Review: Port City Brewing Essential Pale Ale

Port City Brewing, based out of Alexandria, VA (right next to Washington, DC for those not from the area), is the very model of a reliable, simple brewery. It doesn’t go crazy or try to show off. They offer five flagship beers year-round as well as a few seasonal and one-offs – and they are all genuinely solid beers. Would I call any of them exceptional? No. But if I want a pale ale or a porter that’s going to be a sure thing, I know that I can turn to Port City.

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Essential Pale Ale is an American Pale Ale and not an IPA (APAs have a relatively even hops-to-light-malt ratio while IPAs are happier by nature) and does reflect that style well. This is a mild beer that still packs a punch of flavor, but doesn’t overwhelm the palate. It’s a great pairing with almost any food.

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This beer pours a slightly hazy honey gold with a short white head that fades and leaves a little lacing behind. The smell is yeasty and maybe with a little citrus – it is balanced and inviting to me. At first taste, it is very mild. Almost more like a pilsner than what I think of as a pale ale. Not much bite, not much in the way of strong hop or malt flavors, and not really sweet, either. It’s pleasantly bready with just a hint of sweetness.

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Based on everything I’ve just written, this beer sounds… bland. But it’s not! While mild in nature, it is really very flavorful. It’s balanced, as a pale ale should be, and it never relies on a hoppy punch in the face as many IPAs do. I recommend it highly, especially if you’re scarfing down a easy burger or other American comfort food.

Review: Boulevard Single-Wide IPA

This was my very first beer in my new apartment! I know I’ve mentioned that I was moving in the last few posts – it finally happened, chaos, boxes, and all. As of this Boulevard Single-Wide IPA, I didn’t have a couch yet, so I enjoyed this beer sitting on the floor in front of my coffee table. But, most importantly, I was in my own, brand-new place, ready to start my new life.

I also enjoyed this beer on Thanksgiving, which I did spend alone, and which did feel a little lonely. Still, I enjoyed some traditional(?) Thanksgiving hot dogs and a tasty beer to celebrate my new-found freedom. I’d already celebrated Friendsgiving a few days prior and Thanksgiving isn’t really one of my favorite holidays, so I promise it isn’t as depressing as it initially sounds!

Poured from a bottle and into a pint glass (the ones that I got in the divorce – sadly, not the Perfect Pint Glasses that I so love), this beer is a somewhat hazy, medium golden color. There’s a small, off-white head that vanishes slowly, leaving behind no lacing to speak of.

It smells hoppy and citrusy to me. Pleasantly bright.  There’s maybe also something slightly grassy about the smell – fresh, green grass. The beer is made with six varieties of hops (Magnum, Summit, Cascade, Centennial, and Citra) and is also dry-hopped for some big flavor. It’s also brewed with mostly crystal malts, so that creates a very nice and neutral canvas with a crisp finish.

The beer is a little bitter to me, but not so much so as to be offensive. It’s not super hoppy, surprisingly, and is a little piney to me. It’s not extremely flavorful, but it is well-rounded in my opinion. I find it slightly dry on the back end, though not bad in any way. It has relatively low carbonation.

It’s an easy-drinking beer that isn’t remarkable in any way, but is still tasty. It’s a good go-to. I would definitely buy it again.

Review: Bell’s Amber Ale

I moved at the end of November after ending a relationship and setting out on my own, which mean that that month was a flurry of packing and throwing things out and donating other things and just general chaos. My whole life was in flux as I moved to another state.

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In times of madness, it’s sometimes nice to have something reliable to turn to. With my life in a series of cardboard boxes, I needed something refreshing and not too challenging to slake my thirst. After all, I’d been working hard all day!

This beer from Bell’s Brwery pours a beautiful, dark honey color into a Sam Adams Perfect Pint Glass. It has a fluffy off-white head that sticks around for several minutes and left some nice lacing behind. The nose features some roasted grains, something sweet like caramel, and maybe a little citrus or orange peel. There are hops there, but they’re really singing backup to the other smells.

