nutmeg and rum. It was good but both of us definitely preferred the Goombay Smash simply because we weren't huge fans of the creamy coconut found in the Painkiller.

By that point, we could have called it a night and left full and happy, but the words Banana Nut Bread Supreme caught our eyes and we just couldn't leave well enough alone. And thank god gluttony got the best of us because this was a fantastic desert. Hot banana nut bread, fresh banana, vanilla ice cream, butterscotch brandy sauce, and a fat happy Doug. If Deana weren't making me the best birthday cake in the world a few days later, I would have been plenty happy trekking back to Bahama Breeze and enjoying this desert once again.

When all was said and done, I was very happy that I celebrated International Pineapple Day with Bahama Breeze. As a beer drinker it was nice to be reminded how refreshing a cocktail can be with the Goombay Smash and I'll never be mad at the dessert we shared. You might have to wait a year to celebrate the next Pineapple Day, but if you're in Towson and you're in the mood for a good drink and some tasty bites  keep Bahama Breeze in mind. It's good stuff.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Guest Post by Hipster Brewfus: Craft Beer We're Breaking Up

Today, we have Jake from Hipster Brewfus guest blogging. Recently Jake and I have had a few discussions about the need for more open constructive criticism within the craft beer community. It seems that so many of us only want to speak up when have something glowing to say about a beer or a brewery. Yes, it's great and necessary to heap praise on the industry when it's deserved, but if all we ever do is focus on the positive how can our opinions as bloggers be trusted? At what point will readers begin wondering if the role of beer blogging is merely to kiss ass? If we see something we don't like, what's so wrong about being honesty and saying as much? With those questions in mind, I turned to Jake and asked if he'd kindly explain the merits of being critical and not blindly dishing out compliments like a giddy 16 year old boy on his first date. So, without any further adieu I'm handing it off to Jake.

Craft Beer, we’re breaking up:

It's you, not me. I promise.

It's not fair for the both of us to continue going the way we're going. I have no real respect for you anymore. But truth be told, I don't want to leave you. I've given you some of my best years, and have formed some of my happiest memories during the tenure of our relationship. But things need to change. Things need to change for the worse.

Look, I get that everything is happy and sunshiny in our world. I get that craft beer has become a "thing" and that this "thing" should be celebrated and welcomed with open arms. I get that I should be happy for all of the goodness and warm fuzzy feelings we all have. I get that I shouldn't want to curb stomp you. But I do.

All of your overwhelming positivity is giving me an ulcer. I want to see some honesty. I want to see some passion. I want to see the shit you hate. I want to know what you can’t stand. What beers did you drink that suck? TELL US, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE JUST FUCKING TELL US! I'm sick of reading your long winded beer reviews that really don't say much. Knock it off.

The pandering needs to stop, because contrary to popular belief, negativity is capable of accomplishing things. There is value in a well thought out, constructive stream of hate. The slew of compliments paid to something that is pretty much mediocre at best, does nothing to push the brewery to do anything better. There will always be a need for criticism in any avenue of life.

Look, I’m no stranger to any of this stuff. I’m loud and drunk a lot of times. It’s mostly those times I take advantage of to tell you just what I think. I know you may not like it. I see how many of you stop following me on social media after I go on some kind of hop induced tirade about how so many of you are worshiping at the altar of wrongness (Go To IPA scores a 90 on BA?). In a world full of “amazing,” “incredible,” “quaffing,” or any other stupid words, I want to hear you say “I drank this beer from a brewery that I really like, and ITS FUCKING TERRIBLE! And here is why…”

You know what you have to gain from that? A lot.

And Bloggers, you especially. What’s with the constant stream of happiness? Is it borne out of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” diatribe? Do you think that if you fill your product review with enough praise that somehow they’ll see it and magically you’ll start receiving boxes and boxes of goodies from the brewery that you've sworn your allegiance to? I can promise you, it doesn't work that way. Do you not see any merit in saying critical things? Do you think the only way to do it is the Hipster Brewfus way (long illegible strings of curse words)? Because I promise you it’s not. I’m the Brodie Bruce of beer blogging.

“You're gonna listen to me? To something I said? Jesus, man, haven't I made it abundantly clear during the tenure of our friendship that I don't know shit? I mean, half the time I'm just talking out of my ass, or sticking my hand in it.”

