Saturday, May 23, 2015

Checking In: Cooking with Norse

You know, sometimes it is better to look backward rather than forward. The old ways are better than the new ways, even if it is just a consideration of how to do something. It is something so simple, so easy, and it just went right by you. Cooking with Norse, a camping and cookout website with a focus on craft beer, is one of these websites and worth of your consideration, and if you don't think so, tough shit!

Cooking with Norse is the brainchild of Andrew and Scott, and they have over 120 episodes and will be hosting a craft beer site. (They requested that their names be withheld, because, well, it just tuff nuggie!) These two Norseman (at least one is Norwegian, so he is forgiven), who came out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had a simple idea - easy cooking ideas that go with hunting.  Now when a hunting trip goes astray, all is not lost. Just whip out one of these videos, available on YouTube or Younto, and you can rescue your lost day off!

But what about the supplies and cookery that go with those easy cooking ideas? Its great that you have a choice of cheese soup, but its not good when the soup requires oven.  Well, now they have branched out to include these as well.

So check the site Cooking with Norse and that me know what you think and we can post their videos from time to time. One thing for sure, the food is scrumptious - and if you don't think so - tough shit!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Getting Out of Town: Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company in Staunton

So, you wanted to get out of town and enjoy the Spring, but where do you go? Well, of course, in Virginia, you go to a brewery! The last time we had left our intrepid adventurer (me!) we had left one drinking establishment on a pretty good note and set sail for the next port of call. So let us return to our tale of yesteryear and explore the Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company.

OK, wait, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company? Wasn't there also a Shenandoah Brewing Company in Old Town Alexandria some years ago? Wasn't their trick that they would brew the beer for you and they took a pinch of the funding for it? Well, yes, there was, but these folks are not them. (I asked.) No, they took the name, added a "valley" and are in business for themselves. Its a good thing too because they brew a way better beer and a much larger collection of them. Yep, that's right, their are at least two brewers worth their weight in Staunton!

Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company
One of the things that makes the Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company worth it is that they are directly across from the train station. This is one of the reasons that the regional trains are really important to the suburban population. The Amtrak comes right on through and stops there at least twice a day, so people getting off the train have beer on the brain.  So, get off the train, stop in for a beer, and then head for home. This type of repeat business, even though it is small, helps keep Shenandoah Valley stay busy.

Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company
So, after finishing up at Redbeard Brewing Company, I walked over to Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company, pulled up the off beat stools that they had, and placed an order for a Berliner Weisse. This beer had an interesting taste. It has a weiss flavor in its background which is a hard clear taste, but in this case, it doesn't want it to come out. Its almost hiding, slowly coming out after a nice amount of time. By the third drink, it is full mode and it is marvelous. This is a beer that seeks to take its time and you must let it. You are on the beer maker's time, not on yours.

Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company: Berliner Weisse
After the Berliner Weisse we moved on to the next round, which was the Aus Dem Tal Alt Bier. Completely different that the Berliner Weisse, it took its flavor from rich ingredients within the glass. It had a dark smokey color, but when you tasted it, the flavor lifted to a light, almost grainy taste. It was like two flavors in one glass and they were both good. As a matter of fact, nothing short of excellent, but it is not clear who won the battle.  The Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company had a selection of about 15 different beers, all of them ranging from pale ale to dark stouts. This was easily one of the most accomplished brewery's in recent memory.

Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company: Aus Dem Tal Alt Bier
The Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company had a selection of 14 different beers, all of them ranging from pale ale to dark stouts. This was easily one of the most accomplished brewery's in recent memory.
Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company - Beers on Tap

By the time I had finished the second beer, it was time to leave. I had not even had time to attend a sitting at the Queen City Brewing Company, but I had the feeling I needed to go. So, I packed up my things and bid adieu to the Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company and to the city of Staunton, VA and made my way home by the declining light of a long evening.

Staunton was a real surprise, nestled their with the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, turning a once new look at the brewing industry. It will take some time, but we may be looking at one of the sister cities in a brewing revolution. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Getting Out of Town: Redbeard Brewing Company in Staunton

 Talking. Conversation. Having never been to a place yet saying to yourself, “wow, is that where that is.” For all of the hours we while away digitally searching for that one perfect spot, talking can often narrow it down in an instant. Talking is how I found not one, but two, spots for me to relax on a Saturday afternoon. Talking is how I founded my spots for the weekend.