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This is a very balanced beer with a slightly bitter kick at the end of the first taste. The finish comes off a little dry, but not enough to offend me. It’s pleasantly hoppy, with a malty sweetness that reminds me of toffee. I even get some hints of a crisp red apple from this beer. It’s a hoppy amber ale, which I definitely like. It has a lightweight mouthfeel with mild carbonation.

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Bell’s Amber Ale could absolutely be a solid, go-to beer for me. I recommend  it highly if you’re not feeling too adventurous and need to enjoy something refreshing.

Jailbreak Brewery Review Part 3

I visited Jailbreak Brewery on a rainy Saturday in January to take their brewery tour. Our group of about a dozen people was met by Clay, who’s been a brewer at Jailbreak for about 2 1/2 years now. We started out in the mill room, where we learned a little bit about some of the ingredients and equipment that make up beer’s humble beginnings. I’m talking about malt and hops, some of which we got to see up close and smell.

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This room has a tiny little mill that cracks open the malt gently, but doesn’t make flour out of it. Jailbreak uses a lot of specialty malts in their brews in addition to new hybrids and varieties of hops that are coming around every year. Because of these ingredients, Jailbreak is pleased to have “a pretty full portfolio,” but is experimenting all the time.

Next, we took a stroll to the top of a large kettle where beer gets its start. Temperature, Clay reminded us all, is very important. After all, yeast are delicate little organisms that can only thrive in certain temperature ranges – and whether it’s an ale or a lager style beer determines how warm to keep a fermentation tank. The “wort,” which is the cooking beer liquid, must also be sterilized to eliminate any wild yeast that might get in and disrupt the expected beer process.

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I was curious what they did with all of their “spent” grains (I’ve been to brewpubs that use them in pizza or pretzel dough in the restaurant) and it turns out they go to a local farm as part of the animal feed. Less waste is always good!

Jailbreak is a 600 gallon operation, which is a decent size for such a small facility. While a one-way CO2 vent was bubbling away in a bucket of water, Clay told us that part of the reason for the brewery’s location had to do with the local water being a “pretty good blank slate.” He pointed out the prominent stainless steel tanks in the room, explaining a little about the process of cold crashing beers and managing fermentation temperatures. All in all, he said, it takes about 2-3 weeks from start to finish to brew a batch of beer.

I learned something strange and new! Yeast, that helpful little bacteria that ferments beer, reproduces very quickly. Generations can come and go in just a few weeks and with such a short life span, colonies of yeast is able to start to mutate over a relatively short period of time. This sounds like something exciting out of an issue of X-Men, but mutated yeast can spell bad news for brewers; it can mess with the consistency of breweries’ products and ruin whole batches of beer. That’s why many professional brewers only “pitch” (add/use) the same yeast strain 3-5 times.

We got to try a hefe that was about 2 days away from being ready to can. It was cloudy and flat as it’s an unfiltered beer and had not yet been force carbonated with CO2. It was bright, as a hefe weizen should be, but something about the mouthfeel was very strange without the carbonation.

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Jailbreak fills their kegs one at a time, so it can be a slow operation. In addition to carbonating and kegging or canning the beer, Jailbreak experiments with some barrel aging. Some of the barrel aging projects are up to 2 1/2 years old, many in bourbon barrels. Bourbon barrels are readily available to breweries since part of the regulation that governs what bourbon is that it must be aged in a new barrel. Used barrels are literal garbage to bourbon makers. The brewers are sampling all of these beers all the time because, as Clay says, they are “living, breathing things” and are unpredictable.

We moved next to the canning operation. I know there’s some controversy about canned vs bottled beers, but I don’t have any problems with cans myself. Jailbreak opted for cans 3 years ago because light can’t get in (which is good for hopped beers), the seams are sealed against oxidation, they’re more portable, good on palettes, and have a lower carbon footprint than bottles. Their can holders are also made from 97% recycled materials and have no holes to harm turtles or fish. Makes sense to me.

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Finally, after glimpsing cold storage, we talked a bit about the brewery’s past as well as its future. The owners were once bored government contractors that stirred up 2.5million to start the company – their escape – their “jailbreak” from their boring 9-5 jobs. They’re at the brewery almost every day. Looking forward, Jailbreak is going to change from the food truck model of service to opening their own in-house small plates kitchen, fast casual style sometime in June 2017. They also want to change from being open 4 days a week to being open 6 days a week, which will mean a change in their license from tap room to brewpub. They’re also hoping to start making cider as well.

