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.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Back in the Saddle

So, I take a couple of weeks off, come back and do a little bit of contributing, and what do I do? Take a couple of weeks off again! Well, when it comes to Oscar and Marcus, all of the time off is required and generally pays off in the future.

But the time was not taken in vein, because I did do a fair amount of information collection about beer and beer issues in the Nation's Capital. So hang on to your horses, for real this time, it is going to be a fast and furious ride.

Oh, and we are going to have a treat. The gents that run Cooking with Norse on the YouTube have granted us access to their website. Check it out, let us know what you think and enjoy. We will be delving more into Cooking with Norse when we check out a few of the beers that like (yes, Devil's Backbone Brewing Company is getting a high five in that review) but it is just a sample of what is to come!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Corcoran Brewing - Getting There, But Not Yet

Before we went through all of those curves of interest and distractions, I was actually pursuing a hypothesis. It goes something like this - the closer a brewery sits to a large river and opposed to a small one, the generally better its beer is. OK, its less a hypothesis and more of a general rule, but the basics were holding up. The closer a brewery is situated near a large river, the more access it has to its competitors, to their innovations and is more able to bring their clever tricks to its own beer should times get tight.  Most of the time, though it is the size of the river that dictates which breweries tend to succeed and I was going to go out and procure more data to hold up this rule of the road.

I prepped for going to the Corcoran Brewery out in Purcellville. Purcellville is close to the northern end of the Potomac River and it is a much larger marine thoroughfare further south just south of Washington. In Purcellville, though, they have the much highly anticipated Adroit Theory Brewery and some local coffee places, such as LoCo Joe's, which provides beans to the Adroit Theory for some of its beverages.  So I have good data related to the general rule and enough confidence in the ancillary information that we should have a good experiment. Boy, was I wrong.

The Corcoran Brewery is located around back of the building it shares with a hospital. But it was easy to find, and as I pulled up, there was a good crowd in the place. The beer list was out and I counted out roughly 15, maybe 20, beers that they had on draft. (Actually, they had 23 beers on draft.) So, I ordered five and sat down at a corner table.  Here is how they stacked up:

Dutchman's Creek: It starts OK, but then drops off to a watery finish. It was not good. A hefeweizen should start strong and should finish strong. Its a loaf of bread in a glass and we like it that way, but Dutchman's Creek failed this test and failed it miserably. You can usually tell when a beer is going to be this bad when you look at it, but the appearance was pretty good. Sometimes, all we can do is taste it, and this one was unfortunately weak.

Corky's Irish Red: This just went south in a hurry. I usually try to give the beer after a poor one a chance to make up the space, but Corky's Irish Red just did not measure up. It was just flat. You found yourself thinking that it would strengthen, but it start off weak and just fell down from there. I know, I am trashing an Irish Red on St. Patrick's Day, but this is one beverage the Emerald Isle should not take credit for under an circumstance.

P'ville Pale Ale: I am assuming P'ville is short for Purcellville. This one starts off a little better with a nice hop flavor and then tapers off slowly. Its a nice slow roll, but it doesn't start with enough to carry the day. Its better than Corky's Irish Red, but where I gave that one two stars, I only gave P'ville Pale Ale three stars.

Loco IPA: The was an American attempt to set a standard for IPA. The entry level flavor was good, but it lacks the punch of hops that we have come to expect from the general IPA market. Afterwards it pretty much to be expected. It better than some brands of IPA, worse than others. Again, three out of five stars.

Paeonian Porter: This one turns out to be my favorite of the group. The vanilla and chocolate porter tried to pull off an outright success, but ultimately fell short. It had minor bits to the solution, but not anything overwhelming. It had all the makings of a nice porter but again nothing overwhelming.

So, it turns out that there is countervailing evidence the general rule. Corcoran Brewery is proof that a full beer menu, friendly competition and locality to a significant river is not proof of a good brewery. It takes more than having those things in your locality, you actually have to do something with them, and our next brewery review points that out in spades.

We are back!

Where did the last two weeks go? Well, as far as I can figure out, we had a week of alcohol free drinking (Yeah! I made it with little real difference! Thanks Claire!) and then I had a birthday week (a generalized holiday made up by yours truly that consists, of well, drinking.) So we have been behind, but never fear, you will be caught up soon enough.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thanks! We made it to 500!

Its official - we made it to 500 (actually, 505) users. Thanks for making our site such a success! Keep coming back to our site for everything related to beer!


Let Me Think About It

Last call? Last call!

Normally, I am paying attention to the traditional jargon around the water hole. Who isn't? But today, March 2 through March 9, I am going to be ignoring such banter. No, not a wayward bias or some "they will pry my glass from my cold, dead hand" genre either. I am turning my beer glass over and just saying "No, thanks" because I am on the wagon for the next week.

No, no major breakdowns or horrible disfigurements (at least that I am aware of), but I got into a conversation with a very good friend of mine and she pointed out how did I know because I have been under the surge for three years now and it is time that I take a break.  So, since Claire Marteau is always right (at least as far as I go), I agreed to take a week off from drinking. Completely. Doesn't mean I won't take off a week to comment on drinking (I have at least one or two good stories), but the actually consumption of alcohol is kaputt!

So, I will see you on 10 March, beer in hand, but until then, make mine a Coke.