The destination is the Redbeard Brewing Company in Staunton, VA. Now, a little background. While I don’t have a regular spot for writing, sometimes I do frequent a couple of place more than others. Peets, out of on Monument Drive in Fairfax, is one of those places. I could go on about  Peets, but it is the connection to Berkeley that really sets is apart. The photo is the upper right corner of the collage on the wall says it all.  So, there I am writing away and I spot a San Francisco Giants jersey on a guy, a little older than me. He sees that I have spotted it, we make conversation and I discover that he is also an Oakland Raiders fan and East Bay follower as well. This is getting good and though we don’t hit on all cylinders, I find out that he is moved back here with his wife and they are into skydiving. He asks if I have been to Staunton (pronounced Stanton for all of you non-local folks) and I say that I have not. He then fills me in on the Redbeard Brewing Company and on some of their brews. I am intrigued and make notes of it (yes, I am learning to make notes) and agree that I am going to make an effort to go there.

So, Saturday comes, my calendar is empty, and I am off to Staunton. The drive is about 2 1/4 hours and the town is cool. Really cool. Its an old industrial town and it has kept its original plan. The buildings are original and their are few, if any, new ones. If you have a couple of hours, it is well worth the drive down there. After doing a little prairie dogging, I found the brewery off of the main drag. (You will find it too, its not very big and its next to the place that does it own glass blowing - really nice glass blowing.)

Redbeard Brewing Company is in an original department store building and is slowly being torn down on the inside and replaced by a modern facade. It is best described as “under construction” by it will be nice and clean when it is finished. When I walked in, there was not much of a crowd, but the barkeep assured me this was not the case - it was their first nice day in a couple of weeks.  So, now it was on with the choice. I picked out a sampling of beverages from the six that they had, put it into 4 oz. glasses and proceeded to sample. Now, I have gone back to get accurate information on the sample sizes, only to find out that they vary their holdings. For some, I am able to get sample information, and others I am not.

America’s Pale Ale: Light in terms of taste, with a bit of hop. Still not much there. It was perfect for a warm afternoon like this one. Again, beer is what you make of it. 4 out of 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewery Company: America's Pale Ale  

American Brown Ale: This had more punch than the pale ale, but not a whole lot. It actually a little weak, but it does hold its own. Could stand a few more hops, but all in all, its good. 4 out of 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewing Company: American Brown Ale

Session IPA (4.25% ABV 55 IBU): Weakest of the three so far. It carries the flavor of a Session, but not of an IPA. However, gives a good account of itself. A little more time and then we will have something. 4 out of 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewing Company: Session IPA
Blueberry Wheat Ale: Blueberries by the snoutful. Light, but a pronounced set of blueberries. The beer is consistently light, perhaps a little too light. Otherwise, its good. 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewing Company: Blueberry Wheat Ale
AMOG Stout: Smokey foretaste based on the smell. Kind of a mix between coffee and beer, but it doesn’t quite work. The brewer is onto something though and should keep trying - he/she is onto something and should not let it go. The two flavors are separated now and they should be one in the future. 3 1/2 of out 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewing Company: AMOG Stout

Black Rye IPA: Where the last one needs some work, this one is alive! Wow! its a mix of hoppy and a smooth base which make a nice mixtures. It is really much more than a few Black IPA, it is really special. 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Redbeard Brewing Company: Black Rye IPA
The venture to Redbeard Brewing Company really turned out well. The place is nice and quiet and moving forward without being forecast as dead. Staunton is a wonderful little town, but it is kind of on the downside. Walk around and the real estate market simply tell the story: houses for sale, buildings shuttered, places closed up. It is one of the places that our economic turn around has missed but Redbeard Brewing Company is turning that around, slowly but surely.

But wait, didn’t I say that there were two places in Staunton, not one? Yep, I did, and the next one will be in the next review.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Back to the Brewery: Old Ox Brewing Company

I said in the beginning of Corcoran Brewing Company that we also paid attention to another brewery that night and I would be reviewing that brewing establishment. Well, it is time to visit that brewery and I have to say that where Corcoran Brewing Company was a let down, this one was a winner.

The Old Ox Brewing was an outstanding finish to that week on the brewery tour. The brewery concentrates on a few key beers, serves them all is 3 oz glasses, and takes pride in what it does. Tucked away in an industrial park (it does take a little effort to find them), the Old Ox is perfectly situated to make its presence known.

As a matter of fact, one of our local watering holes has started carrying two of the Old Ox brands on its bar tab shortly after I visited it. It is a growing concern in the National Capital area and should be on your short list. Ask for it the next time you are out.