Overall, I’m pleased with what I’ve seen and tasted from Jailbreak. They seem really dedicated to quality through repetition as well as trying new and experimental things on the side. They’re environmentally conscientious, which makes this grumpy old hippie pretty happy. And I liked all of their beers that I had  (well, except for the Ephemeral Vol 1 – but that’s just a preference thing for me). Maybe the customer service at the bar is a tiny bit lacking; there never seem to be enough bar tenders to take care of that whole tap room really thoroughly. Still, I can’t fault them for much. If you’re in the area, I definitely recommend swinging by.

Review: Goose Island Oktoberfest

If I had to pick one beer style to drink basically forever, I think I would have to go with Märzen. It’s generally a really well-balanced brew with some maltiness, but without being sweet and without being hoppy, either. One of my all-time favorite beers is Sam Adams Octoberfest; I used to buy a few cases of it in season and then store it for the spring and summer time to enjoy then.

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Goose Island Oktoberfest sounded like a beer that would suit my needs and wants! I’ve had the Goose Island IPA a thousand times at Capitals hockey games, but I couldn’t remember for certain if I’d had the Oktoberfest so I grabbed one from my local bottle shop and brought it home in a build-your-own-six-pack arrangement.

Poured from a bottle into a Perfect Pint Glass, this beer is a nice, strong, dark golden color. It has a decent off-white head that dissipates in a few minutes’ time.  It has a very bready nose, malty and sweet, very indicative of a classic Märzen.

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It is, as this style should be, balanced in flavor. It has a slightly sweet finish with maybe a hint of apricot or orange. It has, I would say, moderate carbonation and a good mouthfeel. It’s very mild on the hops front, really more malt-forward, but not sweet, really. I drank this while eating some spicy chicken fajitas that I’d made and the beer held up just fine against those – maybe fajitas aren’t traditional Octoberfest fare, but pretty tasty none the less.

Review: Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve

This is the story of one beer and 28,000 feet of iconic airport carpet. The Santa’s Private Reserve from Rogue turned out to be my farewell-to-Portland beer, which I drank during a rather solemn morning. I waved goodbye to Mt. Hood, illuminated by the beautiful morning sun, and retrieved my suitcase from James’ truck. It was time to go home.

And though I missed my birds terribly, I was heartbroken to have to leave a city and friends that had been so kind to me. All the same, my Portland vacation was over. I had to return home to a divorce settlement and a move to a new apartment in the following weeks. Perhaps I just didn’t want to go home to so much stress.

Anyway. Beer.

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I decided to relax before my flight with a classy 10am airport beer, as one does. I popped into the Rogue bar and restaurant that was near my gate and browsed the beer list. To be honest, at the end of a Pacific Northwest trip, I was kind of IPA-ed out. The double-hopped red ale called Santa’s Private Reserve sounded like a winner.

It was a draft beer poured into a 16oz pint glass. A beautiful, deep amber color, Santa’s Private Reserve featured a pale, off-white head that melted away and left a little lacing behind. The nose was faintly grainy. The mouthfeel was very dry to me. It was not sweet at all at first, but there was a hint of malty sweetness on the finish.

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It tasted not quite green, but hoppy and fresh in a way. At 65 IBUs (International Bitter Unit), it was a little bitter on the palate. There was something about it that was dank and resiny, but in a pleasant and not-overwhelming way. I’ve had some dank beers that taste like you’re licking the floor of a pine forest; this was not one of those at all. It featured relatively low carbonation and was very drinkable as long as you’re not expecting a sweet holiday red (the title can be deceiving).

After my beer, I trudged back to my gate and stared at the carpet for a while. It’s famous, you see, among the hipster crowd, but not for a good reason. In 2013, the previous carpet was set to be replaced with an updated look – and that look is kitschy in the not-so-charming way. The old carpet, however, was delightfully dated and kind of fun. And it’s a huge hit with hipsters and Portland natives alike. The old carpet pattern has been rebranded and put on beer labels, shoes, leggings, shirts, and even tattoos.