Do not use me as an example. I am most assuredly doing everything wrong. I am the first one to tell you I’m an idiot, and have no idea what I’m doing. But the one thing I do know is I wield the power of the consumer, and used correctly, it can be a very powerful weapon. Taking tastes and preferences out of the equation, sometimes things hit the market that are just plain bad. And if you don’t speak up about it, those bad things will continue hitting the market. And that stuff happens, especially when you take into consideration the fact that our relationship is still in its infancy stages, and that new breweries are popping up at an alarming rate. And just like with people, there will be a few winners, and a whole lot of losers. It’s science.

Look, there is enough bad and mediocre stuff out there to weed through to find the good stuff. But I think it’s your responsibility, since you took a blood oath to this, that you vocally help weed out the bad stuff. You could potentially help stop a future offense. Remember kids, like the DHS has taught us, “If you drink something, say something. Unless it’s positive. Don’t say anything, there is enough of that.”
So I hope you can reach down inside, find some honest vitriol, and share it. You’re losing me day by day, and It’s breaking my heart.


Hipster Brewfus

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Brewer's Art

If you come to this blog it's because you're a fan of one of two things. You're either a fan of the Baltimore food scene or you like good beer. If both of those descriptors fit you, than Brewer's Art is an absolute must visit. If only one of those descriptors fit you, Brewer's Art is still a place you need to visit. It's just that good.

The first time Deana and I ever visited Brewer's Art was during a Restaurant Week. One of the appetizer options offered was something called Liptauer Cheese Spread. My initial thought was "Cheese Spread? Weird. You don't see that everywhere. Let's get that." We did and we were happy souls. On the day of our Restaurant Week visit they used some spicy red pepper in the spread and it was fantastic. Creamy cheese, pepper with a little bite, and some super crunchy crustini combined to make one of my favorite appetizers in all of Baltimore. More recently, we went back with my brother and sister-in-law and the spread was just as good. The main difference between our first and last visit was that the pepper used wasn't as spicy and the crustini had a sauerkraut flavor that was superb. My brother, the ultimate consumer of cheese, gave it a rousing review.

On our most recent visit, I decided to try Braised Duroc Pork Cheeks for dinner. As is often the case, I like to try things I've never had before and since I've never chewed on a cheek before I decided now (or then as it were) was the time. The Cheeks were also served with a baby Bratwurst, split peas in a cider gravy, and swiss chard. This was the perfect plate. The cheeks had the familiar taste of pork with a crunchy outer texture juxtaposed against the tender inside. The bratwurst didn't tread on any new territory, but who would want that anyway? Brats should be brats and this one was as good you could want. The spicy mustard they served on the side was a great compliment. Swiss chard was also something I had never tried and I really enjoyed the earthy flavor it gave off. However, my favorite part of the dish, and also something new to me, were the split peas. They kept a crunchy texture and the cider gravy they were served with gave them an almost baked bean like flavor that went perfect with the pork cheeks. 

On my initial visit to Brewer's Art I ordered the Steak Frites as did Deana and my sister-in-law Amy on our most  recent trip. The steak frites are delicious in their own right, but what I really want to talk about is the out of this world customer service Amy received when her steak came out cooked a little more done than she had asked for. She was feeling a little self conscious about complaining, but we convinced her that it wasn't worth fighting through a meal she didn't ask for. She let our waitress know about the issue and there was absolutely no argument. Our waitress apologized that it was over done and said she'd have a new steak up as soon as possible. A few minutes later the manager one duty stopped by the table to apologize to Amy and thank her for giving them a chance to make things right. Brewer's art displayed some of the best customer service I've seen and I'd like to personally thank them for going out of their way to make sure our table left satisfied. The meal ended up being great and left all of us happy when all was said and done. 

As far as Brewer's Art's beer is concerned, I've never had a beer from them that I didn't completely enjoy and that wasn't totally full of flavor. I've sampled gruits, their staples in Resurrection and (the now infamous) Ozzy, and on this particular night I was smitten with their Charm City Sour Cherry (flavor is self explantory) and Biere De Mars (tart red ale) . I give them major props on putting out beers that are big on flavor without ever taking your palate hostage. 

I'm sure I could sit here and come up with a fun to say "be sure you visit Brewer's Art", but I'm not even going to try. You should visit because the food is great and the beer is as good as anything else being put out locally. Visit now. Eat good. Drink great. Be happy.

Price: A little on the expensive side, but they do have great happy hour pricing
Recommendation: Must visit for the foodie and beer geeks among us.
What to Order: Whatever your heart desires. They won't let you down. 

Brewer's Art on Urbanspoon