Now for the line up for the evening. The Old Ox does not disappoint. I have taken out the two that I have had before (Alpha Ox and the Black Ox) but the list is still pretty full. I have put their advertising blurb immediately thereafter and then my part of Untappd. Gives a full and well rounded view point. They came with a full two treys of their finest beer and those lined up as follows:

Golden Ox: "A crisp, medium-bodied ale with orchard fruit notes on the nose. Brewing with a blend o Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich Malts, this beer balances sweet, malty body with flowery Saaz, Columbus and Chinook hops. Brewed in a Belgian style, this beer is quaffable at any time of year. Color: Golden. ABV: 6.5%."

My review on Untappd: Nice flavor goes into this beer. The blend of hops really comes through in this batch, balanced with a malty taste. The way beer ought to be.

Old Ox Golden Ox
Oxplorer Batch #2: "Code name "Retro"! Retro because we're using hops that were popular inthe 90's but have lately been ignored. These old-school hops are well worth rediscovering. This batch features Williamette, Mt. Hood, and Cascade hops. Color: Burnt Orange. ABV: 7.5%"

My review on Untappd: Has a nice sweet after bite to it, which really compliments it. Rest of the beer hold up to it. It does not have a big hop bite.

Old Ox Oxplorer Batch #2

Saison d'Ox: "It's back! Our Gold Medal winner form the 2014 Virginia Craft Brewers Cup. An effervescent, straw colored ale brewed in the French Saison style. Crisp and dry with a nuanced flavors or orange peel and spice. This refreshing brew is perfect any time of year. Color: Straw. ABV: 5.7%."

My review on Untappd:  This is what awards are presented for. The orange peel and spice are present without being predominant. It's an easy drinking French saison.
Old Ox Saison d'Ox

B.S.:  "This complex Belgian brew feature lucsious caramel and dark fruit notes. Carefully crafted to provide warms on a cold winter night. Color: Deep Brown. ABV: 7.8%"

My review on Untappd:  This is my favorite, and it is not just the BS. The dark fruit really comes out, though the carmel is more restricted. I like this pour.
Old Ox B.S.
Kristin's Passion: "Brewed with cocoa nibs, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and red chillies, this beer is a liquid representation of Kristin's passionate side. Smooth chocolate give way to cinnamon spice and then finishes with low smoldering heat.  Color: Black with Ruby Highlights. ABV: 6.0%"

My review on Untappd: The flavor articulated in a news paper article. Mexican hot chocolate porter is nothing like the Red Bull. Full, crisp and light.

Old Ox Kristin's Passion
This beer actually was at the heart of a trade mark infringement case launched by Red Bull (can you imagine Red Bull saying that they had a tangle with a relatively local beer?) and it said that Kristin's Passion was so close to a drink that Red Bull had planned that they had violated Red Bull's patent. I think that you can judge by looking at it that Red Bull was clearly full of it, but it is a great example of how large beverage companies can try to steer small companies away from profitable centers of commerce. Fortunately, Old Ox held firm and opposed Red Bull. I still do not know how it came out.

So in summary, Old Ox Brewery Company is on its way to becoming one of the great brewery companies on the National Capital area.  Good quality products and attention to details are going to be its two great selling points. I look forward to their entry on the scene.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Getting Out of Town: Devil's Backbone Brewery Company

Sometimes you just need to get out of town. Just pick up and go. But its a spur of the moment gig and you need to return just as fast as you left.  I had one of these conundrums not to long ago and the perfect solution just fell into my lap.

The Devil’s Backbone Brewery is perfectly situated for these little escape plans. It is only listed at 2 3/4 hours on US Route 29 through Charlottesville, before connecting with I-64, and finally finishing out on VA-151 near Roseland in Nelson County. It really feels like a total escape. Heavy urban area that trails off into countryside, it is a perfect retreat. So, I set off for the brewery, taking my camera and laptop, all set for a whirlwind adventure.

Whirlwind was an understatement. Somewhere, out on the planes of Virginia, I hit traffic, but not in any familiar spot. So I sat and waited for this knot in the traffic line to unsnarl itself. When it finally did, I got a gander at what could tie up traffic for nearly 15 miles - hay. A hay truck had gotten involved in the traffic and lost its load. Once I got passed that, it was smooth sailing until I got to Route 151 and almost to Roseland.

Now I have been to Devil’s Backbone Brewery twice before, once with Skye Marthaler and once before on my own, both times for the Virginia Craft Brewer's Festival. (Yes, I am going again this year.) But this was the first time on my own, and the place had a different look. Buildings were going up and ground was torn asunder, so it will look completely different when I go for a third time. Its moving from a rustic rural homestead to a community.