The changing of the carpet reflects the changing face of Portland. It’s a growing city and a lot of the neighborhoods are changing (hello, gentrification) and some residents would argue that Portland is dying. But it’s all just the nature of expanding urban landscapes. That’s reality right now. Just as the two generations before ours fled the cities to take up residence in the suburbs, so does our generation flee the dying suburbs to live in the cities.

The new, ugly carpet also hits me at a time of big changes in my life. I’m leaving a bad marriage behind and striking out on my own, living alone for the first time in my life. In a year, I hope to be trekking across the country and moving to, well, Portland. It calls to me. I think I could be happy there. And no matter what some hipsters say, I think being happy is important and not just good for an ironic laugh.

Beer 101: Hops

You’re going to hear me talk about a hops a lot in this blog. Partly because they’re a huge part of what makes beer, well… beer. But also because my tastes run toward IPAs right now and those tend to be hoppy by nature.

This first post in my Beer 101 series will take a look at what hops are, how they are used in the brewing process, and the effects they have on the flavor profile of a finished beer.

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Hops are one of the key pieces of beer brewing (the others being water, grains, and yeast) and are the flower of the female hops plant, Humulus lupus, which is related to the hemp family. Hops contain an essential oil that the tongue reads as being very bitter. This dry, bitterness can be used to balance out the sweetness that the malts in a beer create. Hops also act as a natural preservative and have antibacterial properties.

A beer made without hops can exist, but it would be cloyingly sweet and very one-note. Hops aren’t the only plant that can be used to flavor beer. Spruce, herbs, flowers and more can be used. But hops are the go-to if the brewer isn’t making anything too out there.

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Let us turn our attention to this helpful graphic! The parts of the hops flower are easily labelled here. The entire flower can be used as-is, though compressed pellets of hops exist and are used by some brewers to flavor their beer. Deep inside of these buds are little packets of resins and oils that lend that bitter flavor profile to beer.

Hops are actually kind of a newcomer in beer brewing, when you consider that beer has been made for around 9,000 years. Beer’s origins are more closely linked to the malt ingredients in the brew and were made with grains and yeast from bread making in its early years. Hops were first used in beer around 822 AD and even then, somewhat sparsely. Before the use of hops, beers were flavored and preserved using a mix of spices and fruits called “gruit” or “grut.”It’s really only in the last 200 years that hops have had their day.

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There are several steps in the brewing of beer and hops can be added into the mix at almost any of them, depending on what the flavor profile goal is. Hops can be added before or during the first boil of the beer, in the mash tun, or during tank or barrel conditioning. Each of these choices will affect the final beer product’s taste.

There are also a wide variety of hops available, each bringing its own unique flavor profile to the mix. There are several Continental or Noble Hops, which originated in central Europe and have a mild bitterness and spicy/floral aromas: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. English hops, which are herbal, grassy, and fruity: East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Challenger, Target, and Progress. Bright, fruity, and resinous American hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo.

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Photo from menuinprogress.com

The above list is far from comprehensive. There are a large number of hops that I didn’t name in those little lists, many of which are American hops that are being hybridized, grown, studied, and analyzed even by Universities. There have been exciting new hops making their way into the market over the last decade.

So while hops aren’t truly necessary to brewing beer, what we think of as modern beer just wouldn’t be the same without them. So the next time you hear some know-it-all like me talking about “hoppiness” or “a hop-forward beer,” you can understand that I’m trying to find a way to describe the aromatic and bitter flavor profile that these plants bring to beer.

Review: Stillwater Artisanal G13

Har har, I know, I know. I went to Oregon to get local beers there and accidentally bought a beer from my home state. I see the irony. You don’t need to point it out. I’ll admit that the label on the bottle seduced me; I have no background in graphic design myself, but I can definitely appreciate when it’s done well. The Stillwater Artisanal G13 bottle is very attractive to the eye and very different from the art on many other typical beer bottles.