The brewery is a pretty sizable building because it houses the original brewery and the restaurant. It was dinner time, but the restaurant was not too full. I got a table and proceeded to order.  The list of beer is extensive and much more involved than in an ordinary restaurant.  The restaurant has approximately 15 types that you can order including a couple that are restaurants specific.

Devil's Backbone Brew Pub

One of these is Morning Bear brewed by Devil's Backbone Brewing. It is good and strong. How do I know it is strong? It only comes in a half size; its carries that much punch. Now that is a definite "good morning" cup of coffee. Ugh, I mean beer. It sits up. smacks you to the left and then smack you to the right and says "OK, time to get up." It smooth like morning coffee, kind of blended but a little bit rough. Like a cup of black coffee you run through a strainer and there you have it. I like my coffee and my beer this way. I rate this one 4 1/2 stars.   

Morning Bear by Devil's Backbone Brewing Company

The food had come. I selected a country roast half chicken to go as my meal and plunged in. I finished the Morning Bear and the next choice came up. The beer choice I selected was a completely different flavor. The Low Hanging Fruit, also by Devil's Backbone, was a fruity and aromatic cue with a surprising cherry taste. Different taste from the coffee in every way but still delivered a wonderful beer drinking experience. It was like a saison or a farmland ale. Wonderful beer considering that its weight was fairly light. It also came in at 4 1/2 stars.

Low Hanging Fruit by Devil's Backbone Brewery Company

So after a delicious a meal, two very different beers, and a short discussion about the Oakland A's with a half lit fellow bar patron (I was wearing my A's hat), it was time to drive back up to Washington. Devil's Backbone Brewing, however, proved that it is just the right distance from DC to be a a nice run for an evening out with dinner and drinks as the reward. The Devil's Backbone Brewery has earned a place in this writers notebook as a place to disappeared to, sample the beer and still be able to race home. Kudos and I will be visiting again.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Checking In: Rustico

Sometimes you just want to have a pleasant dining experience. It does not matter where you go, you want to know that you can relax, put your feet up and have feel that everything will be OK. But the question is where? In the neighborhoods of Alexandria and Arlington (Ballston, to be exact) the name of the place is Rustico.

Rustico is owned by one of the larger beer conglomerates in the area. This group also owns the Evening Star Cafe, ChurchKey, Birch and Barley and several of their supporting businesses as well. They represent some of the best of not only the beer community, but the restaurant establishment as a whole.  Their secret is a training program that emphasize the importance of beer and the centrality of beer to the meal itself. Two weeks of solid training followed by a constant and rigorous follow-up program makes all of the wait staff solid in the knowledge of beer. They are all minor beer gods. It is rare that you get one by them and it is pleasant to have a discussion. It is a true mark of distinction.

Having been to the restaurant in Alexandria a few times, I decided to try the one in Ballston. Alexandria has a older feel to it and is more family oriented. Ballston has a younger, more energetic  feel to it, partly for where it is and partly for where it sees itself in fifteen to twenty years. Each restaurant location is imbued by the demeanor of its location but is not trapped by it. 

I parked at the Ballston Common Mall and walk over one block to the restaurant. I was given a choice of waiting for an hour for a table or taking a spot in the bar. Opting for the bar, I was greeted immediately by my waiter, Zach. (See, I remembered!) Zach is a wealth of knowledge about beer. You can talk to these people about beer and it is a fair and open exchange.

First, I had picked out a Straffe Hendrik Bruges Tripel Bier 9 Degree from Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan - Brugge (Walplein 26 8000 Brugge T +32 (0)50 44 42 22 F +32 (0)50 44 42 20 A nice, strong, moderately colored beer with just the right amount of “soupy” character to it. One could not recognize a finger or a stick behind the glass. It was nice and strong without revealing itself. Zach noticed my choice and recommended another similar beer that went with perfectly with my scallops. The Leipziger Gose was a light and crisp, slightly darker beer, with a slight hint of salt, produced by Bayerische Bahnhof (Bayrischer Platz 104103 Leipzig). It was perfectly crafted to go along with with my scallops and Brussels sprouts.

So why mess with a good thing.  I gave Zach carte blanche for the final beer. I figured he could be right once, but twice and he was a keeper. He did not disappoint, selecting a Bitter Valentine by Ale Werks Brewing Company (189B Ewell Rd, Williamsburg, VA 23188). This beer had a slight bitterness and a higher than normal hop flavor, but it was very good. The key to be beverage was its aroma which neither of us had predicted. Again, it was keyed to the meal.

So Zach was two for two and I called it a night. The night ended much the way it had started -  relaxed, comfortable and right on the mark. Rustico in Ballston lived up to its reputation both in the service of the food, but more importantly, in terms of the service by the personnel, notably Zach and his colleagues. They made the relaxed atmosphere and that is what I wanted all along.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Number One Craft Brewery?

What is the number one craft brewery in the United States?  Among the macro-level breweries, this question is pretty simple: InBev (who brews Budweiser, Bud Lights, amongst several others). Until this week when the Brewers Association published the 50 craft breweries for 2014 - and the number one was Yuengling Brewery of Pottsville, PA.

OK, no big surprise here. Yuengling Brewery has been one of the largest craft breweries in the United States for its history, which is really an impressive feat when you consider Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Second World War and its impact on the number and size of craft breweries.  For them to take a number one posting in a list of craft breweries is no mean feat.  I have readily drank their beer as a triumph of US beer brewing but I always felt that it tasted kind to weak.  Hell, it was better than Bud and cheaper too!

But times they are a changing and so has my beer preferences. As a matter of fact, I am going to make a pilgrimage to the 50 Craft Breweries over the next couple of years and I am ready to be surprised. So, it stands to reason, perhaps I need to re-evaluate our beer criteria and put Yuengling Brewery, and their assembled beers, through the ringer once again. So, it was off to Pottsville and to take another look at the number one craft brewery and its beer.

I have to say, I was amazed, but it was for the wrong reasons. On deeper reflection in the car on the way home, I came to the conclusion that Yuengling Brewery beer is macro-brewed and not relevant to the contest.  I did not want to admit when I tasted it before, but it is brewed the same way as all the other macro level breweries and thus its not the number one craft brewer in the United States. It hit me like a bolt of lightning as I was driving home and then I began it piece together a story that seems to make sense. It just dragging it heals as the last of the macro-level beers and it can not be rightly held in the craft brew ranks. It not what it seems, so let me explain.

Back in the days of Prohibition, the laws that the states passed to regulate alcohol production and consumption were pretty different from one another. Every state tried to balanace the need for a total ban with the view that they needed to have some alcohol.  When Prohibition was lifted, it was the middle of the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War. If you are to line up three major economic shift in alcohol production, those three are a big one-two-three punch. By the end of the Second World War, Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and their cohorts, has gained a certain acceptance of the need to produce alcohol at an acceptable level (could be it was military spec or a cooperative agreement) but it was never a return to the days of pre-Prohibition.

The breweries that survived Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Second World War were pretty much serving the same beer and Yuengling Brewery was in the same boat. They held on, and as one or two of their brethern pass one, they settled into a spooked life of were they going to make it or not. Iron City, out of Pittsburgh, PA led a similar existence before they crumbled. When the times seemed right and craft beer was on the rise, Yuengling Brewery made their mark, not in beer making, but in marketing and advertising. The oldest beer in the United States (at least that had made it through) was still producing mediocre beer, but had a pretty good family of products. It was not that they had the best beer, but it was that they had was the smartest beer producers.

I drove up the Pottsville and found D. G. Yuengling Brewery at 501 Mahantonco Street. The time on the door was 9:00am and 4:00pm and it was closed. The brewery is really a site to behold because it does not expand outward, but rather, it goes up, so the top levels of the brewery sit 150 feet above the lower levels.

The Wooden Keg Tavern
I stopped at a place called The Wooden Keg Tavern because they advertised that they had a full run of Yuengling beer. I had had several of the Yuengling's before, so I started with the Lord Chesterfield Ale.  It was reminiscent of an light ale, both in color and in taste, with its gut removed. It tasted as if it had not been updated in 30 years.  In looking back on it, it should not have surprised me because the ale was so light as to make it largely non-existent.

I also ordered a Bock Beer and it was only mildly better. The disappointing thing with this one was that it had the color of a bock beer, but vacuumed out the flavor. Both beers really had a nice color, but they both fell down when it came to their taste. I gave each three and three and a half stars to be charitable, but that had a lot of play in those two scores.

It hit me later that people will believe that I am going to talk down these beers because I have had a revelation. But if they will sample these beers themselves, I think that they would also come to the same conclusion. Once we held these beers up and wondered why the Europeans shot them down as being comical. But the Europeans don't do that anymore. Now I wonder why we would not hold Yuengling Brewery up at all, because there are much better beers available in the United States.

It was a long drive home, bouncing all of these facts in my head. The number one craft brewery was a fallacy and was actually a hold over from a time long past when breweries were doing anything just to hang on. I was going to have to factor that into my calculations that Yuengling Brewery was not a up and comer as much as it was a survivor.