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It is described as an wild India Pale Ale aged on cedar. The word “wild” is something very key here. It means that a wild yeast called Brettanomyces is introduced during the brewing process, which can produce very unpredictable results int he areas of funk, spice, and acidity. Beers that are spiked with this yeast get the affectionate nickname of a “Brett IPA.” And, as far as Bretts go, this is a pretty good one.

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This beer was poured from a 22oz bomber bottle into a pint glass. It poured a medium golden yellow with a generous white head that left behind minimal lacing. It smelled like a tangy, tropical fruit and maybe something a little sour, and something a little grassy-green. If I remember correctly, my brain wanted me to think that I was smelling pineapple or passion fruit.

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It tasted like a wheat beer with some subtle banana or pineapple notes over a layer of what I swear tasted like hay or straw. It is, in my opinion, on the very cusp of being a sour beer – which I like and am for – but it doesn’t quite reach that level of zippiness. I would say that it has medium to high carbonation, making it sort of fun to drink. It’s not bitter at all and has a very clean aftertaste.

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The G13, it seems, was brewed only once. Perhaps it will never be made again and I was lucky enough to have a taste of its only iteration. Or perhaps they will brew it again, but the Brettanomyces yeast will do its magic and create another slightly different, unique beer. Who knows? Either way, I’m happy I got to try it.

Review: Stormbreaker Mississippi Red

With a name like “Mississippi Red,” you’d think that this beer would have been brewed in the south somewhere, offering up a salute to the famous river. You would, it seems, be wrong. I sure was. Stormbreaker Brewing is located in my west coast base of operations: Portland, Oregon. Mississippi, it turns out, is the name of the street that the brewery calls home.

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This beer describes itself as a “dry hopped red ale” so I was expecting a decent hop wallop from it. In that category, it disappointed me. It was not terribly hoppy. It was not as hoppy as I expected. It was not as hoppy as many other reds that I’ve had. And it was not as hoppy as many dry-hopped beers I’ve had.

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Poured into a pint glass from a 22oz bomber bottle, this beer poured a deep red-brown. It smelled a little like an IPA, hoppy and maybe a little herbaceous with lots of brown ale notes (not brown sugar, though). At the first sip, it was perhaps a little sweet and not really hoppy at all. I was surprised. After a few more tastes, it seemed like a very well-balanced beer. Perhaps it was a touch sweet (though not much compared to, say, a dopplebock).

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I’ve got to say, I was kind of disappointed. It underwhelmed me. It wasn’t really a brown ale, nor was it really a hoppy red. It was a bit neutral and somewhat unimpressive overall. Maybe it was trying too hard to be too many thing.

If someone offered it to me, I’d definitely drink it again, but I don’t think it’s a beer I’ll ever buy another time. I’m still willing to give Stormbreaker more chances the next time I’m out in Portland.

Review: Against The Grain Citra Ass Down IPA

Maybe it’s a little odd that I went to Oregon, seeking local beers, and ended up buying one from Louisville, KY. But hey, weird things happen… and my beer selections during this Portland trip continue to get weird.

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Ciara Ass Down by Against the Grain brewery is a double IPA that comes in a can. When I saw the name of it as I browsed the beer selection at Belmont Station, I giggled to myself and moved on. But then I doubled back to that beer and decided to give it a go. I’ve learned from some experimental, small-batch, single-hopped beers that I really like the flavor profile of Citra hops.

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Ciara hops are a relatively new varietal on the market. Introduced in 2008, they are a hybrid of a number of different hops. They’re very strongly citrusy and tropical in taste.

Poured from the can to a pint glass, Citra Ass Down was a beautiful medium golden yellow color with a delicate light tan head that dissipate quickly, leaving some lacing behind. It had no strong nose that I could detect, maybe because it was quite cold when I poured it. It was floral and sweet, with the Citra hops standing front and center, as they should be.

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It’s a Double IPA, so it had a higher ABV than a lot of the other beers I’d been drinking. At 8.2%, it was very easy to drink, which is maybe its great danger. The Citra hops keep the taste light and never too sweet and heavy like some DIPAs. I have to say, though, from experience: this beer does not pair well with candy corn.

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But then, what does? I spent Halloween night sipping on Citra Ass Down and watching old episodes of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? together with my friends – a really perfect way to spend some time.